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01 May 2008

Talking about... globalisation

Talking about... globalisation

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

I recently found myself wondering what the most recognisable piece of music in the world might be. The fact that we can seriously think of something being well-known in Lahore and Lagos, as well as in London and Los Angeles, is a measure of how much has changed in recent decades. The music that prompted my musings? It lasts 21 seconds, yet is instantly recognisable and powerfully evocative: the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. In use since 1933, it's known to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Fox's familiar monument logo is a potent symbol of the influence of Western media, especially Hollywood, over the last century. But the longest-serving film company logo is Paramount's mountain, which millions will see dissolve into a mountain-shaped map in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, echoing similar transitions at the start of its three predecessors. Mega-blockbusters like this make a huge splash in every continent. Speed Racer, The Incredible Hulk and Prince Caspian may not attain to the heights of the Indiana Jones box office this summer, but they will still be seen across the world.

Rapidly developing technology makes it easier for people everywhere to access all kinds of media. Borders mean nothing to satellite signals. CNN and the BBC find their way onto TV screens in Islamabad as easily as in Islington, although the language barrier inevitably restricts audiences. Language isn't a problem for MTV, though: music transcends such differences. Hard Candy and E=MC2, the latest albums from Madonna and Mariah Carey, will be global hits regardless of how much their listeners understand the words.

There are, of course, many other aspects of globalisation besides the media. We have all become more aware of worldwide financial markets since America's sub-prime mortgage crisis and its impact on our economy.

Saturated markets

Multi-nationals are constantly trying to open up new markets in developing nations. There is a limit to how much more they can make from saturated Western markets, but the rapid economic growth of some countries, particularly India and China, provides lucrative new possibilities. These two nations alone comprise more than a third of the world's population, so in the newfound wealth of many people there is an opportunity to be grasped.

Much globalisation is driven by the West. Brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nike have become icons of the spread of American influence worldwide. The consequences of this "Coca-Colanisation" are far-reaching. It's not simply that Western multi-nationals make money, nor that it further establishes English as the world's most widely used language. It also means that styles, tastes, ways of behaving, values and beliefs are absorbed into other cultures.

At least at some levels we are beginning to witness a global culture. There are still enormous cultural differences even within a single country, let alone when crossing continents, yet the Western secular worldview is influencing almost all cultures in ways that are completely unprecedented.

The Western secular worldview is influencing almost all cultures

Oliver James points out, in his fascinating book Affluenza, that the nations with the highest rates of emotional distress place "a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame". English-speaking nations are, unsurprisingly, the worst affected, but countries that have absorbed these media- and economic-driven values are not far behind.

Inevitably, the encroachment of Western values is not welcomed everywhere. They are deeply objectionable in some regions, most obviously the Middle East, although even here there's a range of attitudes. Many young people in the Arab-speaking world are avid listeners to music stations, the output of which, as everywhere else, is predominantly Western pop. Those who see everything Western as corrosive become increasingly entrenched in their position as they see young people being attracted to at least some aspects of Western culture.

Recent years have seen growing antipathy towards mega-corporations and the way they exploit the raw materials and cheap labour costs of developing nations, then sell their products back into those same societies. International summits, particularly meetings of the G8 leaders, have been disrupted by violent protests.

Books like Naomi Klein's No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and Joel Bakan's The Corporation (the latter two of which were made into disquieting films) have alerted many to some of the problems of the modem world.

In response, the Make Poverty History campaign brought concern over global justice issues into the mainstream. While dropping the debt is not within our personal power, there is a much greater commitment to buying Eairtrade products.

However, this shows that globalisation is not one-way, and is not all bad. We should think of ourselves as global citizens, having concern for the world's poor and disposed, for Justice in trade, human rights and other issues. Fairtrade itself is partly responsible for creating an ethnic product market, while global communications have stimulated healthy interest in other cultures. There is also a growing interest in world cinema, for example. Amid the summer blockbusters, many independent cinemas will show foreign films like Persepolis, XXY, Mongol and the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side.

We cannot wind back the clock and undo the technological developments that made globalisation possible. It is here to stay. But we want a peaceful, equitable world, not one of fragmentation, conflict and injustice. The critical question is what kind of globalisation we want. And what part will we play in it?Tony Watkins

  • ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture using quotes and illustrations from the latest films, music and TV - updated weekly.
  • Tony Watkins is a resources and training co-ordinator for the Damaris Trust

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