Recent columns by two of my favorite writers — Eric Asimov and Simon Kuper — provoke a brief rant about globalization (and its discontents).
The Global Cheese Bore Epidemic
Simon Kuper is a global citizen and so, like a fish in water, he sees globalization from an insider’s perspective. Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Paris and writes about global sport and global affairs for the British newspaper, the Financial Times.
His recent FT column on “An everyday taste of happiness” is on the surface an appreciation of good food. Paris has great food, Kuper writes, and he wonders at one point whether he would live in Paris if its food was bad? No, he’d probably stay — he loves Paris — but he had to think about it.
You can find pretty good food just about everywhere these days and globalization is partly responsible.”Globalization tends to improve cooking,” according to Kuper, and I think he is right. Immigration — global movements of people — also entails global movements of their cuisines, enriching the host country food scene. Global tourism means that millions are exposed to foreign foods and food ideas and bring them back home.
Global media plays a role, too. Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet paved the way for what is now a global media foodie explosion. Top Chef, Master Chef. Iron Chef. Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain. Good news, mainly, according to Kuper’s theory. He even admits that as much as he may not appreciate the global brand Taco Bell it is probably better than the Wonder Bread cuisine of the 1950s that it has partly replaced.
But he doesn’t forgive everything — “The ‘food renaissance’ is indeed linked to class and therefore encourages status displays: the fastest-growing demographic category from Britain to China today is ‘cheese bores.'” (!)
Could you take Kuper’s essay the replace “food” with “wine”? Almost. The parts on immigration (expanded to include flying winemakers and harvest interns) and tourism would hold true. Global media has not yet embraced wine to the same extent as food and fashion, however. But the positive general effects (and boorish negative side effects) that Kuper describes would still hold.
Asimov’s Global Glass
If Kuper sees globalization as a glass half full, Eric Asimov seems to worry that it might be half empty in his New York Times column “Europeans Stray From the Vine.” He starts with the sad news that wine drinking is in decline in France. It is way down in terms of quantity and he is concerned a bit about the quality as well. The French now drink more rosé than white wine and box wines have risen from 5% of the market to 30% despite being banned in some regions. Sacrebleu!
What are the French drinking instead of wine? Well, just about everything. Craft beer, spirits, everything else. Even when they drink wine, the French don’t limit themselves to the regional selections that might have been their only choice 50 years ago. Now they seek wines from across France and Europe and around the world. The French are becoming more like Americans!
And Americans are becoming more like the French, enjoying not only their own wines but (with Asimov’s encouragement) drinking wines from France and everywhere else. Asimov has written in the past what a joy it is to live in New York City these days with the world of choices (of wine but also food and other cultural produce) that are available there.
Globalization has costs and benefits, he concludes. “The benefit is better wine and more pleasure for all who are interested. The costs? Homogenized cultures and hyper-competition for the historic benchmark wines that put them largely in the hands of the ultra-wealthy.”
The Globalization Paradox
It is worth reading the columns by Kuper and Asimov and looking at how they intersect, agree, and sometimes disagree. I’m struck by the fact that they both find class issues to be of concern when it comes to global food and wine, for example — the curse of rich wine snobs and cheese bores. I am also interested to note the way that they both end up commenting upon an idea that I first saw in a book by Tyler Cowen called Creative Destruction. I call it the Paradox of Globalization.
Cowen’s book is all about the costs and benefits of cultural globalization and it is one of the best globalization books I know. The paradox, which you will recognize in both Kuper and Asimov essays, is that global influences enrich our lives here at home. More diverse food, wine, art, music, fashion — the list goes on and on. But, there’s a dark side, too.
The problem is that this globalization isn’t limited to your home town. Everyone — in New York, Paris, London, Mumbai — everyone wants to enjoy these global experiences. And they get them although maybe not all at once and with the rich having greater access than the poor. You get the picture.
Which creates the problem that when you travel you find that the quaint little villages (and village wines) that you imagined would give you that authentic foreign experience have been replaced, at least in part, by the same global selection you have at home. In short, home gets better, but travel becomes something of a disappointment. That’s the Paradox of Globalization: As everyone’s home town becomes globalized, enriching our everyday lives, the world seems to become less foreign, less global, and that seems like a big loss.
Hooters in Innsbruck
A couple of my former students sent me a photo from their travels back in 2000 that captured this point precisely. It showed a quaint street in Innsbruck, Austria with one and only one visible “global” sign: a yellow banner that proclaimed the grand opening of a Hooters restaurant. Famous for hot wings and the tight t-shirts its waitresses wear, Hooters in Innsbruck might strike some people as a kind of evil American conspiracy against indigenous culture.
“What’s wrong with globalization!” was written on the back of the photo. Yikes! You can imagine how dismayed they must have been to see this unexpected (and for them unwanted) reminder of home.
[Update: a reader's comment (see below) reports that Hooters my students saw was not a real one -- some Austrians appropriated the name to set up "fake" Hooters that fooled many people.]
I admit I felt a little bit the same when I saw the big TGI Fridays restaurant near the main square in Riga, Lativia. TGI Fridays? Here? Really? But I got over it when I saw all the happy Latvians enjoying the barbecued ribs. Why shouldn’t they?
How deep does the Paradox of Globalization go? My suspicion is that the most obvious instances are surface level phenomena and that real indigenous culture is able to withstand whatever damage that Hooters or Taco Time might do. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t be cautious.
The globalization paradox is part and parcel of the world we live in today and while it may disappoint us when we see the French losing hold of a certain idea of wine that we associate with them, I think we can also take pleasure that Americans (and Chinese and many others) are embracing the culture of wine. And we can hope that the younger generation in France will discover their own idea of wine.
A final point to consider is this: food is far ahead of wine in terms of its global diffusion and penetration , don’t you think? The media embrace of food might be responsible for this but there are other factors — everyone eats but only some of us (the lucky ones) drink wine.
But I think wine will catch up. Looking at the world of food today, I wonder what the world of wine will look like in 50 years?
Thanks to Melissa and Mari for the Innsbruck Hooters discovery.
If you want to read more about this topic, my 2005 book Globaloney is a critique of globalization’s cultural impacts and the arguments we make about them. It was named a best business book of the year by Library Journal. Incredibly, someone seems to be selling a lightly used copy on Amazon for 1-cent (plus shipping). Two Buck Chuck, meet One Cent Mike.