Most immigrants to the United States experience the phenomenon of Americanization. It doesn't take many generations before most immigrant families conform to American standards and practices. They take on American characteristics in their daily lives as they develop interests in mainstream American culture and entertainment. The narrowing focus of mass entertainment and nationalized marketing communications over the past several decades has established a highly efficient homogenization process affecting all American people. This cultural leveling effect has never been more rapid or more defined by national media and consumer trends than it is today.
Most American family trees have branches that would seem to be from entirely different species than the roots of the tree. Many people in the United States can relate to a very common family cultural lineage -- a grandmother who practices the traditions of a culture, a mother who is mildly interested or possibly regaining an interest in cultural practices over the years, and a child with almost no interest outside of the most commercial aspects of tradition, who will likely only have distant memories of vanished cultural heritage. In nearly every family there are photographs and stories that reflect a different time and a people with an obsolete way of life. In many Houston families today there are children who don't speak the same language as their grandparents, or even their parents. The disappearance of cultural diversity on the landscape of family trees across the United States over a narrow span of time is as definite as the tree line on a tall mountain, where trees aren't fed sufficient oxygen to grow in the high altitude.
Cultural literacy, the knowledge and experience one should have to thrive among diverse cultures, was once critical as immigrants continued to come to the United States with ever-widening diverse cultural backgrounds. There have been many general waves of immigration to the United States going back to the Western Europeans and Western Africans who came, respectively, by choice and by force. Then there were Eastern Europeans and Eastern Africans. Before 1900 people from nearly all cultures in the world were represented in the United States. And since the 1970s the populations of Asian and Arab immigrants have risen sharply.
Cultural literacy, as an awareness and understanding of people of diverse ethnicities with rights to equality, and to their religious and cultural diversity, was usually lacking in the kinds of economic systems established by Western Europeans. Like waves of immigration, those economic systems have continued to transform the face of America. The system of slave labor became the system of sharecropping and prison farm labor and ultimately the urban labor centers of today. While people remain in diverging economic strata, they have access to the same national culture, brought about by the nationalizing of transportation, communications and, most notably, entertainment. The current state of cultural literacy is delivered by the same marketing vehicles across the nation and measured by consumer trends and economic indicators.
With such efficient homogenization of thinking and consumer activity affecting the population, local level cultural activity and family-owned business activity is increasingly at risk. Arts and cultural organizations that have not established elite support will struggle to survive, and those with tenuous sponsorship will likely move toward the mainstream. Noncommercial independent media and community voices will be endangered. The requirements of a culturally literate society today are to understand what is at stake as the ownership of business, media and entertainment is consolidated and the interests and will of Americans is narrowly focused.
Much of the process of nationalizing has been complete since the 1970s, when highway infrastructure and network media paved the way for the firm establishment of corporations coast to coast. Local businesses were replaced by national brands and chains of corporate outlets. National distribution of products was supported by nationwide advertising. The economic process of reaching far into other communities for profits has been highly effective over several decades, though it dates back to many origins -- shipping, railroads, plantations, steel mills, oil exploration, the invention of the horseless carriage and the auto assembly line, and radio transmission, to name a few.
There is a limit to the resources that can be drawn out of a community, particularly smaller communities. As Interstate Highways bypassed small Texas towns like Hillsboro and McLean, locally-owned businesses were often replaced by corporate businesses with little or no local ownership on the new highways. Americans enjoyed the efficient Interstates and ignored the small towns. Many seemed happy to recognize the national brands of fast food service and self-serve gas stations, often combined, and avoided the slower and more provocative practice of exploring local businesses or participating in local culture.
Many Main Street communities vanished with Route 66 and the Railroad. Stronger communities with agriculture or other diverse industries lasted. But even those mid size communities are dwindling into small ones as they continue to lose local ownership and their financial resources get little re-circulation in town before being drawn into the local Wal-Mart or another national chain. Highly efficient profit taking creates a need for nationally successful businesses to look elsewhere for markets that are not deeply in debt, as many people all over the U.S. are, with an average credit card debt of $8,940 per person and more than $10,000 per person for populations with little ability to meet their own monthly expenses.
Corporations must always strategize to find that ideal demographic place with untapped community wealth and limited competition. With U.S. consumers fully drained and further burdened with growing interest payments, fees, penalties and rising insurance and health care rates, the rest of the world is that place. The sellers of American products and consumer culture are coming to the buyers in foreign lands. It is the process of Corporate Globalization, often referred to by its detractors as "Economic Apartheid."
Arundhati Roy, in her speech "Come September" reports, "In the last ten years of unbridled Corporate Globalization, the world's total income has increased by an average of 2.5 percent a year. And yet the numbers of poor in the world has increased by 100 million. Of the top hundred biggest economies, 51 are corporations, not countries. The top 1 percent of the world has the same combined income as the bottom 57 percent and that disparity is growing."
The sales of affiliates of U.S. transnational corporations is greater than the total of world trade. That simply means that the distribution systems and brand name retail operations are being put into place internationally at a rate never before seen. We already see that new immigrants and tourists from other countries come to the United States with a high level of Americanization. In effect, Americanization of people all over the world is the mission of Corporate Globalization.
You don't have to look much farther than the fabled city of Puebla, where Mexican troops defeated the French to preserve Mexican independence on Cinco de Mayo, to see the seeds of Americanization planted in the heartland of Mexico. McDonald's is doing brisk business on the town square and Wal-mart is drawing business from the city center to the outskirts of town, where there was enough land for the retail giant to build a supercenter. Development of a consumer culture that took years, even decades, of homogenization in the U.S. will now happen at an accelerated pace throughout much of the world.
Corporate success means moving profits from all the markets the corporation can operate efficiently in to the home places of the leadership and the shareholders. The corporation provides service level and middle management jobs to the community at the cost of some or all of the locally-owned business. Small local economies experience further stratification and incomes are often circulated less through the hands of local people in the local economy before being extracted to be saved, spent or reinvested elsewhere.
Dr. Vandana Shiva cites United Nations Human Development Reports, "The world's 200 richest people have more than doubled their net worth in the last four years to one trillion dollars and assets of the three top millionaires are more than the combined GNP of all the least developed countries and their 600 million people."
A handful of people are wealthier than the combined hundreds of millions of other people in the world. While opportunities for some are increasing, inequality and economic disparity is growing ever larger. People in major U.S. cities, like Houston, with substantial corporate ownership and the cash that flows into the city, literally "trickling down" to the hands of people in service industries, often see the imbalance as harmless and inevitable. Debates over international trade liberalization treaties, which may supercede local laws intended to protect local business ownership and civic operation of services for citizens, go unnoticed. When you consider natural resources thought by industrialized nations to be underutilized by underdeveloped nations and technologies not fully developed in those nations, the situation becomes far more complex and the consequences even more severe.
Economic disparity is often accompanied by cultural and environmental destruction. Even in the United States we have to face the quality of life issues raised by the tremendous imbalance between rich and poor, such as rising populations of unemployed, homeless and working poor. The U.S. Department of Labor reports, "In 2000, 31 million people, or 11.3 percent of the population lived at or below the official poverty level.... 6.4 million were classified as the 'working poor'." The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2003 the prison population topped 2 million, disproportionately African American. One out of every 143 Americans are now in prison.
Issues of culture are integral in considerations of economic matters. The complex problems of economic development among traditional cultures and indigenous peoples are studied by scholars and reported superbly in journals, such as Cultural Survival Quarterly, perhaps more thoroughly than the fastest growing academic trends -- professional business development and economics.
In the same way that progressive thinking -- the comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the situation -- by local citizens can have an affect on these important issues around the world, it is most critical and effective on a local level. The trend toward homogenous thinking is limiting diverse ideas and dialogue, and ultimately education, on some of the most critical concerns in the world today. Globalization issues -- cultural leveling and the loss of cultural awareness, as well as diminishing independence in media, art, education, business and government -- are unlikely to be explored through mainstream media, as the issues are complex, they don't offer the urgency that appeals to viewers, and the issues tend to not reflect well on the corporate owners and sponsors of mass media.
There are simple local approaches for citizens to consider as they are becoming more conscious of economic and cultural issues: Small business is an important part of diverse culture and local economy; The loss of support for traditional cultures through arts and music in favor of westernized or hybrid music and entertainment aimed at mainstream appeal is homogenizing the interests of mass populations and creating an effective consumer culture; The spread of western corporate sponsorship to much of the world's media largely for marketing purposes will limit diverse views and independent reporting; As media is consolidated and corporatized most local business is priced out of the market; And, there are many more obvious tenets.
Locally we have experienced the cause and effect of globalization. The examples are found in the struggles of small business owners and independent artists and musicians. The results are evident in the endangered independent and community voices heard on KTRU and KPFT. Mainstreaming is problematic in university approaches to student development. We even find cultural organizations doing little to promote cultural awareness and education, as they practice isolationism to protect their limited audience and corporate sponsors by establishing elitism in arts and culture, instead of public support.
Promoting cultural literacy and the economic understanding of cultural activity is the most important challenge we all face. There are often more urgent concerns, but usually they stem from this worldwide crisis. The common needs of cultural diversity -- self-determination in family- or locally-owned business, independent thinking and expression, freedom of religion without persecution, diverse cultural and creative pursuits, and quality of life -- have serious implications for our future and for the world around us.
Even in a city as diverse as Houston, people struggle to maintain their cultural traditions as a part of their belief systems and quality of life. The dilution of culture or destruction of beliefs and environment is not in the best interest of most Americans, and only serves to further separate people by economic classes and narrowly defined social standards, exclusively for the purpose of product sales and profit.
Hoarding wealth and natural resources, and flooding markets with plastic products and blonde pop stars will be obvious and objectionable to many people of other cultures, and perceived as tyrannical. The American corporate intention to do these things is likely the impetus and requirement for the new security measures and "War on Terror." We are reaching the point of extreme differences in the world because of our economic aggressiveness and exploitation throughout the world, as American-owned corporations expect nations to conform to American standards and adopt our mass media/consumer culture trends and entertainment marketing practices used to establish the trends.
Homogenization and conformity happened in the United States with little understanding or resistance by American people or the immigrants who came to participate in the "American Dream," when the dream was a vision of independent business ownership and opportunity to carry on family traditions. Now that the dream is middle management, where fewer positions are open and the work isn't all that interesting, discontent is found in small but growing expressionistic movements and revivals of traditions and eclectic arts. Though their efforts remain struggles, the culturally conscious usually share a vision of world peace based on understanding and cultural literacy.
GLOBALIZATION TOPICS HOUSTON INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE