The Horror of McDonalds in New Orleans


Royal Café’s Shrimp and Oyster Po-boy

Erin is quite a liberal person. She voted Green in the last election (mind you, her voting address is in Nebraska, a state that hasn’t voted Democrat since the civil war, so her vote was far more useful pushing the Greens towards the 5% funding threshold than it was hurtful to Al Gore who had already written off the state). She is also an American (well, duh!), and thus criticism of the United States, if it is blanket and not carefully thought out beforehand, tends to make her wince. She has been a barometer to me, highlighting a few cases where we in Canada (and the rest of the world) tend to blanketly blame the United States as intellectual shorthand for our gripes and concerns.

Take this recent article from Blogs Canada, discussing the presence of McDonald’s in such cultural centres as Paris, and the fallout that descended as a result. The article makes excellent points about the perils of the corporatization of the global village, but it refers to the phenomenon as “Americanization”

Erin’s response was as follows: “I agree that it is somewhat of a horror that there are McDonald’s outlets in Paris. I also believe that it is somewhat of a horror that there are McDonald’s outlets in New Orleans.”

The picture that we have of American culture, of fast-food outlets and Hollywood blockbusters, is inaccurate. The fact is, we’ve been flooded with only part of the picture — only those businesses big enough and homogeneous enough have crossed the border into Canada, multi-national corporations. Our picture of American culture is dominated by massive television and movie studios in New York and Los Angeles.

It’s peculiar, but most people that Erin has observed have identified and sometimes stereotyped Americans by their popular television. Those same people don’t make that mistake about other countries and their television program. Just as Americans and Canadians appreciate the jokes on Red Green as jokes and don’t paint the program as a window onto Canadian culture, the true United States generally goes unseen, and is far more diverse than we give it credit for.

I return, again, to the PBS special on the American sandwich. It’s not the hamburger. Sandwiches You Will Like takes the viewer across America to various local eateries to sample regionally distinct sandwiches. From the well known Philly cheesesteak and the New York pastrami to the lesser known St. Paul sandwiches of St. Louis (An egg foo-yun patty deep fried and put on thick slices of bread with mayonnaise, lettuce and a tomato) and the Po’Boys of New Orleans, the special aptly illustrates the considerable differences that exist within the United States, as well as the contributions immigrants have made to American culture and its food.

There is more difference within the United States and Canada than there is between the average American and Canadian. What we are receiving, when we’re ploughed under by such chains as Walmart, Home Depot, McDonalds, etc, is not American culture, but corporate global culture. As Gwynne Dyer said, the corporate culture is mistaken as American culture because the corporate culture subdued American culture first, and took on American attributes before it moved out to conquer the rest of the world. As corporate culture grows, it will take on more international flavours (witness the success of Canadian corporations within the global milieu: Tim Hortons are becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds in certain places), but the conquest will not be Americanization.

The battle for globalization is fast food versus slow food, homogeneity versus local flavour, multi-national corporations versus individuality. It’s not America versus the rest of the world. American culture itself is suffering the onslaught of this homogenization, and elements are fighting back, struggling to hold onto a local and regional identity. Chicago is not New York. Portland is not Los Angeles. There are numerous places, like New Orleans, which pride themselves on their distinctiveness.

There are plenty of reasons to struggle against corporate conformity, but let’s not misidentify the enemy by calling it American. Doing so isolates us from powerful allies within the United States, who are struggling to protect and celebrate their cultural distinctiveness. We should reach out to them if we wish to protect and celebrate our own.

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