A revelatory article today, "Chirac warns of 'catastrophe' of world 'choked' by US values", from the Associate French Press (AFP). I wonder what kind of play it will get in the US?
Speaking to an audience in Hanoi, Vietnam en route to China,
Chirac warned Thursday of a "catastrophe" for global diversity if the United States' cultural hegemony goes unchallenged. This, he said, would lead to a "general world sub-culture" based around the English language, which would be "a real ecological catastrophe".
Behind this quote lurks lots of things; some are insidiously political and self-serving, while others are noble and important, one of those vexing contradictions we often find in France. First, let's talk political strategy. With diminishing influence already within its grand EU project, France is now spending much energy developing closer ties with China. It's a shrewd and good move, if they can pull it off, just one of many countries competing for China's attention. So far it looks like it's working. According to a BBC Worldservice broadcast today, France may be edging out the Americans in this race for influence. The Chinese President, for instance, was here in Paris during Chinese New Year, the event crowned with an unprecedented parade down the Champs-Elysées, the first ever featuring any non-French ethnicity. (This doesn't include, of course, the involuntary parades like when the Germans marched into town). You can see the quid pro quo already between this Sino-Franco relationship. In the EU, Chirac is unabashedly trying to push through regulatory changes that will favour China. Lucrative arms contracts and deals for French companies will emerge from this current overseas tour. And while they are very different cultures, one can see how these two countries might find some deeper affinities which may facilitate such a collaboration. Both China and France, for instance, share revolutionary pasts based on big ideas. As a result, both favour a political culture favouring centralization and continuity versus change. With long lasting cultures and a rich history where they have been the frame of reference of other countries, both feel they are a "Middle kingdom" and this gives them a claim of superiority if not leadership in matters of culture. Indeed, Chirac's bemoaning the spread of English and the spread of American pop culture will endear him to Beijing and Chinese people. The ironic thing is that English, according to some studies has actually peaked in terms of its world market share of languages. (See The Future of English/)
But Chirac does have a point and an important one. The current mass extinction of different cultures is a catastrophe for humanity. But this is a hard case to make for many people, especially when the spread of English has made it so convenient for Anglo-American interests to do play and work around the world. The case for cultural diversity is clearly complicated by its problem type. That is, like the environment, this is one of those commons issues, a burning public good with slow-fuse. Having said that, a good case can be made on many levels: practical, aesthetic, social and moral lines.
The practical case is simple. We lose much social ingenuity and knowledge every time we hobble or destroy a culture. This is denying us a reservoir of ideas which may help us now and in the future to work on practical problems. Deep wisdom often runs through many cultural practices, such as the rice paddy water cult in Bali, which after researchers studied it, found that it was an amazingly sustainable and resilient system able to maintain the precise biochemical balance of the soil for thousands of years. Similarly, the revival of ancient water harvesting practices is already helping countries in the Middle East manage their supplies more sustainably. New drugs and medical cures are also likely to be found in bio-rich areas like the Amazon. Identifying these will be greatly facilitated with local knowledge.
Aesthetically speaking, diversity makes the world a more beautiful and pleasing place to live in. At some deep level, we all treasure unique things. As David Bowie said, "the more things get commodified, the more we will want hand-made things made out of wood." Just look at the foods we eat today. In one week, my diet on average includes everything from Tom Yum Gai, Sushi, a falafel pita sandwich, coq au vin, sag paneer, to pesto pasta. And just looking around my living room, an eclectic pastiche of the four corners of the world, my world would be much less colourful, less rich without the personal stories each collected item brings with it.
Socially and morally, cultures play an important role. They provide a stable platform from which people can make meaning -- a fundamental aspect of human nature -- and from which to form communities. As we have taken this context for meaning away from billions of people (through conquest, colonialism, commerce) their universe becomes unravelled, disoriented, and dislocated. Many cultures survive and are resilient to these timeless forces, but increasingly we are eroding them at their core foundations. In my home country, Canada, I've long been perplexed by why many First Nations kids I knew seemed so lost, so trapped in a myriad of pathologies: poverty, substance-abuse, lack of self-respect, anger and violence. While I don't pretend to understand this complex and shameful situation completely, I think part of the explanation has to do with how their meaning-system was systematically dismantled and destroyed, and the White culture for various reasons has failed to be the new context in which these people can flourish.
But let's get back to Chirac and China. Because they are both long durée cultures, I can see why they feel qualified to speak about this issue. And while any form of sustained attention on this problem by a world leader is a good thing, the long term solution will not come from the likes of Chirac or countries as notoriously protectionist as France leading the change. The credibility and legitimacy just 'aint there especially when France has much cultural blood still on its hands given its colonial history and direct and indirect pressure for different cultures to assimilate once in France.
Local cultures are of course already fighting back in many ingenious ways. The Anti-Globalization movement did much to help this and channel interest into younger generations, while governments and international organizations have been long working on a variety of strategies to help preserve and protect cultural diversity. But what's working and what's not working? I'd like to learn more about these strategies. What looks interesting, successful and effective? A friend of mine, Zaid Hassan, is fleshing out a paper called "cultural aikido" which will be a blueprint for how local cultures can defend themselves against these strong forces of globalization. When I do read it -- I think it's still a work in progress -- I'll report back when I learn more.Posted by nicole at October 8, 2004 03:30 PM