Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Why Globalization Isn’t Working by Mark LeVine

Boston Globe Thusaday 17 Aug 2006

This war was never supposed to happen. In the era of globalization, no two countries that possess McDonald’s are supposed to go to war. Well, I’ve eaten at McDonald’s in Tel Aviv and Beirut. And Israel and Lebanon have just had a very nasty war.

Globalization was supposed to make such conflicts obsolete by helping countries, especially those with a solid middle class like Israel and Lebanon, make peace (and McNuggets) instead of war. The problem is that globalization usually doesn’t work as advertised. And the way it works often exacerbates rather than helps ameliorate conflicts — particularly those over religion, identity, and territory (never mind when all three are connected, as in the present one).

Take Israel, for example. The now-defunct Oslo process was driven largely by the desire of the country’s yuppified elite to create a “New Middle East” with Israel as its economic and cultural engine. Nice idea, but bound to fail — precisely because as the yuppies ate their ciabatta bread sandwiches on Tel Aviv’s fashionable Sheinkin Street, the working and middle classes saw poverty and inequality jump to unprecedented levels, while violence (and the settlements that helped drive it) continued unabated. All it took was the right nationalist politician — most successfully Ariel Sharon — to focus the anger of the masses toward both the Labor Party elite and the Palestinians to engineer the end of Oslo.

Palestinians fared far worse, as the economic protocols of the Oslo accords severely constricted their ability to develop an independent or even autonomous economy. More burdensome were the regular closures imposed by Israel, which dried up whatever capital remained in the country after the corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority commandeered its cut of the pie. The Palestinians’ turn toward Hamas was a logical, if tragic, response to the economic, territorial, and political losses suffered during the peace process.

A similar phenomenon is happening in Lebanon, where the gentrification of downtown Beirut and the reappearance of the city on the world’s chic tourist destinations (particularly for Arabs) obscured the fact that members of the working class — that is, Hezbollah’s base — fared no better than their Israeli and Palestinian comrades. In delivering services and, as important, respect to the poor Shi’ites left out of the nonstop partying along East Beirut’s relatively unbombed Monot Street, the Party of God established a strong-enough bond to withstand weeks of shelling by Israeli troops.

What can we learn from this war between two McDonald’s-loving countries? Rather than symbolizing the arrival of an American-style consumer paradise, the appearance of the Golden Arches and other global brands in societies still rife with ethnic, territorial, and economic conflict heralds a distorted globalization. The promise of the “good life” it announces cannot be realized without a global commitment to the political, economic, and cultural development that makes such progress possible.

Currently, this dynamic has been exacerbated by a historical amnesia that has led the two parties to forget the terrible costs of their last war that ended only six years ago. An even deeper forgetting has erased the history of continual contact and movement among the three peoples as, once upon a time, wealthy Palestinians summered in Beirut and Jews sent their sons to study Torah and business science there, while Lebanese came to Palestine for business and pleasure.

These connections are not just part of history; they remind us that the future can be inspired by the past, instead of repeating the mistakes of the present. Indeed, for people who are lucky enough to have traveled extensively in both Israel and Lebanon, the contemporary similarities between the two countries is striking.

Lebanese cosmopolitanism is particularly important because only such a philosophy could maintain the country’s delicate sectarian balance, and therefore, its survival. My own experience of its reemergence in recent trips to Beirut, particularly in the coming together of young Lebanese of all persuasions to discuss the country’s future, convinced me that it was in Beirut, not in the much-hyped Dubai, that the future of Arab democracy and development lay — precisely because its citizens have had to make the hard compromises that their counterparts in Dubai, awash in oil money and ex-pats, could ignore.

The latest war has badly damaged this dynamic. As Moe Hamzeh, leader of the Lebanese rock group The Kordz, explained to me, “All our dreams were gone in 24 hours, like a tsunami, only worse because it was man-made. And I fear that the trend toward increasing sectarianism that has been growing in the last few years underneath the cosmopolitan surface will be heightened after the war.” Such a state of affairs should give the Bush administration great pause, for it reveals that its new Middle East has, for the moment, no discernible pulse.

And it’s going to be hard to get one back, for the key to cosmopolitanism in the age of globalization is, according to Jamaican philosopher Jason Hill, the freedom of people to forget where they come from. The citizens of Lebanon, Israel, or the Palestinian territories don’t have the luxury, and so must find their own path toward building the kinds of societies where the values of tolerance, justice, and compromise can firmly take root.

The task seems almost unimaginable now, but it’s doable, as I saw just a few months ago when I joined Hamzeh and his band in their brilliantly Arabesque version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” As a packed audience of Lebanese fans chanted each word of the chorus, it was clear that as far as they were concerned, with enough vision, determination, and solidarity, even the biggest walls could be pulled down. Let’s hope they’re right.

Mark LeVine is a Prof. of History at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil.

© Copyright 2006 Boston Globe

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

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to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"