Our World, and Welcome to It (With apologies to James Thurber)

March 14, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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“Globaloney!” quoth Clare Boothe Luce, the author and wife of Time Magazine’s strictly (severely?) conservative magnate Henry Luce, about the “One World” thesis of her more liberal Republican Party standard bearer Wendell Willkie. It was the election year of 1940, the United States not yet in World War II, and (even as she campaigned for him against the dreadful FDR) Mrs. Luce would have none of Willkie’s hope that we could enter into an era of harmonious cooperation with the Soviet Union. (Mercifully, for the missionary-aligned Luces, China had not yet turned Communist.) Little could Mrs. Luce have imagined where things stand now.

Yes, now, with Starbucks and Amazon invading India, of all places, and what is said to be the world’s biggest Ikea on the outskirts of Moscow. A piece in last Sunday’s Times, “How India Became America,” by the writer Akash Kapur was a reminder of how blessed I feel to have seen many parts of the world when they were actually different. I was lucky to win a traveling scholarship that enabled me to set out on globe-girdling travels in 1954-55 (with a photography prize growing out of those travels allowing me to see some of Africa in 1956). Of all the places I hoped to see — in part because of my girlfriend with the wonderful name Malabar, given her by a father in the import-export business — India was number one. It did not disappoint, terrible as much of its poverty was.

India and Japan. What curious contrasts! India with men in loincloths, women in saris, beggars and freely roaming cows in the streets, wildly carved temples, the Taj Mahal, the villages built of mud and cow dung, the teeming humanity filling the railroad trains, people chewing tooth-reddening betel, the burning ghats at Benares (now Varanasi), stark naked holy sadhus, urchins everywhere. It really was like nowhere else! Then Japan, superficially so modern, mechanized, motorized traffic (rare to see an animal anywhere in the streets), most people of both sexes dressed much as in the United States — but oh, so different underneath! The extreme politeness, the bowing, the almost fanatical faddism (a slot-machine small-time gambling game called pachinko was everywhere filling parlors devoted to it) … invisible strings seemed to be controlling the Japanese. But away from the modern-looking big cities like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka I found the quiet, austere, simple elegance of an older Japan (which, curiously, had so big an influence on the 20th century’s modern architecture in the West).

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My son Sven, who recently came back from a visit to Japan, has his own take on that country. I myself revisited Japan in 1989, by which time a good deal of what I remembered of its earlier charm had vanished. Where, in 1955, a Tokyo department store would look quite Western from the outside, inside it would contain a world of traditional Japanese goods and clothing, all exquisitely packaged, but by 1989 it was just one more iteration of Ralph Lauren’s Polo Country, along with Dior, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Rolex, Hermes, Burberry, etc. I might just as well have been in New York, Paris, Berlin, or Rome. In the northwest corner of the seventh floor was a small section devoted to truly Japanese things.

And so India, which I never quite got up the courage to revisit (I could not picture myself again riding third-class in Indian trains and being packed in at such close quarters with so many of its people), now is a land of shopping malls. As Akash Kapur wrote in his Times piece, he returned from school years in the U.S. to find not only the malls and glass-fronted office buildings, but, “In the countryside, thatch huts had given way to concrete homes, and cashew and mango plantations were being replaced by gated communities.” Kapur finds “the very spirit of the country” changed and in many ways energized for the better, but he also finds the villages “more troubled. Abandoned fields and fallow plantations are indications of a looming agricultural and environmental crisis.” Social structures and family bonds have frayed, crime increased.

“Globaloney” has turned into something real, in a sense Clare Boothe hardly envisioned. While chefs worldwide labor to keep traditional, regional cuisines alive, there is an overlay of universal flavor to our existences that, for all its electronic conveniences, is reducing the world to one great patty of McDonald’s. We visit imitation Venices in Las Vegas or Disney’s Epcot City (what an ugly name!) only to be confronted with how fake they are.

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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