The Fate of Culture. (Two Faces of Globalization)

By Cowen, Tyler | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Fate of Culture. (Two Faces of Globalization)

Cowen, Tyler, The Wilson Quarterly

On one thing the whole world seems to agree: Globalization is homogenizing cultures. At least a lot of countries are acting as if that's the case. In the name of containing what the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood calls "the Great Star-Spangled Them," the Canadian government subsidizes the nation's film industry and requires radio stations to devote a percentage of their airtime to home-grown music, carving out extra airplay for stars such as Celine Dion and Barenaked Ladies. Ottawa also discouraged Borders, the American book superstore, from entering the Canadian market out of fear that it would not carry enough Canadian literature. The French government spends some $3 billion annually on culture and employs 12,000 cultural bureaucrats in an effort to preserve its vision of a uniquely French culture. Spain, South Korea, and Brazil place binding domestic-content requirements on their cinemas; France and Spain do the same for television. Until recently, India barred the sale of Coca-Cola.

The argument that markets destroy culture and diversity comes from people across the political spectrum. Liberal political scientist Benjamin Barber claims that the world is poised between Jihad, a "bloody politics of identity," and McWorld, "a bloodless economics of profit," represented by the spread of McDonald's and American popular culture. In False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), the English conservative John Gray denounces globalization as a dangerous delusion, a product of the hopelessly utopian Enlightenment dream of "a single worldwide civilization in which the varied traditions and cultures of the past were superseded by a new, universal community founded in reason." Duke University's Fredric Jameson sums up the common view: "The standardization of world culture, with local popular or traditional forms driven out or dumbed down to make way for American television, American music, food, clothes, and films, has been seen by many as the very heart of globalization."

Does the growing global trade in films, music, literature, and other cultural products destroy cultural and artistic diversity or actually encourage it? Does it promise a nightmarishly homogenized McWorld or a future of artistic innovation? What will happen to cultural creativity as freedom of economic choice extends across the globe?

Critics of globalization rally around the banner of "cultural diversity," but much of the contemporary skepticism about the value of cross-cultural exchange has very little to do with diversity. Many critics simply dislike particular trends and use "diversity" as a code word for another agenda, which is often merely anticommercial or anti-American in nature. In reality, the global exchange of cultural products is increasing diversity in ways that are seldom appreciated.

The critics tend to focus on globalization's effects on diversity across societies. Gauging diversity then becomes a matter of whether each society offers the same cultural menu, and whether societies are becoming more alike. But the concept of cultural diversity has multiple and sometimes divergent meanings. It can also refer to the variety of choices within a particular society. By that standard, globalization has brought one of the most significant increases in freedom and diversity in human history: It has liberated individuals from the tyranny of place. Growing up on an isolated farm or in a remote village, whether in the Canadian Rockies or Bangladesh, is less a limit than ever before on an individual's access to the world's cultural treasures and opportunities. No longer are one's choices completely defined by local culture. There is more cultural diversity among Canadians and Bangladeshis than ever before.

These two kinds of diversity--the across variety and the within variety--often move in opposite directions. When one society trades a new artwork to another, diversity within the receiving society increases (because individuals have greater choice), but diversity across the two societies diminishes (the two societies become more alike). …

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