The Cultural Pollution of the South


London -- What does it mean, that such frenzy of excitement should be generated among the youth of Bangkok or Jakarta, when they learn that some American star is to perform? What is the significance of the suddenly altered appearance of a whole generation of young people, in emulation of the latest superstar to hit the scene? What can be the cause of the rush to acquire the merchandising that goes with the promotion of the most recent multi-million-dollar blockbuster?

What drives the emerging middle class to the McDonald's stores all over South Asia, exposing their already overweight kids to commerciogenic malnutrition from excessive intake of burgers and Slurpees? What are people trying to do when they visit the savorless fast-food joints, all white lighting, primary colors and immovable molded plastic chairs? What kind of experience are they seeking when they abandon nasi goreng or tonyam kung in favor of bland potato chips all imported from the United States and beef that has never trodden the open spaces of the prairie?

What is it that sends the waiter in the Bangkok restaurant to the temple, to pray that he might be successful in the lottery for green cards which will enable him to go and perform some equally menial task in America? What causes people all over Asia to tolerate the intolerable, because the fumes, poisons and gases from the vehicles are associated with "development," and therefore even these noxious things are symbols of "progress"?

What makes the heart of local people burst with pride, when they see the skyline of their city transformed, the soaring temples, spires and domes of their native places of worship overshadowed by the marble and glass rectangular slabs of the headquarters of some transnational financial entity, because this makes Manila or Saigon look more like Manhattan than the Philippines or Vietnam?

What makes the slum-dwellers meekly forsake the shelter which they have so painstakingly constructed with all the ingenuity and energy at their command, because they are told that their community must give way to the needs of a new road, a brand-new condo, yet another shopping mall that will serve as an outlet for the logos of a transnational luxury from which they know they are destined to remain excluded?

What causes mature women to weep over the fate of the shallow plastic figures in the television serial, while the real tangible sufferings of her own maidservant, about which she could, if she chose, do something, leave her cold?

These are not idle or rhetorical questions. They correspond to the life experiences of millions of people throughout the "developing" world.

In what vacuum can such useless, ugly and futile things take on the allure of something desirable, fresh and beautiful? If such cultural artifacts find so easy a passage into the heart and imagination of people in the South, it is because these places have already been prepared, made receptive to them. Such junk would not be welcomed if there had already been a considerable process of clearing the ground, of removing whatever was there before.

We may look at it as of a piece with other forms of clearing terrain ready for alien occupation -- perhaps the use of defoliants, herbicides and toxins in order to prepare ground for single monoculture. People must have been subjected to a long, sustained cycle of inferiorization, a disgracing of their own culture, an estrangement from their own values, a distancing from the homely, familiar ways of doing things which used to be local cultures.

This transnational culture of nowhere originates, not in the spontaneous and natural desire of people to sing and celebrate their lives, to share their ways of being, of eating and singing, with others; but it is crafted in a global marketplace, whose cultural creations must sell to hundreds of millions of people or fail. It requires that people shed their own characteristics, their own traditions and customs; it is for the benefit of vast entertainment conglomerates who are responding to what people want, only because of all the anterior acts of violence committed against those who now welcome international junk culture as a liberation, rather than as the fresh act of vandalism which it is against their culture and mores.

In other words, it is the long, as yet unfinished business of colonialism that has prepared the peoples of the world for this apotheosis of market culture. There are two important points: This colonialism has already been so thoroughly established in the countries where it originates, that the people there do not recognize it as such, cannot name or even combat it. For them, it has become "normal" that their lives should have become an aspect of commerce, that their society should be subservient to economic necessity, that their values should have become synonymous with market values.

This is why so much of the unhappiness and misery of the West has no recognized or legitimate existence; faulty individuals, not a social and economic system, are at the root of all problems. It goes without saying that the levels of crime, of family breakdown, of social disintegration, of fear, distrust and isolation of individuals, are permitted no social causes, other than the depravity of a capitalist version of human nature. The social and economic system is blameless, pure of all blemish, free of any taint of scandal. After all, it merely seeks to create wealth, and who could possibly object to that?

Secondly, and for this very reason, the people of the North more than ever now need the assistance of those in the South who are still able to monitor the daily assault upon their traditions and cultures. We have be enabled to see ourselves in the not-so-distant mirror of the violence to which the people of the South are now being subjected. This of course, marks a reversal of the usual way of looking at a South in need of aid, handouts, largess, from the North.

The first thing, then, is for the South to describe and name the nature of the pollution which is now contaminating its traditions and values, the destruction of human rootedness and continuity, the violent interruption of the transmission of values through the generations, the daily abuse of children by commerce, the diminishing of parental caring when parents are assailed by advertising telling them that they can best win their children's affection by buying the product of some transnational company.

As more and more daily needs are answered only by the courtesy of the multinational corporations, the family is prised apart. Parents become diminished, no longer the source of nurture, but the helpless customer of conglomerates who speak over their heads to their own children. Those who preside over these social dispossessings are, paradoxically, usually, the sternest defenders of the family; yet it is the system they cherish which is tearing the family apart.

Mostly, the international media speak more directly to the children, urging them to be like everyone else, to demand the fashionable logo on the footwear, the badge of belonging on the T-shirt. The transnational entertainment and pop industries create heroes and stars and role models, creatures of an impossible perfection, images of whom the young duly paste on to their bedroom walls. These figments and fantasies displace ,, real flesh and blood from their lives, disgrace known family and friends, set before them models impossible of imitation.

When children are then disturbed in their growing up by these shadows, when they defy their parents, run away from home, take to drugs or alcohol, the same defenders of the family will cry woe and ruin. What they will not see is the connection between the social evils and economic goods, the growth and spread of which have become the principal dynamic force in society.

What we need is a project of reclamation; just as land that has been polluted and laid to waste by industrialism is now being reclaimed, rehabilitated, so we have to initiate a program of restoring the damaged landscapes of the heart, the occupied territories of the heart and imagination, the colonized regions of the spirit

It is clear that the very use of such terms implies something akin to the liberation movements of the former colonial empires; the freeing of ruined cultures and broken traditions, of inferiorized humanity and impaired self-reliance from the oppressive culture of global dominance. We can see the outline of a future movement for emancipation that can untie a majority of peoples, North and South, to reclaim even profounder freedoms than those once embodied in national liberation struggles.

Jeremy Seabrook is a free-lance journalist. He wrote this commentary for Third World Network Features.

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