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The West is best (would you like fries with that?)
By POLLY TOYNBEE
Saturday 25 March 2000
Sometimes it seems as if a tidal wave of the worst Western culture is creeping across the globe like a giant strawberry milkshake. How it oozes over the planet, sweet, sickly, homogenous, full of "E" numbers, stabilisers and monosodium glutamate, tasting the same from Samoa to Siberia to Somalia.
A traveller across the desert wastes of the Sahara arrives, at last, at Timbuktu, where the first denizen he meets is wearing a Texaco baseball cap. Pilgrims to the Himalayas find Everest strewn with rubbish, tins, plastic bags, Coca-Cola bottles and all the remnants of the modern global picnicker. Explorers of the Arctic complain that empty plastic bottles of washing-up liquid are embedded in the ice. Global culture and its detritus wash up everywhere, nothing sacred, nothing authentic, original or primitive any more. These modern travellers' tales tell of cultural vandalism, Western Goths contaminating civilisations and traditions untouched for centuries.
If the West were to set out on a mission of global imperialism, deliberately planned, we would surely choose better cultural ambassadors. It is not pages from Shakespeare or scores of Mozart that litter steppe and savannah, but some marketing man's logo from last year's useless product, or a snatch of that maddening theme from Titanic.
Was ever an empire so monstrously self-assured and ambitious? Western cultural imperialism reaches right into the hearts and souls, the sexual behavior, the spirit, religion, politics and the nationhood of the entire world. It happens haphazardly with no master plan or empire-building blueprint, but with a vague and casual insouciance that drives its detractors to despair.
So when we consider the globalisation of culture, most of us bring to the subject a jumble of deep-seated alarms - moral, intellectual, political, spiritual, artistic and nationalistic, melting into a great pot of "globalisation panic". It causes deep pessimism about the cultural future of a world turning homogeneously horrible. But there is some ethnocentric disingenuousness about our concern for the preservation of traditional cultures and our disgust at the way Western culture invades the arts of other peoples.
We worry that, by the very act of visiting it, we will spoil the thing we love. For our own belief in our elemental selves we need there to be an idea of Eskimos and nomads living as close to their ancient, natural ways as possible. It reassures us that there is a "natural" state of mankind for us to reconnect with when we feel lost. We steal from them all kinds of cultural icons and ideas - Eastern mysticism, Bangra music, world music, Japanese tea ceremonies, Sufi dancing, Thai batik, tai chi - tasting an exotic melange of other traditions, adapted and Westernised, often reinvented to suit our own cultural needs.
Those who fear globalisation seem to want those traditional cultures to stay as they are for ever, a permanent primitive resource for us. But the human thirst for the new is easily awakened in people everywhere once they come in touch with worlds beyond their own narrow horizons. Give them a taste of a life beyond their own and they are drawn towards it. All over the world people try to leave claustrophobic subsistence-farming communities for the bright lights of something more. Cultural globalisation for them means seizing the opportunity to have our wealthy lifestyle, even if, sadly, a baseball cap is all they manage to get their hands on.
We are selective in our feelings about global culture. We may regret the Coca-Cola bottles, but we will strive with missionary fervor to spread our most important values. In our political and social culture, we have a democratic way of life that we know, without any doubt at all, is far better than any other in the history of humanity.
Deeply flawed maybe, but the best so far. Western liberal democracy is the only system yet devised that maximises freedom for the many. We preach and struggle to practise a doctrine of freedom for women and multicultural optimism - by no means perfected, but probably the best there is. Modern urban society may sometimes be frighteningly free, alienating and lonely; but, for those above abject poverty, it offers a welcome escape from social pressure, superstition, patriarchy and hierarchy.
Is it possible to proselytise these new freedoms while preserving what is best in alien cultures? Probably not. Some of the outward charm of old ways may survive an entirely new intellectual culture, but those old traditions quickly become an ersatz heritage industry as Western ideas take hold. There is a trade-off between the charm of ancient monarchies, tyrannies or theocracies, and the spreading of democratic freedom.
Is there really a choice? Decorative autocrats make good postcards, not good lives. So convinced are we of the rightness of democracy that most Westerners believe it is only a matter of time before the world eventually succumbs to its obvious merit. Theocratic imams, military dictators, "ethnic-cleansing" demagogues and remaining communists will all fall in time. Historical inevitability is with us and the onward march of the human rights culture. But that also means a far greater degree of globalised culture - a price well worth paying.
The ideas of the Enlightenment proclaim that essential elements of culture are universal. Universal human rights know no national frontiers. We are entering a new era in which the nation state will become decreasingly important.
As for those in a moral panic about the way Western sexuality is corrupting the world's more dignified cultures, they look only at the worst, and not at the best, outcomes. They see only how family life has broken down in the West, divorce spreading like a plague with lewd, tawdry images breeding disrespect for women and old sexual customs.
Sexual liberation in the West is seen only for its tacky side, never for what it really is - harbinger of the most fundamental freedoms. We worry so obsessively about how to contain its less desirable side-effects that we too easily forget the freedom it also represents. Worlds of misery and repression are swept away once people seize the freedom to choose whom they love, live with and marry.
Divorce frees people from disastrous mistakes made early in life, releasing them from relationships made in hell. For many people, freedom from violent or deeply unhappy marriages has meant far more than political freedom. The tidal wave of divorce that follows Western cultural influence isn't an unfortunate disease, but an integral part of the spread of human rights, as everywhere it is the result of women's emancipation.
That's how it began in the West - women free to walk away from violent, abusive, unequal and unhappy marriages. Once they have the power to do that women are liberated to find the power and the voice to be more than be chattels for the first time in history, which also frees men from the obligation to care for them for life as they did.
Breaking down the laws and customs that make a woman the virginal possession of a husband is the first great step in women's rights. It changes the family bond and traditional family power structures for ever.
The emancipation of women is the most radical cultural revolution the world has ever known, reaching right into the most elemental aspects of humanity. What has been a great unequivocal good for women of the West can't be denied indefinitely to others in the name of preserving indigenous (male) cultural tradition.
All these are reasons to consider that much cultural globalisation is essentially a force for good. We may be coy about it, but the West is quite rightly intent on spreading its culture across the world. Even if we don't like to admit it, we are all missionaries and believers that our own way is the best when it comes to the things that really matter: freedom, democracy, liberation, tolerance, justice and pluralism. Our culture is the culture of universal human rights and there is no compromise possible.
This article first appeared in The Observer. It is extracted from an essay in On the Edge, Living with Global Capitalism , edited by Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens.
Posted as a conversation....
Regards from OZ
-- Pieter (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 24, 2000