Globalism Killed Localism (But Gave Us the World)
Daniel Larison argues, quite persuasively, that free trade comes at the expense of local flavor. In continental countries like the United States, this is a domestic phenomenon as well as an international one.
If regional differences remain in the U.S., they are much less pronounced today than ever before thanks to a combination of mass mobility, technological advance facilitating rapid transport and communication across the continent and shared consumer culture. Minnesotans may not eat fatback and Vermonters may not eat rellenos, but everyone is importing the same pork from the same factory farms in the Midwest, and perhaps the less said about the homogenizing effects of the national Buffalo wing phenomenon the better. We are steadily moving towards the economic, cultural and political monoculture that [Mark] Thompson claims we are avoiding.
Cultural homogenization on one level has advanced rapidly as transplants relocate from place to place, the highway system has reduced barriers of time and space between different parts of the country and television and radio have steadily eradicated distinctive accents in mass communication, which gradually eliminates them from everyday life as well. At the same time, there has also been fragmentation and dispersion as people have tended towards identifying with others who have similar lifestyles and tastes, so that they can pretend that they belong to non-localized “communities” while becoming steadily more alienated from their actual neighbors. Considering this, Charles Murray’s assumption that the institution of community is somehow being kept “robust and vital” in the current American model is questionable.
I can’t argue with any of this. Indeed, while I’m not the citizen of the world that Barack Obama is, I’ve experienced most of this firsthand. Growing up in an Army family and then serving as an Army officer and then an academic gypsy, I’ve lived in multiple countries and at least seven states. Heck, my infant daughter had, by the time she was two months old, been in Virginia, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Deleware, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. We’re taking her to Mexico via Texas in May.
While they of course retain distinct local flavors, it’s amazing how similar the major metropolitan areas are. One will encounter many of the same chain stores in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and Cairo. And the downtown areas of most American midsize towns will have the same strip malls and chain restaurants. To be sure, there’s still plenty of local flavor. But not as much as there was when I was a kid, let alone when my parents were kids.
Something has undoubtedly been lost as a result. But let’s not discount the gains. The homogeneity that people complain about means that small town Mississippi now has many of the advantages that were, even twenty years ago, available only in the big cities. Sure, there are better options in most big cities than Starbucks, Samuel Adams, Ben & Jerry’s, and Olive Garden. But they’re a damned site better than Maxwell House, Budweiser, Blue Bunny, and Pizza Inn. And let’s not forget the wonder of an Amazon Prime membership, which will allow someone on Paducah, Kentucky to get pretty much anything they want delivered to their door in two days with no shipping costs.
That we’ve become relatively disconnected from our neighbors is without question a bad thing and one imagines our frequent moves and the ability to disconnect from our local reality by plugging in to various faraway virtual realities contribute something to that. Then again, sociologists have been lamenting this trend since the 1920s so perhaps not so large a role as one might think.
Photo by Flickr user drl, used under Creative Commons license.