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Globalization's Discontents

May 23, 1999|EDUARDO GALEANO | Eduardo Galeano is the author of numerous books, including "Memory of Fire" and "The Book of Embraces." This essay is adapted from the acceptance speech he delivered last month upon receiving the 1999 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom. It has been translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried

In 1948 and 1976, the United Nations proclaimed long lists of human rights, but the immense majority of humanity enjoys only the rights to see, hear and remain silent. The right of expression is a privilege of the few.

I don't believe that we writers should attempt to be the voice of those who have no voice. What a frequent, well-intentioned and unfortunate phrase that is. Who are those who have no voice? Is there anywhere a single person who has nothing to say? In this world monopolized by the haves, the have-nots don't have a hope in hell of being heard, but they are not the least bit mute. Their silence hides much more than echoes of his master's voice, much more than a submissive chorus celebrating the almighty global culture of consumption and violence.

The flowering of cultural freedom, the freedom of diversity, is a feat ever more difficult for poor people and weak countries to achieve, condemned as they are to imitating the lifestyle imposed everywhere nowadays as the only possible way of life. With national industries having disappeared, plans for autonomous development forgotten, the state dismantled, symbols of sovereignty abolished, the countries that make up the vast shantytowns of the world have few opportunities to affirm their right to be themselves and to be proud of it. The right to be, the pride of being, collides with the function of servitude assigned to them by the international division of labor. Just as it contradicts the role of passive spectators in which they have been cast by the cultural industry and the mass media.

Today, culture is largely reduced to entertainment: The cultural industry should really be called the entertainment industry. Exaggerated though it may sound, I'm convinced the mercantile despotism of the mass-media entertainment industry is inflicting cultural damage on the world at least as devastating as the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, invoked these days as justification for bombing Yugoslavia.

Technological diversity is said to be democratic diversity. Indeed, nowadays technology places images, words and music within the reach of all, as never before in the history of humanity. But such good fortune becomes a dirty trick when private monopolies end up imposing a one-image, one-word, one-tune dictatorship on the planet. Even taking into account the exceptions--and fortunately there are exceptions, and not so few--this giant machinery tends to offer us thousands of ways of choosing between the same and the same. Are we all doomed to die of hunger or of boredom?

Years ago, when my time in exile was just beginning, I wrote a few pages about the pain and the beauty of having been born in America--in the other America, which has lost, among so many lost rights, the right to be called America. And in those pages I wrote that "our authentic collective identity is born out of the past and nourished by it--but that identity should not be frozen into nostalgia. We are what we do, and especially what we do to change what we are."

Twentysomething years later, I still believe in identity, not as a periodic ritual of repetition but as a continuous act of creation. For persons and peoples, singular and plural, the me and the we, identity is not a Sleeping Beauty in a museum but a living, breathing challenge on the street and in the countryside.

This world, our world at the end of the century, our world at the end of the millennium, is blind to itself, unable to take in the horror of the mutilations it suffers or the marvel of the splendors it conceals, filled with colors we are not allowed to see and with voices we are not allowed to hear. In the midst of this era of mandatory globalization, which is like an immense factory pumping out cultural clones or clowns for the market circus, these colors and voices keep alive powerful evidence that the best of the world lies in the quantity of worlds the world contains.

Changing voices, changing colors locked inside a jack-in-the-box: I am convinced that tomorrow doesn't have to be another name for yesterday or another name for today. Let's embrace the impossible and joyful pursuit of the ever-flying rainbow.

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