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American Values in a Changing World: The Challenge of Opposing Forces

by Barbara J. Callaway

In 1960, during my sophomore year at Trinity University in San Antonio, I attended a program much like your symposium here at Angelo State University. The speaker was Dr. James H. Robinson, pastor of the Morningside Presbyterian Church in Harlem. Jim Robinson was a charismatic, mesmerizing speaker. He made a profound impression on all of us who heard him. In 1958, Jim Robinson traveled around the world meeting with college students and young people in countries which were then on the verge of independence after having experienced many decades of European colonial rule. He talked with students about their aspirations and visions of their futures. He found young people the world over fascinated by American history, American ideals, the American vision of a world where democratic values reigned and people everywhere worked together for a free world. Remember, America was not a colonial power and was not then thought to be imperialistic. Jim Robinson was a black pastor from Harlem, speaking for American beliefs and democracy. He returned to the United States with a dream, with a vision that young people, such as you, and such as I was then, could make a difference in the world.

In 1960, he was asked by a new American President, John F. Kennedy, to develop a program that would send recent American college graduates to emerging new countries to live and to work in their villages, teaching and helping in community development projects such as digging wells, constructing school buildings, or designing appropriate technologies such as more efficient cook stoves or preserving food. It was President Kennedy's belief that, in the process, students would give personal testimony to such American values as individual rights, free speech, and independent thought. The values of American students would witness to the strengths of our democratic way of life, and somehow such concepts as competitive political parties, an independent judiciary, a free press, the rule of law, would be conveyed. Dr. Robinson declined to head the proposed project, perceiving even then that such an effort must truly reflect the idealism of individual American students and that official sponsorship by our government would undermine the credibility of any such effort.

He did however found his own organization, Operation Crossroads Africa. In the summer of 1960, I, an 18 year old between my sophomore and junior years, went to eastern Nigeria with 15 other American college students to work with 15 Nigerian students building a marketplace in the village of Eha Amufu, Nigeria. It was an experience that changed my life, and, I venture to say, it changed the lives of every one in our group. To this day much of my understanding of the world in which we live began in Eha Amufu, and in those months living in an African village. This village had no running water. Women walked a mile to a stream and filled five-gallon water jugs and walked back with them balanced on their heads -- along with their daily supply of firewood strapped on their backs. During those two months in this small village, five women died in childbirth and ten children died in infancy. In spite of the awful drama of everyday life in the village, night after night for two months the village elders, the two teachers assigned to the village school, and our Nigerian college colleagues questioned us about American values, and about how American democracy worked. What bride price would our families expect for us, they asked? They couldn't believe we were "free"! Who would arrange our marriages? Who could vote? Could only chiefs and elders be Senators? How was it possible to have such a young President? Why did we want to send a Nigerian judge, Mr. Justice Apollo, to the moon?

One of the many experiences I remember vividly was going by canoe down a muddy river covered by an umbrella of rain forest so thick that it seemed dark at mid-day. We were journeying to the village home of a member of our group. As his village came into view, we saw, to our great surprise, an American flag flying from a home made pole. The children of the village were gathered under it. How they knew we were coming we never knew, since there were no telephones there. After dancing and feasting, the village elders talked with us about America and American values. What was our bride price, they asked us? How did we select our elders? How young was President Kennedy? This, we learned, was a society which honored age. They shared their dream that someday Nigeria would be "just like America." They did not mean the materialistic America the rest of the world would soon seem so desperately to want. That would come later.

I have been back to Nigeria many times since then. I have watched a growing xenophobia developing, a growing suspicion of everything Western, and the development of a profound disillusionment with everything "American." Last January, I was in Nigeria to attend a conference on "Democracy." Nigeria is now in the process of returning for the third time to civilian rule after a long succession of military regimes. Before returning to the U.S., I journeyed to Kano, a large city in northern Nigeria in which I previously had lived and worked for two years. When I visited the University where I had taught, I was stunned to find a campus dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. The entrance had been renamed Saddam Hussein Way. Women students, who traditionally wore bright Nigerian wax cloth, modestly draped from shoulder to toe with head scarves, and gold jewelry mostly made in Kano, were now dressed in gray and black fundamentalist garb complete with veils and no visible jewelry. The immediate impression was of a funeral. As I walked down the corridors, I heard one of my former colleagues haranguing students: "The infidels are in our holy land, they eat the meat of the swine behind our holy places. They have women in their army. They are fornicating in our Holy places!" For the first time in my thirty years of going to Nigeria, I felt antagonism because I am an American.

What had happened? What forces at work in the world today help us understand this transformation? What is the role and place of "American values" in such a changing world?

It seems to me that there are, at this point in time, two major opposing forces pulling peoples of the world in opposite directions. One is the force of globalization -- economic and ecological forces that demand worldwide integration and uniformity. This globalization is essentially materialistic. It is characterized by the world of fast music, fast computers, and fast food -- with MTV, Macintosh and McDonald's. We live in a world increasingly bound together by technology, ecology, communications and commerce.

The other major force at work in the world today is one I call retribalization -- a threatened fragmentation of the world in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, and tribe against tribe. In many cases, the call for retribalization explicitly rejects the materialism of globalization.

The tendencies inherent in the forces of globalization and retribalization operate with equal force in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatred, the other by universalizing markets, the one making national borders almost irrelevant, the other creating novel subnational, religious and ethnic borders from within. What is most sobering, at a time in our history when the rhetoric of democracy has become so prevalent, is that neither globalization nor retribalization offers much hope to men and women seeking the things our American values imply -- individual rights and dignity, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and above all, enough food, basic education, adequate health care to make it possible to believe in freedom and justice for all. Notwithstanding the burgeoning of revolutionary aspirations for political democracy, the predominant trends that describe our possible destiny are population explosion, ecological and environmental devastation. These trends are fundamentally hostile to democracy. The right to vote begins to seem irrelevant when the right to survival seems in question. As the gap between the rich and the poor -- both between and within nations -- grows greater, and as the earth's resources are depleted, people turn inward, even as the world becomes ever more "one." It is the disillusionment and the feeling of helplessness caused by the pull of these contradictory forces that, in part, explains the perception of America in today's Nigeria.

If the immediate future is to be continuous battles between retribalization's centrifugal force and globalization's irresistible pull, the outcome is unlikely to be very egalitarian, or participatory, or civic-spirited, or just. Remember that, in the early 1960's, we believed American values would become world values. We believed our own society was perfectible. Our slogans were "smaller is better," "make love not war," and "make the world safe for democracy." We took it for granted that basic needs would be met, that our leaders could be trusted to lead, and that the future would be an improvement over the past. Our only enemy then was the evil empire represented by the Soviet Union and world-wide communism. This was before events lurched off in quite another direction in this country; before the breakdown of our cities; the fracturing of our national consensus over Vietnam; before the ravages of the drug culture and the orgy of political, racial, and civil rights violence that has plagued us ever since. Today the Soviet Union is in danger of disintegration, many Eastern European societies appear on the verge of civil war, religious fundamentalism dictates a zealous politics of mutual extermination in India and Sri Lanka, and in Kuwait, triumph already seems to have yielded to something that looks more and more like fiasco. Nonetheless, we can see a dialectical logic at work that does give apparent global chaos an impressively coherent aspect.

The Globalization of Politics

Let me say a little more about the globalization of politics. From the middle of the 19th century on, American and European intellectuals have believed that rationality and progress are powerful forces that will inevitably control and dominate our world. In this context, progress meant democracy and its capitalistic underpinnings. So powerful was this myth that, even at the height of the Cold War in the 1960's, State Department and academic analysts in the U.S. predicted that ideological cleavage would gradually give way to the inevitable social and economic dynamics of modernizing industrialization, thus bringing about an integrated world. This process they called "convergence." The forces of globalization have indeed accelerated tendencies towards transnational integration, and we can identify at least four sets of forces that drive these tendencies: market imperatives, resource requirements, information technology, and increasing ecological awareness.

These forces have in combination achieved considerable headway over fractiousness, and they present a formidable challenge to the forces of retribalization. Whatever else has happened to the "scientific" predictions of Karl Marx, the market imperative has eroded national sovereignty and given rise to entities such as international banks, international lobbies like OPEC and Greenpeace, world news services like CNN and the BBC world service, and to multinational corporations which are increasingly without a meaningful national identity. We recognize more and more that the interest in world peace is significantly underscored by an interest in facilitating the flow of profits. In the context of common markets, international law ceases to be a vision for human rights and justice, and becomes a workaday framework for getting things done.

In today's world, commercial airline pilots from Iceland fly planes for Nigeria Airways, computer programmers from Japan set up banking systems in South America, and international athletes such as Monica Seles from Yugoslavia and Ivan Lendl from Czechoslovakia play as Americans in the world of sports. They comprise a new breed of men and women for whom religion, culture, and nationality can seem only marginal to their personal identities. Cynics might even say that some of the revolutions in Eastern Europe have had as their true goals, not liberty and the right to vote, but well-paying jobs and the right to shop. The imperative of markets is indeed a strong force for the globalization of our world.

Resource requirements are equally pervasive. Every nation, it turns out, needs something another nation has. Many nations have almost nothing they need. For a brief while in the 19th century, it was possible to believe that America, at least, could be self-sufficient. This under-populated, endlessly bountiful land, seemed a cornucopia of natural resources. The natural barriers of an island continent protected by two great oceans created a magical interlude in which Americans could believe they lived in a world sufficient unto itself. However, the rapid depletion of resources in countries like ours where they once seemed inexhaustible, and the maldistribution of arable soil and mineral resources on an unequally created planet have made it clear that no country is self-sufficient in today's world. Even the wealthiest societies are ever more dependent on resources they no longer have. As recently as 1960 the United States imported only a handful of minerals such as aluminum, manganese and tin. Today we look abroad for zinc, chromium, tungsten, lead, and, as you in Texas are very aware, for oil. Soon potassium, sulfur, and iron will become items attributing to our negative balance of trade. America is looking more and more like Britain or Switzerland, countries which import 90 percent of the materials they need to produce their manufactured products. In a resource dependent world, international trade gives order to confusing economic interrelationships.

In addition to market imperatives and resource requirements, science and the technologies derived from it are inherently universalizing. Scientific progress embodies and depends on open communication, a common discourse rooted in rationality, collaboration among scientific workers, and an easy and regular flow and exchange of information. Business, banking and commerce all depend on information flow and are facilitated by the new communications technologies. Computers, television, cable, satellite, laser, fiber optic and microchip technologies combine to create a vast interactive communications and information grid which can potentially give every person in every land access to every other person. In a very real way, Disneyland and MTV do more for a homogenous world than all the plans of the Pentagon, or all the foreign aid channeled by the State Department. McDonald's in Moscow, and Coke in China, did more to banish communism than fifty years of Cold War.

Finally, the impact of ecology on globalization is a cliché, even for world leaders who try to ignore it. We know that German forests are dying because the Swiss and the Germans drive gas guzzlers fueled by leaded gas. We know that rates of skin cancer are soaring because Americans can't get along without their aerosol cans which spew fluorocarbons into the atmosphere, punching holes in the ozone layer that protects us from dangerous solar radiation. We are aware that the Indian subcontinent may risk starvation next year because a defeated Iraqi tyrant torched five or six hundred oil wells in Kuwait. We know that the planet can be asphyxiated by greenhouse gases because Brazilian, Nigerian, and Kenyan farmers want to be a part of the 20th century by burning down their tropical rain forests to clear land to farm. In 1980, I returned to that village in the Nigerian rain forest I had visited in 1960. To my dismay, it is now on an open plain surrounded by barren, exhausted and empty fields. The demand for food and firewood created because of increased life expectancy and a lowering of infant death rates had destroyed a once rich land where people and resources were in balance. We all know the clichés. This fragile earth, an island in space, space ship earth -- all clichés of a growing ecological consciousness.

Each of these four forces is transnational in thrust, trans-ideological in impact, transcultural in consequence. The Enlightenment dream of a universal rational society has to a remarkable degree been realized, but it is a dream that is commercialized, homogenized, bureaucratized, and, of course, not complete. It is in competition with the forces of global breakdown, national dissolution, and corruption. Throughout the non-western world there are forces pulling in precisely the opposite direction from those of globalization -- the forces of what I call retribalization.

The Forces of Retribalization

OPEC, The World Bank, the United Nations, and multinational corporations often appear far removed from the world's retribalizing actors. As the nation-state fades, there are, to an ever greater degree, subnational factions in permanent rebellion against uniformity and integration. The headlines regularly feature these heretofore little noticed players. They are cultures not countries, parts not wholes, sects not religions, rebellious factions and dissenting minorities at war, not just with globalism, but with the traditional nation-state itself. Kurds, Croations, Serbians, Quebecois, Armenians, Lithuanians, Eritreans, Northern Irish, Latvians, Zulus and Xhosa's -- these are people without countries, people inhabiting nations not their own, people seeking a smaller world within borders that will seal them off from the forces of globalization, from the evils of modernity. Today's headlines convey the possibility of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Belgium, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel, Ceylon, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, Ethiopia, and on some days, Canada. The post-Cold War world seems like a crazy mosaic of simmering hot wars.

There are over 30 wars in progress on this date in 1991 and most of them are ethnic, racial, tribal, or religious in character. There are leaders who want power over people who are powerless. There are people in subregions of countries who do not want to contribute their resources to the national pie. There are religious leaders who witness to their religion by eliminating those who are not a part of it. The mode is the Islamic Jihad -- not war as an instrument of policy, but war as an emblem of identity, war as a cause in itself, war as an expression of community and faith. Religion has become a battlefield. Non-believers, or those who believe differently, must be killed. Whatever universalism might once have described the historically related monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in their modern incarnations, they are often parochial rather than cosmopolitan, angry rather than loving, aggressively hostile to each other rather than ecumenical, zealous rather than rationalist, and more ethnocentric than universalizing. The new forms of religious fundamentalism, whether in Iran, Ethiopia or India, are fractious and pulverizing -- never integrating. This is the religion of the Jihads and the Crusades. The reverberations of retribalization have resulted in a breakdown of order and civility in the name of identity and community.

American Values in a Changing World

These rather cryptic descriptions of course do not really explain our world, but for all of their defects, the two scenarios do describe two opposing and very real pulls at work today. My main point, or hypothesis, is that these two opposing forces are basically unrelated to the American values that underlie our democracy and so attracted others to our beacon just 30 years ago. I believe this is because neither globalization nor retribalization is remotely democratic in impulse or thrust. Globalization still looks pretty good in a world so threatened with disintegration. It promises peace, prosperity, and relative unity, although possibly at the cost of independence, community, and identity. It does imply a new identity broad enough to encompass ethnic and religious difference, or, more accurately, ethnic and religious identity would cease to matter in a new globalized world order. A world where you shop by computer, watch global MTV, and eat fast processed Big Macs may not be intellectually exciting, but it is profitable. The revolutions in Eastern Europe that originally seemed to arise out of a deep yearning for global democratic values quickly deteriorated into stampedes across free markets into shopping malls. The emphasis is on shopping more than on voting; on markets more than on constitutions. The virtues of globalization are many, but democracy is not necessarily among them.

Retribalization delivers a different set of virtues -- a vibrant local identity, a sense of community, solidarity among kinsmen, safety in an unsafe world. It also guarantees parochialism. It is through war against outsiders and foreigners that solidarity is secured. It often means hierarchy in governance, fanaticism in beliefs, and the obliteration of self in the name of the group. In the retribalizing societies of Africa, the result has been something close to anarchy, as well as starvation and famine. It has brought repression, persecution, and the coming of new forms of very old kinds of despotism. Not benefiting from globalization for a complex set of reasons, Nigerians and other third world peoples have turned to the politics of retribalization. It has been explicitly anti-democratic, taking forms in one-party dictatorship, military juntas, theocratic authoritarianism. Everything western, from voting to Rolex watches, is rejected in order to create a more pure, if poorer, solidarity.

This analysis presents a profound and disturbing dilemma for those of us who still believe in basic American values -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom for the press, majority rule, minority rights, and the rule of law. We can feel the stresses of both globalization and retribalization in our own society. To those who look to us for a reaffirmation, we present a disillusioning and confusing picture. In the press of the Third World, America is characterized as a land of homelessness amidst outrageous material consumption of the rest of the world's resources; as a land of unwed mothers where women are violated in every conceivable way; where children are shot on the streets and drug-crazed young men control our cities; where huge sums of money are stolen by bankers using sophisticated techniques and financial manipulations that allow them to escape punishment.

In 1960, a leading American sociologist, Daniel Lerner, asserted with utmost confidence that "what America is the rest of the world wants to become." No, what America is today is not what the rest of the world wants to become. What is true, what continues to appeal to men and women around the world, is the legacy, however dim it may have become, of basic American values -- those liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom. Many men and women in many parts of the world continue to struggle bravely for these ideals. When Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square, they brought with them a model of the Statue of Liberty. It is liberty, not Macintosh Computers and McDonald's hamburgers to which the world aspires.

Remember too, that for all its faults and stresses, America has thus far the only successful culture in the world that is multicultural. When we talk of American values, we talk of a creed that is ever-evolving, fulfilling its ideals imperfectly, through debate, self-criticism, protest, disrespect, irreverence, and occasionally violence. So far, the center has held. Our values provide the measure by which we narrow the gap between performance and principle. It is truly important to believe that our American values are worth living by, and dying for. Our values are not equally valid for all our citizens, we have a distance to go. We should not forget, however, that our effort continues to mean something to the rest of the world. There are strong forces in our own culture to repudiate our multicultural inheritance, to fragment our national community into cultural and linguistic enclaves. Our challenge is to combine due appreciation of the great diversity of our nation with due emphasis on the great unifying ideals of individual freedom, political democracy, and human rights. These are the values that continue to inspire people -- if not always their leaders -- of all continents, races, and creeds. These are the values that will override the forces of both globalization and retribalization in our own country, as well as in the world. The pulls of globalization and retribalization are both found in our own country. They represent the paradoxes of America itself; its flawed realities and its high ideals. As Langston Hughes once phrased the contradiction: "the land that never was, yet must be."