The Ugly Globalista

In the back pages of a film festival guide this week, between all the banners for wineries and BMWs, I saw the ad for a posh Bay Area “international” school whose tagline was Where today’s students become tomorrow’s global thinkers.

Global thinkers? Meaning what, exactly? A Joe & the Juice thinker as opposed to a Joe’s Cafe thinker? A Whole Foods thinker as opposed to a pretzel-cart thinker? A Lego-block thinker so modular and free of quirks that he or she can easily snap onto any Lego-block global metropolis and land an eighteen-month gig?

Language like this is everywhere now, just another tint-glass panel on the urban landscape.

A hip travel magazine just ran a short piece by a self-described Global Dad that might help clarify our global thinking definition. (I’ll leave the magazine name out because I don’t want to besmirch this otherwise quality project that I usually really enjoy.) This month’s theme was the expatriate life, with ex-pates sketching out everything from their decision to move abroad to everyday coping strategies in their countries of choice.

I was deeply absorbed in their stories until Global Dad climbed onto his scooterized Samsonite and started preaching.

At what phrase do I start to hate this man as he describes his life strategy of never keeping his kids in one place for more than two years? Is it the verb “notching” as it relates to how many countries his tots have now seen? (Thirty, in case you’re interested.) Is it “poster children” or “perma-pats”?

Or is it his self-congratulatory tone as he declares that his biological issue will never be outsourced? They will speak several languages! They will shun permanence for mobility! They will be equally at ease on the streets of São Paulo and Shanghai!

And yet they will be “American as apple pie,” you see, because “the international culture they’re immersed in is dominated by American English and pop music.” (In which case, what’s the point of going abroad?)

For the record: I am the last person on earth who’s going to criticize parents who want to take their kids abroad. It took an act of Congress when I was nineteen to convince my parents that I would not be seduced by Johnny Rotten or blasted to bits by the IRA if I did an English-lit summer course in the British Isles. I still think about where I’d be in life now if I’d gone abroad sooner, and what it would have done for the family dynamic if we’d all crossed more borders together.

But this travel-mag scribe has daddy issues: is he even writing about “travel” as we once understood it? To him, the gifts of perpetual motion are just means to an end, mere stepping-stones on the trail to global domination via his remarkable progeny. Where foreign shores are concerned, listening, observing, and letting yourself be changed don’t seem to enter the conversation.

And what of ethics, Dad? What of civics and duty and contribution to the community that so graciously supports (tolerates) you? Or will that box get neatly ticked by “service projects” in your kids’ squeaky-clean international schools, turning the poor, permanent locals into zoo animals to be tended and gawked at, rather than befriended and learned from?

Maybe this guy sets me off so badly because he’s so typical of the post–tech invasion bullcrap paving the roads of San Francisco now. On a Sunday morning, walk to the bakery ten blocks away from my place, out of Renter-land and into Owner-land, and you’ll hear choruses of parents declaring between mouthfuls of petits fours that they want their kids attending a “diverse” school, by which they mean they want their kids mingling with the kids of the richest, most educated people from around the world—so, okay, the immersion or international option. Could anyone involved hold a three-minute conversation with the person three blocks away, or across town, who can barely make their rent? How educational would that be?

As of seven or eight years ago, Global Dad, my city has been chock full of global thinkers, and I’ve never been so bored or irritated in all my life. They buzz all over the sidewalks on their one-wheels and electric skateboards, checking Instagram with nary a look up, flying home to their door-delivered organic meals and wet-nurses.

Okay, I’m dipping my toe in the nasty-pond here myself, but really. They piss me off. Try living for one week on this side of their suitcases. To them, the unique city I’ve loved and learned from and participated in for decades is just another consumer product, Google flag, or augmented-reality game that can be deleted from their lives at a swipe. They define what now stands in for consciousness, for being alive. They zip around in glassy-eyed me-helmets of Uber and Foursquare, hard-boiled eggs in a hard-boiled-egg universe.

In Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, gung-ho futurists describe the coming Internet of Me, an experiential digital surround that will grovel to each individual’s ego-urges.

San Francisco already feels like the Internet of Me, only in my case there’s no me involved because I keep opting out of its steady advance. (I get what it is to be controlled and manipulated. I came of age in the 20th century.) Immutable outside realities such as scraped knees and death do not compute on the human circuit-boards now aggressively ignoring my city. The capacity to be deeply altered by, or identified with, a particular location or culture seems to have been simply lost from life’s exciting digital menu.

There are those who see hope in this. Illustrator and naturalist Obi Kaufmann, with endearing sincerity, makes a case in the just-released Issue No. 113 of local literary magazine Zyzzyva: Of course we’re becoming a monoculture, and our ever-consolidating communication channels and lifestyles will make it that much easier for everyone to instantly, radically alter their ways of thinking and thereby save the planet.

I wish I could agree. The fact is, being a hyperconnected globalista is less a journey of openness to change, and more the oblivious hay-making of globalization’s quickly mildewing hay. We needed to radically change our way of thinking decades ago, we had the means to do it, and we just didn’t. If anything, we went down a far more destructive path than we should have, striding confidently into the faith that something about sophisticated communications technologies would incubate righteous content.

Does the world really need any more global thinkers, or does it need more broad-minded, politically informed kooks and weirdos who could only have been produced by their town or region? What do we even mean by diversity anymore? Isn’t it far more globally useful to retain your local flavor and be a fat, irregular dot on a rich tapestry, rather than another hive-mind hexahedral? Don’t we need as many richly variegated perspectives as possible to solve the monumental problems we face?

Maybe it’s time to seriously re-examine the ultimate purpose of long-term travel. What is more badly needed right now: another flighty digital nomad, or invested citizens willing to sit through a Town Hall with silenced phones and full attention?

The world is getting smaller whether we want it to or not. Maybe we should stop making a suburb out of the planet.

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