Los Angeles Times Magazine

January 17, 1993, Sunday

LENGTH: 4342 words

SUBJECTS: Globalization, cultural homogenization, the world culture, Americanization, cultural imperialism


BYLINE: By MITCHELL STEPHENS, Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the department of journalism at New York University. His last piece for this magazine was on postmodern psychology.


In the mountains above Sarajevo last spring, a Serbian brigade was firing down on enemy positions. During a lull in the shelling, a Serbian soldier spotted an American reporter. Lowering his rifle, he drew the American aside and asked, "How are the Chicago Bulls doing in the NBA playoffs?" * Yes, old ethnic, religious and tribal antagonisms have flared up with horrifying violence in the years following the collapse of Soviet Communism. But if we want to figure out which way the world is headed, that Serbian soldier's interest in Michael Jordan may in the end prove more significant than his hatred of the Muslims and Croats. For there is evidence that no matter how much they kick and scream, the humans who inhabit this planet are inexorably being pulled together. * It is not just that National Basketball Assn. games are now televised in more than 100 different countries or that you can be listening to a Flemish radio station in Belgium and suddenly hear Cousin Brucie's "Cruisin' America" oldies show, exactly as it was broadcast on KCBS-FM in Los Angeles. It is not just that Paris today has about 70 Japanese restaurants, or that there are five Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Beijing, or that a small cafe on the road from Ceske Budejovice to Tabor in the Czech Republic offers a couple of Mexican specialties. It is not just that Toyota now makes cars in Portugal, Ecuador, Kenya and Kentucky and sells them in 151 countries or that you can quench your thirst with a Coke in 185 countries.

(The United Nations only has 178 members.) * No, to understand the direction in which we are going, we also have to examine the consequences of these dramatic developments: the growing sameness of products made in Japan, Portugal, Ecuador, Kenya and Kentucky; the decline of indigenous and unique athletic, musical, culinary and even linguistic traditions; the fading differences between the cultures of the United States, Belgium and China. We have to acknowledge that it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what country we are in from our surroundings. "Almost all Third World countries now have at least one huge city that has at least one quarter that feels like huge cities everywhere," notes Will Baker, a UC Davis English professor who circled the world in 1989 in search of one of the prime manifestations of this phenomenon: "the global teen-ager."

Writes anthropologist Clifford Geertz: "We may be faced with a world in which there simply aren't any more headhunters, matrilinealists or people who predict the weather from the entrails of a pig." Cultural "variety," Geertz suggests, may be "rapidly softening into a paler, and narrower, spectrum."

To understand what is happening to us, we have to realize that the special customs and interests that once distinguished that Serbian soldier from the Muslims and Croats he has been taught to hate, even those that distinguish him from basketball fans in Chicago, are disappearing. The people of the world are becoming more alike, and that process has large implications -- some promising, some frightening -- for our future.

IN YUGOSLAVIA IN THE 1950s, MANY OF THE MEN WERE STILL GARBED IN THEIR traditional costumes: The Serbs wore sheepskin caps and sandals with leather straps wound around their legs. Croats sported felt hats with narrow brims and knee boots. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muslim men often wore a fez and a large cummerbund. All of Europe was once decorated with such exotic headgear, footwear and clothing. Today, however, you can drive for thousands of miles across the continent and, except for the long skirt and scarf still worn by many Eastern European women, see no form of dress that would be out of place in Kansas. The old costumes -- the lederhosen, the kilts, even the berets -- are reserved for postcards, festivals and the "It's a Small World" ride at the new Euro Disneyland.

The Muslim children who have been ducking the mortar and rifle fire in Sarajevo dress in jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. So do the children of the Serbs who are doing the firing. So do the children of the Croats. Indeed, that is the uniform, give or take a baseball cap, now worn by a large percentage of the world's young people. If their parents are under the age of 45, they, too, probably wear some variation of this basic outfit.

No longer can visitors to a Disneyland or to Fifth Avenue or the Champs Elysees play the guess-what-country-those-people-are-from game. Levi's jeans are now for sale in more than 70 different nations. In Japan alone, the NBA sells T-shirts and baseball caps at 250 stores. UCLA anthropologist Nadine Peacock once spotted a Harvard football jersey on a tribesman in the middle of a rain forest in Zaire.

"The global material culture is encroaching everywhere," observes another UCLA anthropology professor, Nancy Levine. It is a small world, an increasingly small world, after all.

U.S. movies are a prime example. "I can't think of any country right now, with the possible exception of India, where the American film is not No. 1 or 2 at the box office," says Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. In Italy and Germany recently, 85% of the yearly box-office gross was earned by dubbed or subtitled versions of American movies.

The world is listening to the same music, too. "I would doubt that there is any country on the face of the Earth where there aren't some people who know who Madonna is," suggests Tom Freston, the chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, which now broadcasts music videos by Madonna and other international rock stars in 72 countries.

Wherever her recordings are sold, Madonna sings, between moans, in English. All the world's top rock stars do. If a Swedish group wants to sell in France, that's the language in which it must write the lyrics -- the language that also appears on most of the world's T-shirts and caps, the language of international science, the one used by the world's air-traffic controllers. English is now an official language in 63 countries; it is becoming the unofficial second language in many of the rest. The inhabitants of the Tower of Babel may finally have found a tongue in which they will all eventually be able to communicate.

Television programs, unlike rock songs, can be dubbed into the local language; they can even be remade with local performers, as, for example, "Wheel of Fortune" and "Married With Children" often are. But the shows remain the same around the world. In Bangladesh, for example, "MacGyver," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Hawaii Five-O" are all currently big hits. And four of the five top non-news shows in South Africa are American series: "Who's the Boss?," "P.S. I Luv U," "Growing Pains" and "Alf."

The currents pouring into this new international mix are not exclusively American. Anthropologist Mitzi Goheen reports, for example, that both "Matlock" and "Sesame Street" (watched mostly by adults) are popular on Cameroon's new television system, but so are some German game shows and a Brazilian soap opera. Foreign programming has even been making inroads in the United States. One American cable service, the Learning Channel, is planning to purchase 50% of its programming overseas.

In the end, where this new culture hails from is less significant than where it is spreading to -- just about everywhere. Some years ago, Peter Berger, the director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, was traveling through a remote part of Indonesia in an open jeep. Berger, it must be noted, shaves what little hair remains on his head. "We pulled into this village in central Java that looked very exotic," he recalls. "I thought I was really in the heart of the Third World. It seemed an untouched folk culture, but then suddenly some kids started running after the jeep pointing at me and yelling, 'Kojak! Kojak!' "

"There isn't any culture in the world today," says Frederic Wakeman, a UC Berkeley professor of Chinese history, "that is hermetic, sealed off by itself." It should therefore come as no surprise that we fellow "Kojak" and "Alf" watchers are also starting to think alike: about politics and economics, for example. Left- and right-wing dictatorships have both fallen out of fashion in recent decades. Democratic capitalism seems very much in vogue. Of course, the affection of autocrats for power should never be underestimated; large parts of the world -- China and Africa prominent among them -- have lagged in the democracy area. Still, for the moment at least, democratic ideas do seem to be spreading along with blue jeans and "Who's the Boss?"

More and more of the planet's residents are also beginning to think globally. We have global trade agreements (108 nations are now participating in the GATT talks), a World Court and the United Nations. We suffer from what is perceived as a global environmental crisis. The International Herald Tribune has just begun publishing a "world stock index," and our deep thinkers increasingly scratch their heads over the fate not just of a nation but of humankind. Sociologists, like Roland Robertson of the University of Pittsburgh, call this " globalization." Robertson has seen it in his life as well as in the literature: He was born in England with Scottish ancestors; his wife is an Irish-American; one of his sons is married to a Japanese-American woman, the second to a Guatemalan woman and the third is living with a Swedish woman of Latvian and Danish descent (all three young couples live -- where else? -- in California). In this ethnically tangled world, Robertson notes, people have been forced to look beyond their own nationalities and view their situations in "global terms."

The world is still ravaged by tribal wars of the sort that have broken out in the former Yugoslavia, but perhaps these wars are dying gasps, last attempts to hold onto ethnic identities in the face of these global homogenizing forces. For in various large and small ways, the world's human inhabitants are beginning to think as if they are, or at least might be, one.

OF COURSE, IN A SENSE, WE ALWAYS WERE ONE, A SINGLE SPECIES. WE CAN INTERBREED. There have always been significant similarities in the way Homo sapiens eat, mate, pal around and communicate. But upon that basic biological unity, we have constructed, over the millennia, some radically different cultures: gatherers, farmers, cannibals, societies where women take multiple husbands, the French, etc.

Many peoples have greeted such differences with violence: Precedents for the bloodshed in Bosnia today are not hard to find. But most societies have been able to suspend their suspicion and hostility long enough to learn some things from each other -- important things. Europeans, for example, borrowed two crops from Native Americans, potatoes and corn, that went a long way toward solving Europe's food problems.

And the lessons we receive from other cultures go beyond the immediately practical. "Looking at people who have different views of things, different attitudes toward the world, gets you to question your own views," explains Geertz, who is based at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "It expands your mind." The question is whether the opportunities for such an education are declining. Quantifying the strength and resilience of local cultures may be beyond the current capabilities of the social sciences. But the anecdotal evidence that local traditions and practices have begun to succumb to the global culture is plentiful.

Anthropologist Levine has studied a group of people on the Tibetan border in Nepal among whom women often do, in fact, have multiple husbands, usually brothers. These people used to wear long, homemade boots with buffalo-hide soles and embroidered wool tops. Now, Levine reports, many take to the mountain trails in Nikes. The men used to bunch their hair in a knot on the tops of their heads. Now most have what the anthropologist describes as "a sort of moderate Western haircut, one that would look normal on the streets of Los Angeles." And as for their uncommon form of marriage: "In the villages themselves, it doesn't seem to be changing," Levine explains. "But with improved communication and air travel, people are moving to Katmandu. Once they get there, they seem to move toward monogamy."

Anyone in this half-century who has returned to some distant place after a long interval knows the extent to which the local and distinct are being replaced -- or "spoiled" -- by the international and familiar. When Wakeman lived in Taiwan in the 1960s, for example, shopping in his neighborhood was done at open-air markets, and the bakeries sold cakes topped with lard. He returned in 1988 to find the neighborhood dotted with 7-Eleven stores and pizza parlors. "I'd heard about the changes," the China scholar explains, "but they were just overwhelming."

Goheen, an anthropology professor at Amherst, recalls a graduate student from Kenya who was relieved, upon arriving in the United States, to discover that he could get Kentucky Fried Chicken here, too.

THIS PROCESS OF CULTURAL MIXING, OR HOMOGENIZATION, DID NOT START with Coca-Cola or Charlie Chaplin. Europeans had already "spoiled" countless local traditions while colonizing the Americas, Africa, Australia and parts of Asia; before that had come the spread of world religions like Christianity and Islam, at the expense of the old pagan practices, and before that, the far-flung empires of Rome, China and Alexander had trampled, with varying degrees of brutality, the numerous cultures that got in their way.

The mixing, however, has grown significantly more energetic in our century for three reasons: First, means have been devised that permit cultures to be trampled from a distance. In the years after the end of World War I, eyes and ears from Vancouver to Berlin to New Delhi began to turn from local entertainments and to fix themselves on Hollywood movies and Tin Pan Alley songs. Such innovations as television, electric guitars, stereo, satellites, computers, Walkmen, VCRs and CDs have brought more and more people under the spell. Particularly young people: "Kids in Australia, Hong Kong and Sweden today might have more in common with each other than with their parents," says MTV's Freston.

Second, eased trade barriers, easier travel and instant communication have allowed those most dedicated cultural emissaries, business people, to hawk identical products to different peoples around the world. Coke was first sold overseas in the year 1900. When Baker, in his report on the "global teen-ager" for the magazine Whole Earth Review, asked 169 teen-agers in 12 countries on five continents to identify the Coca-Cola logo, only six could not.

Third, the world's populations, as they grow more mobile, have been reshuffling themselves. "A hell of a lot of people aren't where they're supposed to be these days," Geertz declares. "Caribbeans are in London, Tamils in Holland, Turks in Germany, and everybody is in New York and Los Angeles." The United States, the traditional melting pot, currently has more foreign-born residents -- 19.7 million -- than ever before. But the wealthier parts of the Old World, too, have been flooded with immigrants. There are more than 1 million non-Japanese currently living in Japan, 4 million foreign-born individuals in France and more than 7 million foreign "guest workers" and refugees in Germany (That's 8% of the country's population). The world itself, despite recent outbreaks of resentment and even violence, seems to be turning into one vast melting pot.

Have these three homogenizing forces -- global media, multinational business and immigration -- led to an actual decline in the number of different cultures in the world? Cultures are not easy to define, let alone count. But Michael Krauss, a professor of linguistics at the University of Alaska, has done the next best thing: attempted to measure the decline of the world's languages. "In many ways, language is the essence of culture," he explains. Krauss, the director of the Alaska Native Language Center, reports that 6,000 languages, give or take 10%, are still being spoken today. But somewhere between 20% and 50% of those languages are no longer being spoken by children. "That doesn't mean they're endangered," Krauss explains. "It means they're doomed."

Many more are at risk. Krauss estimates that only about 600 languages are "relatively safe," either because they are currently spoken by at least 100,000 people or because they are protected by a government. The rest are falling victim to bulldozers, which are destroying the jungles that used to shelter them, to intolerant national governments and to the global forces of homogenization -- as people are "catapulted," in Wakeman's words, "from the oxcart to a satellite dish that is picking up Ted Turner."

Krauss predicts that "at the rate things are going, the coming century will see the extinction or doom of 90% of the world's linguistic diversity. It is doubtful whether a culture can survive without a language." So his figures force us to consider what the cost would be of losing 90% of the world's cultures.

Maybe less cultural difference would mean less violence. That's the good news. This might be a tough idea to sell in Sarajevo at the moment, but when and if they can look coolly at each other, Russians and Americans, Palestinians and Israelis, even Serbs and Croats (who already speak the same language), should be able to see that there is less and less at which they might turn up their noses. Both Palestinians and Israelis now spend Sunday evenings sprawled on a couch watching "L.A. Law" -- in English with Hebrew and Arabic subtitles. Demonizing someone who is watching the same shows, listening to the same music and wearing the same sneakers as you becomes more difficult (though obviously, as the Irish and others have proved, not impossible).

The bad news is that learning something new from that person is also more difficult. In other words, we might lose, in a period of only about 100 years, the educational opportunities represented by 90% of the world's cultures. "These are not societies that tried to be like us and flunked the test," notes Harvard anthropology professor David Maybury-Lewis. "They have different moralities than we do, different ideas about the way people should relate to others, certainly different ideas about the way people should relate to the environment. In our day-to-day lives, we jog along thinking that things are the way they are because this is the way they have to be. It is important for us to understand the enormous variety of other ways humans can live their lives."

Jason Clay is one of the directors of Cultural Survival, the organization Maybury-Lewis set up to help protect indigenous peoples (from direct threats like bulldozers and bullets, not indirect threats like television). "It would take 100,000 years to re-create the knowledge these cultures have," Clay asserts. "Every time one of these cultures goes, that knowledge goes with it. It is like burning the Library of Congress."

In an essay in his book "Disturbing the Universe," the physicist Freeman Dyson shudders at the potential consequences of such losses: "It is likely that in the future our survival and our further development will depend in an equally crucial way on the maintenance of cultural and biological diversity," he writes. Dyson, who like Geertz is at the Institute for Advanced Study, admits to having "sort of a bad conscience" about being, as an English speaker, one of the conquering people. "We are seducing and trampling down other cultures all over the world," he says. "It is, in a way, monstrous."

SOME DISMISS THIS NIGHTMARE SCENARIO. THEY ARE NOT CONVINCED THAT the world's individual cultures are losing all their energy and distinctness. "The second law of cultural thermodynamics doesn't appeal to me," Geertz says. "I just don't see that as I look around." What he sees instead is a world that may be growing short on cannibals but still seems rich in diversity.

Consider, as an example, Topeka, Kan. Along with four Arby's and six Burger Kings, diners in Topeka now have their choice of Chinese, Italian, Mexican, French, Japanese, Greek, Vietnamese, Caribbean, Thai and German restaurants. On Wednesdays, they can buy food prepared by members of the Pottawatomie tribe of American Indians. You couldn't ask for much more culinary diversity. There's also lots of ethnic diversity in Topeka at the moment: One section of town, for instance, is known as "Little Russia," and Topeka now has its own tortilla factory. In addition, thanks in part to those much maligned multinationals, you can buy an impressive variety of products there in the American heartland: German cars, Korean televisions, Colombian coffee, Scandinavian furniture, Japanese seaweed.

Indeed, we victims of globalization, as Robertson of the University of Pittsburgh points out, seem to be growing more, not less, respectful of diversity. Hence, multiculturalism. Hence, those Saturday or Sunday schools in which children learn the language and traditions of their grandparents. Moreover, the compulsion to stand up for our paesanos, for our cultural kinsmen and kinswomen, remains a major force in the world: in South-Central Los Angeles, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the Balkans. Ethnicity maintains its pull, "often to the vast detriment of everybody involved," notes Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Review. "It is clear," he concludes, "that this is powerful stuff." We may be teetering at the edge of a huge melting pot, but many of us seem to be struggling not to fall in. Might the forces of diversity, therefore, be strong enough to hold out against the forces of homogenization? Many anthropologists believe they are.

"If you live with people in very different cultural situations," explains Amherst's Goheen, who spent five years in Cameroon, "it becomes evident to you how powerful a culture is, because to them, you are a cultural fool. You inappropriately use the wrong hand to give things to people. You make incredible gaffes."

These anthropologists argue that, despite imported dolls (Barbie is sold in 80 countries) and even imported waters (Evian is sold in about 100), the world's cultures are tenaciously hanging on to their own idiosyncratic customs, to their individuality. "There is a stubbornness to these things," Geertz argues. "Japan is extremely modern, but it is also extremely Japanese."

Maybe. Maybe you can eat at McDonald's (now offering its "standard menu" in 62 countries), celebrate Christmas (as many now do in, for example, China and Taiwan), wear Levi's and Nikes, listen to Nirvana, pick up some English, root for Michael Jordan and still remain extremely something else. Maybe, as Brand argues, this pop-consumer-entertainment culture that we all are beginning to share will become everybody's "second culture," and "our first cultures will continue to hold out in resistance to it."

Maybe people will even invent new differences over which they might squabble and from which they might learn. International communities already seem to be forming, based not on geography but on interest -- in rap music, for example, or astronomy or scuba diving. Maybe the diversity they provide will be sufficient. "I don't see why differences have to be dramatic to be instructive," Geertz says. "I don't see that you have to have cannibals."

These arguments, however, seem to neglect an important factor: time. The old cultures, with their distinct languages, their complex traditions, their special ways of seeing the world, were formed over many millennia. They first came under all-out assault by the new global culture only in the last few decades; the countries of Eastern Europe are just now beginning to feel the full force of that assault. The fact that many cultures still retain a strong sense of their individuality, that Serbs still are put off by Croats, that the Japanese are still "extremely Japanese," is not all that surprising given the relative periods of time involved. They may not be that Japanese after another 50 or 100 years of pizza and the NBA. Over time, in other words, the endlessly seductive global "second culture" may become everybody's first culture.

Those new international communities of interest, which might be all we have left if the world becomes more homogenized, may not have enough time to develop challenging new perspectives of their own. Perhaps the most energetic such community in recent years was the rap culture developed by African-Americans in the inner cities. However, once it was clear that its creators were on to something, the record companies, the Hollywood producers and Paris designers quickly moved in. Newly hatched ideas were sucked into the larger culture long before they had a chance to grow and mature. Japanese culture developed over thousands of years. Rap got maybe a decade.

The global culture is, by nature, always seeking new diversions. It enjoyed reggae for some years; now it's delighted at the chance to wear oversize jeans and show its underpants. Everything eventually gets tossed into that constantly simmering Tex-Mex-Kentucky-Fried-Sweet-and-Sour-McSushi-Gyro stew. But if the old traditions are being watered down, and if the new are eaten while still young, that stew will lose its substance and its spice.

Another equally disturbing image comes to mind: When you first begin stirring many different-colored paints in a can, you get some colors that clash, but you also get some beautiful rainbow patterns. Maybe that is the period we are in now. We are seeing renewed outbreaks of ethnic warfare, but we are also delighting in a swirl of exotic foods, foreign products and diverse neighbors. The question is: What will human culture look like after that paint can has been stirred a century or two longer?