Published in the Cape Times, July 1998
The Mayan church at St. Juan Chamula, in Chiapas: When
Pepsi arrived here, it was simply incorporated into indigenous rituals
The revolution will not be televised, not in Afghanistan, any way. The country’s ruling Taliban militia have banned television and given Afghans two weeks to destroy all TV sets, VCRs and satellite dishes. The Taliban thought they’d eliminated television two years ago when they shut down Afghanistan’s only TV station. But Afghans had fashioned satellite dishes out of bicycle wheels and other household implements to join the more than 1 billion people who tune in to the likes of “Baywatch,” the most popular program on the planet. The spectacle of David Hasselhof and his buff crew of swimsuited young lifeguards romping on the beaches of an imaginary California (in which everybody is white and the plot line seldom runs deeper than the lyrics of any Beach Boys song) might corrupt the Taliban’s medieval interpretation of Islam. Now the zealots, who came to power with the tacit backing of the U.S. after its Reagan-era Afghanistan policy had left the country in a state of catastrophic collapse, can go about the business of barring women from education and ensuring that men don’t shave free of the distractions posed by “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Earlier in the week, a New Delhi court had issued a warrant for the arrest of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, on the grounds that his Star TV satellite network was beaming “obscenity” into India – although their definition extends to such not-quite-erotica as tampon ads.
Two weeks ago, in Ottawa, Canada, a gathering of culture ministers from 20 countries had gathered to discuss concerns not dissimilar from those of the Taliban and New Delhi’s nationalist magistrates – the encroaching juggernaut of U.S. popular culture. Participants ranging from Cote D’Ivoire and South Africa to Iceland and Ukraine planned a series of further meetings over the next two years to formulate strategies to counter the Disneyfication of the planet.
In this era of globalization, concern at the impact of the world’s children being raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and television is understandable – after all, responsible parents would certainly do their utmost to avoid feeding their children only cotton candy. But culture is a commodity in today’s world economy, one of America’s top three exports. Which is why when France tries to promote its own film industry by imposing additional taxes on U.S. films in order to subsidize French productions, the issue is fought out at the World Trade Organization. Similarly Canada’s attempts to protect its magazine industry by imposing a stronger tax regime on American titles looking to publish there. It’s also the reason why the mass pirating of CDs and videos in China has been accorded far more importance than human rights on the agenda of Beijing-Washington relations during the ’90s. Those looking to fight the encroachment of U.S. popular culture are often trying to protect a fledgling local entertainment industry against being swamped by Baywatch and 90210 – a tough proposition since American TV are not only often more attractive to Hollywood-coached palates everywhere than much local programming; being in syndication they usually cost only a fraction of what it costs to produce homegrown TV drama in most countries.
Trying to roll back the tide of U.S. popular culture in a world whose communication system is global may be like trying to unlearn a language acquired in childhood – after all, go almost anywhere on the planet and you’ll find that people recognize the images of Mickey Mouse or Leonardo DiCaprio or Michael Jordan or Madonna, or the logos of Coke, Pepsi and Nike. American pop culture is a kind of cultural “second language” spoken around the globe. But critics given to despair at this apparently unassailable “cultural imperialism” should consider that while it might be impossible (and even ill-advised) to deny Mickey an entry visa, that doesn’t mean the cartoon rodent is able to digest all indigenous culture.
The spread of Catholicism provides an interesting analogy. When Europeans began colonizing the New World in the 15th century, they used horrendous violence to force millions of indigenous people and African slaves to abandon their own cultures and accept, often at gunpoint, the “salvation” offered by the Catholic Church. Once armed resistance was defeated, those people’s had no option but to comply. Or at least
Three years ago I visited a Catholic Church in the village of San Juan Chamula in the hills overlooking San Christobal De Las Casas in Chiapas, the rebellious Mexican state where indigenous Mayan culture had proved most tenacious. It was unlike any other Catholic Church I’d ever seen – there were no pews and the floor was covered in pine needles. Images of the Christian saints were arranged along the walls — each associated with an iconic animal – and St. John, rather than Christ, occupied the central position. People gathered in clusters around shamans, who performed healing and cleansing rites with live chickens, eggs and a potent moonshine called ‘Posh’. There wasn’t a priest in sight, and a guide explained that the Church was run by a council of Mayan elders, who allowed the priest to perform baptisms but not to say Mass. While it maintained, in altered form, the accoutrements of Catholicism and its status in the local Archdiocese, the church was essentially a modern incarnation of a traditional Mayan place of worship. In other words, when the Spanish had defeated them on the battlefield, the Maya had entered the church but had carried their traditional beliefs with them and transformed Catholic symbols and cosmology to suit their own.
This “syncretism,” as scholars of religion call it, is characteristic of Catholicism throughout the New World — from the U.S. to Cuba and Mexico to Brazil, the phenomena of Santeria, Voudou and Candomble reflect the survival of traditional African and indigenous American beliefs in Catholic garb. In other words, where Catholicism may have appeared to have remade the world in its own image, there was a counter-tendency of Catholicism being remade to reflect the beliefs of the indigenous cultures it had tried to obliterate.
When worshippers in this Mayan church suddenly produced bottles of Coke and Pepis and started downing them with gusto, the whole argument seemed in danger of collapse. Until the guide explained that when the popular the American colas had arrived in the village a few years earlier, the Mayan elders had responded by incorporating them into religious rituals as a means of inducing the belching that would release bad spirits.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.