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Poor foreigners using mobile phones – oh the humanity!

Living cultures change. It is the very process of change that makes them themselves. Their sameness is not merely a matter of their difference from other cultures, but of their differences from themselves over time, just as a person who grows from childhood to adulthood remains the same person only by changing. What too many observers from wealthy societies seem to identify as the essential cultural element of poorer societies is their poverty. I have observed the disappointment of visitors from wealthy cultures when colorful poor people dressed in brilliant clothes stop, pat themselves down, and take out cell phones in response to insistent ringing sounds. It’s not authentic! It ruins the whole trip! Those people are being robbed of their culture! They’re victims of global capitalism! The arrogance of those who want to keep the poor in their native environments, lizards in a terrarium, is startling.

Although seeing a Dalit (“untouchable”) or a Mayan highlander talking on a cell phone may ruin the visit of a wealthy poverty tourist, being able to use telephony to talk to their friends, family members, or business associates is often highly valued by the people who bought the cell phones and should not be seen as a threat to their identity. Globalization is making possible a culture of wealth and freedom for Dalits and Mayans, who can enjoy wealth and freedom without ceasing to be the people they are. Just as culture should not be identified with isolation or stasis, it should not be identified with poverty.

Tom G Palmer, Realizing Freedom, page 371.

The essay from which these paragraphs are taken reminded me of the recent talk that Samizdata commenter Michael Jennings gave at the apartment of Brian Micklethwait. Meanwhile, some time ago I wrote about an excellent book by the economist, Tyler Cowen, who also challenges the clichéd views about globalisation and the presumed “flattening” and homogenising effect it is supposed to have on cultures. In fact, as Cowen and Palmer notes, what globalisation and the spread of things such as IT does is often enable more, not less, diversity in certain respects.

I should add that Palmer’s book is excellent reading, blending a mix of theory (he subjects the likes of John Rawls and GA Cohen to a brutal dissection) and essays on specific issues such as repression in Egypt, the problems in Iraq, and the curious contortions of “left libertarians”. Tom is a great person who travels far and wide in the job of spreading classical liberalism and free market ideas. I don’t know how he handles the jet-lag.

9 comments to Poor foreigners using mobile phones – oh the humanity!

  • Bruce

    The whole “ethno-tourism” thing can be a bit “icky” at times, in my opinion.

    I first encountered it in Hawaii back in the eighties. Then again, there, it may be just a huge Islander joke on the “haoles”.

    Being “guided” through the homes and lives of dirt-poor tribal folk in the highlands of Viet Nam in the mid-nineties made me a bit leery.

    So, what do the troups of Japanese tourists take away from “packaged cultural experiences” in Australia or New Zealand? Who knows. What do Western tourists “get” from being carted around the shrine, temples and bars of Japan?

    I recently spent a weekend at a festival of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music . A lot of fun, but, in some ways, the potted dance extracts and modernised costumes are just a tease. Many of the songs, dances and costumes, especially those from the islands, are NOT for consumption by uninitiated people. Thus, what most people see is an approximation.

    On a previous such occasion, one of the Islanders was wearing a more-than-usually striking head dress. In place of the usual sharks, turtles, etc, this one included a quite accurately carved model of a WW2 B-25 bomber. These were a VERY common sight in those parts during WW2 and so became a pert of contemporary lore.

  • R Dawes

    I think Frank Furedi observed similarly, a decade ago (and perhaps is cited by Palmer on the issue?). He spoke of the gall of various types who wanted to keep those of other cultures stuck in those cultures, unchanged, like exhibits in a museum.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’m a big Ray Mears fan, but he is a big propagator of the idea that traditional cultures are better than modern ones. On the one hand I can see his point. If you live in a society where for generations it was a critical skill to be able to locate and identify edible plants, use bush-medicine and make fire without matches – then a culture that begins to lose these skills has experienced a genuine loss. On the other hand, one of the main reasons these people lived in this way was because there wasn’t a MacDonalds or a pharmacy within convenient walking distance. So to expect them to keep living that way is to expect them to live in the past.

    I guess the best of both worlds would be a culture that was able to modernise whilst retaining elements of their traditional lifestyle for posterity. Some North American tribes seem to have managed this to an extent – although it is always problematic trying to teach the young folk these things when their survival is no longer contingent upon them.

    There is another issue as well which to an extent proves Ray right. In certain regions, particularly the high Arctic, traditional lifestyles are the only viable mode of survival the land supports. Without those there is only one alternative lifestyle available – dependence. Unless their happens to be oil under your patch of the Arctic, there is no reason for a modern man to live in the high Arctic, and no way for him to make money. Many an Inuit tribe has become essentially dependant on handouts from white men in warmer climes, because they have forgotten how to live off the land. They would rather sit on their asses eating hamburgers and beer that were given to them than go out and kill a seal by their own efforts.

    Since autonomy is better than dependence, I would call this a real loss. Of course there is no reason why they couldn’t in theory use mobile phones, modern snowshoes etc. and make their traditional skills even more efficient – using the modern world to augment their self-sufficiency rather than degrade it. This doesn’t really seem to happen much though. For many people the only real choice when it comes to modernising is to either move to a more developed region, or become a taker of handouts. In any case, a way of life ends up being destroyed.

  • Tedd


    I agree with what you said about the Arctic. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Inuit a little, and it’s impossible not to be impressed by how they adapted to such a harsh environment. They had a longer life expectancy than Europeans while living, literally with stone-age technology, in the same area where the Franklin expedition perished with the best 19th century technology at its disposal.

    They have an admirable culture, and it’s tragic to see its traditional manifestation disappearing. There’s little doubt that, at least in some cases, their political liberty has been violated. But it seems to me that the overall historical trend was inevitable, anyway. Even if every Inuit had been free to choose his or her destiny at every moment — nobody forcibly relocated, some form of property right respected (possibly even including nation status) — the traditional manifestation of their culture would still be disappearing. A person would have to be severely lacking in sentiment not to regret that, but equally lacking in perspective not to see its inevitability.

  • I don’t know how he handles the jet-lag.

    Ask Michael Jennings. I hear he travels from time to time. 😉

  • Every now and then I find myself having a conversation with someone else who travels a lot. A sentence like “How do you cope with the jetlag so well? You seem to be able to remain functional and professional on your trips” will be uttered. The other person will then say that he or she cannot stand jetlag, is barely functioning and that it is awful, awful, awful etc. The answer is that if you have to handle it, you will.

    (Right now it is nearly 1am, I am awake, and yesterday I reached three countries for the day before 8am, so….)

  • Midwesterner

    Ask Michael Jennings. I hear he travels from time to time. 😉

    Wait a minute. Michael has a Tardis?!

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    At least North Korea has not changed! I hear that Chinese tourists go there to be reminded of how bad things were under Mao. Could that be a perverse incentive to stay the same?

  • Wait a minute. Michael has a Tardis?!

    I wish.