On 23 March 2012, the twentieth Amerikanistendag (or American Studies Assembly Day) took place at Utrecht University. This year, the designated theme was “Empire of Liberty: Ideals and Reality.” The keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Rob Kroes, who found himself literally in the spotlight as the rising sun penetrated one of the Hoogt skylights in such a way that he was perpetually bathed in a golden light. Kroes’ lecture centered on the question of how to sustain an empire while simultaneously guaranteeing democracy. Is it possible, Kroes wondered, to consolidate the two? Near the beginning of his speech, he shared an anecdote about a New York Times journalist saying that the United States “creates a new reality and a new history” which other countries consequently write about and study. “Which,” Kroes said jokingly, “is precisely what we do in American Studies.” With this episode as his starting point, he segued into cultural theory and Jean Baudrillard, and eventually into an assessment of Obama’s presidency compared to the Bush administration. American Studies aims to examine the subconscious imperialism at work in every aspect of society. Perhaps, if citizens are “indoctrinated” through mass culture, American society is subject to what Kroes calls “democratic erosion.” Obama vowed to reverse this development by “more openness in government.” By the same token, he promised to close Guantánamo Bay. Neither of these promises have really come true (although it must be noted that effective decision-making has become harder since Republicans won the majority in the House of Representatives 2010, making it the House with the largest number of Republicans since 1949). Moreover, the war in Afghanistan suggests that American imperialism is still very potent and pervasive. With these issues in mind, then, could America still be called an “empire of liberty?” Twenty-three students from American Studies programs throughout the Netherlands shed their light on this subject in workshops ranging from “Freedom and Identity in American Literature” and “Women’s Rights” to “Multicultural and Transnational America” and “Perceptions of Identity in Film and Television Culture” and, perhaps more intimately linked to Kroes’ lecture, “Liberty and Imperial Ideals.” Overall, each workshop was well-frequented and generally met with a positive response.
Former intern at the RSC