Cultural Diversity

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"Listen man, I smoke, I snort … I’ve been begging on the street since I was just a baby. I’ve cleaned windshields at stoplights. I’ve polished shoes, I’ve robbed, I’ve killed. … I ain’t no kid, no way. I’m a real man." Such searing dialogue has helped make City of God a global hit. A chronicle of three decades of gang wars, it has proved compelling viewing for audiences worldwide. Critics compare it to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. If you believe the cultural pessimists, Hollywood pap has driven out films like Cidade de Deus, as it is known in its home country. It is a Brazilian film, in Portuguese, by a little-known director, with a cast that includes no professional actors, let alone Hollywood stars. Its focus is not a person at all, but a drug-ridden, dirt-poor favela (slum) on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that feels as remote from the playground of the rich and famous as it does from God. Yet City of God has not only made millions at the box office, it has also sparked a national debate in Brazil. It has raised awareness in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere of the terrible poverty and violence of the developing world. All that, and it makes you wince, weep, and, yes, laugh. Not bad for a film distributed by Miramax, which is owned by Disney, one of those big global companies that globaphobes compare to cultural vandals. A lot of nonsense about the impact of globalization on culture passes for conventional wisdom these days. Among the pro-globalizers, Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), believes that globalization is "globalizing American culture and American cultural icons." Among the antis, Naomi Klein, a Canadian journalist and author of No Logo (Picador, 2000), argues that "the buzzword in global marketing isn’t selling America to the world, but bringing a kind of market masala to everyone in the world. … Despite the embrace of polyethnic imagery, market-driven globalization doesn’t want diversity; quite the opposite. Its enemies are national habits, local brands and distinctive regional tastes." Fears that globalization is imposing a deadening cultural uniformity are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Mickey Mouse. Europeans and Latin Americans, left-wingers and right, rich and poor — all of them dread that local cultures and national identities are dissolving into a crass all-American consumerism. That cultural imperialism is said to impose American values as well as products, promote the commercial at the expense of the authentic, and substitute shallow gratification for deeper satisfaction. City of God’s success suggests otherwise. If critics of globalization were less obsessed with "Coca-colonization," they might notice a rich feast of cultural mixing that belies fears about Americanized uniformity. Algerians in Paris practice Thai boxing; Asian rappers in London snack on Turkish pizza; Salman Rushdie delights readers everywhere with his Anglo-Indian tales. Although — as with any change — there can be downsides to cultural globalization, this cross-fertilization is overwhelmingly a force for good. The beauty of globalization is that it can free people from the tyranny of geography. Just because someone was born in France does not mean they can only aspire to speak French, eat French food, read French books, visit museums in France, and so on. A Frenchman — or an American, for that matter — can take holidays in Spain or Florida, eat sushi or spaghetti for dinner, drink Coke or Chilean wine, watch a Hollywood blockbuster or an Almodóvar, listen to bhangra or rap, practice yoga or kickboxing, read Elle or The Economist, and have friends from around the world. That we are increasingly free to choose our cultural experiences enriches our lives immeasurably. We could not always enjoy the best the world has to offer. Globalization not only increases individual freedom, but also revitalizes cultures and cultural...
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