Hermits Rock

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I’ve said before, though usually in passing, that the world in which I live is global. Granted, I rarely leave my apartment and my skin is pasty and my social skills in want because of it. Nevertheless, my world is global. And so is yours.

That globalization is a fact of modern life can be astonishing, and it can be promising, and it can be worrying, and it can be depressing. It is often all of these adjectives all at once because globalization is simply a euphemism for pollution. Or that’s the argument that Kwame Anthony Appiah makes in his defense of “contamination” in a New York Times Magazine essay published Sunday. The contamination in question is cultural, and Appiah endorses it wholeheartedly.

Appiah is one of the leading philosophers of cosmopolitanism, the sometimes vague political theory often used as a means to combat or transcend nationalism. With Appiah there is little that is vague. I’ve read him infrequently, but I’ve appreciated what he’s had to say. His essay in For Love of Country?, as I remember it (while admitting that it’s been a few years since reading), sought to reconcile the cosmoplitan/national -ism divide by arguing that, while each has relevance in an individual’s life, cosmopolitanism holds a higher moral authority.

It’s an argument he also pursues here. “The right approach [to an ethics of globalization]...,” he writes, “starts by taking individuals—not nations, tribes, or ‘peoples’—as the proper object of moral concern.” When we truly privilege individuals over cultures or traditions, over nations or societies, we allow individuals to make up their own minds about the culture they receive and ultimately create—which, by the way, is something individuals will do regardless of what is expected of them. Concerned about the contamination of the micro by the macro? Nostalgic for the way life was once simpler? Don’t be. All cultures have always been heterogeneous. Local flavors will wane: your grandparents’ small community church outside of Beebe, Arkansas which, every first-Sunday of the month, once had a potluck dinner that featured Sister Ruth’s heirloom casserole, will eventually be forgotten, and Sister Ruth will become only one small face among a thousand who each Sunday drive to Searcy to hear Pastor Bob preach the gospel on three CCTV projections. But do not worry for the casserole! Likely as not, Sister Ruth will recover some measure of the warmth of her community church, in a small group, or with her granddaughters; she will teach others how to cook her family casserole, and in this way, create a likeness of the community church in a new context. (If she does not, if she feels the screens are too cold, if she decides her church’s demise marks the demise of her casserole, then we have lost something great, but that loss is something from which we will inevitably recover.) This is the way local flavors will wax. Such is the way of the world, whether the world is in central Arkansas or central Africa.

When Sister Ruth’s casserole is finally tasted in Searcy, its consumers will know it differently than she could ever have guessed. In a particularly good section of the essay Appiah explores this truism. He discusses the ways American cultural products have been interpreted in places as various as Holland and Morocco. It is certain that western products—from “Dallas” to Lolita to democracy to accounting practices—influence Moroccans, and it is equally certain that Moroccans are influenced in ways other than those ways westerners wish. Influence’s tracking back and forth between cultures is contamination, and it is the way of all culture.

If you haven’t read the essay yet (I linked to it, after all, all of Monday), then do. It’s a good one, and I want to talk about it.



18 Months Later…

With Appiah in mind, Jon Mandle visits the British Museum and reminds me of something I’ve been pondering lately: what would our world look like sans museum?

Thanks for the Appiah link. I really admire him, especially as a writer. His prose is so smooth and clear. But he’s a bit too indifferent to the power dynamics of cultural contaminations for my taste. Sure contamination is going to happen, but how it happens is also important.