One of the most intriguing books that I’ve read in recent years is Pico Iyer’s THE GLOBAL SOUL – Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home. I picked it up the other day and started leafing through it again, and found myself immersed once more. Iyer is a fascinating character – a travel writer and foreign affairs journalist with Time magazine – and is uniquely qualified to talk about globalisation and its effect on individual lives. Born into a family of Indian academics who moved from India to Oxford, he was brought up in England and educated at Eton, Oxford and later Harvard. He subsequently became an American citizen and at the time of the writing of the book was living in Japan.
The book has the feel of an amble through the realities of modern life – full of insight and thought-provoking comments, describing a world that more and more of its citizens recognise from first-hand experience. While the cliche of a world that is constantly getting smaller is demonstrable true, we too easily forget the various costs this has on quality of life, at the jet-set and sweat-shop ends.
For more and more people, then, the world is coming to resemble a diaspora, filled with new kinds of beings… as well as new kinds of realities: Rwandans in Auckland and Moroccans in Iceland. One reason why Melbourne looks ever more like Houston is that both of them are filling up with Vietnamese PHO cafés; and computer technology further encourages us to believe that the remotest point is just a click away. Everywhere is so made up of everywhere else – a polycentric anagram – that I hardly notice I’m sitting in a Parisian café just outside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend about biculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piece he’s just delivered on TV on St Patrick’s Day. ‘I know all about those Irish nuns,’ she says in a thick patois, as we sip our Earl Grey tea near signs that say CITY OF HONG KONG, EMPRESS OF CHINA. (The Global Soul, p11)
In 1996, the entire Canadian 4×100 relay team came from the West Indies (and was competing, of course, against other teams from Britain, France and Trinidad, full of West Indians); Mark McKoy, a Guyana-born, English-bred product of Canada (living in Monaco with his German wife), wassomehow running for Austria. And China’s age-old supremacy in table tennis was being challenged only because the US, Canada, Great Britain, Japan and Austria (again) were all being led by Chinese players. (The Global Soul, p209-210)
The diaspora effect of globalisation definitely has its dark side though:
The UNHCR, formed as a temporary agency in 1951 to deal with the refugee emergence in Europe at the end of the War, had received mandate after mandate to keep going. It now had offices in 115 countries, and the number of refugees, just 2.5 million in 1970, was up to 27.4 million, having doubled in just the past 8 years. Refugees, a UNHCR official told TIME, ‘are one of the growth industries of the ’90s.’ (The Global Soul, p110)
Not to mention the economic impact of globalisation:
Of all the bodies on the planet, multinationals have the greatest stake – quite literally an investment – in telling us that the world is one (and Everyman, therefore a potential consumer). CNN, part of the new media conglomerate for which I work – the largest such in the world – forbids the use of the word FOREIGN on its broadcasts, and IBM, aiming, like most companies, to be local everywhere, tells us in reassuring tones, ‘Somehow the word FOREIGN seems foreign these days.’ Globalism has become the convenient way of saying that all the world’s a single market. (The Global Soul, p14)
Perhaps one of the most explicit examples of this is the recent campaign for HSBC – the so-called ‘world’s local bank’. I remember when they took over the Midland Bank in the UK and issued a command to their employees never to refer to themselves as the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation any more but just HSBC because that would make it too rooted in a particular culture. Many today probably have no idea what HSBC stands for – which i guess suits the company just fine.
Indeed, one of the most troubling features of the globalism we celebrate is that the so-called linking of the planet has, in fact, intensified the distance between people: the richest 358 people in the world, by UN calculations, have a financial worth as great as that of 2.3 billion others, and even in the United States, the prosperous home of egalitarianism, the most wired man in the land (Bill Gates) has a net worth larger than that of 40% of the country’s households, or perhaps 100 million of his compatriots combined (according to Robert Reich). The rich have the sense that they can go anywhere tomorrow, while 95% of the new beings on the planet are among the poor; I worry about the effects of E-mail and transprovincialism, while 2/3 of the people in the world have never used a telephone. (The Global Soul, p26)
What particularly strikes me in all this is that, for all the breaking down of barriers and homogenization that globalisation has brought, those caught up in it have become strangely dislocated; those who feel most threatened by it then batten down the hatches and try to preserve their cultures by keeping isolated from the rest of the world. So it seems that Babel is still a reality – it’s as if global unity is an inbuilt impossiblity. And that the church just might be the only answer in the end – a global, unifying force which alone treasures and embraces cultural individuality and uniqueness.