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PART I - The Caribbean Dilemma

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In a sociological sense the term “cultural imperialism” refers to the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating and/or artificially injecting the culture, language, habits and behavior(s) of one nation into another. In the classic sense cultural imperialism is usually achieved when there is a relationship between a large, economically and militarily powerful nation and a smaller, weaker and less important one.

For the people of the nations of Caribbean cultural imperialism is not new – only that the modern form(s) has changed and adapted to the changing socio-economic and political conditions on the ground and by the use of modern technology. When white Europeans instituted the mad “Scramble for the Caribbean” and fought each other over territories that were not their own, the subsequent conquest of the region by England, Spain, France, Portugal and Belgium changed both socio-economic and political relations characterized by the attitudes and behavior of the conquerors to the conquered.  In these newly acquired colonies, the European conquerors imposed their language, religion and other cultural norms sometimes forcibly suppressing the local, indigenous cultural habits and traditions.

Over time the conquered peoples came to accept this “new culture” as their own. Self-hate, a pronounced glorification and marveling of this alien culture, defeatism and contempt for things local defined both the individual and the populace as they actively and deliberately sought to ridicule, deny and belittle their own historical and cultural heritage as irrelevant to that of the newly embraced and transplanted culture seen as superior to that of all other cultures.

Therefore, cultural imperialism can refer to either the forced acculturation of a subject population, or to the voluntary embracing of a foreign culture by individuals who do so of their own free will. For example, Caribbean individual fatalism when it comes to dealing with the United States in the context of cultural imperialism can be summed up by the old Confucian saying that “if rape is inevitable then lie down and enjoy it.” Cowed by the military and economic might of America most Caribbean people believe that even when their countries are right it is futile to argue with America and to subordinate their principles – right or wrong – to the prevailing sentiment that “you can’t win against America.”

Nowadays the tremendous impact of the imposition of cultural imperialistic behavior on the Caribbean by the a conquering America using the tools of unfair and unjust trade practices, lop-sided and one-way commerce, and an inculcated  dependent relationship syndrome, is evident in all aspects of Caribbean everyday life. Indeed, without the hot, tropical climate one would quickly conclude that the Caribbean region is an Americanized colonial area.

From the embrace of the worst aspects of American pop culture by Caribbean young people – sagging, below the waist pants, gang-banging, disrespect for women, individualism, rabid consumerism, the bling-bling mentality, and a propensity to violent behavior – to the upsurge of “American diseases” due to the Caribbean’s new love affair with fast and processed foods shipped “back home” by the lucrative “barrel industry,” and the daily dose of vapid, violence-filled cable television programming, the Caribbean identity already corrupted might be permanently lost.

In places like Grenada an entire language, French Patois, was lost because successive governments and an elitist class in society did not see the need to defend and preserve it while acquiescing and know-towing to the dictates of the English colonial powers. Even today many Caribbean island nations have not broken the English yoke. They continue to have the British Queen as the “Head of State,” play the British national anthem at local official functions, and subconsciously still believe that any blond, blue-eyed Englishman is far superior to a local Black leader. You hear it in popular unconscious sayings today about “liking to work for the white man” – a belief that ALL white people are good and decent while ALL Black people are evil scoundrels.

Such self-hate is a by-product of both slavery and cultural imperialism and to the extent that the Caribbean touts its freedom and independence the region’s leaders and its people are yet to make a clean break with those vestiges of the colonial past that imposed an alien, foreign matrix on development. For example, the British  Westminister model of parliamentary government that the Caribbean leadership implemented after the independence movement  remains today little changed even though many have pointed to its unsuitability for the region, especially the undemocratic and disenfranchising role of first-past-the-pole elections. Most of the region’s constitutions are over 40 years old and have never been revised, changed or amended to suit modern times.

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And the struggle for a final Caribbean Supreme Court of Appeals to replace the British Privy Council is also testimony to the strong and enduring grip of cultural imperialism on the region. Today, cultural imperialism has changed its spots and is not imposed over the barrel of a gun. A newly globalized economy of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has facilitated this process through the use of new information technology. This kind of cultural imperialism is derived from what is called "soft power."

This so-called “soft power” fits into Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of “cultural hegemony.” Going a bit further in defining cultural imperialism Gramsci says that a diverse culture can be ruled or dominated by one group or class that everyday practices and shared beliefs provide the foundation for complex systems of domination. Gramsci used this argument to explain why there were no successful revolutions in areas of the world where conditions appeared to be ripe for them to happen. He also used this reasoning to explain how some successful revolutions imploded and how internal conditions facilitated counter-revolutions.

From his point of view the failure of the workers to make an anti-capitalist revolution was due to the successful capture of the workers' ideology, self-understanding, and organizations by the hegemonic (ruling) culture. In other words, the perspective of the ruling class had been absorbed by the masses of workers. Workers now identified with their oppressors and conquerors. He is right of course and in the Caribbean when the Grenada Revolution imploded in 1983 the same population that welcomed its triumph in 1979 now sang and danced in the streets in 1983 when the United States invaded the country. The workers thus identified and sided with their conquerors and belittled the actions of the local armed forces for daring to fight against the “mighty Americans.”

In the Caribbean today young people cannot wait to “go states side” and view the United States as the land of milk and honey thanks to one of cultural imperialism’s most effective tools – cable television. From the beautiful people on the soap operas to the food and clothes commercials Caribbean youths are bombarded 27/7 each and every day by “American cultural values” that subliminally purport to be better than those of the Caribbean.

It is worth noting and listening to Gramsci in this regard. According to him in "advanced" industrial societies hegemonic cultural innovations such as compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture indoctrinated workers (the largest segment of the population) to a false consciousness. Instead of working towards a revolution that would truly serve their collective needs, workers in "advanced" societies were listening to the rhetoric of nationalist leaders, seeking consumer opportunities and middle-class status, embracing an individualist ethos of success through competition, and/or accepting the guidance of bourgeois religious leaders.

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For the Caribbean the issue of cultural imperialism is now a complex layering of socio-economic and political constructs that has grown strong because of the corresponding erosion of local, indigenous culture. That local culture is daily weakened by the lack of government and local television programs, the infant state of the production of literary works, the viewing and comparing  of local cultural norms as things of the past and inferior in a modern day context, and the allure and strength of new daily innovations in culture from “overseas.”

Finally, while I have no problems with constructive, innovative and effective changes in a society I do believe that there must be an active and aggressive methodology to protect that which defines the Caribbean as Caribbean, an identity if you will. That is the sum total of our historical experiences, our heritage and the things that have over the years made “us Caribbean.” That thing is called “culture.”


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MICHAEL D. ROBERTS is a top Political Strategist and Business, Management and Communications Specialist in New York City's Black community. He is an experienced writer whose specialty is socio-political and economic analysis and local (more...)

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