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Cultural Responses To Social Conditions
from "New Creative Community"

by Arlene Goldbard
Richmond, California

"New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development" by Arlene Goldbard can be purchased at New Village Press.

Community members protest anti-immigrant group’s attempt to censor SPARC’s Baldwin Park monument “Danzas Indigenas.”  Photo © SPARC 2005

Community members protest anti-immigrant group’s attempt to censor SPARC’s Baldwin Park monument “ Danzas Indigenas.” Photo © SPARC 2005
The following is an extract from chapter one of Arlene Goldbard's book "New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development". Arlene Goldbard is a writer, social activist, and consultant. New Creative Community is published by New Village Press and can be purchased at their web site. Through personal stories, detailed observation, and histories, Arlene Goldbard describes how communities express and develop themselves via the creative arts. Footnotes are linked to a new browser window for easy viewing.

Community cultural development work inevitably responds to current social conditions: the work is grounded in social critique and social imagination. The precise nature of this response always shifts as social circumstances change. As Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, every epoch is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites. ...” (1) This complex forms our “thematic universe,” to which contemporary community cultural development work responds.

In the period since the 1960s -- the decades that have shaped the current field -- these contending forces have been, as Machiavelli put it so elegantly half a millennium ago, “like the hectic fever which, as the doctors tell us, at first is easy to cure though hard to recognize, but in time, if it has not been diagnosed and treated, becomes easy to recognize and hard to cure.”
(2) Indeed, the issues discussed in this chapter often feel overwhelming to contemplate.

While this complex of issues can be broken into segments to facilitate examination, as I have done below, considering contemporary Western culture as a whole exposes two overarching and countervailing truths addressed by community cultural development. The more complex and commercial the society, the more people experience a loss of agency, a decline in spontaneous connection, a tendency for consumer activities to supplant other social relationships and a strong pull toward isolated pursuits. Yet as these tendencies have come to light, the will to resist them has grown stronger, expressed in countless ways, such as the locally based “slow food” movement, remarkable growth in the popularity of do-it-yourself approaches, burgeoning interest in craft and other traditional cultural practices and a great awakening of the impulse to seek spiritual meaning. The feelings that animate this growing refusal to succumb to corporate values also enspirit those who work for community cultural development.

Global Proliferation of Mass Media

Since the advent of radio, motion pictures and television, penetration of commercial mass-media products around the globe has proceeded at a pace unparalleled in history. In its wake have arisen several disturbing social trends:

  • the weakening of traditional multidirectional means of cultural transmission and preservation (e.g., person-to-person sharing of stories) in favor of the unidirectional transmission of mass-produced cultural products such as film, television and recorded music;
  • the creation of a global youth market that has broken longstanding patterns of transmission for traditional cultural heritage, often alienating youth from cultural roots and substituting products for an immaterial legacy; and
  • the pervasive passivity of consumer culture overtaking live, in-person activities that bring people into the commons and into direct contact with each other, with an attendant decline in the vitality of civil society.

I do not mean to suggest a simple dichotomy here: commercial culture, bad; traditional culture, good. Social and individual impacts can be quite different. For instance, the United States consumes a quarter of the world’s energy, which keeps me warm and cozy in the winter, but from an environmental perspective, the costs are great. Despite the concerns listed above, I welcome the way technology has brought me easier access to the literature and music of the world, which seems to me an entirely good thing -- that we should know more about each other, that we should appreciate each other’s creations. In fact, when it comes to mass media, in the social as in the personal sphere the results have been mixed. Along with the products they exist to sell, commercial cultural industries have indeed sometimes spread liberatory ideas of individual choice and social mobility. As Robert McChesney has pointed out:

Global conglomerates can at times have a progressive impact on culture, especially when they enter nations that had been tightly controlled by corrupt media crony systems (as in much of Latin America) or nations that had significant state censorship over media (as in parts of Asia). (3)

Markets don’t respect traditions, which can be both good and bad for culture. Because commercial media have one imperative -- to increase profits through expansion of their clientele -- their operators view constraints such as cronyism and state control merely as temporary obstacles, glitches in a larger marketing plan. When such obstacles are overcome, the net result is to expose populations to a broader range of news, a wider spectrum of programming suggesting new life possibilities -- as well as virtually unlimited opportunity to arouse new needs that can be fed in the marketplace. But the progressive impact of global conglomerates does not extend so far as to incite political change, since transnational corporations, in media as in other fields, are intrinsically conservative, always preferring a stable climate rather than the volatility that leads to rebellion or revolution.

The advent of new media has also softened the distinction between consumption and participation. When I sit in front of a computer interacting with other computer users, am I an active participant in the life of a particular (albeit virtual) community? Or have I merely succumbed to the enchantment of seeing my own words on television? The predominant use of the Internet is for commerce; in comparison, political speech occupies very little space on the World Wide Web. Personally, I have enjoyed being in easy touch with friends and colleagues around the world via the Internet. But whether such personal pleasures will suffice to counteract the soporific social effects of unidirectional communication will remain unknown for some time. I am skeptical that the impetus for democratic cultural development will naturally flow from television or computers. Without dismissing the genuine cause for hope represented by newer technologies’ democratic potential, any provisional judgment should be based on mass media’s impacts to date, not their unrealized possibilities. If advocates of free cyberspace prevail, the trend may be reversed; but until then, the channeling of cultural energy into consumer choices is the primary effect of current arrangements. Everything else is a minority interest.

The formidable challenge lies in allowing people a larger, more meaningful choice in relation to commercial culture, as articulated by Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization):

The only pertinent question facing us today is not only of choosing between an outdated past and imitation of the foreign but of making original selections between cultural values which it is vital to safeguard and develop -- because they contain the deep-lying secrets of our collective dynamism -- and the elements which it is henceforth necessary to abandon -- because they put a brake on our facility for critical reflection and innovation. In the same way we must sort out the progressive elements offered by industrial societies, so as only to use those which are adapted to the society of our choice which we are capable of taking over and developing gradually by ourselves and for ourselves. (4)

Because American consumer cultural industries are the main generators of commercial cultural products, many other nations have mobilized to protect themselves from this onslaught from Hollywood. For instance, they have enacted legislation mandating a certain percentage of domestic content on their own airwaves or taxed American product to finance indigenous media development. The imbalance has been remarkable. In part to address it, in October 2005, member states of UNESCO adopted a “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.” In describing the need for such a convention, France’s cultural minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, was quoted by the BBC as saying: “Hollywood movies account for 85 percent of movie tickets sold around the world. In the United States, only one percent of shown movies come from outside the United States.” The eighth of the Convention’s nine objectives speaks directly to this issue: “to reaffirm the sovereign rights of States to maintain, adopt and implement policies and measures that they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions in their territory…”

The United States is the point of origin for most of the cultural products that crowd the world’s screens and storefronts. But the same imbalances exist within this country, where there has been only minimal regulation of commercial exploitation of broadcast media and other cultural industries and no organized effort has succeeded in highlighting the need to protect living cultures from the deadening effects of a surfeit of mass media. To the contrary, the U.S. leads a small but vociferous opposition to such protection. For instance among the 191 member states of the United Nations, there were two votes against UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, the U.S. and Israel, as well as four abstentions, Australia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Liberia.

This is not a new position for the United States. The U.S. role in international discourse concerning the problem of imbalance between American cultural industries and other countries’ has consistently been to dismiss it as no problem at all. The U.S. government waited until 2003 to reverse Ronald Reagan’s 1984 decision to leave UNESCO, the primary international forum for such dialogue. For the nearly two decades the U.S. sat out, official policy was simply to refuse to engage.

On those pre-1984 occasions when an official American voice joined the UNESCO dialogue, it was to reject any “internationally imposed cultural standards or norms limiting, in any way, the rights of individuals. ... Our cultural policy is a policy of freedom,” as articulated by Jean Gerard, United States Ambassador to UNESCO, at the organization’s global cultural policies conference in Mexico City, August 1982. The classic interpretation of this language was provided by French cultural minister Jack Lang at that same conference: “Cultural and artistic creation is today victim of a system of multinational financial domination against which it is necessary to get organized. ... Yes to liberty, but which liberty? The liberty ... of the fox in the henhouse which can devour the defenseless chickens at his pleasure?”

Since these positions were put forward more than two decades ago, global saturation of American commercial media has reached undreamed-of levels, a core component of the complex now referred to as globalization. Again, the phenomenon is also at work within the United States: recognizing that media portrayals will be many people’s chief experience of individuals and communities remarkably different from themselves, rural residents, people of color and members of other cultural minorities consistently complain of their misrepresentation within the mainstream media.

In 2001, Don Adams and I co-edited an anthology of essays on community cultural development by practitioners from around the world. The editorial group for Community, Culture and Globalization included one member each from the Philippines, South Africa, India and Mexico. Several had never before visited New York City, the site of our editorial meetings. Our work session was planned in the spring, well before the horrific events of September 11th. Even then, people had been extremely anxious about their security: would they be safe from thieves and attackers? Should they take special precautions? “NYPD Blue” occupied space in our visitors’ minds, in the slot where “gritty realism” meets “reality show.” In the event, everyone survived unscathed. But as we walked the streets, our visitors stayed close, replaying the familiar scenes of fear on their inner TV screens.

How many stories have we seen since 9/11 detailing arrests of people whose complexions matched a bystander’s mental profile of “terrorist,” and thus whose innocent overheard phone call or personal conversation seemed to warrant alerting Homeland Security? Across the U.S., how many citizens have had direct, positive experiences with persons of Arab descent sufficient to balance their ubiquitous media portrayals as terrorists?

I would never say that media reality supplants direct experience, but often it creates a context that influences interpretation and experience. As global media penetration increases, that influence grows.

Mass Migrations

The social upheavals and violent conflicts of the last century produced an unprecedented flood of refugees and exiles. Certain situations are familiar to consumers of news. For example, the visibility of the Dalai Lama and his celebrity supporters has brought attention to the way Chinese domination has endangered traditional Tibetan culture and to the massive emigration of Tibetans from their homeland. Many less visible crises have contributed to the primary flow of refugees from global South to North. At the beginning of 2005, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees recognized over nine million refugees and more than 19 million “persons of concern” from Darfur to Pakistan, in every world region. The problem has become so monumental and desperate that evacuees from New Orleans after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina protested, “We aren’t refugees, we’re survivors,” fearing that the very word “refugee” carried a fatal charge of indifference.

It is possible to maintain a degree of cultural continuity in diaspora, but eventually, being forcibly uprooted from one’s homeland leads to cultural deracination. My immigrant parents were sent to study Yiddish at the end of each school day, equipping them for fluent conversation with their elders; most of my generation knows few words beyond the common terms that have made their way into the larger culture, such as kvetch and schlep. I see the same story repeated in Chinese and Vietnamese families and among Haitian friends who know only a few words of their parents’ Creole. Some grow new roots, but for many, the path of rootlessness leads to anomie, reflected in violence and dropout rates among the young, as this community artist described:

This latest project is the biggest challenge ever.… These newer [Southeast Asian] immigrants -- most are refugees and they have a different mind-set [than previous immigrant groups], … youth violence, high failure rates and a real void in leadership from these communities. So we’re trying partnerships with emerging organizations and social-service agencies and trying to find strategies for program development; but all of this is very complex. It raises many issues. It takes work, care, negotiation, leadership skills. Amazing stuff comes out and healing. But I’m putting out fires all the time.

Within the United States, forced internal exile has generated a similar dynamic, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, when urban renewal projects (known to those they displaced as “urban removal”) banked on ending poverty and urban blight by demolishing inner-city neighborhoods, forcing the inhabitants to relocate, thus eliminating both the material and immaterial networks that previously sustained local culture. These internal migrations have been further complicated by ongoing transformation of the American cultural landscape through immigration, leading to a resurgent backlash of anti-immigrant feeling.

Around the globe, the last decade has seen an unprecedented upsurge in economic exile in the form of migration, often temporary, from impoverished countries to nations seeking low-cost labor. A friend who recently visited her retired parents in Israel recounted how well these aging friends and family members were cared for by legions of Filipina nurses and maids. In 2001, when I visited Italy for the meeting that originated Community, Culture and Globalization, a Filipina friend and I took an excursion to Como on a free afternoon. After a week of pasta, my friend had a yen for rice. She stood in the town square for a few minutes, scanning for faces that reminded her of home. Looking through her eyes, I saw dozens of young women whose glossy black hair and eyes, whose high cheekbones and flat noses stood out among the Italians doing their weekend shopping. My friend approached one young woman, exchanged a few words in Tagalog, then led us through a chain of alleys to a market stand serving homestyle chicken and rice.

A couple of years later, I was invited to a community cultural development conference in Hong Kong. There too, on Sunday the public park was thronged with young Filipinas. Maids’ day off, I thought, remembering Como, but as it turned out, on that particular Sunday they were using their scarce leisure time to protest wage cuts imposed on foreign domestics by Hong Kong’s government. More than half of the estimated 250,000 foreign maids working in Hong Kong in 2005 were from the Philippines, the rest from south and southeast Asia. It is estimated that nearly one in ten Filipinos works abroad, often at low-paying domestic jobs that nevertheless channel aggregate billions of dollars into families back home. As Sheila S. Coronel wrote in her spring 2005 report on the subject for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism,

[O]verseas work is the country’s main source of foreign exchange and is a major driver of the local economy.

The social cost of this in terms of separated families, especially a whole generation of children growing up without their mothers, is also well known; it has even been immortalized in popular culture through films like the heartrending Anak (Child). The loneliness and homesickness that migrants suffer, not to mention the discrimination and prejudice they often encounter, cannot be quantified in monetary terms. Neither can anyone convert in any currency the pain, longing, and neglect that scar motherless children.

This is globalization at its starkest: cultural continuity and family values are treated as expendable as compared to economic benefits in the form of salary savings to privileged societies employing low-paid foreign workers and, ironically, to overseas workers’ own societies in the form of wages they send home.

The Environment

While land, air and water are part of the birthright of every human being, often they are seen less as universal heritage or public trust than as assets to be managed to the advantage of specific interests (and thus to the disadvantage of others).

Often the brunt of environmental risk is borne by communities under great cultural pressure. For example, the Environmental Justice Movement was conceived at the beginning of the 1990s to address the pervasive practice of imposing the costs of environmental despoliation on low-income communities of color: channeling toxic runoff from mining and manufacturing into the rivers and creeks of their neighborhoods; situating toxic waste dumps near their homes; spraying the fields where they tend crops, heedless of the resulting birth defects and incidence of illness; allowing lead paint to persist in urban housing despite its effects on children’s health; and much, much more. The terrible consequences of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the poorest of New Orleans demonstrates official indifference to the well-being of poor communities.

In these times, the issue is usually framed as economy versus environment. Cultural considerations -- what it means to be tied to the land, how language, customs and spiritual grounding are shaped by that connection, the harm it may do to sever such ties -- by and large, these concerns have not been heard. Instead, people are asked to consider how much quality of life and health they are willing to sacrifice to keep their jobs or homes. Corporations assert that forcing clean-ups will drive industry away, that environmental regulation’s impact on profits will be too dire to be borne. Communities are deeply split by such controversies, with the added irony that often, the debate quickly becomes moot: by the time the dust has settled, the corporate polluter has moved on, leaving its formerly loyal supporters without employment. Mustering the courage and the arsenal of information and skills needed to stand up to such threats often requires a monumental investment of time and resources, pitting David communities against Goliath corporations and government agencies.

One hard-fought and highly visible campaign has focused on India’s Narmada River. A people’s organization known as Narmada Bachao Andola has organized mass protests against the Indian government’s program to dam the river and its tributaries to produce electricity, flooding countless traditional villages and agricultural areas in the process. Civil disobedience has been massive; some protestors drowned as the waters rose, choosing death over leaving their traditional homes. Economic arguments are primary for the dams’ advocates, but cultural concerns loom just as large for the people directly affected, as writer Jai Sen recounted in a 2000 essay on the impact of the dams on the tribal peoples affected,

[P]erhaps most profound of all has been their being uprooted and torn away from their forests and from their river itself, and from the spirits of their ancestors, each of which are key elements of their culture, and then being scattered like this in a virtually treeless and riverless environment, far away from where their spirits dwell. There are some things in life that can never be recovered except by returning, which is what many have now done, to live if necessary higher up on the slopes of their hills the lower reaches of which have now been submerged. (6)

Similarly, communities that have traditionally been sustained by agriculture or resource extraction -- mining, timber, fishing -- have been hard-hit by the restructuring of those industries. For example, as forests in the global North are logged out by companies with no commitment to sustainable practices, timber harvesting has moved South, where low wages and even weaker environmental regulations ensure greater short-term profit. What becomes of those left behind, whose histories, cultures and identities are tied to the land along with their livelihoods? The conflict between land as life and land as commodity is one of the strongest dichotomies of our thematic universe.

Recognition of Cultural Minorities

Though the consequences have sometimes been troubling, the fact of human diversity and its recognition have transformed our times.

In the United States, recognition of minority cultures as distinct and different in character has grown, reflected in better textbook histories and school curricula, in increased availability of ethnic foods, dress, literature and music and in the proliferation of culturally distinct celebrations, festivals and observances. But at the same time, oppositional feeling and the incidence of persecution -- synagogue fires, anti-immigrant legislation, anti-Arab violence, organized white supremacist activity -- have become more visible through media exposure.

Recently, domestic reports of persecution have declined. The FBI’s reported domestic hate crimes for the most recent available years dropped overall from a peak of 9,730 in 2001 to 7,649 in 2004. (It is widely accepted that such crimes are underreported, so no one claims that these figures represent all hate crimes, merely the total of those reported to law enforcement agencies.) Crimes against African Americans consistently account for two-thirds of all racially motivated crimes. Within the overall drop were certain contrary trends, such as a nine percent increase in crimes based on race. In its Annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents released in April 2005, the Anti-Defamation League also reported a 17 percent upturn in anti-Semitic incidents in 2004 after several years of relatively flat numbers. Many recent hate incidents resulted from increasingly aggressive campaigning by white supremacist groups. As diversity increases, scapegoating escalates.

Everywhere, as pointed out by the World Commission on Culture and Development, “people turn to culture as a means of self-definition and mobilization and assert their local cultural values. For the poorest among them, their own values are often the only thing that they can assert.”
(7)The cultures of major European and American cities have become immeasurably more vibrant, diverse and lively as a result of such assertions. In many other parts of the world, the result has been more mixed, leading simultaneously to greater overall autonomy -- as in the key part Islamic culture played in overturning the Shah of Iran -- and a corresponding lessening of freedom for individuals who diverge from the presumed cultural consensus -- as for those Iranians who resisted adopting the lifeways of fundamentalist Shiite Islam under the Ayatollah Khomeini.

This is a confusing time, offering enough contradictory evidence to feed almost any theory about cultural identity. The embrace of particularism is widening: in the developed world, many people have sought fresh connection with cultural roots that previous generations tried to prune. Johns and Janes are giving birth to Juans and Juanitas, Kwames and Imanis, Yaacovs and Yaels. In developing countries, indigenous voices are claiming their ways of life, even attaining the highest offices, as with the 2005 election of Aymara coca farmer Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. Increasingly, cultural rights are deemed essential to human rights, a trend that shows no signs of stopping.

Yet even as immigration increases diversity in the global North, it heightens the anxiety of those who wish to preserve the dominance of their own groups. For example, in 2004 and 2005, some American retailers replaced the traditional December greeting of “Merry Christmas” with the more neutral “Happy Holidays” so as not to offend non-Christian shoppers. They became the target of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign” and the American Family Association’s parallel retail boycott. As William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said (citing highly questionable statistics), “Ninety-six percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. Spare me the diversity lecture.”

Growing recognition of cultural minorities is a chief characteristic of these times. Indeed, ours has been an era of cultural particularization, marked by what the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes has called “the emergence of cultures as protagonists of history.”
(8) The question of whether they are protagonists in a tragedy or triumph is not settled.

“Culture Wars”

Our thematic universe has been shaped by extreme polarization of cultural values. The two main contending camps have been fundamentalism and liberal humanism: on one side has been the desire to eliminate cultural expression that offends received religious and social beliefs; on the other, to promote free expression of divergent views.

We have seen countless manifestations, from the burning of books in revolutionary Iran to the hue and outcry over witchcraft in the Harry Potter series of children’s stories. In the United States, there has been an unending stream of controversy over works of art that are perceived as dangerous when viewed from the fundamentalist camp: Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual images, Andres Serrano’s and Chris Ofili’s religious ones, Marlon Riggs’ challenging transgressions of racial and sexual taboos. In 2005, a main U.S. battlefield was the debate between those who wish to teach “Intelligent Design” (i.e., creationism) in schools as an equivalent to the study of evolution, a campaign supported by religious fundamentalists and just as vigorously opposed by liberal humanists. By now, such controversies seem to be fixtures of the zeitgeist: wherever expressive freedom is asserted, a counter-assertion of disapproval is sure to claim a higher authority.

In the community cultural development field, skirmishes in the “culture wars” (Pat Buchanan’s rubric from a 1992 speech has become the label of choice across the political spectrum) have most often arisen around works of public art. Consider Los Angeles’ Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), one of the oldest and most accomplished community mural groups in the United States. SPARC has repeatedly mobilized its allies to protect its work, often with success. For instance, former Los Angeles Mayor Riordan’s “zero tolerance” crime-fighting campaign of in the late 1990s led police to demand the obliteration of alternative history murals in communities of color. Claiming that portrayals of past rebellion would inspire fresh revolt, police singled out such images as a Black Panther and a mestizo from the Mexican Revolution.

In 2005, “Save Our State” (SOS), a group opposing illegal immigration, demanded the alteration of “Danzas Indigenas” (“Indigenous Dances”), a Metro station monument in Baldwin Park created thirteen years earlier by SPARC’s director Judith F. Baca, using an extensive process of public dialogue with the support and approval of the City. SOS condemned multilingual, multicultural messages from local residents that were part of the monument. As Baca described it in her May 2005 artist’s statement,

The work is not a work of a lone artist working without relationship to the community, but rather a representation of community sensibilities and sentiment of the time. While this group has cast the artwork as part of a “Reconquista movement,” it is in fact neither advocating for the return of California to Mexico, nor wishing that Anglos had never come to this land. This statement [incorporated into the monument] “it was better before they came” was deliberately ambiguous. About which “they” is the anonymous voice speaking? The statement was made by an Anglo local resident who was speaking about Mexicans. The ambiguity of the statement was the point, and is designed to say more about the reader than the speaker -- and so it has.

Once again, SPARC launched a counter-campaign that drew passionate opposition to SOS, preserving the monument intact. But each victory requires a fresh mobilization, a huge investment of time and energy merely to protect what already exists.

Even when individual artworks are not especially controversial, there can be an underlying conflict between the assertion of protected public space which is intrinsic to the idea of public art (which Baca has called “sites of public memory”) and encroaching commercialization of public space. In 1998, for instance, an advertising company (subsequently bought out by the huge advertising corporation Clear Channel, which has a virtual monopoly on billboards) won a court ruling that it was unconstitutional for the city of Portland, Oregon, to regulate billboards but not murals, erasing the legal distinction between art and signage. This effectively amounted to a six-year moratorium on exterior murals.

The City tried to wire around the court decision by creating a special status for public art whereby the owners of buildings receiving murals would in effect deed the works to the City of Portland, exempting them from sign ordinances. But property owners who don’t want to enter into such a relationship blocked several community murals from the start. Clear Channel, calling the City’s compromise part of a “jihad” against sign companies, pushed its case hard, arguing that local muralists should have no voice in the court proceedings, but in December 2005, muralist Joe Cotter was granted the right to participate in the trial as a “non-aligned third party.” At this writing, the legal outcome is uncertain. But there could hardly be a clearer expression of the conflict between community cultural development values and the rampant commercialization of absolutely everything -- a different type of culture war, one that protected public space seems to be losing.

Meanwhile, yet another category of cultural conflict has been surfacing. Looming over issues involving freedom of expression since 2001 has been the United States government’s and its allies’ “War on Terror,” deploying weapons such as the USA Patriot Act to expand government surveillance and otherwise curtail civil liberties. This too has been framed as a “culture war.” In his speeches, President Bush has explained such measures as necessary to op- pose “Islamic radicalism, militant Jihadism, or Islamo-fascism,” while civil libertarians counter with alarm at the threat of censorship. For example, the American Library Association and other library and bookstore associations have protested against provisions allowing the government unrestricted access to readers’ records (including secret monitoring of library Internet use). Some librarians have taken to shredding records rather than keeping them on hand and available for FBI review. Meanwhile, citizens have repeatedly been cautioned by members of the Bush administration that expressing criticism of the motives and methods of the War in Iraq lends comfort to America’s enemies.

This culture war too is global. Britain responded to terrorist bombings in 2005 by passing new legislation that put much stricter limits on speech, making it a crime to publish anything that “glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally)” of terrorist acts, including “matter from which … members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated in existing circumstances.” In March 2005, surveying recent developments worldwide, the International Federation of Journalists and the human rights organization Statewatch co-published Journalism, Civil Liberties and the War on Terrorism, concluding that:

Having considered the current state of policymaking at national and international level, it is impossible not to conclude that the war on terrorism amounts to a devastating challenge to the global culture of human rights and civil liberties established almost 60 years ago. … [T]he war on terrorism is undermining more than half of the minimum standards in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. (9)

For an art exhibit leading up to the 2004 presidential election -- “Elect This!” -- SPARC asked artists to examine the state of American democracy, speaking through their art to the issues raised in the election. At a discussion held in conjunction with the exhibit, SPARC’s director told the assembled that she had been cautioned against sponsoring such an exhibit: in the midst of the War on Terror, friends feared it might endanger her nonprofit organization. In this climate, the risk of self-censorship is perhaps greater than that imposed by the state. That it is being counseled so vigorously and also vigorously resisted are both characteristic of our thematic universe.


“Development” is a prickly concept. In the 1960s, the rubric “underdevelopment” came into use to describe regions suffering the after-effects of colonial domination: poor infrastructure, inadequate economic opportunity, weak educational systems. Colonial powers had used countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America as repositories for raw materials and low-cost labor, extracting their vital natural and human resources to sustain colonizers’ own standing in world trade and politics. The pejorative cast of this term led to a change in nomenclature from “underdeveloped” to “developed” and “developing” nations, hopefully marking the poorest nations less as left behind than as works in progress. But not all have been helped or allowed to progress, and in recent years, “least-developed countries” has come into use as a more accurate designation for some nations.

No matter what terms are used, the underlying questions are still the same: what does development mean? How is it judged and measured? Who decides? For most of the 20th century, the primary yardstick was economic, and the standard toward which nations were developing was that of the industrialized countries of North America and Europe. To develop meant to acquire manufacturing capacity, including the needed telecommunications and energy apparatus, to produce the needed skilled workers, to establish markets for manufactured goods and thus to map out a trajectory of ongoing, selfsustaining economic growth. As progress was made toward these aims, social development would also rise, reflected in higher literacy rates, life span and household income.

The United Nations uses a “Human Development Index” to rank nations’ position on a matrix involving Gross Domestic Product per capita, life expectancy and several indicators of literacy and education. Its 2005 report indicated that the Index continues to rise in most regions while falling in sub- Saharan Africa and the former Soviet regions. The ten lowest ranked on the Index are former colonies in Africa; nine of the ten highest are in Europe and North America (the tenth is Australia).

For decades, the principal actors financing development -- agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- promoted a highly economistic definition of development, with results decidedly mixed for those nations and regions perceived to be developing. Assistance often came in the form of loans that could never be repaid, sometimes because the funds were misspent by corrupt authorities, sometimes because investment was insufficient to reverse crushing poverty. In the 1980s, lending agencies began to impose “structural adjustment programs” calling for huge cuts in public welfare spending, stressing export and resource extraction (which did nothing to strengthen local economic capacity) and requiring initiatives to attract multinational investors. Thus programs that were ostensibly devised to stimulate positive development exacerbated underdevelopment. The classic illustration depicts farmers who used to raise their families’ food facing a terrible dilemma: cashing out the coffee or sugar they now grow for export to buy expensive imported food for their own tables, a net loss in so many ways.

There are signs of change. In June 2005, G8 finance ministers (i.e., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) agreed to forgive US$40 billion of debt owed by 18 countries to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Fund. Other international bodies have responded as well. UNESCO’s current position on development asserts the critical, central role of culture in changing notions of development:

Development models produced since the 1970s have clearly failed, despite constant revision, to live up to the expectations they raised. Some would claim that this is because development has itself been defined far too exclusively in terms of tangibles, such as dams, factories, houses, food and water, although these are undeniably vital goods. UNESCO defends the case of indivisibility of culture and development, understood not simply in terms of economic growth, but also as a means of achieving a satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence. This development may be defined as that set of capacities that allows groups, communities and nations to define their futures in an integrated manner. (10)

Precisely the same integral view -- that tangible development and cultural development are integral and inseparable -- pertains to community development within nations. As Dee Davis, Executive director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, observed in his essay “Why no ‘Marshall Plan’ for America’s rural areas?”:

Of the 250 poorest counties in the United States, 244 are rural. Rural households average 27 percent less in earnings than their metropolitan counterparts, and the poverty rate is 21 percent higher. The suicide rate for males over 15 is 80 percent higher, and the rate of alcohol and drug abuse is significantly higher among rural young people. Rural eighth-graders are 104 percent likelier to use amphetamines and 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine than their peers in metropolitan areas.

Rural residents are more likely to be victims of violence than urban Americans. Rural areas have just half the number of physicians per capita, and rural school spending is 25 percent less per pupil. Forty percent of the rural population has no access to public transportation, even though half of the rural poor do not have automobiles to get them to work or to the doctor.

These conditions exist for a significant number of Americans. There are more rural Americans than Iraqis. The 56 million people who live in rural America, if counted separately, would rank as the world’s 23rd largest nation, just behind France, Italy and Great Britain. Yet as a nation, we find difficulty acknowledging that the challenges rural Americans face are national challenges, let alone national priorities on a par with rebuilding the infrastructure in Iraq.

In rural communities and depressed inner cities, domestic community development programs have given as little consideration to culture as the World Bank at its worst. As UNESCO’s policy statement implies, the driving question is self-determination. When integrated development is properly understood as “that set of capacities that allows groups, communities and nations to define their futures in an integrated manner,” it becomes inarguable that development must grow from dialogue and collaboration. The clash between those who desire this collaboration and those who see their own interests as coming first is one of the sharpest in our thematic universe.

Globalization and Privatization

Many of these conditions can be understood as phenomena of globalization, the increasing irrelevance of national boundaries and interdependence of worldwide trade, capital and population. While some have gained from the forces of globalization, many have lost:

Over a billion poor people have been largely bypassed by the globalization of cultural processes. Involuntary poverty and exclusion are unmitigated evils. ... [A]ll too often in the process of development, it is the poor who shoulder the heaviest burden. It is economic growth itself that interferes with human and cultural development. In the transition from subsistence-oriented agriculture to commercial agriculture, poor women and children are sometimes hit hardest. In the transition from a traditional society, in which the extended family takes care of its members who suffer misfortunes, to a market society, in which the community has not yet taken on responsibility for the victims of the competitive struggle, the fate of these victims can be cruel. In the transition from rural patron-client relationships to relations based on the cash nexus, the poor suffer by losing one type of support without gaining another. In the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, the majority of rural people are neglected by the public authorities in favour of the urban population. In the transitions that we are now witnessing from centrally planned to market-oriented economies and from autocracies to democracies, inflation, mass unemployment, growing poverty, alienation and new crimes have to be confronted. ...

As a result of accelerated change, the impact of Western culture, mass communications, rapid population growth, urbanization, the break-up of the traditional village and of the extended family, traditional cultures (often orally transmitted) have been disrupted. Cultures are not monolithic and the elite culture, often geared to global culture, tends to exclude the poor and powerless.

Globalization’s most obvious impacts have limited the ability of the poor and excluded to earn decent livelihoods. But advanced development thinkers such as the economist Amartya Sen have made it clear that impoverishment and exclusion are not matters merely of economic power. (13) It is well-established, for instance, that life expectancy and health do not correlate neatly with per capita income: the citizens of Kerala, in India, have higher literacy rates and longer life expectancies than inner-city African-American men, whose average income is substantially higher. Sen’s Nobel Prize–winning work on the causes of famine demonstrated that free access to communications media is a most effective way to prevent such human disasters, because an informed population will be able to learn and therefore address the causes of food shortage, almost always a problem of distribution (i.e., caused by political corruption or market abuses) rather than one of supply.

Yet the forces driving globalization are preeminently, almost exclusively, economic: the push to open new markets and to consolidate and dominate those that have been established. Every element of globalization has this dual aspect: while new information technologies hold great promise to increase communication around the globe and thus expand cooperation toward greater freedom, for instance, their distribution is determined largely by market forces, creating a growing digital divide between haves and have-nots.

In this climate of inequality, the question of how to distribute social goods so as to advance the aims of global inclusion -- among them, freedom of expression and association and the right to culture, with all it implies -- are not on the agendas of transnational corporations. Indeed, the global trend is toward privatization, with formerly public responsibilities devolving to the private sector, following the American model. As the late C. Wright Mills pointed out, the problem is treating the “public issues of social structure” as if they were “personal troubles of milieu.” Every day we see public issues treated as personal troubles, as when young people struggling with urban poverty slip into illegal activity to help support their families and society’s response is to condemn them for criminality and throw away the key. For those who benefit from the status quo, dismissing public issues as private troubles has been a winning strategy with intractable consequences for the rest of us. As Mills wrote forty years ago in The Sociological Imagination:

In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution. In so far as war is inherent in the nation-state system and in the uneven industrialization of the world, the ordinary individual in his restricted milieu will be powerless -- with or without psychiatric aid -- to solve the troubles this system or lack of system imposes upon him. In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory marriage remains incapable of purely private solution. In so far as the overdeveloped megalopolis and the overdeveloped automobile are built-in features of the overdeveloped society, the issues of urban living will not be solved by personal ingenuity and private wealth.(14)

Weakened public sectors seldom demonstrate the will or ability to effectively address problems of social inclusion, despite considerable popular sentiment in favor, as demonstrated by the vocal opposition to globalizationas- usual that surfaced with the November 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and has continued with each subsequent meeting around the world. In large part, it has been left to the third sector of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious organizations, foundations and unions to seek a balance between the private pursuit of profit and the public good. Yet the complex point is frequently made that the transnational anti-globalization alliances that have become so visible in recent years would not be so strong and vibrant -- would perhaps not exist -- without the globalization of communications.

It appears that globalization cannot be stopped nor, given its positive effects, do many people wish the increasing interrelatedness of the world’s people could be undone. Whatever else it is reputed to breed, familiarity seems to engender awareness and often, caring. Yet we have no indication that globalization will somehow bring about the reversal of its own destructive effects or even the amelioration of such effects. Rather, this would require us to exert powerful countervailing pressure, demanding pluralism, participation and equity. As Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy has said, the response to globalization begins with awareness:

Mass resistance movements, individual activists, journalists, artists, and film makers have come together to strip Empire of its sheen. They have connected the dots, turned cash-flow charts and boardroom speeches into real stories about real people and real despair. They have shown how the neo-liberal project has cost people their homes, their land, their jobs, their liberty, their dignity. They have made the intangible tangible. The once seemingly incorporeal enemy is now corporeal.

This is a huge victory. It was forged by the coming together of disparate political groups, with a variety of strategies. But they all recognized that the target of their anger, their activism, and their doggedness is the same. This was the beginning of real globalization. The globalization of dissent.

Community cultural development efforts constitute one such response, making democratic counterforces of many of the same arts and media tools elsewhere used to promote global saturation of commercial culture.

About the author: Arlene Goldbard's essays have appeared in such journals as Art in America, The Independent, Theatre, High Performance and Tikkun. Her books include Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture; Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development; Community, Culture and Globalization; and her novel Clarity. As a consultant, Arlene has worked with countless organizations including nonprofits such as the Independent Television Service, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and the New Museum of Contemporary Art; foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media; a score of state arts agencies; and many others. She has served as Vice Chair of the Board of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and Tsofah/President of Congregation Eitz Or in Seattle. She is a member of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center. She co-founded such activist groups as the San Francisco Artworkers’ Coalition, the California Visual Artists Alliance, Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts and Draft Help. She can be reached through her website

Published in In Motion Magazine February 19, 2007

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