Jihad v. McWorld.
Benjamin Barber Times Books, $25
Last year, I went to Middleboro, a small town in southeastern Massachusetts, to write a piece about Rwanda. It had all the makings of your classic "shrinking planet" story. Here was Manzi Kanobana, a Tutsi teen from the heart of Africa, now an exchange student at a small New England high school. To these kids, Manzi seemed strange at first, but he played a mean game of soccer and quickly made friends. His home country's quirky customs caught on--like the midnight candy Christmas tradition--and, before long, he had plenty of friends with whom to watch TV--usually CNN's "International Hour." Middleboro, meet Kigali.
But that spring, amidst CNN's reports of Coca Cola's move to Prague and the most recent opening of a McDonald's franchise in Budapest, came chaotic stories of Rwanda's self-destruction. The president's plane had been shot down, and the nation's two tribes--the Hutus and the minority Tutsis--fell upon each other with an apocalyptic fury. One afternoon, I sat in a sparsely-furnished apartment, with Manzi's aunt sitting at the table next to me, crying softly as her young nephew explained, bewildered, how men came with machetes and executed most of his family.
Is the world coming together, or is it ripping apart at the seams?
This is the driving question behind Jihad vs. McWorld, an important new book by Rutgers political scientist Ben Barber. This book, like Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers or Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, is an attempt to make sense of what is still awkwardly known as "the post-Cold War world." Barber concerns himself with what he sees as the two dominant international trends of our time: "McWorld integration," based on a rapidly growing world consumer culture, and "Jihad retribalization," splintering once-settled nations. He pointedly argues that although "McWorld" and "Jihad" are in seeming opposition, the two forces are in fact partners, attacking democracies at their roots. Yet, this is not a book solely for foreign-policy mavens. Barber asks provocative questions about the direction Americans are taking--as a country and as a culture.
For a while, it was fashionable to point out that the United States didn't win the Cold War--Japan did. Indeed, Japan did emerge from the superpower struggle as a real economic power unfettered by punishing levels of defense spending. But Barber argues that the real prize should go to Mickey Mouse. With the fall of communism, the last great empire, there is nothing to stop a distinctly American kind of consumerism, which gives "McWorld" its name, from sweeping the globe. Kentucky Fried Chicken has outposts in Nanjing, Xian, Hangzhou. American pop music--Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana--can be heard in cafes from Tunis to Warsaw. Reruns of old television shows like "Dallas," "Wheel of Fortune," and "The Simpsons" are top programs across vast swaths of the planet. Modern communication and transportation have made borders ever more porous by default, even as the free-traders have made them more so by design.
There was a historical moment, right after the Berliners hacked down their wall, when the "McWorld" info-revolution seemed to have a distinctly human face. Fax machines and photocopiers, radio and television, all helped to undercut totalitarianism. They spread ideas and fueled discontent by showing the freedoms (and the consumer goodies) to be had in the West. Even MTV's claim that it helped bring down the Wall had a ring of truth: It was Madonna versus Marx, and Marx didn't stand a chance.
But the same forces that toppled old-line communists are also bulldozing the world's cultural landscape. Television, movies, and modern advertising are making more and more of the planet look more and more the same. Terminator 2 was the number one film in Argentina, Malaysia and Mexico in 1991. For Indonesian youth, tea is out; Coke is in. T-shirts with American pop icons are a hot commodity throughout the Third World--and the Japanese pay upwards of $100 for a pair of Levis.
None of this is new, of course. As radio spread in the 1960s, it was already becoming difficult to escape the Beatles. The theme of traditional local cultures faltering under the onslaught of Western consumerism is a sad one, but a familiar one. Now, though, the process has accelerated.
There is also more to "McWorld" fears than the vague, claustrophobic sense that all the world's becoming an American strip mall. Control over the increasingly powerful info-entertainment sector is growing more and more concentrated. These new agglomerations sprawl across traditional media divisions--movies, television, cable, books, producers and distributors. By the 1990s, according to Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, 17 intermedia conglomerates owned half of the revenues from all media. Since this book was written, Disney announced it was going to purchase Capitol Records/ABC. Then TimeWarner announced it would join forces with Turner Broadcasting; the combination would own HBO, Cinemax, CNN, Time-Life books, a slew of magazines (including People, Money, Sports Illustrated, and Time) and a variety of other entertainment interests.
This is especially worrisome for the news business. After World War II, about 8 in 10 American newspapers were independently owned; by the beginning of this decade, about eight in ten were owned by one of the big chains. What of the network news? NBC is owned by General Electric. Now, Westinghouse wants to take over CBS, and Disney has made a deal for ABC, "where more Americans get their news than [from] any other source." Don't hold your breath for NBC to do a story on how GE continues to screw taxpayers on defense contracts.
Perhaps I am paranoid, but I sometimes feel that all the shows on television (with the possible exception of "The X-Files") are already produced by one big machine somewhere in the southern California desert. Do we want this fantasy to become a reality? The lesson of Barber's book, then, is an old one, but one worth repeating. Capitalism is a wonderful system, adaptable, full of vitality and, quite literally, creative. But capitalism is not synonymous with democracy and, unchecked, it can threaten democracy.
The backlash against capitalism and Westernization is the theme of Barber's second, less successful, section. Granted, the ancient force he names "Jihad" is psychological and difficult to define. In this book, it lies somewhere in the nexus of the human desire for community and hatred for others. Jihad, we are told, is "communities of blood rooted in exclusion and hatred." Yet he travels far from this definition, including everything from bona fide tribal hatred, like that of Rwanda, to the Euro-skeptics who resist European integration, to the American militia movement.
The crucial distinction here lies between protective nationalism, based on cultural preservation, and the uglier versions which are moved by hatred and aim at separation. It is the difference between what the Polish dissident-philosopher Czeslaw Milosz liked to call "a sense of belonging" and the Bosnian Serbs who want to "cleanse" the land of other ethnic groups and carve out their own state.
Barber does a better job in his analysis of the overtly political implications of "Jihad." Among post-war liberals, political movements which have "self-government" as their aim have long enjoyed an aura of moral authority. (Isn't that why we fought the Revolutionary War?) But Barber is among the thinkers who have rightly made the case that these movements no longer deserve our reflexive support. Quebec, for example, has long talked about seceding from Canada. Yet can we be sure that this new state, built around its distinctive brand of French culture, would be just as respectful of its own minorities? What is to be done when these minorities have had enough and demand--as the Cree Indians already have--their own nation-state? The experts say there are roughly 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. Should every one have a country of its own?
It is true that there are some places--like Ireland or Cyprus--that are so deeply divided, with hatreds so ingrained, that separation is the only solution. But these break-away states then tend to be less hospitable to the basic attitudes--tolerance, compromise, pluralism--that we know are necessary for democracy to function smoothly over time.
Barber's real contribution is this focus on democracy and on the ways "Jihad" and "McWorld" cooperate to undercut it. At the heart of his argument is the "citizen"--the person who has learned the lessons of compromise and pluralism, who believes in a common good that is more important than his or her own narrow self-interest. Citizens are essential for a democracy to hold together.
Yet Barber sees citizens as a vanishing breed. The threat posed by "Jihad" is more or less clear--blood feuds do not inspire good citizenship. But "McWorld's" pervasive consumer culture, he argues, is really the greater threat. The attitudes that make for a true citizen are learned in "public spaces," in what is more commonly called "civil society." These "places"--the public park, the voluntary organization, the public school--are dying. In their place are shopping malls and suburban walled communities; watching television has replaced the chat on the porch or the walk around the block. It is much more common for the evening news to refer to Americans as "consumers" than as "citizens."
Not only are "McWorld" and "Jihad" both bad for democracy, Barber concludes, but they feed off one another, leaving civil society in a tough spot. "Jihad" can use the technology and propaganda power of "McWorld" to rekindle old hatreds. "McWorld's" leveling--its unfettered capitalism, its spiritual emptiness--can push people into the clutches of Jihad, searching for meaning and finding hatred.
Throughout, Barber makes a convincing case. My main gripe with his book is that it is painted with broad strokes, which can be frustrating. He writes with grace and verve, but, at times, he also goes overboard: "They are accelerating toward the limits of nature--the speed of light that defines the interactions of cyberspace--in quest of a palliative to (or is it a catalyst for?) their restlessness." And he throws around the word "virtual" an awful lot, without it meaning much.
But Barber's book is about the big picture, which he describes well. He would be happy to agree, I suspect, that there are plenty of exceptions to his sweeping arguments--and even signs of hope. After Manzi, the Rwandan who came to Middleboro, got his awful news, the local Unitarian church got together with his high school friends. They brought food to his house. They raised money to bring his surviving relatives to America. They even started a college fund for him. It's a true story, and Disney doesn't own the rights to it.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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