Monday, May 30, 2005

globalization and the Church's response (part 3)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that the French rejection yesterday of the European Union's constitution was an indication that some European countries were struggling to come to terms with globalization, and had turned on the EU because of its promotion of open markets. The Times has reported that Blair said that "I think that underneath all this there is a more profound question, which is about the future of Europe and, in particular, the future of the European economy and how we deal with the modern questions of globalisation and technological change."

If passed by all member states the constitution would have created a foreign minister and a full-time president to represent the Union. This transformation of political power was perhaps something that the French were reluctant to pursue.

But related to this transformation of power politics among and within nation-states in international affairs is the state of national cultures. And the French in particular are very mindful with regards to cultural trends and influences. And so I continue my blog on globalization with a focus now on culture.

According to globalists, a new emerging culture is being created which transcends national territorial boundaries. There are two points of view concerning this.

First, the skeptics say that the rise of the nation-state has been a pivotal event in world history. Nation-states are not just a mere collection of people grouped together because of geography or a shared history or ethnicity. Rather, these people that make up a nation are "'a community of history and culture', occupying a particular territory, and often laying claim to a distinctive tradition," according to David Held in his book Globalization/Anti-Globalization. They share a common narrative, the same myths, beliefs, memories, struggles, symbols, and values. Nation-states also have within them institutions, laws, traditions, and a lingua franca. These things bind a people in a very powerful way. Nationalism is a force that is not easily squelched; rather, it can drive a people and propel them to assert themselves so as to overthrow any entity that seeks to usurp national sovereignty.

Globalists would tend to disagree with this. They say that only a multi-national and global outlook can "accommodate itself to the political challenges of a more global era, marked by overlapping communities of fate and multilayered (local, national, regional and global) politics" says Held. Though nationalism was very effective in solidifying peoples into nation groups, the state of the world today is such that with economic, cultural, political forces crossing traditional borders, the structure of the nation-state may not be up to the challenges of new global arrangements.

An example is the tremendous increase in cultural goods, which Held identifies as the new and contemporary means of communication, such as the internet and other telecommunication technologies. For instance, mobile cellular subscribers rose from 11million in 1990 to 1,000million by the year 2002; internet users are estimated to have jumped from 2.6million to 500million in 2002; and the international telephone traffic by minutes increased from 33billion in 1990 to 130billion in 2002.

Another example of this is the widespread exposure of people worldwide to the culture of other nations, in particular to American cultural values and lifestyles. For instance over 2 billion people are estimated to have seen each episode of Baywatch.

Teresa Okure in her contribution to the journal Concilium indicates that many in Africa have been left behind by this sweeping spread of telecommunication technology. She reminds readers that globalization in Africa began with the slave trade by the Europeans and the Arabs, expanded through the era of colonialization, and continues through the new-colonialization and modern globalization of today.

But she writes that the present type of globalization is leaving Africa behind. She writes that "whole countries are excluded or left behind because they lack the necessary capital to compete in attracting the expertise of information technologists to set up the necessary infrastructure of these services. These experts see such African countries viable mainly as a place to dump their outdated products to create room at home for new ones" (Okure, Teresa, SHCJ. Africa: Globalization and the Loss of Cultural Identity; Concilium, page 67). There are significant parts of Africa therefore that are being excluded from participating fully in the global community. Without a sufficient telecommunications infrastructure and technology, these poor African countries will most likely continue to be poor. Adequate information is needed in order to participate in this globalizing trend, and without that, many countries in the continent will not be able to take part.

Okure however also writes about one of the effects of this cultural infusion from other countries, in particular from the dominant cultural powers such as Britain and the United States. The example she uses is language. The use of the colonial languages in Africa has had a deadening effect on the indigenous languages in the continent, she writes. An interesting observation of hers is that the different foreign languages in use in Africa have contributed to the difference in perspectives within ethnic groups even. "A key example is the difference in perspective and approach to issues between Francophone and Anglophone Africans. They may come from the same ethnic group (like the Yoruba in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, the Ewe in Ghana, Togo and Cote d'Ivoire, the people of Somalia and Somaliland) but their approach to the same reality bears the stamp of their colonial languages and cause internal problems of communication when families meet across national boundaries" (Okure, page 71).

If we bring her example to the present, we can say that a similar cultural difficulty occurs with the arrival of any new cultural element from the West, especially if it is imposed. A more recent example she identifies is the imposition of election conditions stipulated by international observers. "With election conditions dictated from outside, international observers (the nebulous 'international community') often award good marks to a warped election process about which the people themselves cry foul" (Okure, page 71). This has happened she said in Lesotho in 1998.

Okure's point is that the natural cultural attribute in African nations toward democratic principles is being thwarted by such corrupt practices. She identifies the rulership of tribal lords and the lords' being monitored by the elders of the tribe, as an indication of the African tribes' inclination towards a more or less democratic practice. This is being thwarted she said with the imposition of corrupting influences from the outside in the form of international observers in African elections.

So, with respect to culture, there is on one hand, a negative side to globalization as evidenced in the erosion of important indigenous cultural attributes such as the one mentioned above. Another point of view is that the more a people is exposed to foreign cultural values, the more it will tend to its own. The differences will be more highlighted and perhaps the people will rediscover positive and valuable traits within its own cultural heritage. This is what John Sobrino and Felix Wilfred meant when they wrote that "the very cultural-homogenization process inherent in globalization has led to revival and assertion of cultural, ethnic and religious identities. The net result is a world with escalating conflicts and fragmentation" (Sobrino, John and Wilfred, Felix. "Introduction: The reasons for returning to this theme." Concilium, page 13).

Globalization as these researchers and observers have noted can serve as a double-edged sword with regards to culture. It can have a negative effect on a culture, damaging some of its valuable cultural heritage. Or, globalization could also open the eyes of a people to see the value within their culture as they become more and more exposed to the cultural values of other countries.

The next installment in this series will deal with economics.

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