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World: Prague's Forum 2000 Debates Merits Of Globalization

  • Jeremy Bransten

Forum 2000 is an annual international conference that brings to Prague some of the world's most recognized thinkers, spiritual leaders, and politicians under the patronage of Czech President Vaclav Havel. This year's gathering, which ended yesterday, included luminaries as diverse as Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and former South African President F.W. DeKlerk. The discussions focused on "Education, Culture and Spiritual Values in the Age of Globalization."

Prague, 19 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- South Africa's former president, F.W. DeKlerk, in a powerful oration, gave voice to the fears of many cultural conservatives, who worry that globalization is robbing the world of its diversity, and threatening to turn the planet into a uniform, soulless place. DeKlerk echoed the concerns of groups as varied as French farmers and aboriginal Amazon tribes, all afraid of losing their footing in what they see as an uncharted new world.

"As a result of globalization, a sort of new, international uniformity is developing in many areas that had previously been characterized by cultural diversity. Just think of it: new generations are growing up all around the world. They watch the same TV shows as children, they adulate the same pop music and movie idols as teenagers and the follow the same soap operas as adults. Their understanding of the world is increasingly influenced by the same global news networks and commentators. They don't get different opinions. They all look at the same news, they all get the same interpretation of the same news -- the global news.

"They follow the same fashions and buy the same globally marketed products -- whether it's toys and T-shirts of Disney, jeans and perfumes from the fashion houses of Paris, Milan or New York, or the most recent electronic consumer items from Japan or Korea. They do their shopping in the same malls, they buy their hamburgers from the same fast-food chains and they work in shiny office buildings which look the same from Shanghai to Buenos Aires and from Frankfurt to Singapore.

"The result is the development of a new generation of global citizens whose attitudes, tastes, and aspirations and increasingly uniform. Everywhere, regional and national cultures are under pressure. It has been estimated that half of the world's 6,000 languages will disappear within the next century. Our cultural diversity is now under greater threat than the bio-diversity of our planet."

The former South African leader wondered out loud whether this new culturally rootless human society would still be able to fulfill one of its basic functions: to lend meaning to the average human being's life. He urged a rediscovery of religion and spirituality in the 21st century as a partial solution.

"What will be the purpose of this life during the new millennium? Simply the acquisition of more and more material possessions? The reality, ladies and gentlemen, is that the pace of our scientific and technological development has far outstripped the pace of our spiritual development. During the new millennium, one of our greatest challenges may well be to rediscover the spiritual truth that will provide us with meaning and purpose."

Tibet's Dalai Lama embodies spirituality to millions of his followers and admirers around the world. Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled into exile to escape capture by Chinese forces who annexed his country, Tibetans have witnessed the destruction of ancient monuments and the attempted dilution of their cultural heritage and religion by China's communist rulers. The Dalai Lama expressed his sadness over these attacks, which in a global context, he noted, impoverish China as well as the rest of the world.

"Ahh, Tibet's situation [is] very sad. My main concern is the Tibetan cultural heritage, which is very much linked with the Buddha dharma -- Buddhism. I feel that cultural heritage, Buddhism, is one of the world's great treasures. So the disappearance, the diminishing from the Earth of that rich cultural heritage and spirituality is, I think, a great loss. I have no doubt, in the future -- I think many Chinese will feel great regret at their loss of one of [the world's] great treasures."

Tibet's exiled leader reiterated that he is not seeking full independence for Tibet, only broad autonomy to allow the territory to maintain its natural resources, culture, religion, and traditions. He said he had nothing against the Chinese people or Chinese civilization. In a lighter moment, the Dalai Lama confessed his fondness for Chinese food -- a trait, he joked, which proved his friendly intentions.

The Dalai Lama was more optimistic about whether globalization threatens the diversity of global cultures. He countered DeKlerk's Cassandra-like warning about the demise of civilization by noting that people continue to have strong attachments to their local region or country. He said nations with rich cultural traditions should not fear any what he called "American cultural invasion."

"If your own cultural heritage is strong and is also made relevant in day-to-day life, then of course people naturally have a strong appreciation of their own culture."

The Dalai Lama said people could even be enriched by globalization, if it allows them to learn about other cultures.

Russian human rights advocate and parliamentarian Sergei Kovalev, in his presentation, also concentrated on the positive aspects of globalization -- especially in the field of justice. According to Kovalev, the harmonization of international laws and the creation of what he termed a unified legal could someday bring humanity to a much desired goal: the elimination of war as a tool for resolving disputes.

Until such judicial globalization is achieved, Kovalev warned, double standards, injustice, and wars will remain inevitable:

"In a certain sense, war is unavoidable even today. It is unavoidable because one cannot protect security for decades only, exclusively, on the principle of the balance of fear. Balance of fear is not a solid foundation. And if we don't have the will to begin to live under one law within a unified legal space, unfortunately, sooner or later, war will erupt. Sooner or later, local conflicts will give way to general bloody fighting. In this sense, globalization -- that is, the creation of a unified legal space -- is in my view the only real way to escape this terrible suicidal destiny."

The world's distinguished movers and thinkers will reconvene next year -- same time, same place -- to evaluate how much progress humanity has made in globalizing wisely and safeguarding its spiritual heritage.

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