The American flag had pride of place in Prague, even before the Velvet Revolution brought an end to communism in 1989. Flying from an outpost of the US Embassy overlooking the city center, it was visible for miles around. In the 1980s, concerned American diplomats polled the locals, fearing that this display was overbearing. No, said ordinary Czechs, that flag stands for the freedom we deserve. Please keep it where it is. And did you know, the Czechs sometimes asked with a smile, that if you look from a certain angle the flag seems to be flying from the Prague Castle itself?
Today as disillusion accompanies deeper acquaintance, the embassy's flag is no more than a curiosity. In 1989, America was a model of a democracy and rebellion against imperial power. As an American I was asked about Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution. In 1998, I'm asked about Paula Jones, William Jefferson Clinton, and the Fifth Amendment. Precisely because Czechs and East Europeans expected so much from American politics, their disappointment is painful to observe. But US policy is friendly to new democracies and in certain countries the prospect of NATO enlargement has restored some of Uncle Sam's old charm.
But life, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera reminds us, is elsewhere. Politics is not the center of everyday experience, and it is in quotidian life that East Europeans' image of America has changed the most. The US flag has descended from the Olympian heights of symbolic politics to the banality of consumer culture. It is available, on orange juice or cigarettes, at the corner store. The result is "Americanization," the popularity, across the region of a narrowly commercial idea of the American dream.