The Common Good
May 2007

'We Are the World'

by Danny Duncan Collum | May 2007

Now playing near you: A global monoculture.

Thirty years ago, the British punk-rock band The Clash recorded a song called "I'm So Bored with the USA." Of course, The Clash weren't really bored with all things American. They toured with Bo Diddley and Grandmaster Flash, and, in an earlier incarnation, Clash singer Joe Strummer had actually called himself "Woody" after the great American Guthrie. In the song, Strummer was very specific about the object of his boredom when he yowled, "Yankee detectives are always on the TV because killers in America work seven days a week."

The Clash song could serve as the anthem of a growing global movement to stop the extension of "free trade" principles to the realm of culture. When The Clash wrote their song, the process of corporate globalization had barely begun. U.S. cultural products—from Kojak to Time magazine—still had to be physically transported across the ocean before they could reach British or Japanese consumers. Now Desperate Housewives or The New York Times can be bounced off a satellite for local viewing or printing in Moscow or Macedonia. And international trade agreements treat culture as a commodity, like toothpaste. So countries are forbidden to, for instance, protect their local music scene by putting quotas or tariffs on Justin Timberlake imports.

Increasingly, the result is a world in which everyone watches the same stories and sings the same songs. The common wisdom 15 years ago held that globalization would be a benign engine of progressive multiculturalism. In this view, the cultural vehicles of globalization—mainly the Internet and satellite television—would spread ideas and information across geographic and political barriers. But contrary to globalization's multicultural promise, it is in fact creating a global monoculture, dictated by the overwhelming economic power of the United States.

As Joe Strummer could tell you (if he were alive), the authentic appeal of America's democratic culture is partly responsible for its global appeal. But that's been true since the dawn of commercial culture in the 1920s. America's real greatness exports itself—without government pressure. But what is happening today is a kind of cultural dumping in which countries are forced to accept U.S. products.

Today the most watched television show in the world is Baywatch, and five companies (four of them U.S.-based) earn about 35 percent of the world's entertainment dollars. U.S. entertainment exports amount to roughly $90 billion per year. It is one of the only economic categories in which the U.S. runs a positive balance of trade (exporting more than it imports). So, not surprising, the U.S. has made open markets for American culture a top priority in its bilateral trade agreements with individual countries (such as the one with Australia) and in regional trade deals (such as CAFTA—the Central America Free Trade Agreement).

World Trade Organization regulations already forbid restrictions on the entry of cultural products into a national market (with, for now, an exception for film). But the WTO does not, as yet, regulate services. This has allowed the rest of the world to keep American television networks and Internet providers at arms length. But opening the global market for "services" is the top priority on America's WTO agenda.

America's aggressive "open markets" campaign has, inevitably, provoked a worldwide backlash. And culture could prove to be the Achilles' heel of corporate globalization. The Americanization of world culture has irritated almost everyone, starting with our closest ally and neighbor, Canada. It was, in fact, the Canadians who started the movement that culminated in the enactment of a United Nations convention on cultural diversity. At a UNESCO conference in October 2005, the proposal for a cultural diversity pact passed by a vote of 148 to 2 (Israel and the U.S.). By December 2006, it had been ratified by enough countries to proceed toward enactment (the fastest ratification ever for a U.N. convention).

According to Canadian communications lawyer and author Peter Grant, the convention endorses a "toolkit of government measures to support cultural diversity [and] educates the world that cultural products are different from ordinary commodities." In addition, "for the benefit of developing countries, it creates a fund to help them in producing local distinctive cultural product." Most important, Grant notes, "the convention dissuades countries from further trade liberalization in the cultural sector, and strengthens their hand in resisting pressure to do so."

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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