“We go to Europe to be Americanized,” so said Ralph Waldo Emerson. The great transcendentalist might well have meant that we feel most American when we are in foreign cultures. Then again he might have meant that we are a culture of borrowers, a stew of foreign ingredients.
But today it could reference that more and more, wherever we go, we find the inexorable and insidious Americanization of foreign cultures. This is especially true of almost all of the major metropolitan centers of countries everywhere.
At the risk of sounding irritatingly like one of those travelers forever wanting you that you better get out and see the world in all its multicultural variety before it is marginalized and homogenized into some sickeningly familiar pastiche of American commercial values, I think that it is going to be difficult to avoid doing just that.
The willowy girl in the miniskirt and platform shoes makes quite a contrast with her Muslim sisters and modest attire and with their hair secreted beneath their scarves. They might be divided in religion, but commerce reunites them whatever respective secular or eschatological fates might await them globalism is the transcendent faith of the moment. They shuffle and stride over the surgically-antiseptic terrazzo corridors of the multileveled, atrium mall with the easy assurance of their American or European sisters. It is rather early in the morning and the small number of Westerners from my bus all but outnumber the locals.
The shuttle that we were led to believe would drop us at an indigenous local market in Kelang, plopped us at the entrance to a four-story mall, its central doors situated between those international tutelary gods of American commerce, a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut. From there––and, as a cab ride to an authentic market was thirty minutes away according to two young Malaysian guys about to tuck into their McBreakfasts––it only got worse (or better, depending upon your point of view).
The P. O. V. of the local people running the shuttle (likely subsidized by the mall) was that the big, rich, Westerners off the cruise ship are likely shopaholics, which is true in enough cases, and Kelang is very proud of its huge clean air-conditioned mall with just about every damn international brand name shop you can name and virtually nothing of local production or interest. Even the Muzak is droning Western music. We are in a town in Malaysia and in this mall there is not a single sign written in the local language and script. I have traveled maybe two-thirds around the earth and I have arrived in Orange County.
Okay, they have a right to be proud; their mall signifies economic success because they can now offer the very same consumer goods you can get in similar malls EVERYWHERE. And there is a bit of a dilemma with this. Is it proper for those of us who love travel for the contrasting exposure it provides for us to cultures that are educationally and entertainingly different, but sometimes are backward, impoverished, and suffer from economic and political systems that are oppressive and stifle liberty. We have no right to prefer that they would retain their undeveloped and primitive status for the sake of our amusement. We may have to accept the inevitability that their adoption of market economies, more civil liberties, higher education, and such are going to make them more like us and less and less like peoples who provide us with an interesting foreign experience.
If you travel the world long enough and I guess in my case forty years is of some sufficiency, especially the last forty years, you can’t help noticing globalism’s rapid and inexorable creep. It took hundreds of thousands of years for cultures to evolve and to take their forms and establish their differentiation. Much of this was done in geographical isolation. Their languages, customs, mores, religions, while not always sui generis, had some degree of integrity. Even when I first began traveling to Europe in the 1970s I recall the currency, and validity of the adage that “one is able to distinguish the Europeans by [the presumed lesser quality] of their shoes. Try doing that today.
Much of this owes to American commercial hegemony following World War II when much of Europe and Asia were in rubble and their economies in ruins. American manufacturing and improvements in production and distribution, abetted by the necessary improvements during the war, gave us a significant advantage in fashions styles, brand identification, and that term later ushered in by Silicon Valley, “market share.” We may have lulled ourselves into the expectation of a permanent commercial hegemony, thanks in part to the fact that our major postwar adversaries, the USSR and China, practiced economic systems ill-suited to the production and marketing of consumer products. But we were soon surprised by the rapid rise of Germany and Japan in the production of competitive automobiles photographic office equipment and other products. What America did retain was the advantage in media, that great transporter of popular culture.
There is an irony to all this merchandising of Western products to the erstwhile Third Worlds. Much of the stuff is either manufactured or assembled nearby or in the country next door. There’s a good deal of debate about the side of globalism as well. Workers in sweatshops in Southeast Asia and Indonesia, among other places, might make $.26 an hour, but that might be three times as much as they could make in any other local industry. Then of course there is the social disruption and environmental degradation that often comes along with the Faustian compact that these countries make with Western capitalism. I doubt that the increases in income provided by working for Nike and the rest of the Western brand names are netted out against the health effects of sweatshops, lack of workplace safety standards, and absence of environmental controls.
The winds of globalism might also carry from the East unbidden ideologies and beliefs that countervail the earlier global ambitions of Islam. As I am flying from Singapore to Hong Kong I read in the International Herald Tribune that Muslim authorities in Malaysia have raised complaints that the local Christian community is attempting to “Christianize” Malaysia. Weren’t you heard this kind of thing before? Yup, almost fundamentalist Christians in America bitching that Sharia law is a clear and present danger in our communities. And what about this from the Huffington Post (1/17/2012): Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) addressed a crowd gathered Monday at a South Carolina Tea Party conference and resolutely concluded that “the greatest minority under assault today are Christians. No doubt about it.”
Also, the Malayasian constitution both guarantees freedom of religion and designates Islam as the official religion. Ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslims. While Muslims are free to proselytize to others, most states have laws that prohibit members of other religions from proselytizing Muslims. In selling Gore state, the penalties can include a year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to 10,000 ringgit (almost $3200). Almost just like America, where most people tend to believe that we are automatically a Christian country, even though we supposedly endorse religious freedom.
So there you have it: maybe globalism is making us all the same––religious hypocrites who shop in malls.
Note: This piece marks the last of those written on my 2011 circumnavigation.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.11.2011)