Globalization due to modern media is the recipient of mixed and strong reactions. For some, globalization is welcomed and embraced; for others, it is rejected and vehemently criticized. Globalization – what it is and how it influences us – is discussed in the press and on radio and television. Experts debate the good and bad of globalization, and all are fascinated with its impact on the various facets of our lives (for example, social and economic), our national identity, and our identity on the international stage. Investors in “first-world” prosperous countries discus the lucrative possibilities of international trade (“Davos People”[1]) while members of Green Peace, anarchist, alter globalist (“Porto Alegre People”[2]) give voice to the challenges of economic globalization.

Interestingly, globalization has not only changed the way we do “business.” It also has consequences for the way we understand identity and citizenship. Barack Obama, for example, created a controversy during the 2008 election when he declared himself a “citizen of the world.” For his detractors, Obama’s global identity was in direct conflict with his American citizenship. And (rightly or wrongly), it raised questions about his patriotism. The “small global mediated village” has impacted our individual behavior and the way we live in community in positive and negative ways.

In this short essay I will discuss some of my own observations about identity and citizenship in a globally mediated world. My observations are culled from my life experiences in Poland, and I have supported my impressions with Jordi Torrent’s, Global Media in an Interactive Age class, and other articles and books that have helped me locate examples from my personal life experience.

Economic globalization and changing identities.  

Florianska Street is the most popular and historical street in Krakow. The Royal Way, which leads by Florianska Street, right through the heart of the city, was once the route of Royal processions and funerals and it was street where the kings entered the town. The entrance gate of Florianska Street was a symbol of power and independence of the Poles.  This historic center in Krakow was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1978.

I remember when the first McDonald’s restaurant came to Krakow in Poland. In 1993, the young activists created a campaign against McDonald’s. For them, McDonald’s was a symbol of foreign corporations that wanted to invade the historical sections of Polish cities. The protestors argued that fast food restaurants produced excess waste, and they competed (victoriously) against local Polish restaurants and kiosks. Worse, they served up food with low nutritional value, exploited workers, and destroyed the Polish tradition of a leisurely family meal.[3]

A few years later, loyalty and affection for traditional Polish food was in decline. Thanks to the globally mediated world of “fast food,” Poles experienced a transformation that Americans had already undergone. According to Eric Shlosser:

“During a relatively brief period of time, the fast food industry has helped to transform not only the American diet, but also our landscape, economy, workforce, and popular culture. Fast food and its consequences have become inescapable, regardless of whether you eat it twice a day, try to avoid it, or have never taken a single bite.”[4]

Fast food restaurants change the customs, traditions and the style of daily life. In Poland, we spend more time talking about “tradition” than living it. Instead of eating with family, we eat alone at a fast food restaurant. Instead of identifying with our tradition, we identify with “brands” or company names like McDonald’s that have created a new style of life and a change in the eating customs of the Polish family.

Instead of identifying or connecting with family, I find that Poles identify themselves and carve out personal identity through brand names. You are or become what you are through what you drink (Sprite, Coca Cola, Pepsi) or what you wear (Adidas, Nike). However, problems and questions arise when you realize that this “special connection” between the brand and the person is not real guarantee of happiness in life. And the brands cannot produce happiness because they are unable to help us create a true and stable personal identity.

The loss of the national hero.

Each country creates its own hero or depicts citizens worthy of praise and emulation. Sometimes the hero is fictional, but more often than not, the hero is a real person from our political, cultural and social worlds. Many generations followed heroes because they incarnate loyalty, trust and courage. Many people trust them because they express our cultural and national virtues.

I think that our globally mediated world has created an environment of distrust. We are taught that the only person to trust is our self. By taking away heroic role models, we create a loss of self-identity and increase distrust of our own country. To help illustrate my point, I would like revisit the Poland of 1971. Until 1980, communism was our unquestioned way of life and I grew up thinking that limited options of life-style, low wages, no products in stores, no future, hopelessness, and anger constituted the “reality” of daily life. “Working and sleeping” were the motto for many families who lived in our neighborhood. Poland and her people needed someone who could change this, who spoke with a clear message of hope   – someone with a charismatic personality and not at all connected to government. We needed a national hero for the people and from the people.

Patriotism in Poland means respect and fondness for the motherland and a desire to share her sacrifices. Placing the nation’s good over one’s own good, her needs over personal needs, and the readiness to sacrifice one’s health or life for the sake of the country defines Polish patriotism. Patriotism is also expressed in our fondness and care of our national tradition, our culture and the language. On a daily basis, the patriot safeguards the good luck and the good name of his own country and his people. In my lifetime, Lech Walesa was this patriot.

In the beginning of 1980, Solidarity[5] was outlawed by the government and shutdown. Lech Walesa was the person who gave the people hope and freedom. We have a sentence in Polish that says, “Success is the mother of everyone”. In this way, TV, radio, and the press started creating news programs to promote him and the movement. The Media created him as the man who would save Poland. Many believed that he was real a patriot – a real hero.

In December, 1990 Walesa was elected President of the Republic of Poland. The man who was an electric factory worker was now granted honorary degrees including the Nobel prize from many universities. The Media promoted him until the end of his second Presidential candidacy, when Kwasniewski, the leader of SLD (the opposing Communist party) re-entered the Polish politics arena. The media, which was an extension of the Communists, created the next leader. Walesa, who was not educated, now became unnecessary to the media and the Polish people. The man who sacrificed for his country for more than 30 years was misunderstood and unaccepted. In fact, media representations of him are often contradictory and unflattering. At times, he is a hero, then he is a collaborator with the SB[6], or he is represented as a national obscurity of our recent past. Because of conflicting media representations of Walesa, he is both: known and unknown, controversial, and deeply hated. Our former Hero is now a “Persona non grata”.

What happened to Walesa happens to all of our national and international “heroes.” Lifted up by the media, it is only a matter of time before the media destroys them along with all of the hopes that we invested in them. Every day, we are surprised and demoralized by sensationalist stories of scandal and corruption which undermines our trust in government and elected officials. We no longer identify with our leaders or political parties. In sum, media hasn’t helped us find future heroes – men and women – who incarnate our national values and identity. Instead, media destroys the hero and makes us deeply suspicious of virtuous deeds.

Immigration and national identity: unresolved tensions.

In this section, I think of immigrant communities that have enriched a nation and made that nation larger and more global. But that “enrichment” has come with great tension because the immigrants have no desire to separate form their culture, language, or even religious traditions. In my opinion, France is a country where the idea of democracy is strongly accented. We could argue, in fact, that France has defined and safeguards the tenets of modern Western democracy. France is a country that prides itself on the division between church and state, between the secular and the sacred. In recent times, however, many Islamists have moved to France and they safeguard their own cultural and religious traditions.

Belgium experiences the same trend. Experts have predicted that in 15 years, Belgium will be the first “Islamic” country in Western Europe due to the fact that Islamists will make up the majority of their citizens. A few days ago, I watched a news program on Polish television that said that the Islamist majority in Belgium have begun to put pressure on the government to change official law and introduce “Islamic rules” because the religion of Islam is now the majority in this country. The tension is apparent in both France and Belgium. Both countries are founded on Western democratic principles, yet both countries welcome immigrant groups whose very identities are in contradiction with cherished Western beliefs. Unfortunately, the notion – used in America – of the “melting pot” is no longer useful. Immigrants no longer want to “blend in” with the French or Belgians. They want to live in France or Belgium while maintaining a unique identity that might be in direct contradiction to the values and ideals that define Western democracy.

Interestingly, Russian Jewish youth have found a solution via the internet to ease some of these tensions. In their article, Spinning the web of identity: the role of the Internet in the lives of immigrant adolescents, Nelly Elias and Dafina Lemish note that many of these youth have had a difficult time assimilating in Israel. Although they share the same religion, the cultural differences are enormous.  For many who feel unsettled, “the Internet became the main source of information on Jewish holidays and religious rituals – knowledge which further helped the immigrant teenagers to cope with the hosts’ biased attitudes to decide which aspects of Jewish identity they wish[ed] to adopt”. [7]  Immigrants, especially the young, have kept their national identity alive through the use of the internet. Via the internet, they maintains strong ties with friends and families in their homeland, and stay grounded in their values and nations interests instead of transferring allegiances to the country in which they live in the present time.

The Generation Gap and Nationality.

Every country has a generation gap. And today, Poles live under more unfavorable conditions due to the generation gap. This gap between parents and children is striking, especially with regard to electronic and media technology. Many parents are angry when they observe the long hours their children watch TV or play video games. In the eyes of their parents, these children are doing “nothing.” But the children believe that TV and video games are a significant and worthy part of today’s life. It is true, however, that the television and video mediums emphasize watching over communicating. You could argue that the younger generation prefers to watch/observe instead of act through speech.

For the future to be promising, the young need to communicate with older generations. Without cooperation between generations, we live in parallel but distinct worlds. The younger generation thinks it knows everything because it is technologically savvy. But, the older generation reminds them that the young have lost the ability to speak. Youth counter this claim by saying that their elders can only communicate about the past. The younger generation is happy to observe a future in the making instead of talking about the “good old days.” To close the generation gap, we need to talk and listen to one another with mutual respect and an open mind. Our youth would learn a great deal from talking to their elders and, in turn, our seniors would do well to listen and learn from a younger technologically sophisticated generation. An open intergenerational dialogue in the present day would teach all of us the lessons we can learn from our past to prepare us for a better tomorrow.

Facebook and YouTube are effective media technologies that put us in immediate contact with persons in distant places. In her article, Africa on YouTube, Melissa Wall writes about video production in African countries such as Ghana and Kenya. These countries, she states, “are not represented as chaotic and violent as has often been the case in the past, [but] they continue to be stereotyped. Africans unaccompanied by western are most likely to appear in entertainment, especially music, videos”.[8]

I remember many Polish programs in 80’s and 90’s promoting Africa as the continent where respect for traditional rites, dance and music, was most cherished. Africa was portrayed as the place for vacation and rest. Poles identify Africa with animals, beautiful views and sunny weather. But we never heard of Africa’s problems. Our media forgot about civil wars, genocide, (HIV/AIDS), prostitution, and human trafficking. Media has the power to be very selective in what it reveals and conceals about people and other countries. Yet, media also the power to be a force of change by making us see the harsh realities that others have to endure on a daily basis. Media can be a catalyst for change and elicit our goodwill and sympathy for people who don’t share our language, culture, or social/religious norms. In other words, media can help us rise above national interests to become compassionate global citizens of a world we encounter in seconds through new media technologies.

The fast track to citizenship: Migration nation.

Today, more than 20,000 non-citizens are serving in the US Army. For many of them, this is the only way to become an American. They don’t want to wait for years to be legal in the U.S.A. and they choose, even though they are very young, to be “American soldiers.” Many of these people are happy after their service because they get a chance to become citizens; unfortunately, others are not so lucky because they end up as war casualties.

Recently, I read a New York Times article about Cpl. Juan Mariel Alcántara who became an American citizen after his death in the Iraqi war.[9] Alcántara was born in the Dominican Republic. As a 22 year old man, he died during his last mission. He left his family to fight for “his country” and his family’s happiness. Many non-United States citizens, like Alcántara have sacrificed themselves fighting in America’s wars. To be legal in the U.S.A., they took a risk and signed a contract with the American army. To gain citizenship faster, they took the risk of possibly sacrificing their dreams and happiness. Should non-United States citizens be allowed to join the American military services and fight wars for American citizens?

We often say that fighting for your own country is the best way to prove your loyalty to your country. It is a privilege to serve the country we love and live in, but not a right. But, this idea of fighting/enlisting for one’s future country appears to be a business contract between two parties where, “something is given for something”. From one point of view, everything looks politically just. Prove to us just how much you love our country by fighting for it. But should citizenship simple be a business transaction? What about respect for human life, dreams of a better future, civil liberties and freedoms – the stuff of American speeches?  True, business is business”, but without the living, business cannot exist. Citizenship and American identity should not to be the result of a military business transaction, but the consequence of respect for local traditions and love for one’s future country called “home.” Yet the business paradigm has altered our understandings of citizenship and thrown into question other criteria used to gauge love of country.

In conclusion, our globally mediated world can bring about a place of environmental and political degradation (scandals, lying, corruption), and a loss of the autonomy and identity of individual tradition. It can also produce (negative) cultural change in interpersonal and public relationships, homogenization of creative instincts, and even an insidious/invasive consumerism promoting hedonism, laziness and materialism. I am not against globalization, but I don’t see a clear way that we can be together or united all while maintaining individual difference. Theoretically, I do believe that our unity can be founded upon a respect for difference. But I can’t predict the negative and positive consequences that will unfold when we try to make this theoretical possibility a reality.

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[1] Davos is a host of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an annual meeting of global political and business elites in Switzerland. Davos is a symbol of the people who believe in idea of globalization.
[2] Porto Alegre is an organizer of World Social Forum (WSF) meetings to discuss and deal with social issues (2001, 2002, 2003, 2005). More than 100,000 people from more than 100 countries each year gathered to meeting in Porto Alegre in Brasil which is a symbol for non-globalization.
[3] Sherwood Laurel. The Campaign Against Mc Donald’s. Green Brigades. Ecologist Paper. No. 2 (13) 94. Retrieved on March 6, 2010 at: http://zb.most.org.pl/gb/13/mcdeath.htm
[4] Schlosser Eric. (2002). Fast Food Nation. The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Perennial. New York. p. 3-4.
[5] Solidarity, Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy „Solidarność”  is a Polish trade union federation founded in September 1980 at the Gdansk Shipyard, and originally led by Lech Walesa
[6] SB, Służba Bezpieczeństwa is a „Security Service”, functioning as Secret Police in Poland since 1956 to 1990.
[7] Elias Nelly, Lemish Dafina. (2009). Spinning the web of identity: the role of the Internet in the lives of immigrant adolescents. SAGE Publications. Los Angeles. Vol. 11(4). p. 545.
[8] Wall Melissa. (2009). Africa on YouTube. Musicians, Tourists, Missionaries and Aid Workers. International Communication Gazette. 1748-0485. Vol. 71(5). p. 393. At http://gaz.sagepub.co.uk.
[9] Haberman, Clyde. (2007). Becoming an American Citizen, the Hardest Way. The New York Times, 09.18.2007. New York. p. B1. Retrieved on March 05, 2010 at: http://select.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/nyregion/18nyc.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print