2003 July 01 Tuesday
On Globalization And The Psychological Visibility Of America

In the comments section of a post on Winds of Change.NET's Hushoor's Korea Briefing Robert Koehler of the Marmot's Hole blog makes an interesting set of observations about the Korean people and anti-Americanism.

Even among "pro-American" Koreans, the depth to which these feelings exhibit themselves can be truly astonishing; when Koreans discuss among themselves the (perceived) need for the US military in South Korea, little is ever mentioned of the historic ties between the two countries, or the common interests between Seoul and Washington. Rather, the arguments run something like this - Korea is a small, weak country, and it has no choice but to rely on the US. If the USFK leaves, then foreign investors will run away and our economy will be destroyed. If the US leaves, then Japan will re-arm, and we'll once again be a "shrimp between two whales." Poor, helpless Korea! Of course, the reality is much different - South Korea possesses the world's 13th largest economy, one of the world's largest (and toughest!) militaries, and is a major foreign investor abroad. Still, the feelings are there, buttressed by an education system that indoctrinates "victimization" from a very early age.

It should be pointed out, however, that in the Korean context, there are very few "Marxists," per say. "Progressive" Korean students simply use the language of Marxism to cover an intellectual system that, at its base, is really quite reactionary and disturbingly similar to the racial theories expoused by Japanese militarists during the 1930s. Despite recourse to such terms as imperialism and the "masses," the Korean "Left"'s beef with capitalism, globalization, and the US has nothing to do with its concern for the international working class, and everything to do with globalization's "assault" on Korea's (supposedly uniquely unique) cultural identity. The work "minjok," which most closely corresponds to the German word "volk," is one of the most oft-used in Korean radical student discourse (and in North Korea, as well). It's used all the time; in fact, one almost never hears referrences made to "class struggle." "Struggle," when the term is used, is almost always used in a racial context. The Japanese have the same work - minjoku - except that in the Japanese context, the word carries strong connotations of the 1930s, and only re-entered common use in Japan after Nakasone's prime ministership in the 1980s (the term was actually banned by American occupational authorities).

I think there is an important idea here that relates to the effect that globalization is having. As more influences come into each culture from other cultures lots of people around the world feel, to varying degrees, like their culture is being attacked by outside influences. Local racial and ethnic prejudices still have a force and legitimacy in other parts of the world that most Americans would find astonishing given current American attitudes about such matters. Therefore there is a tendency to miss just how much these prejudices motivate the complaints that come from various cultures when we hear about anti-American sentiment.

One problem America has is that America is the most visible high profile source of cultural products which have clearly identified country of origin. Movies, TV shows, and other forms of media create celebrities and cultural phenomena which have easily recognizeable American origins. Even in a country which does not have America as top trading partner people sense America's presence to a degree that far exceeds America's actual influence over events that occur within the country's border. American-branded fast food restaurants, movies, and branded products from creative companies such as Disney see to it that America has a high profile.

On a related note, technological changes trigger social changes. The birth control pill, home appliances, TV dinners, and countless other consumer products helped trigger a change in the status of women and their relationship with men. America, being more affluent, has widely adopted many socially changing technologies first. The birth control pill, the car, television, the dishwasher, and a great many other products achieved widespread adoption in America long before doing so in many other parts of the world. Therefore many social changes happened in America first. In countries which are now taking up technologies that lead to changes in their societies many people already identify those social changes with America. This mental connection between social changes and America causes a tendency in many of those who are concerned about changes in their own society to suspect that those changes are a result of a willful desire on the part of the United States to change their society.

The human mind tends to want to personalize the causes for events. The tendency among some to embrace a succession of conspiracy theories represents a desire to make the conditions of their lives comprehensible by assigning blame to choices made by identifiable conspirators. To people who lack a deeper understanding of the causes of rapid changes the personalization of the causes gives them a sense of comprehension that they'd otherwise lack. That the comprehension is false is besides the point because it fulfills an emotional need.

The problem for the United States in all this is that technological advances and international trade are causing great social changes throughout the world and the United States is the most visible cause of those changes. As US cultural products and other products make it more visible it becomes a target of blame for conditions which are not even the result of technological changes or of US government policy. Simply by being prominent in the thinking of people around the world the US all too often becomes the preferred target of blame for many grievances.

There is another important point to consider when looking at grievances: just because a grievance is strongly felt does not mean that it is justified. Not only are the wrong people frequently unfairly assigned responsibility for the state of affairs that causes a feeling of grievance but quite often the state of affairs is not necessarily even unfair in the way that the complainers claim it to be. Ever worked at a place where some lazy co-worker got really upset for being passed over for a raise or promotion? Ever marvelled at the totally unjustified sense of grievance that people you know sometimes express? Well, whole cultures and nations are no less flawed in this regard than individual humans. People are not only unfair in how they treat each other. They are also frequently unfair when they blame others for being unfair to them. The point is that plenty of people are walking around getting upset about things in their life that are not anyone else's fault and yet they are looking for plausible candidates to blame.

Another point about unjustified grievance is that some grievances are the result of a conflict of values. If some Jihadi Al Qaeda member thinks the US ought to be destroyed because American moves are putting subversive ideas into the minds of his society's women then he's properly ascertaining the origins of something that he objects to yet he's proclaiming a grievance that does not register as a legitimate grievance to most Americans. It is important to understand that such grievances really do exists and are not simply the product of frustration over failed economies or unfair dictators.

What should be done about this state of affairs? I see a couple of lessons. The first is that, in a situation where the US is contemplating a new form of intervention in some part of the world we should ask whether doing so will make us more visible as a cause of what is making people there dissatisfied. Note that this can cut both ways. If we are going to be blamed for the outcome even if we do not do some interventon (e.g. the US was blamed for the conditions in Iraq as a result of the sanctions even before the US invaded) then that is an argument for intervention. If we are going to be blamed then at least if we take control of a situation and try to get some benefit from it and perhaps even recognition that we made some place better than it was (note I'm not trying to say that reason alone is suffiicient justification for intervention). On the other hand, if we do not need to intervene because there is no compelling national interest and if the people in some messed-up place do not currently blame us for what is wrong there that is a strong argument to not intervene since intervention effectively means we will be judged and blamed for what then transpires.

Another lesson is that US intellectuals who trumpet American power and American influence over the world are probably not serving US interests. Americans who proclaim that America has enormous power and influence are giving the blamers reasons to blame America if they do not like something in their own country or region of the world. From the viewpoint of the blamers if America is so powerful and something about their lives and society dissatisfies them then it must be America's fault because after all America is in charge, is running an empire, and so on. American commentators who want to reduce resentment toward America ought to put a lot more effort into describing why in each region of the world locally caused factors are the cause of local problems. There is a tendency to shy away from doing this because the commentators do not want to come across as sounding superior and judgemental and in some cases they simply think it is rude and insulting to criticise other societies. But given the extent to which America is blamed for what is wrong with the world it really is necessary to turn the tables and start assigning blame to other cultures, governments, religions, and assorted local causes.

Update: Be sure to read Robert Koehler's response.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 July 01 03:30 PM  Human Nature


Comments
Bob said at July 1, 2003 4:16 PM:

"The human mind tends to want to personalize the causes for events. The tendency among some to embrace a succession of conspiracy theories represents a desire to make the conditions of their lives comprehensible by assigning blame to choices made by identifiable conspirators."

Washington is the new Mt. Olympus. Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powel replace Zeus, Hera, Apollo and Aphrodite (not necessarily in that order) and are surrounded by a pantheon of all powerful D.C. movers and shakers and a myriad of lesser demons.

Trent Telenko said at July 1, 2003 5:05 PM:

Randall,

Britanny Spears shaking her ass in the faces of Iranian and Taliban mullahs are a bigger offense to the anti-American nutters than our intellectuals will ever be.

The Marmot said at July 2, 2003 3:05 PM:

Britanny Spears shaking her ass in MY face gets me offended enough, although Jennifer Lopez should feel free to shake her ass in front of my face as much as she wants.

BTW, I just uploaded my thoughts on this post over at the Marmot's Hole:
http://marmot.blog-city.com/readblog.cfm?BID=126163

And I switched the font color over to black - looks a lot better now. Thanks for the advice.

Check it Out said at October 26, 2011 1:59 PM:

Britney Spears? Who is that?
Does that have anything to do with ancient British piercing weapons?


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