by Kurt Bresswein
EASTON — American culture can improve lives when it spreads to foreign nations. But paired with powerful marketing, this culture can threaten foreign environments and centuries-old traditions.
With this dual impact in mind, a panel discussion Monday at Lafayette College failed to answer yes or no to the question of “American Culture in the World: Benevolent Force or Evil Empire?”
The discussion was among a dozen or so scheduled in the United States and England.
Amardeep Singh, an English professor at Lehigh University, said a McDonald’s restaurant means little more to people in India than another eatery choice. That’s because the fast-food chain tailors its menu to carry Indian ingredients, meaning no beef.
The only direct victim of the fast-food chain, Singh said, is the local restaurant that the golden arches displaced. And the Indians, he said, “are happy they have access to it, if they want it.”
The greater danger of spreading American consumer goods and popular culture comes when indigenous people become unable to sustain their traditions, the panelists said.
Sometimes the changes seem harmless. Nile Rodgers, a disco musician who now produces top musical acts and has toured the world, described two visits separated by several years that he made to Japan. During his first visit, the Japanese were drinking tea all the time. On Rodgers’ second visit, everyone was chugging Starbucks coffee.
Katalin Fabian, assistant professor of law and government at Lafayette, fears the environmental impact of Proctor and Gamble’s push to win over China with Pampers. Chinese grandparents traditionally toilet train babies through discipline, she said. In disposable diapers, Fabian sees non-biodegradable fabric clogging landfills.
Dan Bauer, an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at Lafayette, relayed tales from his visits to Yolox, Mexico, beginning about 1979. At first, the community was closed and grew mostly coffee and corn.
Today, the village is a source of top sushi chefs in the United States. Their children, born in America and uninitiated into Yolox culture, stay in the United States. The village built a basketball stadium in the hope of drawing some of their sons and daughters back home, Bauer said.
That same emigration of generations began to hit India about 1990, when the Socialist government there gave way to more liberal thinkers, Singh said.
But among all the world’s cultures, Rodgers said, the United States carries the most influence over foreigners, and particularly with teenagers and young adults. And this impact carries a responsibility that marketers of American culture must respect and accept, he said.
“Sometimes the only thing that motivates us is opening up new markets,” Rodgers said.
The Americans for Informed Democracy student organization and Rodgers’ We Are Family Foundation brought Monday’s discussion to Lafayette. Other discussions in the series are scheduled through May 8 at Oxford University.
Rodgers is slated to stay in Easton through tonight, when he plans to address “Intellectual Property in the Digital Age” during Lafayette’s annual Landis Lecture.
The address is open to public and scheduled for 8 in the Oechsle Hall auditorium. The lecture series is named for trustee emeritus John Landis, Lafayette Class of 1939.