The World… the Same? I hope not.

I read an article the other day that begins: “A common fear of travelers is that the world is becoming a homogenous place”[sic] (Hawkins, 2011) I have experienced this fear: I’m a geographer who did the research for my masters’ thesis in Bulgaria soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have observed that country as it was has lost a lot of its previous culture: making way for western (American) capitalism (cultural imperialism). I was there when the first western fast food restaurant opened in the country: KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) opened in Bourgas, 1996. Now it’s true that the restaurant had a certain Bulgarian flavour: they had no water for the fountain drinks, no potatoes for the fries, and no bread for the sandwiches. So all we had to eat were a fried chicken “bucket” (at least what we would call a bucket) and pineapple juice. At the time it was difficult to get a consistent supply of anything for the developing business class. This may have been typically Bulgarian, but was hardly an illustration of rebellion against Western dominance.

What surprised me, therefore, when I read this article was that this author, an assistant professor of anthropology, argued that cultures were able to take a stand against the onslaught of Americanisms.

While it is true that one can get a Big-Mac around the world, that does not mean that McDonalds is the same everywhere. Thailand, for example features a Samurai Pork Burger… To a certain extent, each country adapts McDonalds to its own tastes. This would seem to suggest that each country is holding on to its culture…while the world is in some ways becoming more homogenous, in other ways countries are resisting that homogenization.

I could not believe that the author had trivialized the subject to such a degree. That McDonalds might even be attempted as an example of “resisting homogenization” is completely laughable. Countries have lost the wars of economics, and business, and local ownership: they have adopted Western ideas of money as representative of value and proceeded to ship most of that value to the dominant world power. Any such “resistance” is generally fairly minor; it is certainly there, but it is also melded into the Americanized process. Much though Thailand might have a “Samurai Pork Burger”, I doubt very much that the Thai McDonalds uses local or indigenous knowledge or tradition in its preparation. Like all of the examples listed in the article, they are “resistance” to American cultural imperialism in name only.

That is what I think is so dangerous about such an article, represented on a popular NPR program. It makes those who read it, those who don’t understand “globalization”, complacent in our continued dominance and exploitation. Here in the west, we don’t care about cultural imperialism. The general population doesn’t care that languages and cultures and indigenous knowledge is being lost at a fantastic rate… and has been lost for generations. Oh, we care about them after they’re lost, and offer our condolences: but are we willing to stop our dominance in order to maintain other cultures? After all, it’s our culture that’s doing the dominating. American dominance makes us feel more comfortable around the world: our language is spoken, our foods are available, our ways of thinking are thought. We’ve been enormously effective at our American evangelicalism.

Unfortunately, American capitalism is based on continued growth: continued consumption and continued production, at a slow but exponentially increasing rate. That rate is now well out of control. Natural resources, cultural resources, human resources: they are all considered to be fodder for the economic machine. Thus far, we’ve always had somewhere else to exploit, something else to absorb, in order to continue this mad dash to consume. But we’re beginning to see what happens when we run out of room: the rich get richer and the lower classes get… well, what lower classes?

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