Sunday, August 28, 2005

All Cultures Are Not Equal - New York Times

Will Globalization lead to a single culture? Maybe not - David Brooks in the New York Times looks at the puzzle of why cultures seem to be diverging as global economies converge - All Cultures Are Not Equal :

Not long ago, people said that globalization and the revolution in communications technology would bring us all together. But the opposite is true. People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones. Old national identities and behavior patterns are proving surprisingly durable. People are moving into self-segregating communities with people like themselves, and building invisible and sometimes visible barriers to keep strangers out.

If you look just around the United States you find amazing cultural segmentation. We in America have been "globalized" (meaning economically integrated) for centuries, and yet far from converging into some homogeneous culture, we are actually diverging into lifestyle segments. The music, news, magazine and television markets have all segmented, so there are fewer cultural unifiers like Life magazine or Walter Cronkite.

Forty-million Americans move every year, and they generally move in with people like themselves, so as the late James Chapin used to say, every place becomes more like itself. Crunchy places like Boulder attract crunchy types and become crunchier. Conservative places like suburban Georgia attract conservatives and become more so.
In Power, Terror, Peace, and War : America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, Walter Russel Meade argued that we're seeing a move away from a statist "Fordist" systems that arose after WWII to more entrepreneurial, market-driven views of the role of government driven in part by the rise of consumerism - just as people want a choice in the products they buy, they now want choice in their retirement plans, etc.

Maybe what we're seeing here is that consumerist ethos at work in cultural issues as well - rising prosperity has given people exposure to different cultural values and the means to adopt them. As Brooks points out:
The members of these and many other groups didn't inherit their identities. They took advantage of modernity, affluence and freedom to become practitioners of a do-it-yourself tribalism. They are part of a great reshuffling of identities, and the creation of new, often more rigid groupings. They have the zeal of converts.
Brooks also points out groups that reject Globalization:
Meanwhile, if you look around the world you see how often events are driven by groups that reject the globalized culture. Islamic extremists reject the modern cultures of Europe, and have created a hyperaggressive fantasy version of traditional Islamic purity.
In The Pentagon's New Map, Thomas P.M. Barnett described a worldview that included a "functioning core" and a "non-integrating gap" and discussed efforts by totalitarian governments to take their countries "offline", which is exactly what Brooks describes.

I enjoyed both books and thought that they were describing the same phenomenon through two different perspectives. Brooks seems to be tackling the same issues when he asks why certain cultural traits endure and why others (like Arab nationalism) fade. Is there a Darwinian "market" for cultures and ideas and is there more movement in that market lately?