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America's 'soft power' triumphs

How US consumerism changed the face of European civilization.

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America the ebullient likes to hold up its sweeping cultural influence as the clearest sign that foreign disdain for its megabrands and powerhouse pop culture is patently faux. Come back with your criticism when you're not wearing Levi's.

It's a fair point. Culture is a free-market sell; America's über-blend simply sells like no other.

Still, the world's leading exporter of aspiration gets its back up from time to time, as when the world - hating hegemony - seems not to be sufficiently appreciative of America's gifts.

Some of the best efforts to sort it all out occur far above the talk-show fray. Victoria de Grazia's "Irresistible Empire," a 480-page juggernaut in a mini-flotilla of recent books about "soft power," represents a remarkable, big-think undertaking two decades in the making, according to the author's acknowledgments.

It was worth the wait. De Grazia, a professor of history at Columbia University, describes her subject as "the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium."

Her main point: The Americanization of Europe by way of mass marketing is no new phenomenon and, despite all of Europe's umbrage, its participation has been quite voluntary.

Today, as Europe endures turbulence over the state of its own union, de Grazia's book could not be more timely. Even as the continent wrestles with fundamental questions about its identity, it continues its odd push-pull relationship with American consumerism - now embracing it, now trying to hold it at arm's length, now launching its own discount chains in the US.

That de Grazia limits herself to the roots of American influence in Europe is a testament to her depth. But it is her robust writing, mastery of scene-setting, and deft deconstruction of illustrative events that move it from academic to accessible.

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