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    Monday, January 02, 2006

    Contamination

    The Case for Contamination is an excerpt from Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. (His website here.) Appiah is a great individualist and a liberal by the old-school definition of the word. He's the kind of brilliant guy you've got to love for trying to do the impossible all the time, even if he gets a little weird in so doing. His argument is more complex than it seems upon first reading and is actually more aggressive than it sounds as well. By placing individual rights above cultural rights (and he argues for this in such a way that you feel his argument is a given by the end of the essay), for "choice" to adhere to (varieties of) cultural norms or not, he undermines the "live-and-let-live" cosmopolitanism. You simply cannot do whatever it takes to give Saudi women, for example, the right to drive, without fundamentally changing Saudi society in a way that will require further cultural consequences. (Appiah does address this briefly, but I feel this is one of the most serious problems with his idea, even though I am quite sympathetic with it. I hope his book goes deeper into how the global community would go about ensuring these structural changes while allowing the degree of eventual self-governance his argument seems to encourage.)

    Garvey's Ghost comments:

    Anyone really notice a problem with this discussion of globalism as it going so far? I would infer that globalism would be a cross-contamination of culture. There would be an equal exchange of ideas, concepts, entertainment as well as values. If you notice, and will continue to notice is that the consequence of this globalization is largely one way. Villagers outside Kumasi know all about radios, Tupac (and Biggie no doubt), and Coca Cola, but what does the average American know about Kumasi?
    What does the average non-city living white American or European know about the kotokohene? Why is Tupac known to a remote villager while Fela is barely known? ... Why is this all one way? Why are the other cultures not equally influential on the thinking of America and Europe? The answer to these questions lies in the assumed inferiority of the object cultures and peoples. They are so backwards that they don't have anything much to offer the world except perhaps a religion, a quaint tourist destination or relief of guilt as an object of help.


    I'm glad that sondjata on Garvey's Ghost spoke to one of the troubling points that seems mostly skipped over in the article: Western inability to (or simply completely disinterest in) learn from other cultures. This is not entirely the case, but the profoundly unequal power relationships between the Western world (especially the US) and other countries renders the images of our education by these other cultures as very different. For example, a lot of people were quite angry back a few years ago when Madonna and Gwen Stefani and who knows who else were "appropriating" the bindi from Hindu culture. Sondjata points out that folks from the so-called "third world" are incorporating very American clothing and foods and television shows, but that it doesn't go the other way. That same "appropriation" I mention in the Madonna-bindi example simply cannot happen against the grain of power either. A young Afghani woman wearing jeans underneath her more "traditional" attire is not engaged in an act of "appropriation" to Western eyes, but, rather, a sort of global assimilation. We are not offended by her use of our style while continuing to abide by other tenets of Muslim law; if we are offended at all, as Westerners, we are offended that she hasn't gone far enough, making herself over completely as a Western woman, or offended on behalf of her cute little culture for her alleged betrayal of it. What she is perpetrating cannot be construed as an offense to Westerners. It is therefore much easier for us to "share"/impose?/spread our culture more directly.

    However, indirectly, we allow for dialogue. Coca Cola is culturally imagined as basically a symbol for America, but look at literature. Look at how Western sci-fi and family saga novels and Southern gothics were read by Marquez and the gang and soon American writers were working magical realism into their novels.

    GumboPie writes "Go Cosmopolitans!":

    But those who would preserve entire traditional cultures because they're somehow more "authentic" than the modern world make a terrible mistake. They forget that a charmingly authentic African village is usually that way because its people are too poor to be otherwise. They may be desperate to change, to modernize, knowing full well what modernization will bring, but don't have the resources. You cannot preserve the culture of a poor rural area -- as opposed to its cultural artifacts -- without locking its people into poverty, with all the disease, misery, short life expectancy, and infant mortality that poverty produces.

    Jean Lafitte of Gumbo Pie makes a good point: if we Westerners truly wish to "preserve" "authentic" "native" cultures, we have to keep the poor countries poor. Perhaps it goes the other way as well: we are more able to justify our unwillingness to pump money into these nations' economies by acting as though this action would "contaminate" them, rather than enabling the citizens of these countries to take or leave elements of our own culture. And, as Lafitte implies, they would choose to take, as it is this sort of assimilation that would be required for economic self-sufficiency down the road.

    Jeffrey Tucker responds on Mises Economics Blog:

    Kwame Antony Appiah, in a piece for the NYT Mag designed to be the "it" article of January 2006, says that trade does change culture but it doesn't erase it; exposure to technology and universal media content improves the good parts of life while discouraging the worst aspects of tradition.

    While reading this essay, I kept thinking of Raico's distinction between social tradition (that sustained by the voluntary actions of individuals)--and vital and necessary part of the functioning of society--and state tradition (that which is imposed on people through coercion or lives on because a state-sustained poverty limits individual choice). Appiah argues, in effect, that social tradition is surprisingly robust when faced with the "contamination" wrought by globalization, while state tradition is challenged and even crushed at every turn, which he regards as a good thing. He also notes that the most passionate opponents of "cultural contamination" are Western intellectuals.


    It has been true in just about every cultural confrontation that a choice had to be made (by individuals, by nations, by religions, etc): the choice between "cultural preservation" and economic growth. China, for example, manuevers that difficult choice by moving back and forth- when it has enough economic dependence, it further asserts non-American ideals, when it doesn't, it tends to place those ideals behind economic assimilation (I am not an East Asian scholar, so forgive my incredible over-simplification).

    People do this as individuals too: it is telling that, having firmly entered the middle-class, many people living in the US start to examine their "roots". You can tell that Jews have made a lot of progress toward assimilation, for example, when you observe the new "Jew cool". It's also fascinating that Osama bin Laden was educated by mostly Western teachers at his glitzy prep school, while playing soccer and wearing English-style uniform,(not to mention being a multi-millionaire,) but is fervently opposed to the contamination of "his culture" by Western ideas. It seems like there must be a sort of cultural give-and-take and the "give" comes first.

    So, I like Appiah's idea, basically. I am certainly not anti-globalization, but I am not loving the way global corporate capitalism is implemented, as much for how it affects us Westerners (yes, we face consequences too) as for those abroad. I just don't know how we establish Appiah's globalized choice.

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