It’s Only Cultural Imperialism When McDonald’s Does It [updated 03/29]

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that most people, at least in the Western world are familiar with the concept of “globalization.” Moreover, many people are aware — or becoming aware — of the various critiques of globalization. This isn’t to say that some of these critiques aren’t somewhat overblown — the idea that a McDonald’s in Bangkok makes Thais any less Thai than a Chinese restaurant in Eugene makes me less American is patently absurd on its face. Nevertheless, the idea that globalization somehow “homogenizes” world cultures or, at its worst, represents overt cultural imperialism is a complaint that is not merely limited to the “Hey, hey! Ho, ho!” chanting of bedraggled crust punks and unimaginative college undergraduates.

That McDonald’s in Bangkok, the Nike-branded sweatpants worn by some kid in Odessa, or the fact that someone in Egypt can drink a Coca Cola whenever they please is cited as evidence that Western, or more specifically American consumer culture is overwhelming and stamping out local cultures all around the world. The notion that globalization has led to the gradual “Englishization” of any number of non-Anglo-American cultures has been in vogue for quite some time, and has even contributed to the idea that globalization can be blamed, at least in part, for the extinction of minor ethnic languages. This thesis, of course, has its discontents, with many arguing that globalization, especially as embodied in the Internet, are contributing to the sedimentation of the particular and a re-emphasis on local and regional, rather than “state” identity. Others decry the idea that “other” cultures necessarily require the “caretaking” by “concerned” Westerners, with their immanent “boutique” mentality of “cultural diversity.”

That’s all well and good, and I suspect that the debate will rage on over whether or not these processes are really working in the ways that partisans on both sides of the argument claim that they do. So let’s bracket all that for now and accept for the moment the proposition that the “cultural imperialism” critique holds at least some water (a proposition, I think, that’s not entirely without merit). The usual culprit in all of this is capitalism, or at least that ostensibly insidious brand of capitalism that’s commonly referred to as “neo-liberalism.” Indeed, to say that neo-liberalism has its critics is to understate the case, to put it mildly.

The critique of cultural imperialism, unfortunately, seems all too often to begin and end with neo-liberalism and globalization. Surely these targets, convenient as they may be, don’t represent the totality of the West’s untoward influence on the non-Western world. Very recently, CJ identified a rather clear instance when the ideas of “social justice” held by Western “progressives,” many of them white, privileged college students, were projected onto non-Westerners frequently bearing with them the baggage of an rather alien cultural background.

Aside from this case, however, the news lately has been replete with examples of “progressive” cultural imperialism, all centered around environmental concerns. The comical “Hopenhagen” proceedings in December were perhaps the most obvious example of this, with the “green” mouthpieces of wealthy Euro-American states solemnly flagellating themselves for creating a problem and demanding that states like India and China conform to Western ideas about how to solve it. One does not need to buy into the hysteria of global warming (as opposed to the science — and there is a distinction) to see how Copenhagen represented an attempt by the (mainly Euro-American) environmentalist, progressive Left to impose its agenda on the rest of the world.

Less dramatic, perhaps, but more to the point are the battles being waged over wildlife conservation. There seems to be a massive gulf between conservationists, who demand that the killing of certain species — rhinos and tigers, for instance — be outlawed due to their rarity, and what might be condescendingly labeled as “indigenous” interests, who see these animals as traditional sources of ritual artifacts, among other things. Which side is “right?” Well, both, it seems. Conservationists are absolutely correct to note that populations of rhinos and tigers (among other species) are dwindling. It will be a sad day indeed when the last tiger finally dies. And yet, how are such arguments balanced against “traditional” claims that certain resources, like rhino horns, have specific cultural uses? The “boutique” mentality regarding “cultural imperialism” would seem to support the latter case; after all, one suspects that conservation efforts are largely funded and administered by Western, rather than local, concerns. Is this a case of Western values being imposed on the consumers of rhino horns? If so, whose claims — those of the conservationists or those of the non-Western consumers of rhinoceros horns — prevail?

An even simpler example is the current controversy over Japanese whaling. The European Union is currently in the process of working out its official position on the issue and an anti-whaling activist has been detained by the Japanese for illegally boarding a whaling vessel in the name of “protest.” The activist, Pete Bethune, is part of Sea Shepherd, an organization that quite literally works to “save the whales,” as well as, in their own words, “to strike fear and trepidation in the hearts of those who engage in illegal whaling, fishing, and other destructive marine activities.” Also interesting is that Sea Shepherd makes the following claim as to the “international” nature of its members:

[C]rew members are from Australia, America, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, Sweden, Bermuda, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, New Zealand and Japan.

You can see a picture of the crew here. The photograph is admittedly small, but it appears to me that the crew is overwhelmingly white and, by Sea Shepherd’s own admission, drawn heavily from Western countries. While they do claim at least one Japanese crew member, the bulk of other Japanese do not appear to have much sympathy for Sea Shepherd’s mission (which is unsurprising given that Bethune considers Japanese whalers to be “terrorists”). The article also mentions that less provocative strategies than the antics of the Sea Shepherd bunch are being employed in an effort to change Japanese attitudes toward whaling:

While the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been confronting Japanese whalers on the high seas, Greenpeace has been taking a different approach to end whaling.

It is trying to turn the take-it-or-leave-it attitude to whale meat among many young Japanese into outright opposition to whaling.They have produced videos and held protests highlighting the cost to taxpayers of subsidising the annual whale hunt in the Southern Ocean, justified by Japan as scientific research.

“Japanese people need to know the reality of this so-called scientific research,” says Junichi Sato, a Greenpeace programme director.

Now, Junichi Sato is most certainly a Japanese name. But is Greenpeace an authentically Japanese organization? Or would the average Greenpeace activist standing on the streets of Eugene, asking for signatures in support of wind energy projects hold substantially the same views on whaling as Junichi Sato. In the end, after all, they share substantially the same goals and are in any case part of the same global organization, despite whatever local adjustments might be made to the core Greenpeace message.

Greenpeace, then, is rather like McDonald’s and the global environmental movement can be seen as part and parcel of a broader neo-/cultural imperial project — yet another vector for Western cultural values to shape the “East” into our own image… that is, of course, if one chooses to see it that way.

Something tells me, however, that the people shouting the loudest about cultural imperialism and global homogenization on one day and demanding an end to Japanese whaling and even more stringent global environmental controls the next don’t perceive themselves as being part of the very problem they purportedly stand in solidarity against. And what is “solidarity” other than a form of homogenization anyways?

[Updated 03/29]

Another example:

According to a major scientific survey at least 101 primate species are still used in traditional folk practices and in magic or religious rituals.

For example, spider monkeys are eaten to treat rheumatism, while gorilla parts are given to pregnant women.

Such practises are accelerating the declines of many already vulnerable species, say the survey’s authors.


“Despite laws, use and trade of the species for medicinal purposes persists,” says Professor Romulo Alves of the State University of Paraiba in Brazil, who conducted the survey with colleagues.

The trade in all primate species is tightly regulated by CITES legislation.

Yet despite this, their body parts are being put to a range of uses.

Again, whose claims prevail? Those of so-called “Western science,” with all of its supposedly implied “Euro-centrism” and “cultural imperialism”, the “critique” of which is fashionable in some circles, or the claims of the practitioners of “folk medicine,” whose “cultural diversity” and supposed “connection to the Earth” is rhapsodized about by many people in those same circles even though such practices may not necessarily be “sustainable” according to the definitions held by Prius-driving, “locavore” Sierra Club members?


2 Responses to “It’s Only Cultural Imperialism When McDonald’s Does It [updated 03/29]”

  1. August 30, 2017 at 3:28 am

    There is certainly a lot to know about this subject.
    I love all the points you made.

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