LaFeber's 'Jordan': Whose world is it?

July 11, 1999|By Jon Morgan | By Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

"Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism," by Walter LaFeber. W. W. Norton. 160 pages. $22.95.

If you came to believe while watching Michael Jordan play basketball that man could fly, you may, while reading this book, come to believe the retired Chicago Bull also accomplished with his oversized Nikes what the Roman legionnaires could only dream of: total world domination.

LaFeber's book, the latest in a career's worth of thoughtful self-examinations of American influence, is a primer on what some see as the coming global conflict of culture. With the triumph of capitalism, it seems, we're doomed to spend the next century fighting over faith, films and McDonald's french fries.

That is why, he writes, our enemies of the future are less likely to resemble the late Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev than Osama bin Laden, who allegedly bombed U.S. embassies in Africa out of anger over the creeping Americanization of his Saudi homeland. Khrushchev aimed thermo-nuclear missiles at Washington to contain the U.S. Marines, not Baywatch reruns.

As LaFeber says, "The battlefields ahead, then, will revolve not around imperialism versus anti-imperialism, or civilization versus civilization, but capital versus culture." That comes near the end of the book, in a chapter that tantalizes with its big questions and broad assertions -- and leaves the reader wanting more. The book ends much too soon, crafting a fine foundation but skimping on the upper floors.

LaFeber choses basketball and Jordan he says, because they demonstrate how transnational corporations have harnessed sport and the new media of the information age to create vast markets, unfettered by national boundaries.

The bulk of the 160-page work is a tidy, and authoritative recitation of the history of the NBA, Nike, Jordan, and communications technology (everything from James Naismith's original Boys Town vision for basketball to Nike's exploitation of foreign labor and Jordan's gambling scandals).

Especially vivid are the descriptions of a world awash in American popular culture. LaFeber relates an account of an American college student trudging through the Chinese backcountry in the winter of 1997. He encounters a group of Tibetans on their first excursion away from their native village. While marveling at his camera -- a device the likes of which they had never seen -- they shared with him "bites of meat from the raw, bloody, rib cage of an unspecified animal" and, finally, asked him how Michael Jordan was faring.

Elsewhere, one learns that four out of five magazines sold in Canada, and 96 percent of the movies viewed, are foreign-made, mostly American. Or that Japanese collectors will pay $2,600 for a pair of vintage Air Jordan Nikes. And that 80 percent of the television programs broadcast in Europe are made in America, that all 10 of Spain's top movies in 1998 were from Hollywood. Even in anti-Yankee France, seven of the top films that year were U.S.-made.

This has led to inevitable friction and charges of "cultural imperialism." The Canadian government convened a conference last year of 19 nations (the United States not included) looking to fence Mickey Mouse and Leonardo DiCaprio behind their own borders. The United Nations hosted a similar gathering in Sweden.

Americans, weary of trade imbalances and factory jobs flowing overseas, may take some comfort in the discomfort of the French foreign minister who, in 1997, declared, "The United States has assets not yet at the disposal of any other power ... political influence, the supremacy of the dollar, control of the communications networks, 'dream factories,' new technology ..."

One could argue the merit of a world that shares heroes, languages and values. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that tribes all existed behind stone walls and lived by jingoism.

But LaFeber focuses on the dark side of this American "soft power." We should, he argues, be mindful of its impact on other cultures. Unless our power is wielded with care, the 21st century could see bloody, hi-tech cultural confrontations unleashed on an "interlinked global village from which no one can escape to safety."

Jon Morgan covers the news and business of sports for The Sun. He is the author of two books: "Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the New NFL," and "Gaining a Yard: The Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium."

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