TCS Daily

Globa - lie - zation

By Radley Balko - April 4, 2003 12:00 AM

In just a few years, Chinese will surpass English as the Internet's most-used language. According to a BBC poll, the most popular movie star in the world is not Tom Green. Rather, it's Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor you've probably never heard of. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, the top grossing movies for 2002 in Japan, Germany, Spain, France and India were produced in Japan, Germany, Spain, France and India, respectively.

Since the very beginning of the twentieth century - the American century - opponents of international markets and free trade have decried the Americanization of non-American cultures. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Pells notes that as early as 1901, Briton William Stead published the ominously titled book The Americanization of the World.

From jazz to baseball to Coca-Cola, from the Gap to Jurassic Park to Disney, from Dallas to McDonalds to Microsoft, every time an idea or product born in American takes root overseas, the mercantilists and self-proclaimed "guardians of culture" again trot out old arguments about hegemony, cultural dilution, and the pop culture bastardization of more refined tastes.

Here's the problem: It just isn't true.

In India, domestically produced music makes up 96% of all music sales; in Egypt, 81%; in Brazil, 73%. Reason magazine's Charles Paul Freund writes that in 2001, 70% of the television shows in the 60 wealthiest countries were domestically produced. And that number is growing, not shrinking.

Pells points out that where American products have done well overseas, it's been largely the result of a culture born of and comprised of immigrants - a culture that therefore is more apt to produce products palatable to diverse international audiences. Why, one wonders, is that something to be ashamed of?

And even then, the most successful American enterprises have adapted to local communities.

In his book Golden Arches East, for example, Dr. James L. Watson lays out several examples of how McDonalds franchises in Asia have adapted to local custom. They serve local foods, buy from local growers, and even strike staples form the menu where appropriate (in India, for example, McDonalds restaurants don't serve beef). McDonalds restaurants in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong have been "Asianized," more than those cultures have been "McDonald-ized."

More to the point, the idea that American pop culture is swallowing up indigenous cultures fails because, in the end, the idea that there are distinct, isolated "American" and "foreign" cultures increasingly lacks merit.

In his recently published book Creative Destruction, economist Tyler Cowan cites a litany of what are commonly thought to be treasures of indigenous cultures that would never have happened were it not for western trade and influences.

Reggae music, for example, is anything but indigenous to the Caribbean. Reggae emerged in Jamaica, Cowen writes, when migrant sugar workers ventured to the American south, and brought back with them a taste for African-American rhythm and blues. The influence intensified throughout the 1950s as Jamaicans caught radio broadcasts from New Orleans and Miami.

The steel band ensembles of Trinidad, can also thank the west. According to Cowan, the 50-gallon drums Trinidad's native bands use were originally salvaged from refuse left behind by western oil companies.

And the story's no different outside the world of music. Cowen writes:

The metal knife proved a boon to many Third World sculpting and carving traditions, including the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest and of Papua New Guinea. Acrylic and oil paints spread only with Western contact. South African Ndebele art uses beads... that are not indigenous to Africa, but rather were imported from Czecholslovakia in the early nineteenth century. Mirrors, coral, cotton cloth, and paper - all central materials for "traditional" African arts - came from contact with Europeans.

These western influences aside, in fiction, nonfiction, poetry across all the arts, economists and sociologists are finding that people around the world tend to prefer art and entertainment produced by artists with whom they share common experiences, values and tradition. That's just as you might expect.

So what has changed?

The world has gotten smaller and wealthier, thanks largely to trade. Cell phones, the Internet, and satellites have made distance and protectionism - long the two chief inhibitors to true free trade - less significant than ever.

And with wealth comes the opportunity to produce and experience and enjoy culture. Subsistence economies, agrarian economies - most don't have time for culture. Painting and sculpture aren't so important when food and water are scarce. Access to markets gives indigenous cultures access to wealth. And wealth gives them the security and the freedom to awaken their creativity.

In his book In Defense of Global Capitalism, Swedish economist Johan Norberg explains that emerging technology is enabling third-world countries to make the jump to first world in a fraction of the time it once took. What took Sweden 80 years, Norberg writes, has taken Taiwan 25, and will take the next Taiwan 10. He illustrates with this example, taken from a World Bank publication:

Halima Khatuun is an illiterate woman in a Bangladeshi village. She sells eggs to a dealer who comes by at regular intervals. She used to be compelled to sell at the price he proposed, because she did not have access to other buyers. But once, when he came and offered 12 taka for four eggs, she kept him waiting while she used the mobile phone to find out the market price in another village. Because the price there was 14 taka, she was able to go back and get 13 from the dealer. Market information saved her from being cheated.

Free trade opponents argue that when the powerful and the meek trade, the powerful always exploit the meek. Norberg's example shows how the poor can utilize technology to increase their bargaining power. Cowen's examples show how interaction between the two doesn't always necessarily favor the powerful culture. Rather, it's often the case that the best of both cultures mingle and merge to create something truly wonderful, like reggae.

In the end, American culture has flourished when American culture has produced a product worthy of international audiences. Hollywood won over Europe in its heyday, but as its creative punch has waned in recent years, studios in France, Germany, India and Iran have reclaimed native audiences. Third world countries have shown a remarkable propensity to embrace what's best about themselves once they're on solid enough economic footing that they needn't worry about necessities.

In the end, free trade doesn't rob third world countries of culture; it gives them the resources to have one.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publisher of the weblog This article is part of a longer essay to be published on the educational website A World Connected.

TCS Daily Archives