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Cultural globalization is not Americanization
Saturday, 14 March 2009 13:13

The other week I noticed some blog comments on Philippe Legrain's 2003 article entitled "Cultural globalization is not Americanization".  Since Philippe is such a great writer, I went back to find the article (Philippe has written excellent books on globalization and migration).

Philippe is a globalization cheerleader.  Perhaps that's why I like his writings.  But he does sort out facts from nonsense, as he did in this excellent article.  For the lazy reader, I have reproduced a few lines below.

As the title of the article goes, Philippe argues that cutural globalization is not Americanization.  This is largely true.  But I do not think that we should be ashamed of the power of American culture and the great cultural attraction of the US.  Rather, I think that we should all try to think about why this is the case.

There are many factors, and I will just pick up a couple.  In my view, American popular culture is unique in part because it is the product of a democratic and open society which is vibrant and creative. 

Look at hip hop culture which may be one of the most global cultural phenomena of the world today, and appeals to disenfranchised youth in cities the world over.  Hip hop was originated by Jamaican born disc jockey Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell in the Bronx, New York. 

This is just the latest in a giant corpus of music that was created by America's poor slaves and their descendants,  It evolved through the blues, jazz, soul, bebop, etc.  The kids who love hip hop don't give a damn about it being American.  In fact, there are so many local versions of hip hop all over the world, I am sure that some do not even realise that it comes from the States. 

The US is forever castigated for inventing fast food.  In reality, fast food has always existed in different forms.  You can find it in Ancient Rome's street stands that sold bread and wine.  East Asia had its noodle shops.  The Japanese have their bento boxes.  While the Brits invented the sandwich and fish and chips.  Fast food has always been an urban phenomenon catering to those who don't have the means to cook, that is the poor.

But in today's world, the Americans, as in most things, just do it better, with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, MacDonald's etc.  When it comes to your kid's birthday party, there is no place like MacDonald's.  You can afford it, and for the kids, it is great fun.  France with all its sophisticated culture has nothing to compete with a MacDonald's birthday party.

A third example is the cinema.  Philippe comes up with the typical economists' argument that Hollywood enjoys economies of scale and tralala, and that's why America dominates in cinema.  Sure.  But the fact is also that no other country has the knack of connecting with us all through movies like "Sex and the City" and Mama Mia.  Again, French comedies, where everyone is having affairs with everyone else, are so old fashioned by comparison.

So being against cultural fascism as I am, I love the fact that America can generate popular cultural forms which the man in the street (from all over the world) can enjoy and relate to. 

But another and quite separate question we have to ask is why do most of the world's cultural leaders go to live in the US.  A few examples are Chinese classical music composers like Tan Dun, Australia writers like Peter Carey, British painters like David Hockney, and so on.  In fact, the US is the world's cultural capital --even for European cultural snobs who flock to the US because that is where it is happening.  They then export their cultural products back home, which is a cute form of American cultural globalization.  The US cultural mosaic and dynamic open society attracts us all.

So, I would like to conclude that there is an element of Americanization in cultural globalization.  But it is nothing that we should be ashamed of.  Do not feel intimidated by cultural jealosies.

But let's come back to Philippe and his article.  Here are a few snippets.

"... If critics of globalization were less obsessed with 'Coca-colonisation', they might notice a rich feast of cultural mixing that belies fears about Americanised uniformity.  Algerians in Paris practice Thai boxing; Asian rappers in London snack on Turkish pizza...

...The beauty of globalization is that it can free people from the tyranny of geography ... that we are increasingly free to choose our cultural experiences, enriches our lives immeasurably...

...Globalization not only increases individual freedom, but also revitalises cultures and cultural artifacts through foreign influences, technologies, and markets.  Thriving cultures are not set in stone...Many of the best things comes from cultures mixing: V.S.Naipaul's Anglo-Indo-Caribbean writing, Paul Gauguin painting in Polynesia, or the African rhyths in rock 'n' roll...

... 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...

... 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...

... Yet for all the spread of Western idea to the developing world, globalization is not a one-way street.  Although Europe's former colonial powers have left their stamp on the rest of the world, the recent flow of migration has been in the opposite direction.  There are Algerian suburbs in Paris, but 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..., most of them Latino or Asian....  English may be all-conquering outside America, but in some parts of the United States, it is now second to Spanish..."

That's all, but thanks Philippe for such a stimulating article.



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