Crisscrossing Global Society and Its Culture

A BOOK REVIEW of Thomas Friedman’s “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization”

Aaron Laylo

Right this moment, as I try to extract and integrate portions from Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree” and consolidate my ideas and thoughts regarding the book and the arguments presented therein for the book review, my Facebook window is also open, connecting me to friends and students from many places out there. Likewise, my mom downstairs is chatting with my homesick father and brother who both work in the Middle East as telecommunications supervisor and internet technician, respectively. And my youngest brother, who stays in the room next to mine, is surfing the internet communicating with people he has never met in person. Only I, my mom, and youngest brother live in this small abode but we get to communicate with so many people from various parts of the world. This is our virtual reality world, which was imaginable ten to fifteen (10-15) years ago. But the differences are: communication has become faster, choices of communication gadgets are not limited to a few, and we are now exposed to a somewhat homogenous culture from all over the globe. Perhaps, this is what cultural globalization really is about: a crisscross of communication, choices, and culture; a grander exchange of ideas and concepts; and promotion of a borderless village. Reading a book written by a Western columnist, surfing websites that reflect a hodgepodge of cultures, and chatting with relatives and friends from different places the world over – I think this is one of the many angles Tom wished to explore and express to the readers of his book.

Aptly subtitled with Understanding Globalization, the book (2000 edition) indeed presents a bird’s eye view with some specific cases-in-point of the growing literature on globalization. It exhibits the multi-angular features of globalization and how it impacts societies, markets, and national governments. Categorizing the chapters into political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects would be quite a challenge to the reader chiefly because the author intermittently splattered political issues alongside economic ones and social discourses with cultural ones. Each chapter seems to focus on a particular issue to portray the actors, players, whether advocates or contradictors, winners or losers, fast or slow, and all the other superlatives and how these players both impact and being affected by the raging waves of this phenomenon.

The book is structured into twenty long chapters, each of which may be clustered into one of four parts.  It begins with an opening scene describing and portraying the world as one that has existed for only ten years. This, of course, is not literally meant but may be interpreted as that important span of ten years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. This icon in recent history resembles the “unification” of the East and West, and therefore signals the triumph of the ideals and sentiments of the West, mainly that of liberal capitalist democracy. The end of the Cold War signaled the transition of the world into a new age. For some, this may be interpreted as the rise of the sole superpower, United States and the continued predominance of the trend towards Americanization. Yet for others, Americanization began as early as the dawn of the twentieth century, hence the cliché “American Century.” Therefore, this new age does not really mark the beginning of the age of Americanization; it neither is the burgeoning of its culture. It is the dawning of the new phase of globalization – an emerging trend that is quite different compared to the sort of globalization that bloomed and prospered from the early 1500s to the present.

In a way, the book might seem to illustrate that the universality of ideology has come to happen– drifting of nation-states into one government, wider exchange of trade, and homogenization of culture, therefore forming a borderless global society. Yet Friedman was keen to clarify that he didn’t precisely mean the same argument. What he posits is not the triumph and universality of liberal capitalism and democracy but rather a new era that is globalization. Given so, it would mean that he does not equate globalization to the triumph of the West. Globalization and Westernization are not equal though they are much similar in many ways. Also, if examined closer, it is undeniable that the West has maintained a sphere of influence so vast it can dominate and acquire the term globalization as its own brainchild. That argument, I give to other reviewers of the book.

For the purpose of this book review, I only wish to focus on the socio-cultural dimension of globalization that the author, from time to time, in between chapters, paragraphs, and sentences, broadly expounded. However, as in the nature and origin of globalization, much of the book seem to present ignite the arguments on the advantages and disadvantages of economic globalization, and the question on the role and relevance of nation-states in this Fast World. In this new phase, it’s not the big that eats the small but to put more appropriately in the context of the era, the fast surpasses and to some extent also eats the slow. As aptly illustrated in one of the more interesting chapters, The Backlash, this world is parallel to a wild jungle where the tigers and lions would chase for gazelles and zebras, and where the swift fish can surpass the turtles. And let me add, for these turtles to get on with the trend, it has to adjust to the reality that is globalization.

The title “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” generally represents the old and the new. Although the book supposes that globalization has somehow come up with a dominant culture, which is why it tends to be homogenizing to a certain degree, it is also a reality that the world can still be divided into societies, and not only nation-states (as limited by the author to such concept), that identify themselves either with their olive trees (nationalism) or with their Lexus (more globalized, modern, and plugged into the world system). I adhere to the idea that we have not yet reached that very point and situation when this present world may be considered truly homogenized (I wonder if it will ever be). In effect, we can validly suppose that more and more societies are situated in between – at one side are the raging and rippling tides of modernization, technology, free trade, and everything novel and advanced; while at the other side, we a flourishing orchard of olives which could either be thriving or dying. Most societies are then caught in a dilemma of deciding as to which approach is best to use in order to plug into the Fast World and therefore integrate with the global economy while maintaining their sense of identity, as not to lose their olives. It’s actually about weighing the pros and cons and taking the risks.

Rarely do we find a book that albeit its clichés and generalizations, the reader could still be able to keep reading and browsing through the pages. I personally think that the approach Tom used in writing this book made it easier for the readers to see globalization in everyday practical things. Selected identified people whom he met as a well-traveled journalist and correspondent for the New York Times represent the various societies that have something relevant to say about the subject. Let me categorize them into four groups. There are those who consider globalization as an instrument for alleviating poverty especially in developing countries in East Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Latin America and therefore push for the implementation and imposition of liberal capitalist principles in the economy of countries, or better interpreted as free trade; Opposite to this is the group of anti-globalization groups whom Friedman called as turtles. According to the author, these turtles represent those who formerly belong to the powerful and influential bureaucrats who eventually lost or are continually losing their grip to power because of the intervention of external trade players such as multinational companies and very influential international financial institutions. Also against globalization are those organizations that aim to stop the trend because of the adverse effects it brings to the environment, to the labor sector, to the poor and generally, the marginalized sectors of the society. This is what was referred by Friedman as the backlash against this phenomenon. Yet another portion is one that resembles the caught-in-the-middle group. They seem to be too slow or perhaps not ready or well-knowledgeable of the “hows” and “whys” of globalization. Or most likely, they are undecided: “Do we get into the Lexus or remain within the confines of our olive groves and get on with what we used to do?” And the last crowd represents that portion of the society that wishes to get into the Lexus and ride on with the system. We then assume that this group knows and understands how it feels to be turtles. In order for them not to be left behind, they wish to become cubs, if not lions as the influential players are. These players make the rules of the jungle, and rule the jungle. If you’re not one of them, you get lost or left out.

Every group has its own advocacies and sentiments and definitely, biases for or against globalization and whatever it represents. But I assume, and almost agree, that whatever these sentiments are, their aim is to secure their interests and largely, to achieve “the good that we they can get from and do with something” – that is globalization. It is true, however, that there remains (and there are so many of them in this era), a band of shamelessly and insolently self-interested players who only think of profits, not of development; only of self-wealth, and not welfare and equality. I think this is where anti-globalization supporters are coming from – they don’t feel the heart and hand of globalization, only the idea that it gets everything along the way, eating the small, slow, and less-powerful. This brings me to the supposition that globalization, how broad it may be, how vast its influence may have reached, have failed to capture the essence of what most traditional societies value – basically, their values themselves – such as the goodness of collective identity or individuality, the importance and conservation of nature, the essence of anything and everything that globalization offers. In other words, it seems that globalization and its supporters have failed to increase the depth of its purpose.

Getting into the Lexus and riding on with the system of globalization would be quite risky for any society that intends to assimilate itself without losing its most-treasured values and traditions. But the very reality –some societies have extreme or close grip to what they value and how much value they give to it – is a clear testament or determinant of how far they are willing to step on, and how much or little of their olives will they be willing to compromise to get into the Lexus. Let me extract a few paragraphs from the chapter “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” to further incise the idea about the importance of olive trees and what the Lexus can do to it.

“Olive trees represent everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us and locates us in this world – whether it be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion or, most of all, a place called home. Olive trees are what give us the warmth of family, the joy of individuality, the intimacy of personal rituals, the depth of private relationships, as well as the confidence and security to reach out and encounter others. We fight so intensely for our olive trees because at their best, they provide the feelings of self-esteem and belonging that are essential for human survival as food in the belly. Indeed one reason that the nation-state (and I include societies into which nations evolve) will never disappear, even if it does weaken, is because it is the ultimate olive tree – the ultimate expression of whom we belong to – linguistically, geographically, and historically.[1]

 “The Lexus represents an equally fundamental, age-old human drive – the drive for sustenance, improvement, prosperity, and modernization, as it is played out in today’s globalization system. The Lexus represents all the burgeoning global markets, financial institutions, and computer technologies with which we pursue higher living standards today.”[2]

            Clearly, maintaining and prospering olive trees is not an overnight task of any given nation or society. It takes generations to build and maintain cultures and traditions – especially the ones that value the good in everything (relationships, intimacy, etc). But in this era of globalization, societies are faced with the dilemma of whether they will leave their olive trees in exchange of riding the Lexus with others, or remain forever rooted with the olive trees. I personally think, none would seem to bring maximum benefits. Leaving the groves for a fast ride in the Lexus will bring no good to any society. This act precisely equates to losing one’s identity. Keeping oneself in a single place forever also defeats the purpose of growth. As olive trees grow and bloom with costly olives, so should the stewards of the grove be. It is also important to explore, to travel, to welcome visitors, to innovate, in order to learn more things. But while doing all these concerns, it’s important to watch out for the olive trees – keeping them in good condition and protecting them by all means. It should be the utmost concern of the owner of the grove to watch over the entirety of his grove, from its gates to its fences, making sure that nobody crashes or wipes out these “olive trees.”

It actually depends on how a particular society or nation will handle this dilemma. In fact, it should not be a dilemma after all. A more important concern here is how to balance the pressure of globalization and the solemnity of our olive trees. The Lexus is not just all about riding into that luxurious, high-tech, fast-speed vehicle that represents economic wealth and fast technology. It is also about being responsible for even the very downsides of riding on it, not just the extravagance of such; and turning every experience and exploration into learning experiences for the good of the individual or the collective body. The Lexus, therefore is not a metal crusher, always ready to obliterate the olive trees. In fact, the Lexus can be an instrument for the betterment of the olives (whatever that betterment may mean, I leave the interpretation to the reader.)

My Lexus, as well as my mom and brother’s, is the internet. I thank God for this because we get to connect with the other two members of our family residing and working in an alien land miles away from the Philippines. We choose to utilize this Lexus to keep our olives alive.

To conclude, globalization is not bad at all, as well as its impact on culture. Olive trees, so long, as they are kept well, will remain olive trees – meant to prosper, and not to be left behind, not to be uprooted for any other reasons.

[1] Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York: Anchor Books. 2000. p.31

[2] Ibid, p.33-34


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