Coined a half-century ago by Marshall McLuhan, the 'global village' had come to express hope in a connected world. Now, such plagues as ISIS and Ebola, show how that can turn against us.
BERLIN — In 1962 there was still hope. That was the year the visionary communication theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote that mankind had reached an age of interconnection he called the "global village." Like many of the terms McLuhan coined, the expression global village soon came to mean something other than what he had originally intended.
It was usually used as a kitsch metaphor to remind us that we humans are part of a big family. There are even children’s books that show the world as, for example, a village with 100 residents: 60 of them are Asians, 14 are Hindus, 17 are illiterate, 21 are overweight. The village concept felt good. It felt like home. It also allowed us to identify problems, such as hunger or shortages of potable water, without being overwhelmed by them.
And just in case we forgot to what extent we were all one, pop music, with its world hug songs, was there to remind us. We, the residents of the privileged North, the people who could afford to be reflective and empathetic, seeing the silver lining in every cloud as we made our tax-deductible charity contributions, swayed to and fro to the tunes.
But now the fun is over. That’s because we’re seeing how much the world really has become a global village, one in which every imaginable misery comes much closer to us than we urban folk are used to. There are videos showing people being beheaded — people with faces, names and professions. These are people one can imagine being friends with. As U.S. President Barack Obama said during his recent address before the United Nations General Assembly, there is "a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers."
A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 65 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and however many years after all the other events that supposedly mark our collective progress, here’s the state of affairs: a mountain guide is beheaded because he made the mistake of being French; in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate, armed patrols make sure that the clothing of the heavily veiled women in the street is entirely opaque.
In Rome, at a Kurdish-led demonstration against ISIS (Photo: )
The knives used to hack off the heads of unbelievers may be locally produced, but the video cameras, the pickup trucks, the weapons, even new jihadist recruits, come from our half of the village. The murderers are often young men from the West, so enraged at life that others end up losing their lives to them. ISIS is something like a reactionary globalization vanguard whose goal it is to subjugate the planet and welcome all miscreants into their fold.
Ebola too — the other danger that could pose a direct threat to us—is masterfully ignoring all containment efforts. For a few weeks, even months, we could talk down the danger. But now the warnings are proliferating that one of these days somebody on the African side of the village is going to get on a plane and get off on our side. No Frontex can prevent that, nor any amendment to asylum law.
Suddenly, we are shocked to learn, it’s about world dominion. It’s about whether evil and barbarism will win, or whether civilization, enlightenment and progress might still deign to prevail. But maybe it’s too late. Maybe we’re too tired, resigned, clueless. Perhaps we’re still just too interested in our own wellbeing and thus blind to the fact that the wellbeing of humanity should sometimes take precedence.
People try and deal with their fear of globalization in almost touchingly idyllic ways. Everybody wants to lay their own claims: the eastern Ukrainians to New Russia, the Scots to an independent Scotland. Here in Germany the Bavarians are calling for stricter border controls. As if those things are going to make anything better. A virus like Ebola doesn’t care what part of a city it’s in, and the jihadist doesn’t have to invade — he’s already there. He’s a former boxer, a rapper, a good student, whatever, and then he becomes indoctrinated by some stuff he sees on the Internet.
A world rescue mission would be too expensive. Nobody could correctly gauge the consequences, and too much blood would be shed. What would the moral justification be? And who is really out there to help fight the enemy on the ground? Do we move against ISIS with Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
The Ebola outbreak is equally confounding. How can one fight Ebola without letting the pharmaceutical industry know that they’re welcome to invest in a little more research on the epidemics of the poor, you know, just kind of like a charity project for humanity?
What to do? One possibility is to finally acknowledge that something really is going on here. It may also be time to accept that a little cultural imperialism isn’t so bad. Call it humanitarian intervention if that makes you feel more comfortable. It could be that some people’s pride, dignity, and identity get hurt. So be it. Time is of the essence. The village needs to be rescued now — and not just our half of town. Something must be done to save the dying Africans and protect the people unlucky enough to live where ISIS has started to implement its own plan for the global village.