With globalization the latest fashion in politics and economics, it was inconceivable that culture would escape its all-pervasive influence. The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary defines culture as ‘the acquired ability of an individual or people to recognize and appreciate generally-accepted esthetic and intellectual excellence.’ This allows ample room for the dominant western civilization to impose its value-system, especially when the ‘ability to recognize generally-accepted esthetic and intellectual excellence’ is ‘acquired.’
Globalization means not merely uniformity but also conformity to the dominant, primarily American culture. This applies as much to food as it does to music and clothes. People around the world are expected to eat greasy McDonald hamburgers, drink pepsi or coke, wear Levi jeans and gyrate to Michael Jackson music. If they have any spare time left, then the ubiquitous CNN is there to occupy it.
A major role in this globalization campaign is played by the English language. France and Germany tried to promote their languages but have been largely unsuccessful. The American dollar, which has become the global currency, is also an important facilitator.
Culture is not value-free. It brings with it such other baggage as feminist rhetoric, concern about environmental issues, drugs, the ‘freedom’ to indulge in homosexuality and lesbianism, the ‘right’ to have an abortion and to have children out of wedlock. Selective concern for narrowly-defined human rights and democracy are some of its other pet projects.
Advocates of global culture argue that it will help create a more peaceful world. This is the flip side of the global economy argument which is supposed to bring prosperity to all and sundry. All available evidence points in the opposite direction. Economic globalization has meant that the rich have become richer and the poor poorer. Even the trickle-down theory has not held true.
Why should a uniform global culture lead to peace worldwide when there are so many competing interests clamouring for support? Global culture means that human diversity will be swept by the tide of America’s culture of nudity and vulgarity. It was Oscar Wilde who had said that America is a country that has gone from barbarism to decadence without the stage of civilization. One would be hard-pressed to improve on this definition.
Like economics and politics, culture, too, is peddled through a number of mechanisms. In addition to hollywood and CNN, a number of groups in non-western societies are available to push the dominant American culture down the throats of other peoples. Often, it is difficult to resist such onslaught.
Since culture is not separate from political and economic considerations, political and business elites have become its purveyors. For instance, non-western businessmen (and women) have a tendency to acquire western cultural habits to be able to rub shoulders with their western counterparts. It is no secret that the rich in poor countries have more in common with the rich in rich countries than they have with the poor in their own countries.
Business and political elites worldwide also share common cultural habits. This is even true of those who are at war with each other. For instance, the upper classes in India and Pakistan share the same tastes and habits. Their children have similar tastes in music and food; enjoy the same sport, wear similar clothes and go to the same universities in Europe and America. This is equally true of the Palestinians and Israelis as it is of white South Africans and members of the African National Congress. One could go on.
Beyond habits and tastes is another, more sinister agenda that is wreaking havoc in non-western societies. The west’s social agenda includes feminism and select environmental and human rights concerns often peddled through western-financed non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The problems non-western women face are not related to the right to earn equal wages with men or to be ‘free’ to sleep with as many partners as possible. They have more basic concerns: how to feed their children, get safe drinking water, clothe and shelter them and to be able to give them medicine to prevent their premature death from preventable diseases.
While environmental issues are important, non-western societies are not the worst offenders. America with 250 million people emits 1,433 million tons of carbon per year that leads to the greenhouse effect; India with 950 million people emits only 250 million tons. America is not only the worst polluter, it is also the worst consumer. Its less than 5 percent population, consumes 40 percent of the world’s energy resources. This is extravagance of the highest order.
The world cannot afford America’s consumption habits. It is unrealistic for western environmentalists to tell people in ‘third world’ countries to cut carbon emissions when their primary concern is about the next meal for their hungry children. The world would be far better off if western environmentalists were to concentrate their energies on cutting consumption and carbon emissions in their own societies. They should also lobby for opening up their markets for products from ‘third world’ countries to enable them to stand on their own feet. Other countries would rather have trade than aid.
The west’s cultural imperialism is predicated on the same arrogant belief in the superiority of its value system that propelled colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, the west does not have to physically occupy other lands. Ruling elites, appropriately indoctrinated in the superiority of western cultural values, are willing to do the job. The rest is done by hollywood, CNN and other accoutrements of the west.
When the west talks about cultural, economic or political globalization, it simply means that other societies must be open to western penetration. The west must be free to exploit the resources of other lands: be it cheap labour, raw materials or energy. Western countries are off-limits, especially for labour from ‘third world’ countries.
It is in this context that globalization must be understood. Equally disconcerting is the belief that others’ cultures have nothing to offer to humanity. The sorry state that most people in the west find themselves in should give serious cause for reflection.
Western culture offers people an escape from reality, only if they have the financial resources to do so. Others, particularly Islamic culture, offer its adherents an opportunity to live in harmony with themselves, their neighbours and the environment.
Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998