Globalization is one thing — the striking down of economic barriers so that Jimmy Choo shoes and Vespas and hot new software and iPhones can be manufactured and sold anywhere. But when it comes to American business, only large corporations have the economic clout to effect such a thing, and it is a notion commonly held among people of imagination that involvement in corporate business will kill your soul.
You need only read the business section of any major U.S. daily to see why such a view persists. Acrimony seems to be the prevailing attitude, the more so as the companies and the ideas of their management teams get bigger and bigger. A mom-and-pop shop may have a human side. But you've really got to watch out for people like Ken Lay and Dick Cheney.
Corporate business is organized, aggressive war that is waged quietly.
As in modern warfare, there is also the euphemistic language. George Orwell wrote eloquently about this phenomenon: that is, language that is intent upon obscuring, blurring or obliterating the truth. In his book Politics and the English Language, Orwell writes that “defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called ‘pacification’. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called ‘ transfer of population”…People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ‘elimination of unreliable elements.’” And from more recent history, who can forget everyone's favorite from the Vietnam era, "to interdict with extreme prejudice", which meant to murder someone?
Because it is warfare and causes so much damage, large corporate business, too, is filled with a kind of faceless jargon that is intended to serve two purposes. It anoints the user as someone who understands the true bullying nature of corporate competition and can be depended upon to defend it, or at least submit to it, and in silence; plus, it relieves the user of having to really feel, with subtlety and discrimination, the aggressive hostility that makes up so much of the business relationship. . . hostility that surrounds him.
For example, one says that the good candidate for the senior position in Chicago has "the right skill set," as though one's skills can be pigeon-holed, arranged and instantaneously understood, for good or ill. The intangibles of a person's personality, like soulfulness, emotional openness, humor, the capacity for fellow-feeling and negotiation. . . these things fall far outside the blockish bullet-points that make up a skill set. The very attributes that open up relationships and allow the free exchange of information — surely, own would hope, the mother's milk of any successful business — gather themselves, muttering and scratching their heads, outside of the usual skill set. They wonder what Bob in Human Resources was possibly thinking about when he wrote the description for the sales manager job in Cleveland, and the leaden clichés that made up the skill set for that position. Perhaps because they are clichés, they show that Bob wasn't thinking of anything at all.
It may be that your having achieved "ten years of phenomenally successful sales growth for the leading provider of Internet-capable software initiatives" will look good in your skill set. But the fact is that, despite business's brusque dismissal of the emotions, you simply can't do business if you can't feel the emotional response of the person across the desk from you. That ability is never mentioned as part of any skill set for any position in corporate business.
Another favorite is the verb "to re-engineer". This came about, I believe, as a phrase intended to define the re-design of an existing product that works insufficiently or not at all. This sort of thing happens a lot in American business. The phrase also refers to processes in business that aren't working too well. . . accounts receivable, supply chain and the like.
"It's not happening, Brad, so let's re-engineer it."
Used as a metaphor, however, it can also be heard in conversations that deal with whether to fire someone or to terminate (also a catch phrase) some or all of a division or working group. "Bob, I want you to re-engineer that sales team in Bogotá. Jorge just doesn't know what he's doing." Here, you're not just introducing more efficient machines or processes. You're re-engineering someone's life for him without attempting to find out how this will affect him or his workers. The faceless word makes the act faceless. The word makes sense when you're trying to manufacture a computer mouse more efficiently. It stands as a barrier behind which you can hide your emotions and the damage you're doing to them — and to those of Jorge and the others — if you're the guy doing the re-engineering of Bogotá.
So important in the manufacturing process, re-engineering in other contexts simply makes easier the ruining of someone's life.
Marketing and sales are the most inventive users of such language for business. Here you have people with almost no skill sets for manufacturing, whose real ability is for gab and obfuscation. So you should not be surprised when the sales person and the marketing V.P. of some company are sitting across from you, not asking whether you need the product they're selling, but instead unleashing a torrent of argot and jargon (a torrent that you've also heard in the meetings held by your own marketing people) about "success" and "the team" and "stake holders", language that is aggressive, euphemistic, wooden, and cliché-ridden.
Now that the North American Free Trade Agreement, and others like it, are fact, and barriers against the wholesale export of American business values and products to the rest of the world have fallen away, the angry hostility that fuels American business has passed beyond the borders and been globalized. Now you can hear the kind of language and feel the wintry freeze of humane values just as easily in Karachi as you can in Kansas, in Kuala Lumpur as in Kentucky, and in Vera Cruz as in Silicon Valley. The word “globalization” itself is such a euphemism, since it implies happy friendship among peoples, the extending of the hand of amity and cooperation across seas and continents, rather than the wholesale destruction of centuries-old agricultures and industries that now have the unfortunate fate of competing with American business’s wishes for dominance. I happen to know firsthand about this sort of language, incidentally, because of my own years of "success" as a "marketing and sales professional" for "the leading providers" of print services and "Internet software solutions" to Fortune 500 corporations.
But I have a different take on globalization, one perhaps not considered by the perpetrators of North America's gift of corporate malfeasance to the world.
Here's the setting: a little kid in San Leandro, California, which was at the time a geographically separate town and a suburb of Oakland (if you can imagine a town being the suburb of so dullard a place as Oakland). Then, a teenager in the hills of Oakland itself. There, all the houses harbored quiet. Gardens were beautiful, but too organized. Kids grew up, went to college and became like their parents. There was an accepted assumption among the people there that there was no reason to go anywhere else.
It was cold. A bit like East Germany without the "stasi". All my friends' parents and my parents' friends were business people of one sort or another. What I didn't understand then was that business is so warlike an undertaking. But I assume now that the quiet, church-going, un-adventuresome people among whom I grew up were also grasping, difficult pursuers of corporate success.
None of us realized, living in such a place, that large governmental forces were moving toward the export of these very values to the rest of the world. Nowadays, when globalization really means the Americanization of everything, we don't remember how isolated we were when Vietnam was at the top of the news every night. But it was during that time that the stage was set for what's happening now, and the effort hardly blinked when such events as the defeat in Vietnam or, just now, the defeat in Iraq placed minor barriers in the way. Like Vietnam, Iraq will come back and be globalized with the rest.
Luckily I was able to break free early from Oakland and to travel, and so began, a few years ago, The Latinization of Terence Clarke.
Central and South America had stood as mysteries to me before this process began. I knew there were jungle, mountains and deserts in those places. My father loved tamales. I knew — because I'd been taught it in the fourth grade — about General Santa Ana and his ruthless, unjustified attack upon the virtuous, freedom-loving Alamo. I'd seen old cowboy movies on TV with Pedro Armendáriz in them. I had read in the fifth grade or so about Simon Bolivar and the South American revolution against evil Spain. I even came to know some Mexican-American kids later on because there were a couple of them at my high school. They weren't much like me. They were cool.
And now, and for a long time, I’ve been studying the Spanish language.
Spanish came to me like a flash in the dark. I took to it immediately and, as I was flattered to hear from one of my instructors then, I seemed to learn language as though by osmosis. The thing I liked most about all of my instructors — except one — was the nervy, noisy good humor that all of them had. The one who didn't was an Argentine, Señor Echeverria, who was a graduate student in economics at Berkeley. The poor man had no sense of humor, spoke monosyllabically in a dead voice, and had fashioned as his favorite word in Spanish the word "No!" So, for example, I would struggle through a sentence in Spanish like "I think the Pope's influence on boating world-wide was certainly enhanced by the size of the lakes at his summer retreat!" There would have been all manner of hems and haws on my part, wild gestures, long pauses and incorrect verbs as I made my way down the linguistic gauntlet. Señor Echeverria would sit silently, his hair straight and combed, his hands together on his crossed legs. His tie never had a wrinkle. Usually he looked out the window as I spoke. Once I'd arrived, exhausted, at the end of the sentence, he would release his hands one from the other, lean forward and slowly raise a finger before his head, turn the head like a great ship at sea toward me, and say "No!" His further explanations made no sense to me. They were probably about grammar or something. He was ultimately fired by the school because they made no sense to native Spanish-speakers either. I expect he has become a very successful economist.
Except for this señor, the Latins who taught me were all very well-spoken, and I've come to learn that subtle verbal expression is something quite admired by Latinos. It is important to be able to express yourself, and I've become sufficiently latinized myself now to be allowed in on the secret that all Latinos know about, that North Americans are basically silent and isolated. Conversation with them is an almost automatic recitation of received wisdom and quiet cliché. A dinner party with gringos is only occasionally interesting. One with Latinos is always interesting.
Recently I was having dinner in Buenos Aires with several friends. Because I'm an American and the very strange — to Latinos, at least — George Bush is the president of my country, my opinion about American politics was being sought as well as my thoughts on Argentine cultural habits. As dinner progressed, I would offer an opinion here or there about something (the pope's boats, maybe) and there would be a moment of total silence after I'd finished. Then an immediate eruption of talk, everyone all at once, argumentative, laughing, subtle degrees of agreement and disavowal, quotations right and left from every kind of writer right and left, voices, guffaws, high entertainment ... for about fifteen minutes until some other question was forthcoming. Then the same scenario again throughout the evening. It was an exhaustive and highly inventive party, and — by far — not the only such party I've attended in Latin countries.
I believe this all has to do with the Mediterranean Sea.
In Europe, those who live near the Mediterranean are different from those who don't. The direct, immediate expression of deep feeling is one of the traits Mediterraneans have that northern Europeans do not. I was once visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam looking at a painting by Vermeer of a young woman reading a letter. It is a picture of still, sumptuous beauty, the very meaning of the inner soul's need for contemplation. But, it's quiet. An Italian woman sat next to me, talking to her children. She was reading the English version of the museum guide, and so I gestured toward the Vermeer and muttered "It's quite beautiful, isn't it?". She let her eyes linger on my clothing a moment, and I got the idea that she thought me badly dressed. Then, she turned toward the picture.
"Yes, but it is like so much of the Dutch painting," she said.
"How so?" I asked.
"It is boring!"
I asked what kinds of painting she liked, and she replied that the Italian renaissance was like no other, and the reason for that was that it had been fomented and completed by Italians.
"Olive oil! Wine! Jewelry! Food! Excess!" She held a hand out, palm up, as she looked at me and shook her head. "This Vermeer woman is looking at a shopping list!"
Conversation with those who live near the Mediterranean is often like this, and the countries around that sea — from Europe, Africa and the Middle East — have shaped the very history of Latin America, helped in quite significant ways, to be sure, by the people who lived there before los Mediterraneos arrived. So Latin America is an immense continent filled with very, very expressive people, expression different in essential ways from the cold difficulty that is so prevalent among the North Americans.
So, with regard to globalization ...
A Mexican-American friend of mine once was complaining to me about the U.S. government's current hostility toward illegal immigrants. We were watching some Republican on C-Span as he harangued a near-empty senate chamber about how these "illegals" should be rounded up and sent home. We shouldn't provide schools for their kids or medical assistance. Just simply being here makes them criminals.
My friend, a fifth generation American citizen, said "What immigration problems is he talking about? All these white people that have been showing up? Is that it?" He then went on to describe the current intense growth of Spanish-speaking political clout in California as "the silent re-invasion of occupied northern Mexico."
I hope this is so. One possible effect of globalization is that the influence of the Latin peoples will pass across our borders and globalize us, instead of the other way around. The more that Americans can learn to display and talk about the exchange of emotions and the power of conversation, the beauty of feeling and the search for grace instead of dollars, for contemplation instead of political advantage, for familial affection instead of silent estrangement. . .
It may be that globalization is a good thing because it will bring the values of latinization to the entire world, especially to the United States, a country that certainly could benefit from them.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports