A quick thought that I may try to rework more thoroughly later. Boulette’s Larder pleased me partially because the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food influences there were so deep and so obviously the product of thorough study and understanding. The more typical way that different food traditions appear in urban, cosmopolitan life around the globe is eclectic but shallow. A taco here, a blini there. I don’t mind that either: that’s what my own cooking and eating is governed by. It’s part of the great cultural smorgasbord of contemporary middle-class existence.
I am struck though at the dichotomy of how the two major political cultures in America consume or envision the world. Liberal, affluent, multiculti enthusiastically listen to music from around the globe, eat the cuisines of a hundred societies, read translated novels, watch the local national cinema from around the planet. At least some of this activity is surrounded by tropes and slogans that celebrate it as building a peaceful, enlightened world, though in my experience most of the real-life multiculti simply go about listening, eating, consuming in a global frame without rehearsing the more vapid self-congratulatory formulae that pop up in marketing or p.r. of various kinds. We sample the world with simpler ideas of pleasure and curiosity in mind.
That’s not confined to political liberals, of course: this is the dominant cultural modality for many middle to upper-middle class Americans. Cosmopolitanism isn’t as politically narrow as some might claim. But there is a conservative view of the world as threat, the world as a place which departs or deviates from American values or commitments, the world as a dark and dangerous backdrop to the American dream. It’s customary to mock that vision and see it as the causal force behind our current disastrous foreign policy, which to a significant extent it is.
But I do think it’s a bit odd that we can sup on pleasingly exotic spices and unfamiliar cuisines, on novel musical forms, on the cultural and human heritage of a hundred localities, and not “consume” at the same time a sense of the life of the world as it unfolds in all those places too. I suppose some multiculti do that when they buy photos of well-staged and colorful ethnics, or campaign for fair trade coffee. I don’t mean to mock either thing: fair trade coffee is a meaningful change to a production regime that we are intimately involved in through our consumption of coffee, and beauty is beauty whatever its form or focus. But for example, if someone wanted to buy Zimbabwean coffee or read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions or listen to mbira music, I’d want them also to think not just about the question of US policy towards Zimbabwe but also about the ferocity of the struggle within Zimbabwe for liberty and justice–and the very real way in which the Mugabe government is a kind of threat to the values we hold dear. Not because they threaten us within our world, but because they mock and degrade the things that matter most, and that not all of that derives purely from the top, but also from some of the deep structures of Zimbabwean society and its political culture.
So I don’t quite want to run down that sense that the world is also threat, that sampling the world is about more than its pleasures. And not only the usual self-flagellating understanding of ourselves as guilty violators of the world, but the possibility that the richness of global culture contains also its darkness, that folkways that produce spices and music and fabrics and philosophies produce locally painful ideas and repressive practices. That if you sample the good things you should not look away from the bad ones.