As world shrinks, what are we?

In the earlier 20th century, the distinctions were clear. America was a place devoted to industrial efficiency. Americans went to Europe for small neighborhood caf?s, long and relaxing lunches, and all of the visual delights that result when things are “hand-made” and “hand-maintained” on a strictly local basis.

In those days, Americans who couldn’t afford to live in Europe but were seeking to escape from supermarkets and shopping centers, would gravitate to communities such as New York’s Greenwich Village where even the slightly randomized street pattern offered a contrast to Manhattan’s rigid north-south and east-west boulevards.

Those Americans were in quest of charm. Charm was represented by the unexpected, the quaint, the idiosyncratic – and these qualities often were treated, in a variety of underground or barely-above-ground publications, as things to which America was intrinsically hostile.

Had you proposed, in those days, that mainstream America was just an early example of modern industrial civilization, and that the rest of the world would soon catch up with its pioneering emphasis on “chains” and “systems,” a voice might soon have cried out: “What are you, the president of the Chamber of Commerce?”

At a time when there was a single Barnes & Noble bookstore, on University Place in Greenwich Village – a store that was often unfavorably compared with the Eighth Street Bookshop around the corner, because B&N featured too many “executive toys” and non-literary collectibles – who would have believed that nationwide chains called Barnes & Noble and Borders would be competing, within a few decades, with Amazon.com and other Internet retailers in their quest to get every American into building a personal library?

Europe, before and after World War II, was where you went to get away from American ways of selling food, and clothing, and other basic needs. In Europe, price was allegedly less of an issue. The notion that you would turn your back on the boulangerie around the corner because the supermarket could sell you a croissant at slightly lower cost was anathema. The lady who ran the boulangerie, after all, was not a robotic “check-out cashier.” She was a lady with a nice smile who probably knew all her bakers by name, and could tell you about the farms from which they purchased their flour.

Cast your eye across today’s world and the triumph of “the American way” seems obvious. In the town center of Arles in southern France, only a few blocks from the ancient Roman amphitheater, stands a McDonald’s restaurant that differs hardly at all from its American equivalents. In Rome and in London and in Paris, the American “quick lunch” has become the obvious solution for those racing through an average business day.

In Mexico City, meanwhile, the decline of the long afternoon lunch has opened the door for McDonald’s to declare that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Mexicans can munch a Hispanic version of the McMuffin as they rush to their offices, where – as often as not – they eat lunch at their desks or around the table in the conference room.

Meanwhile, America’s “clothing networks,” including transformed versions of Brooks Brothers and other prestigious stores, have demonstrated the ease with which they can make themselves at home not only in every state of the union, but in East Asia or India or the Middle East.

When America was everybody’s synonym for heartless efficiency, with its passion for bigness allowing nothing to stand in its way, there were more than enough Americans willing to defend their highly industrialized way of life. Booming Fortune 500 corporations, after all, could pay even their assembly line workers the kind of salaries identified with being “middle class.” The high-fashion outfits modeled in Paris were rushed to the American assembly lines in versions that sold for a fraction of the price.

Meanwhile, the mushrooming American travel industry could take planeloads and busloads of tourists not only to Greenwich Village, but to the banks of the Seine and the Nile and the Ganges. Perhaps the day would even come, such enthusiasts declared, when Americans could easily visit Moscow and Beijing.

Now that the world has become so American a place, it’s a lot less amazing that so many foreigners are making their way to New York and Washington, among other cities, to shop, visit old museums and learn about this country’s 18th- and 19th-century traditions. Surely IBM has a museum in some corner of the United States where Internet-trawling Europeans and Asians can admire a genuine Selectric 2 or Selectric 3 “electric typewriters,” of the kind that once filled so many offices in so many skyscrapers. And most American towns are in the process of developing their “historical district,” whose restored gas-lighting makes it easy to visit the formerly notorious saloon, where gunfights were as common as “loose women.”

Are we in the process, therefore, of somehow exchanging identities with the rest of our planet? While they become “typical Americans,” we’ll be turning into localized European peasants, happy to wave at the tour buses as they go blasting by.

The idea seems unlikely. Americans developed the notion of a new industrial economy because they love the idea of “pushing at the frontier.” Indeed, the heavy industrial products involved in the movement of that frontier – especially railroads – led directly to the nation’s industrial triumphs in the 20th century. If the frontier is what’s represented by global marketing campaigns and international advertising agencies, then you can be certain that Americans are already pushing at it. But what are they likely to come up with?

The answer to that question, oddly enough, may be right here at GW. Our University is big enough to tempt those who would like to portray it as a triumph of industrial thinking. On the other hand, our internal telephone directory is so thick because GW’s bigness breaks down, in practice, to so many individual “communities.” Some of these may bear official titles that imply otherwise – yet each of them has a certain hermetic character all its own, that does a lot more than just pay salaries. Feelings of mutual loyalty and sustained devotion supply, in miniaturized contexts like these, a lot of the feelings that might once in our history have been built around the “village square.”

Perhaps, using GW as our guide, we can try looking at our national economy in a new way. While the business pages casually refer to the purchase or sale of big companies by even bigger companies – with 30,000 or 40,000 workers laid off as a result – the real dynamism of business life is that provided by employees who are tied to each other in much smaller units of activity, alias “our office.” The well-functioning office is, after all, a wise and even “holistic” unit where visions of “the company as a whole” help to determine day-to day behaviors and procedures.

Having pioneered the development of systems out of bits and pieces, therefore, maybe the “frontier genius” of the United States is engaged in making those systems more livable by encouraging their creative localisms. Walk into a Starbucks coffee house or a Borders bookstore, after all, and what you see almost immediately is an appeal to local or neighborhood interests and talents. Somebody’s reciting poetry or selling watercolors to an audience drawn from a radius of only a few miles. A cynic will be quick to observe that “they’re only pretending to be an old-fashioned place.” But if you pretend for long enough, don’t you often end up by actually becoming what you once only aspired to be?

The really interesting question is whether the multiplication of communal options eventually encourages those options to connect with each other – thus revolutionizing the structure as a whole. Those who gather at various bookstores to listen to poetry may eventually form a poetry club all their own. Its success will soon make it into a nationwide “movement.” Then it will begin to offer all kinds of products for sale – including T-shirts
printed with sonnets and the faces of “neighborhood bards” – and eventually, of course, the nationwide “movement” will have enough money to buy the bookstore chains that helped it get started. And the media will comment: “A typical American success story.” Only let localism become the fashion, and we’ll watch it become international.

-The writer is president of The George Washington University and a professor of public administration.

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