Globalization proves a tight fit for everyone

V By David Jack Norton

vALLADOLID, Spain – Loping across the central plaza of Valladolid, Spain, a young woman not old enough to recall Francisco Franco’s death, much less Ronald Reagan’s presidency, tugs at a T-shirt two sizes too small that reads “No More Fashion Victims.” Her girlfriend sports a similar T-shirt with “NYC” on the front. Where these Spanish teens acquired their shirts, I can only guess. I am willing to bet the shirts were not produced in Spain. In an instant, they pass me and their conversation, punctuated with pop-cultural English references to “burning una nueva CD de las Dixie Chicks,” fades into the din of the afternoon crowd.

In Minneapolis and Valladolid, the world seems to be growing smaller. Spaniards are learning English at an amazing rate as North Americans, especially in the Southwest United States and urban areas, accumulate mental dictionaries of quotidian Spanish expressions such as “Hola, necesito una trabajadora domestica a mitad del precio de una ciudadana.” McDonald’s continues to hemorrhage franchises globally as La Bodega at Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue expose Minnesotans to “real” Spanish “tapas.” The proliferation of mobile phones on both sides of the Atlantic, along with the diffusion of e-mail beyond academic and cubicle culture allows us to connect daily to people worlds away. In so many ways, our access to the world increases exponentially with each year.

Yet, as the world appears to contract to within the reach of our keyboard and cell phones, we would be wise to re-evaluate this shrink-wrapping of our globe. Few in the United States feel comfortable thinking of McDonald’s as the U.S.’s cultural ambassador to the world. Likewise, I suspect Spaniards would blanch at La Bodega’s imitation of a tapa’s bar, labeling it more a peddler of hipness than of quality cuisine. Cell phones, or “mobiles” in Spain, increase nothing so much as an irritating black noise to crowd our already busy minds. Bilingual education, though ostensibly laudable, is often the product of greedy minds eager for new, unexploited markets. Or hadn’t you noticed that suburban schools, bastions of corporate culture, boast some of the most extensive language immersion programs while urban schools go begging for teachers and money to maintain English as a second language programs? It is all bilingual, right?

We should think seriously and conscientiously about how the world is getting smaller and for whom. What exactly does this process of globalization mean to you? Yes, products, especially cultural ones, rotate through hemispheres with little ease. Most likely, nothing you, nor I, nor my T-shirt-wearing Spanish teens, are wearing something produced within 200 miles of where we live. T-shirts travel, but our minds stay put. What do we care about sweatshop conditions in someone else’s backyard?

Modern devices make knowledge easier and faster to transmit, but we frequently fail to use them to expand our minds. For example, the Twin Cities are a day’s drive to Canada. Name three Canadians who aren’t entertainers or athletes. One of my students posed this question to a class and it brought the question of a “globalized” world into local perspective.

Likewise, the shrinking commercial world and its concurrent educational influence contrasts with an increasing gap between rich and poor countries. A generation of U.S. college students cavorted in foreign lands during the 1990s on the strength of their parents’ investment portfolios. At the same time, the debt service owed by poor countries, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, to rich countries increased dramatically. Do the math and you’ll find that our access to the world multiplies just as many regions, especially poorer ones, face increasingly limited economic and cultural options. We can go there, and they send things here, but this is far from the often-praised universalizing process we think of as globalization.

Despite what you might think right now, I am not a Luddite isolationist convinced the United States intentionally and masochistically contrives technology and ideology to wring from our global neighbors their last vestiges of self-sufficiency and dignity. That has happened, but the history of globalization is much more than that and includes culpability for complicit peoples in all parts of the world. As satisfying as it might be, I am not suggesting everyone gather tonight at midnight to toss their cell phones from the Washington Avenue Bridge onto West River Road. Nor would I counsel students to avoid going abroad for fear of contributing to cultural Armageddon.

Rather, consider these two questions: Who are we and what do we value? Our identities locate themselves in the places we live. We are products of our environment, and what distinguishes us from others are those things we claim as unique to our community. We are the lakes and the river, the Iron Range and the Boundary Waters. We are Ruminator Books and the Purple Onion, the St. Paul Saints, the Guthrie Theater and Grandma’s Marathon. These are things that mark us as exceptional, as worthy of attention, resistant (or at least not fully compliant) to the forces of globalization. In supporting local businesses, cultural events and environments, we do more than simply sustain local communities; we affirm our own identities. I avoid McDonald’s and Starbucks not because they’re outrageously evil, but because they are not me.

Of course, we cannot live in a vacuum of self-righteous consumer behavior. If everyone bought local goods, millions of locals somewhere in the world would be out of work. Here, our conscience must be our guide as a mediator between praxis and politics. Key, however, is that we assert our right to make decisions based on our values, not on the values that exponents of globalization assert as inevitable. We, as community members, citizens, activists and consumers, can make decisions based on what type of world we want to live in, not the world that exists. We make globalization just as we make ourselves, and the two processes intertwine in strange ways.

In all of this, we should realize our decisions have profound consequences for the lives of millions around the world. Globalization is not just the Dixie Chicks and New York City

T-shirts, but the economic and trade policies that support the export of such culture to Spain. The world is getting smaller for those in the United States. We had better pay attention to how globalization affects others before our corner of the world is too small for comfort.

It seems to me that if what we value is local, not global, we need to respond to that value. I still chide my mother for bringing home packaged donuts and I still chide myself for not availing myself of local options. At stake is nothing less than our identities as members of a community. If we have the same cell phones, the same restaurants and the same clothes, there is no sense of identity. If the options for dinner are Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, the Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse, who cares? In a truly globalized world, there can truly be “no more fashion victims,” because no one’s mother will knit them a sweater so ugly it hurts to put it on. If globalization means no more fashion victims, count me out.

David Jack Norton is a University graduate student living in Spain. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]