What would Italian food be without the possibility of a tomato?
A question not to be asked.
Or what about a steak — for those of you still eating them, or half-converted to Paleo — without a mashed potato? Or Chilli Crab without the chili pepper?
Or, say, your morning without its cup of French Roast coffee?
Well, if you lived in Europe before around 1500, these items were unknown, or maybe found only in mysterious rumors.
To begin to make them known and ultimately available to a significant fraction of the European public required voyages of exploration, especially to the New World. Or, for the Ottoman Turks, to Yemen for coffee beans. And for the people in China unconsciously waiting to get their knives on the hot peppers that originated in Mexico, and to learn to cook with them, they had to wait for Portuguese and Arab traders.
And much more recently – over, say, the past 15-20 years — what about the sudden improvement in British and Swiss cuisine? Likely this is a result of diversity and rising sophistication and worldwide standards of taste.
So wouldn’t these appear to be benefits of globalization?
Ah, but not so fast!
Weren’t whole peoples wiped out by the diseases that these Europeans brought along? And weren’t many or most of the others enslaved, famously in cane cutting and sugar processing and mining? And weren’t the rest exploited, many of their descendants down to this very day, half a millennium later? Conquistadors and other globalizers had heard of the idea of mercy, after all a central principle of the Catholic Church, and might — in theory — have been generous and gentle and truly helpful to these they defeated. But in practice, when it came to those human beings, mercy and fellow-love proved to be in shockingly short supply…
In North America the aboriginal peoples experienced the human cost of the resettling and “development” — or from their point of view, rape and pillaging — of a continent. They lost much of a beautiful and practical relationship with nature and, more often than not, their language and culture, their sense of safety, the lives of their loved ones and all too often their own.
But the explorers and settlers who followed and displaced the natives did not benefit the tribes who managed to survive them. This piece of history does not immediately reassure us that globalization is moving us toward world peace…
According to one cohort of television and movie Westerns that many of us grew up watching, the Europeans not only brought rifles never seen in the Americas – like now, supposedly a force for Good — they also sold them to the Indians.
This stage of establishing a global economic system – that made its mechanisms all but impossible to restrain – made not only grains and rifles but also human labor-power into commodities, their prices set just like pork bellies by supply and demand. Neither the smartest nor the most immovable among the Europeans could stand up to the irresistible force of this early globalization in which guns and all other commodities demanded larger and larger markets.
But back on the positive side of globalization… Haven’t there been millions of hardworking immigrants, people who weren’t colonialists, refugees fleeing oppression themselves, who like my grandmother believed the stories of gold in the streets and suchlike? These were human beings who brought their food preferences and recipes to North America, while supplying the muscle to build the cross-country railroads, the towns and cities, the steel mills, the wineries. And more recently, others from far-flung parts came who provided insight and brain-power to further develop the technologies that would continue to transform daily life throughout much of the world.
Nor would I ever have laid eyes on my late wife unless the airplane had been invented. And then only if a globalizing U.S. biotech company opened a branch in Singapore to sell their instruments and supplies in East and South Asia. On a personal level this was an extraordinary benefit for me.
But what is the real connection between globalization and immigration?
There is a kind of immigration in which individuals and groups are fleeing oppression, sometimes in fear for their lives, seeking a safe haven.
But the larger movement is driven by the globalization economy in which the labor-power of human beings is treated as a commodity almost indistinguishably from the treatment of pork bellies.
For example, in California the economy demands cheap Mexican labor-power to get the berries picked.
Growers pay for this labor-power according to the quantity of available humans to supply it and the competition among growers seeking to buy it. Similarly, in Singapore “Guest Workers” from Bangladesh are brought in to provide the bulk of the labor-power to run the oil refineries. It should be noted that in this way the workers do not become full-fledged immigrants or citizens.
In an earlier approach, when the British controlled what was then called Malaya, they first invited Cantonese to come and exploit the land and run the industries. When members of this group threatened to organize, risking the continuance of low costs and foreign control, the British responded by importing Indians – people from an altogether different language group — to impede communication and erode trust with the Cantonese-speakers.
My wife, a Hokkien Chinese Singaporean, was an immigrant naturalized in 1975. I became attuned to the level of racism and prejudice that undermined the lives of immigrants arriving in the U.S. — not to mention the rapacious business practices they were ill-equipped to fight, and finally physical danger and a prevalence of gun culture.
But perhaps, to be entirely fair, we can recognize that the dominant culture within the U.S., limiting and homogenizing as it typically is, closed and oppressive as it may be in many circumstances, provides at least a partial check on some absolutely unacceptable rituals – like honor killing, female genital mutilation, human sacrifice and so forth — that may be condoned by various cultures of origin.
In what might prove to be another healthful development, I read the other day that in the U.S., perhaps in part a result of significant immigration, one in six marriages – like mine to my late wife — is now interracial. If true, this could be construed as the species’ unconscious attack on inbreeding.
But in terms of the globalization I’m tracking, we can recognize that races and ethnicities have long been separated from their traditional regions of origin. And even when these individuals, couples and groups settle to create and raise the next generation, they are in a foreign and unexpected location, a place that their history provides no guide to.
Nevertheless, whatever the benefits for society and for a comparatively small number of individuals in these globalizing movements of goods and services and people, they must be weighed against the dislocation and heartbreak of lost jobs, shuttered factories, drug addiction, violence, and all the other downstream effects that flow from the resulting destruction and decimation.
These effects are exacerbated and the uprooted people further undermined by the loss of signposts in the old cultures – holidays, rituals, traditions, stories, even whole languages — that prevented those now living far from their place of origin from being unmoored and at a loss to grasp where in this universe they stood…
What about (1) religion, (2) trade? Aren’t there good things that develop in these categories?
Religion has been trucked around the world just as soon as neighboring cultures bumped into each other, just as Islam pushed into Indonesia in the 16th Century a step ahead of Christian Dutch colonizers. Nowadays we have Catholics proselytizing in Africa while Pentecostals steamroll into Latin America. Whether such developments are a happy or unhappy outcome is up to the point of view of the reader…
And famously, technologies made it possible to establish long-distance trade. As a blueberry fanatic, I’ve been thrilled to be able to get baskets and baskets of them at reasonable prices in winter – arrived from Chile, Argentina, sometimes Perú, and Mexico. This goes too for raspberries, strawberries and blackberries. What a change from my youth, where you could get these items only “in season.” And that is still the case for most — less globalized — locations in the world.
We are likely to be familiar with the clothing, shoes and other gear made cheaply in developing-world sweatshops, by recent arrivals from the countryside who work 12-hour days, six and seven days a week, often carrying out their repetitious tasks in semi-darkness.
Less visible on the surface, machinery began to be shipped around the world, and then that machinery could be made around the world.
The largely poor people driven from the rural precincts — increasingly to bi- and multi-cultural trading ports that feed a global economy — achieved a certain freedom from the oppressiveness they had lived with in the countryside — but then found themselves thrown, as for example in China, into the cauldron of a wild and heartless, insensible capitalism.
That system, now in its ascendancy, is driven by the voracious needs of faraway markets and those who can profit from them, most of them happily unaware of and uninterested in the damage done to the humans ground up in the production process.
And as we are all aware by now, recent and potential immigrants to the West have been singled out for not merely unwelcoming but downright hostile and unjust treatment. Trump’s anti-immigrant schemes, for example, are a bad thing for everybody.
But selected effects of the current globalization give him a chance to arouse elements of a threatened populace with fear of lost jobs, shuttered factories, lost security, lost (false) memories of a golden age, and a frightening and unprovided old age. For Trump and his ilk, evaporating livelihoods, fleeing businesses, desolate and impoverished towns provide an ideal backdrop for his destructive schemes.
When I was back in Switzerland last summer — my 5th or maybe 6th trip there but the first in 13 years — I was startled to find that the kinds of people I saw seemed considerably changed: Whereas 13 years ago the people on the streets were overwhelmingly white Europeans and North Americans, now there were, besides the Japanese tourists, and the mass Chinese tours, many Asian residents. And too there were Arabs from the Middle East, largely looking wealthy, as well as Indians and Pakistanis, both those who had found work in Switzerland, and moneyed tourists. And in somewhat smaller numbers, black Africans from Nigeria and Kenya.
This recent, somewhat sudden diversity is in no small measure driven by globalization.
To be sure, these were subjective impressions. But to me it was remarkable to find this diversity in a country not historically welcoming or altogether sympathetic to refugees or poor or oppressed people of any kind or stripe. In spite of Switzerland’s preferred reputation — for originating the Red Cross and for their historical humanitarian gestures1 —Switzerland refused entry to many thousands of Jews fleeing Hitler who were later, consequently, murdered.
On the other hand, to be fair, largely cowed by and partly sympathetic with the Nazis as they were, they did, in that period, take in some batches of Jews and perhaps other endangered refugees.2
I supposed, without, to be sure, any avalanche of evidence, that this fresh diversity had much to do with the improvement in quality and variety of cuisine in Switzerland. And I felt this diversity was a good thing in important ways, dispelling some prejudice, increasing tolerance, and generally, vaguely, possibly moving this region of the planet – hesitatingly — toward world peace. But on the other hand, there have been many — in Hungary, Poland, in Germany and Italy — who have felt threatened, who in diversity find not a hope for peace but a call to war; many who have joined with unapologetic racists and are swept up in the tide of right-wing nationalism; many who resist even the remotest hint that we might be inching toward a more diverse society.
And even here in Switzerland, something felt wrong.
Most strikingly to me, I saw no effort to welcome the Chinese tourists. They were left to themselves and their tour leader. No doubt the Europeans had already learned that communicating with these typically lower middleclass visitors was difficult or impossible since they — unlike the typically upper middleclass Japanese tourists — were not English speakers.
To be sure, each culture, from the point of view of a foreign culture, has its seemingly “uncivilized” practices. In Switzerland, the dominance of the Western ear can spell — at worst — contempt for a non-Western minority’s behavior, like the perception that their voices are loud or harsh.
But as a courtesy to the East Asians, there was sometimes a menu in Japanese and/or Chinese. Then again, more often there was not, instead relying on an English menu for those among them who could read and understand that language.
Partly as a result of that phenomenon — a fringe benefit for us, of course! — there was now almost always a menu written in English, the most widespread of the various languages of the foreign tourists. For the same reason English — driven especially by the tourism industry but also by the technology industry — was also far more widely spoken than it had been 13 years before. I remember a two-hour conversation by the banks of the Reuss in 1989 with two young men, one of whose wallet I’d found — in German. In the current millennium, in 2018, their English would have been far better than my German. Would this new version of Switzerland, or at least the German-speaking regions, with better English skills, foster world peace better?
Or should we rather ask: Is “Globalization” really only a euphemism for domination by English-speakers — a fig leaf for North American control?
Okay, so where else does this diversity occur? While the 20 most ethnically diverse countries in the world are all in Africa, it is also true that many European cities have become impressively, and for some, uncomfortably diverse. In North America this could also be said of cities like New York, Toronto, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles.
Does this mean that globalization moves, on the whole, toward equality and/or all “civilizing” potentials? Absolutely not true. Rather it’s an overwhelming, unstoppable tide that sweeps all before it, whether good or bad, whether anybody wishes it or not.
So on trade, for example, there’s no easy fix…
Does the good stuff get included by a kind of “natural selection” process – pizza, bagels, tacos? But then the elegance of many foods can get watered down to suit the tastes of the masses of Newly-Exposed Consumers (“NEC”)
Does this “watering-down” move more and more toward homogenization, risking the loss not only of foods but of non-umbrella languages — of languages downgraded to mere “dialects” because they lack the protection of an army — with an accompanying loss of literatures, written in languages now certified as dead?
Igor, an anti-government tour guide I’d hired in late Soviet times, loved only the few surviving Renaissance buildings in L’viv – from a culture and style now extinct — and complained that the high-rise apartments there and around the world were “everywhere the same.”
So: Finally: What is to be done?
First: recognize what’s happening. And where, precisely, it is inexorable, like a tsunami. To suss this out is already difficult and perhaps impossible to know for sure. But to skip this step can mean we’ve lost before we’ve even begun.
Get clear on the benefits and consequences, immediate and long-term, affecting not only our own lives but the lives of our children and grandchildren, the workers ensnared in globalized production and shipping, other humans and, probably, other residents of our planet’s biosphere.
Then develop strategies – hard-nosed as needed3 — to welcome the plusses and forestall the losses.
Then comes the question of understanding and compassion Remember how the Chinese tourists in Luzern were treated? How can they be helped to feel included, listened to? A question to be asked, here and in many stages and formats of globalization. Customs, whole cultures and religions that had been isolated from each other by geography now come face-to-face — for better or worse, whether anybody had wished for it or not — on account of new technology and the forces it has set loose. Perhaps we’re at an early stage of this coming-together — or should we say “confrontation”? Unknown.
What about that world peace?
And that “bias of nature”4? Will the bad guys triumph and the world go down the toilet to enrich them and enhance their luxuries? Or will the good people of this earth come from behind to save us and free us all from the stake to which we are currently tied?
The ball is still in the air.
1. In 1871 the Swiss rescued the starving Bourbaki soldiers, as dramatized in the multimedia diorama in Lucerne, above.
2. More recently the country has seemed divided, polarized, in their attitude to these wartime failures, resulting in a halting and hesitant attitude to returning the wealth that the Nazis had looted from the murdered Jews, assets they had laundered in Swiss banks.
3. For example, we want to stop the extinction of Monarch butterflies, threatened by Mexican avocado growers who’ve rooted out the milkweed that the Monarchs must feed on. The farmers seek to take advantage of the skyrocketing popularity of avocados and profitable market in the U.S. To turn the situation around we can compensate the farmers and require them to replant the milkweed over 2/3 of the acreage.
4. A Shakespearean term from King Lear: Which way does the universe tilt? Can the universe correct worldwide catastrophes and run down holocaust-level errors to a stop? Can a few hanging chads plunge us into a world war starting in the Middle East from which our good judgment and all our resources will never be able to extricate us? Can poor judgment or blindness on the part of a fraction of us — and the larger fraction’s doing too little to expose them — undo all the civilizing movement of a century and risk the planet’s life with nuclear devastation?
© Jerry Kurtz 2018