Category Archives: culture shock

Surprises of Globalization

Photo credits: taken by Shamil Zhumatov, Reuters; shared by Fadhel Hawramany on Google+; Cheese-making in Kazakhstan
 
 
The admonition of our forefathers that “all men (and women) are created equal” does guide a lot our decisions as Americans and lately seems to keep leading us back to another old adage, that one that says “no good deed goes unpunished”. The fact that it seemed wrong to many Americans to enjoy relative prosperity while many others around the world seemed to languish in poverty led to a belief that, although Americans lost all of their jobs, the jobs that were created in places where no boom has gone before (in recent memory) convinced us that this was, in some twisted self-effacing way, a good thing for the whole world in the long run. Allowing others to make puny wages doing jobs that provided Americans with great incomes could be justified because it would eventually lift up workers around the world, assuage our national guilt, and usher in a future that guaranteed human rights for all. Not that we necessarily had a choice. Globalization happened. Actually, of course, average Americans did not send their jobs to other nations; their jobs were yanked away and bestowed elsewhere. Still it is somewhat comforting to believe that losing our jobs makes us better Americans, adhering to the ideals that formed the basis of our nation and the ideals that people around the world have found admirable and desirable.

I don’t think we have been quite as happy with the realities of the road to globalization. It will take many generations, probably, for global economics to raise the standard of living for everyone. In the meantime, Americans are left in a sort of economic backwater, a zone where all but the wealthiest Americans are stuck treading water, and rather brackish water at that. We don’t really want to be in this financial limbo and we may not stay here for long. Hopefully we will find a way up and out, a way back to the prosperity that makes America hum, that calms twitchy Republican plutocrats, and gives us back our optimistic spirit. What we can’t know is how long it will take for this to happen, and whether we will be able to pull another rabbit out of our magic hat and find the next thing or things that will take us to a new prosperity. Perhaps on our enforced hiatus from prosperity we will learn to enjoy a bit of languishing, to slow down a bit and embrace a simpler lifestyle that values intangibles like family and friends and leisure and that does not so much rely on collecting more and more stuff, things, objects we never have any time to appreciate.

Must everyone in America have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances? I just saw that photo that you see at the top of this post, taken by someone at Reuters and shared on Google+ that shows a Central Asian mother and daughter making cheese. They are squatting in a hut with a straw floor forming perfect mounds of fresh cheese on a wooden board probably getting ready to sell their cheeses at the local market. Obviously the contrast between these two “kitchen” scenarios exposes the distance the world must travel before there is any real economic global equality of opportunity. If we find a way to restore the upward trajectory of our economy the distance among nations will continue to widen or at least maintain its current proportions. However, I don’t expect that we will lag behind on purpose waiting for people in other nations to catch up.

In addition, economics is not the only sphere of human activity that has been stirred by globalization. An absolute torrent of hostility has been released, most of it religious in nature between people who adhere to a set of stern religious laws and have practiced this demanding religion since antiquity.  So we find ourselves in the midst of a religious firestorm, a maelstrom that was unforeseen by most of us. If you read science fiction, especially Frank Herbert’s Dune books, the idea of jihad probably did not come as a total surprise, but still, who knew; not us “ugly” Americans. We did not know that modern communication devices like computers and especially cell phones, and the penchant for tourism that arose with transportation advances and increased prosperity would, just like disturbing a hive of hornets, produce culture shock after culture shock, foment anger and violent reactionary responses that would lead to the threat of terrorism that has arrived on America’s (and the rest of the industrialized world’s) doorstep and which has become a new fact of life.

Who knew that there are many people who would want to resist globalization, who treasure their traditional lifestyle, their religious isolation and who, once change began to rock their world, awoke to a passion of missionary zeal that Allah requires once the infidel is right in your backyard. Christians ought to understand the often unintentional cruelties of the call to carry a foreign religious mission to “pagans” and “nonbelievers”. Many of us did not foresee that what seemed like just simple economic change would resonate through every level of the diverse cultures around the world and make diversity one of the largest issues involved in globalization. Untangling these belief issues and lifestyle issues requires delicacy and time, not strong weapons in the American arsenal. We are spontaneous, well-meaning, earnest, clueless; bulls in the china shop of global human interactions. We are not known for either patience or delicacy.

Now that globalization has begun, it probably can’t be stopped unless we go into another “dark” age which seems unlikely. But the globalizations we are experiencing will probably not do away with nations, nor will it probably do away with religions, at least not in any of our lifetimes. Can we wend our ways through the minefields of culture shock and religious intolerance and economic rises and falls to form a more perfect union of the world’s nations that could bring to our little planet health and peace? That is the challenge of this particular era of human history. Will environmental forces trump all of it and drown us in global environmental crisis? We live with that challenge right now. Yikes. I wish I believed that this all arose from our belief that all men are created equal (and perhaps some of it did) but most of this nexus of change arose from greed. Oh well, we are what we are. Surprise! The key words here are delicacy and time.

 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Are the violent demonstrations in the Middle East which are directed at the American embassies and apparently now the embassies of other nations examples of that old adage “no good deed goes unpunished”? It is difficult to give aid to nations who in a sense “bite the hand that feeds them”. I think many Americans just want to drop a few bombs or make some show of strength in Egypt and Libya. After all, a popular and savvy American diplomat was killed along with some of his assistants. This is an extreme outcome for violent demonstrations, even in a region where feelings are already running high and violence is frequently erupting.
We have very complex feelings about the Middle East and there is a lot of complexity involved among the groups in the region. Much of the behavior in modern America is at odds with the seemingly stern beliefs adhered to by many Muslims. Our religion sits lightly on us; theirs does not. We find their devotion uncomfortable and they find our lack of devotion abominable. Much of the conflict between America and the Middle East probably does result from the clash between religious beliefs and also religious practices.
If we imagine New York City as an Old Testament town with Abrahams and Isaacs and Sarahs and Ruths everywhere and then we imagine some time travelers from modern New York City arriving suddenly in locations they call Wall Street or Park Avenue, what do we guess might happen? Of course it somewhat depends on how many modern New Yorkers arrive on the scene and whether they outnumber the ancients or not. I think we can certainly be safe in expecting some real culture shock. I think we can posit that the residents of New York with stern values and religious rules would be appalled by the behavior of the moderns with their revealing clothing, loose lips, and constant desire for “wild” entertainments. I believe we would expect there to be some clashes even if the moderns got together and decided to try to  be less outrageous than usual.
This is certainly a situation that pertains in the Middle East. I get the sense that many Muslims are not envious of our modern Western behavior. They feel that very culture shock that occurred in our New York fantasy. It is possible they see their younger people being seduced by Western values and vices. It is possible they want to practice their Muslim religion as it has always been practiced. With all the influx of “modern” devices and attitudes they may see their religion changing in ways they don’t like.
Giving aid to countries with values different from those of the giver has long been a problem around the world. Lots of countries don’t mind our aid but when they finds strings attached they balk, and yet who gives aid without strings attached. American strings are not usually tied to the beliefs or traditions of the receiver nation or group; they are instead tied to the expectation of a certain amount of reciprocity of friendliness towards America and American financial interests. After all, we believe in freedom of religion. But can we allow for religious freedom when that includes the freedom to hate Americans? We do not seem to be that understanding. We expect a measure of respect in exchange for our support.
War has definitely begun over killings of a country’s official representatives (World War I, for example). We believe embassies are sacrosanct and embassy personnel untouchable and we offer similar respect to embassy employees in America. But we also would not want to be pushed into war by a small group who acted to try to provoke such an outcome which may actually be the case here. We don’t want to be pushed into a war when violence was provoked by the actions or an American citizen, especially when those actions are not representative of our official policy towards the nation targeted. It is most likely true, as news sources have suggested today, that Egypt and Libya do see America as a single bloc (see The Daily Beast), with all Americans acting in concert, which could not be further from the truth.
Not only are these nations trying to protect their own customs from outside influence but they are, paradoxically, countries in the middle of revolutions that have resulted from those very outside influences that make them so nervous. Perhaps keeping embassies in nations where political chaos is the order of the day doesn’t make sense. It puts important Americans in harm’s way and then sets up situations where we might be forced to act in ways that are more extreme than we find expedient given the disorder of an emerging government. Did the British maintain an embassy in America while we were trying to write and accept our Constitution? Can we vacate a new nation after a revolution while they form their new government, or is it absolutely necessary that we stay and protect American interests? So many questions. So few answers. Can we look to the past to make our decisions about the level and content of our reaction, or do we need to feel our way through this modern conflagration.

Whatever we choose we are all in mourning for our diplomatic people who were killed in Libya and it is difficult to hold back. Our instinct is to hit back now with a big stick to make sure the hate ends. Can you fight hate with guns and expect to get love? We are still left feeling, regardless of what we decide to do, that no good deed goes unpunished. (i am not saying we shouldn’t do good deeds, I’m just saying it’s complicated. Sometimes even the best intentioned actions have unexpected results.)