Celebrating Our Differences

A Toblerone chocolate bar is displayed on March 7, 2023, in San Anselmo, California. (Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A fun story I covered many years ago was the opening of the first McDonald’s in New Delhi. This was back in the 1990s, when we mostly felt a lot better about globalization, back when Tom Friedman was formulating his wry (and often misinterpreted) “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”—the hypothesis that a country with a McDonald’s in it was unlikely to go to war with another McDonald’s country, the idea being that two countries sufficiently integrated into the global economic order to have McDonald’s would have shared economic interests and commitments to multilateral institutions that would make war the least desirable option in a conflict. It wasn’t—and isn’t—a terrible idea or a stupid one, though it has proved to be untrue in its strongest and most literal form. 

Opening a McDonald’s in India—where getting permission to serve beef commercially is a bit like getting permission to serve human flesh marinated in methamphetamine in the United States—presented some challenges, but McDonald’s is a very innovative and dynamic company. In New Delhi, that meant reformulating the burgers to use lamb rather than beef, maintaining two completely separate kitchens to accommodate the various demands of both Hindu and Muslim dietary requirements, etc. The result was a McDonald’s in which the food was—in spite of the differences in ingredients and preparation—indistinguishable from what you’d get in Columbus, Ohio. I can appreciate the consistency and admire the work that goes into maintaining it—but I don’t want the whole world to be Columbus, Ohio. 

(Columbus is the fourth-most-average U.S. city; if it were the most average, it would be interesting for that reason. But Columbus manages to avoid even the distinctiveness of distinctive non-distinctiveness, which is why it is “Test Market USA.”) 

The opening of that first McDonald’s occasioned some discussion about cultural imperialism and the fear that globalization really means Americanization—which, of course, it largely does and has, but India wasn’t and isn’t at much risk of being inundated by Americanism, there being far too much India to submerge even in such a tide as that. During the Raj, it was a commonplace observation among the apologists for colonial rule that India was a geographic term rather than a political one, and today one might make a similar observation that partly reverses the line: that India is a political term rather than a cultural one. India is diverse in a way that is far more many-splendored—1,369 “mother tongues” producing 121 languages, 22 with official status, seven major religions, etc.—than is the United States, which boasts so energetically of its diversity. I haven’t been there in more than 25 years, but I am told that India still is very much a different country from village to village. And, while I believe there is great value in multinational business, cultural and economic exchange, free trade, travel, multilateral organization—globalization, in a word—I am with Russell Kirk in cherishing the genuine organic diversity of real people living real lives in real communities. 

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