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By Philippe Legrain 7 COMMENTS

"Listen man, I smoke, I snort … I’ve been begging on the street since I was just a baby. I’ve cleaned windshields at stoplights. I’ve polished shoes, I’ve robbed, I’ve killed. … I ain’t no kid, no way. I’m a real man."

Such searing dialogue has helped make City of God a global hit. A chronicle of three decades of gang wars, it has proved compelling viewing for audiences worldwide. Critics compare it to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

If you believe the cultural pessimists, Hollywood pap has driven out films like Cidade de Deus, as it is known in its home country. It is a Brazilian film, in Portuguese, by a little-known director, with a cast that includes no professional actors, let alone Hollywood stars. Its focus is not a person at all, but a drug-ridden, dirt-poor favela (slum) on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that feels as remote from the playground of the rich and famous as it does from God.

Yet City of God has not only made millions at the box office, it has also sparked a national debate in Brazil. It has raised awareness in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere of the terrible poverty and violence of the developing world. All that, and it makes you wince, weep, and, yes, laugh. Not bad for a film distributed by Miramax, which is owned by Disney, one of those big global companies that globaphobes compare to cultural vandals.

A lot of nonsense about the impact of globalization on culture passes for conventional wisdom these days. Among the pro-globalizers, Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), believes that globalization is "globalizing American culture and American cultural icons." Among the antis, Naomi Klein, a Canadian journalist and author of No Logo (Picador, 2000), argues that "the buzzword in global marketing isn’t selling America to the world, but bringing a kind of market masala to everyone in the world. … Despite the embrace of polyethnic imagery, market-driven globalization doesn’t want diversity; quite the opposite. Its enemies are national habits, local brands and distinctive regional tastes."

Fears that globalization is imposing a deadening cultural uniformity are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Mickey Mouse. Europeans and Latin Americans, left-wingers and right, rich and poor — all of them dread that local cultures and national identities are dissolving into a crass all-American consumerism. That cultural imperialism is said to impose American values as well as products, promote the commercial at the expense of the authentic, and substitute shallow gratification for deeper satisfaction.

City of God’s success suggests otherwise. If critics of globalization were less obsessed with "Coca-colonization," they might notice a rich feast of cultural mixing that belies fears about Americanized uniformity. Algerians in Paris practice Thai boxing; Asian rappers in London snack on Turkish pizza; Salman Rushdie delights readers everywhere with his Anglo-Indian tales. Although — as with any change — there can be downsides to cultural globalization, this cross-fertilization is overwhelmingly a force for good.

The beauty of globalization is that it can free people from the tyranny of geography. Just because someone was born in France does not mean they can only aspire to speak French, eat French food, read French books, visit museums in France, and so on. A Frenchman — or an American, for that matter — can take holidays in Spain or Florida, eat sushi or spaghetti for dinner, drink Coke or Chilean wine, watch a Hollywood blockbuster or an Almodóvar, listen to bhangra or rap, practice yoga or kickboxing, read Elle or The Economist, and have friends from around the world. That we are increasingly free to choose our cultural experiences enriches our lives immeasurably. We could not always enjoy the best the world has to offer.

Globalization not only increases individual freedom, but also revitalizes cultures and cultural artifacts through foreign influences, technologies, and markets. Thriving cultures are not set in stone. They are forever changing from within and without. Each generation challenges the previous one; science and technology alter the way we see ourselves and the world; fashions come and go; experience and events influence our beliefs; outsiders affect us for good and ill.

Many of the best things come from cultures mixing: V.S. Naipaul’s Anglo-Indo-Caribbean writing, Paul Gauguin painting in Polynesia, or the African rhythms in rock ‘n’ roll. Behold the great British curry. Admire the many-colored faces of France’s World Cup-winning soccer team, the ferment of ideas that came from Eastern Europe’s Jewish diaspora, and the cosmopolitan cities of London and New York. Western numbers are actually Arabic; zero comes most recently from India; Icelandic, French, and Sanskrit stem from a common root.

John Stuart Mill was right: "The economical benefits of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. … It is indispensable to be perpetually comparing [one"s] own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances. … There is no nation which does not need to borrow from others."

It is a myth that globalization involves the imposition of Americanized uniformity, rather than an explosion of cultural exchange. For a start, many archetypal "American" products are not as all-American as they seem. Levi Strauss, a German immigrant, invented jeans by combining denim cloth (or "serge de Nîmes," because it was traditionally woven in the French town) with Genes, a style of trousers worn by Genoese sailors. So Levi’s jeans are in fact an American twist on a European hybrid. Even quintessentially American exports are often tailored to local tastes. MTV in Asia promotes Thai pop stars and plays rock music sung in Mandarin. CNN en Español offers a Latin American take on world news. McDonald’s sells beer in France, lamb in India, and chili in Mexico.

In some ways, America is an outlier, not a global leader. Most of the world has adopted the metric system born from the French Revolution; America persists with antiquated measurements inherited from its British-colonial past. Most developed countries have become intensely secular, but many Americans burn with fundamentalist fervor — like Muslims in the Middle East. Where else in the developed world could there be a serious debate about teaching kids Bible-inspired "creationism" instead of Darwinist evolution?

America’s tastes in sports are often idiosyncratic, too. Baseball and American football have not traveled well, although basketball has fared rather better. Many of the world’s most popular sports, notably soccer, came by way of Britain. Asian martial arts — judo, karate, kickboxing — and pastimes like yoga have also swept the world.

People are not only guzzling hamburgers and Coke. Despite Coke’s ambition of displacing water as the world’s drink of choice, it accounts for less than 2 of the 64 fluid ounces that the typical person drinks a day. Britain’s favorite takeaway is a curry, not a burger: Indian restaurants there outnumber McDonald’s six to one. For all the concerns about American fast food trashing France’s culinary traditions, France imported a mere $620-million in food from the United States in 2000, while exporting to America three times that. Nor is plonk from America’s Gallo displacing Europe’s finest: Italy and France together account for three-fifths of global wine exports, the United States for only a 20th. Worldwide, pizzas are more popular than burgers, Chinese restaurants seem to sprout up everywhere, and sushi is spreading fast. By far the biggest purveyor of alcoholic drinks is Britain’s Diageo, which sells the world’s best-selling whiskey (Johnnie Walker), gin (Gordon’s), vodka (Smirnoff) and liqueur (Baileys).

In fashion, the ne plus ultra is Italian or French. Trendy Americans wear Gucci, Armani, Versace, Chanel, and Hermès. On the high street and in the mall, Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and Spain’s Zara vie with America’s Gap to dress the global masses. Nike shoes are given a run for their money by Germany’s Adidas, Britain’s Reebok, and Italy’s Fila.

In pop music, American crooners do not have the stage to themselves. The three artists who featured most widely in national Top Ten album charts in 2000 were America’s Britney Spears, closely followed by Mexico’s Carlos Santana and the British Beatles. Even tiny Iceland has produced a global star: Björk. Popular opera’s biggest singers are Italy’s Luciano Pavarotti, Spain’s José Carreras, and the Spanish-Mexican Placido Domingo. Latin American salsa, Brazilian lambada, and African music have all carved out global niches for themselves. In most countries, local artists still top the charts. According to the IFPI, the record-industry bible, local acts accounted for 68 percent of music sales in 2000, up from 58 percent in 1991.

One of the most famous living writers is a Colombian, Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Paulo Coelho, another writer who has notched up tens of millions of global sales with The Alchemist and other books, is Brazilian. More than 200 million Harlequin romance novels, a Canadian export, were sold in 1990; they account for two-fifths of mass-market paperback sales in the United States. The biggest publisher in the English-speaking world is Germany’s Bertelsmann, which gobbled up America’s largest, Random House, in 1998.

Local fare glues more eyeballs to TV screens than American programs. Although nearly three-quarters of television drama exported worldwide comes from the United States, most countries’ favorite shows are homegrown.

Nor are Americans the only players in the global media industry. Of the seven market leaders that have their fingers in nearly every pie, four are American (AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, and News Corporation), one is German (Bertelsmann), one is French (Vivendi), and one Japanese (Sony). What they distribute comes from all quarters: Bertelsmann publishes books by American writers; News Corporation broadcasts Asian news; Sony sells Brazilian music.

The evidence is overwhelming. Fears about an Americanized uniformity are over-blown: American cultural products are not uniquely dominant; local ones are alive and well.

With one big exception: cinema. True, India produces more films (855 in 2000) than Hollywood does (762), but they are largely for a domestic audience. Japan and Hong Kong also make lots of movies, but few are seen outside Asia. France and Britain have the occasional global hit, but are still basically local players. Not only does Hollywood dominate the global movie market, but it also swamps local products in most countries. American fare accounts for more than half the market in Japan and nearly two-thirds in Europe.

Yet Hollywood’s hegemony is not as worrisome as people think. Note first that Hollywood is less American than it seems. Ever since Charlie Chaplin crossed over from Britain, foreigners have flocked to California to try to become global stars: Just look at Penelope Cruz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Ewan McGregor. Top directors are also often from outside America: Think of Ridley Scott or the late Stanley Kubrick. Some studios are foreign-owned: Japan’s Sony owns Columbia Pictures, Vivendi Universal is French. Two of AOL Time Warner’s biggest recent hit franchises, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, are both based on British books, have largely British casts, and, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, a Kiwi director. To some extent, then, Hollywood is a global industry that just happens to be in America. Rather than exporting Americana, it serves up pap to appeal to a global audience.

Hollywood’s dominance is in part due to economics: Movies cost a lot to make and so need a big audience to be profitable; Hollywood has used America’s huge and relatively uniform domestic market as a platform to expand overseas. So there could be a case for stuffing subsidies into a rival European film industry, just as Airbus was created to challenge Boeing’s near-monopoly. But France has long pumped money into its domestic industry without persuading foreigners to flock to its films. As Tyler Cowen perceptively points out in his book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures (Princeton University Press, 2002), "A vicious circle has been created: The more European producers fail in global markets, the more they rely on television revenue and subsidies. The more they rely on television and subsidies, the more they fail in global markets," because they serve domestic demand and the wishes of politicians and cinematic bureaucrats.

Another American export is also conquering the globe: English. Around 380 million people speak it as their first language and another 250 million or so as their second. A billion are learning it, about a third of the world’s population are exposed to it, and by 2050, it is reckoned, half the world will be more or less proficient in it. A common global language would certainly be a big plus — for businessmen, scientists, and tourists — but a single one seems far less desirable. Language is often at the heart of national culture: The French would scarcely be French if they spoke English (although Belgian Walloons are not French even though they speak it). English may usurp other languages not because it is what people prefer to speak, but because, like Microsoft software, there are compelling advantages to using it if everyone else does.

But although many languages are becoming extinct, English is rarely to blame. People are learning English as well as — not instead of — their native tongue, and often many more languages besides. Some languages with few speakers, such as Icelandic, are thriving, despite Björk’s choosing to sing in English. Where local languages are dying, it is typically national rivals that are stamping them out. French has all but eliminated Provençal, and German Swabian. So although, within the United States, English is displacing American Indian tongues, it is not doing away with Swahili or Norwegian.

Even though American consumer culture is widespread, its significance is often exaggerated. You can choose to drink Coke and eat at McDonald’s without becoming American in any meaningful sense. One newspaper photo of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan showed them toting Kalashnikovs — as well as a sports bag with Nike’s trademark swoosh. People’s culture — in the sense of their shared ideas, beliefs, knowledge, inherited traditions, and art — may scarcely be eroded by mere commercial artifacts that, despite all the furious branding, embody at best flimsy values.

The really profound cultural changes have little to do with Coca-Cola. Western ideas about liberalism and science are taking root almost everywhere, while Europe and North America are becoming multicultural societies through immigration, mainly from developing countries. Technology is reshaping culture: Just think of the Internet. Individual choice is fragmenting the imposed uniformity of national cultures. New hybrid cultures are emerging, and regional ones re-emerging. National identity is not disappearing, but the bonds of nationality are loosening.

As Tyler Cowen points out in his excellent book, cross-border cultural exchange increases diversity within societies — but at the expense of making them more alike. People everywhere have more choice, but they often choose similar things. That worries cultural pessimists, even though the right to choose to be the same is an essential part of freedom.

Cross-cultural exchange can spread greater diversity as well as greater similarity: more gourmet restaurants as well as more McDonald’s. And just as a big city can support a wider spread of restaurants than a small town, so a global market for cultural products allows a wider range of artists to thrive. For sure, if all the new customers are ignorant, a wider market may drive down the quality of cultural products: Think of tourist souvenirs. But as long as some customers are well informed (or have "good taste"), a general "dumbing down" is unlikely. Hobbyists, fans, artistic pride, and professional critics also help maintain (and raise) standards. Cowen concludes that the "basic trend is of increasing variety and diversity, at all levels of quality, high and low."

A bigger worry is that greater individual freedom may come at the expense of national identity. The French fret that if they all individually choose to watch Hollywood films they might unwittingly lose their collective Frenchness. Yet such fears are overdone. Natural cultures are much stronger than people seem to think. They can embrace some foreign influences and resist others. Foreign influences can rapidly become domesticated, changing national culture, but not destroying it. Germans once objected to soccer because it was deemed English; now their soccer team is emblematic of national pride. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist, is quite right when he says that "the culturally fearful often take a very fragile view of each culture and tend to underestimate our ability to learn from elsewhere without being overwhelmed by that experience."

Clearly, though, there is a limit to how many foreign influences a culture can absorb before being swamped. Even when a foreign influence is largely welcomed, it can be overwhelming. Traditional cultures in the developing world that have until now evolved (or failed to evolve) in isolation may be particularly vulnerable.

In The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (Free Press, 2001), Noreena Hertz describes the supposed spiritual Eden that was the isolated kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas as being defiled by such awful imports as basketball and Spice Girls T-shirts. Anthony Giddens, the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has told how an anthropologist who visited a remote part of Cambodia was shocked and disappointed to find that her first night’s entertainment was not traditional local pastimes but watching Basic Instinct on video.

Is that such a bad thing? It is odd, to put it mildly, that many on the left support multiculturalism in the

West but advocate cultural purity in the developing world — an attitude they would be quick to tar as fascist if proposed for the United States or Britain. Hertz and the anthropologist in Cambodia appear to want people outside the industrialized West preserved in unchanging but supposedly pure poverty. Yet the Westerners who want this supposed paradise preserved in aspic rarely feel like settling there. Nor do most people in developing countries want to lead an "authentic" unspoiled life of isolated poverty.

In truth, cultural pessimists are typically not attached to diversity per se but to designated manifestations of diversity, determined by their preferences. "They often use diversity as a code word for a more particularist agenda, often of an anti-commercial or anti-American nature," Cowen argues. "They care more about the particular form that diversity takes in their favored culture, rather than about diversity more generally, freedom of choice, or a broad menu of quality options."

Cultural pessimists want to freeze things as they were. But if diversity at any point in time is desirable, why isn’t diversity across time? Certainly, it is often a shame if ancient cultural traditions are lost. We should do our best to preserve them and keep them alive where possible. As Cowen points out, foreigners can often help, by providing the new customers and technologies that have enabled reggae music, Haitian art, and Persian carpet making, for instance, to thrive and reach new markets. But people cannot be made to live in a museum. We in the West are forever casting off old customs when we feel they are no longer relevant. Nobody argues that Americans should ban nightclubs to force people back to line dancing. People in poor countries have a right to change, too.

Moreover, some losses of diversity are a good thing. In 1850, some countries banned slavery, while others maintained it in various forms. Who laments that the world is now almost universally rid of it? More generally, Western ideas are reshaping the way people everywhere view themselves and the world. Like nationalism and socialism before it, liberalism — political ideas about individual liberty, the rule of law, democracy, and universal human rights, as well as economic ones about the importance of private property rights, markets, and consumer choice — is a European philosophy that has swept the world. Even people who resist liberal ideas, in the name of religion (Islamic and Christian fundamentalists), group identity (communitarians), authoritarianism (advocates of "Asian values") or tradition (cultural conservatives), now define themselves partly by their opposition to them.

Faith in science and technology is even more widespread. Even those who hate the West make use of its technologies. Osama bin Laden plots terrorism on a cellphone and crashes planes into skyscrapers. Antiglobalization protesters organize by e-mail and over the Internet. José Bové manipulates 21st-century media in his bid to return French farming to the Middle Ages. China no longer turns its nose up at Western technology: It tries to beat the West at its own game.

True, many people reject Western culture. (Or, more accurately, "cultures": Europeans and Americans disagree bitterly over the death penalty, for instance; they hardly see eye to eye over the role of the state, either.) Samuel Huntington, a professor of international politics at Harvard University, even predicts a "clash of civilizations" that will divide the 21st-century world. Yet Francis Fukuyama, a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University, is nearer the mark when he talks about the "end of history." Some cultures have local appeal, but only liberalism appeals everywhere (if not to all) — although radical environmentalism may one day challenge its hegemony. Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat to our lives but not to our beliefs. Unlike communism, it is not an alternative to liberal capitalism for Westerners or other non-Muslims.

Yet for all the spread of Western ideas to the developing world, globalization is not a one-way street. Although Europe’s former colonial powers have left their stamp on much of the world, the recent flow of migration has been in the opposite direction. There are Algerian suburbs in Paris, but not French ones in Algiers; Pakistani parts of London, but not British ones of Lahore. Whereas Muslims are a growing minority in Europe, Christians are a disappearing one in the Middle East.

Foreigners are changing America even as they adopt its ways. A million or so immigrants arrive each year (700,000 legally, 300,000 illegally), most of them Latino or Asian. Since 1990, the number of foreign-born American residents has risen by 6 million to just over 25 million, the biggest immigration wave since the turn of the 20th century. English may be all-conquering outside America, but in some parts of the United States, it is now second to Spanish. Half of the 50 million new inhabitants expected in America in the next 25 years will be immigrants or the children of immigrants.

The upshot of all this change is that national cultures are fragmenting into a kaleidoscope of different ones. New hybrid cultures are emerging. In "Amexica" people speak Spanglish. Regional cultures are reviving. Repressed under Franco, Catalans, Basques, Gallegos, and others assert their identity in Spain. The Scots and Welsh break with British monoculture. Estonia is reborn from the Soviet Union. Voices that were silent dare to speak again.

Individuals are forming new communities, linked by shared interests and passions, that cut across national borders. Friendships with foreigners met on holiday. Scientists sharing ideas over the Internet. Environmentalists campaigning together using e-mail. House-music lovers swapping tracks online. Greater individualism does not spell the end of community. The new communities are simply chosen rather than coerced, unlike the older ones that communitarians hark back to.

Does that mean national identity is dead? Hardly. People who speak the same language, were born and live near each other, face similar problems, have a common experience, and vote in the same elections still have plenty of things in common. For all our awareness of the world as a single place, we are not citizens of the world but citizens of a state. But if people now wear the bonds of nationality more loosely, is that such a bad thing? People may lament the passing of old ways. Indeed, many of the worries about globalization echo age-old fears about decline, a lost golden age, and so on. But by and large, people choose the new ways because they are more relevant to their current needs and offer new opportunities that the old ones did not.

The truth is that we increasingly define ourselves rather than let others define us. Being British or American does not define who you are: It is part of who you are. You can like foreign things and still have strong bonds to your fellow citizens. As Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian author, has written: "Seeking to impose a cultural identity on a people is equivalent to locking them in a prison and denying them the most precious of liberties — that of choosing what, how, and who they want to be."

Posted 09 May 2003 in Published articles
  1. Ashley says:

    GREAT VIEWS. I really enjoyed reading this article!

  2. Ashley Istria says:

    Just want to shout out to all those KKB009 students reading this article

  3. Dan says:

    and a special shout-out to all those KKB009 students reading it at the last minute

  4. Atle says:

    I love KKB009…

  5. Becky says:

    Lol how am I supposed to write an essay thats better than this!!? KKB009 exams rule!

  6. Dulce Porto Rodrigues says:

    As a Brazilian teacher of English as a foreign language who has never lived in an English speaking country, but has always tried to understand other cultures especially the culture of those that determine the whole world´s paces towards development I found this material of really great value. So, the clear perception of what a new globalized world requires in terms of attitude concerning not only rich nations, but also concerning those minor countries or economies that have been active partners either in times of great development or crisis makes Philippe´s view totally influential in all senses – social, political and economic.

  7. Jennie says:

    “Another American export is also conquering the globe: English.”
    Sorry if I’ve missed something here, but since when has the English language been American? That is like saying that the French language is Belgian, or the Portugese language is Brazilian.

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