It’s a Good Good (Bad Bad) World

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.

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9 Responses to It’s a Good Good (Bad Bad) World

  1. joeo says:

    Sampling world food and media for pleasure and curiosity isn’t bad, even if it is completely seperated from an understanding of other cultures. Why do I have to understand a culture to like the food or music? That is too high of a burden.

    And, I don’t think food is a good entry point to learn about other countries in which you are completely ignorant. Food certainly wouldn’t be a good entry point to understand american culture if you were completely ignorant of american culture.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I need to work on this thought…it’s very half-baked. Because what I definitely don’t mean is that you have to understand a culture to eat it. Though I do admire the way that the people at Boulette’s have a deep knowledge of the food they’re offering. I want people to take pleasure in even the most fleeting tastes or experiences of other cultures and feel no obligation at all to know anything else. Pleasure is pleasure, joy is joy. It’s the most tediously academic of impulses to insist that you have to pay a price.

    It’s more that I think a sampling of the world also could take in its sins and pains, its dangers and disadvantages. I’m just struck that there’s one cultural mode or style which takes in the music and food and fashion and scoffs at the notion that cultural diversity also includes negative practices, local forms of exotic suffering.

  3. joeo says:

    I am not particularly concerned about the cultural bowlderizing by American consumers. A lot of it stems from American cultural arrogance and confidence. Americans pretend that people from other cultures don’t have “negative practices” because they think, pretty soon, the people from other cultures will have to pretend they never had the “negative practices”. Immigrants in particular can have to do a lot of cultural redefinition.

    I remember in the immediate post 9/11 period how there was dispair about the effectiveness of american cultural power. All kinds of essays about what we need to know about islam and the koran. Pretty soon we were invading islamic countries at random.

    I prefer the ignorance.

  4. DougLathrop says:

    What really distresses me is how thoroughly Americans’ consumption habits have become politicized in recent years. On the right it’s become second nature to demonize “latte-sipping, sushi-eating liberals”; likewise, in some leftist circles I’ve encountered one wouldn’t dare admit to sometimes eating at McDonald’s or shopping at Wal-Mart for fear of being accused of singlehandedly raping the environment and enslaving the Third World. The corporate practices of Wal-Mart are certainly worth being concerned about, and I have no doubt that the culinary preferences of many bicoastal liberals can come off as precious and elitist to some folks in the red states. But at what point did the kind of food we like, the type of car we drive and the music we enjoy become a litmus test for whether our political opinions should be considered or discounted? Not only does this exclude from the arena untold numbers of SUV-driving liberals and vegetarian conservatives, it also makes our politics even more trivial and schoolyard-level than it already is. If the debate is over Iraq or Social Security, why should it matter what you had for dinner last night?

  5. Doug says:

    Goodness, it hadn’t even occurred to me that you could have much contact with another culture and not be aware of the darker sides. Then again, the cultures I work with most are German and Russian, so it’s not like the darker bits are exactly hidden. Sometimes it’s convincing people that there are good bits, too, that’s the harder task. (“Doug,” says Rachel only half-kidding, “the reason that Russians eat Russian food is that they don’t have any choice.”)

    On the other hand, would we have blues music if we didn’t have the very worst of Mississippi culture?

    And as for Wal-Mart, I just start talking about what shopping was like in the part of rural America where I lived before Wal-Mart arrived: nasty, dusty and expensive.

  6. John Quiggin says:

    I think the underlying assumption is that at some fundamental level, everyone wants the same things, and the negative features of particular cultures are the results of historical oppression.

    Note that the strongest version of this view is actually held by the right, where it is assumed that the US is the perfect model and that everyone (for example, Iraqis) wants to emulate it, and would do so except for the machinations of oppressive rulers and elites.

  7. vmaverick says:

    Tim, I think you’re simply puzzled at the fact that some cultural practices and artifacts are portable. I don’t want to make light of this puzzlement — it’s quite justified! But we’ve all been living with this fact for a long time. How long has the rug trade been going on, for example? I don’t think many of the end purchasers were moved to inquire into the conditions of production.

  8. Chris Clarke says:

    I know my saying this will cause Tim to wonder if he’s wrong after all, but… I think he’s on to something here.

    I know that the feeling I have listening to Congolese rumba is much different after having read Adam Hochschild’s book on the horrid aspects of colonialism there, for instance.

    I think you can make an incrementalism argument here. One of the styles of music I most enjoy is bailecito, a sweet minor-key genre from the Central Andes and Argentina. I’ve been listening to bailecitos for about a quarter century, and just learned recently that most people who “use” the music aren’t listening to the poignant chord progressions and charango arpeggios, but are instead going through a rather formalized series of dance steps. Which implies that the polished virtuosi I hear on my LPs/tapes/CDs in North America are likely playing a very different music than the dance-hall musicians.

    Dance is fairly closely intertwined with music, but you can take a step out: Forro, the northeastern Brazilian accordion music, is a dance music that’s got recent roots in the depressing labor conditions in that region. Without the company towns and restricted socializing, there’d be no Forro – its very name came from the English-language bosses who designated certain dances as open “for all.” Take another step back: how does one’s understanding of and appreciation of Cajun music, flamenco, rai, and other genres change when you learn about the social forces that shaped the cultures that created them?

  9. bbenzon says:

    And then we have the social forces that have been shaping American vernacular musics since colonial times. There’s exploitation and resistence and revival aplenty in those socio-cultural dynamics.

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