Kwame Anthony Appiah, who wrote so eloquently of his own journey between cultures in In My Father’s House, has published a sticky quagmire of an essay, “The Case for Contamination,” in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.
I have been thinking about it for days. That such a smart man has succumbed to such muddled, short-sighted thinking is sobering. That such a smart man has succumbed to such muddled, short-sighted thinking is also instructive: because he knows the workings of his own mind and because he is an eloquent writer, in inadvertently giving us a tour of his own confusion, Appiah has illuminated the dilemma of culture in the 21st century.
His Times essay opens as many of his writings do, with a vivid scene of cultural juxtaposition. In this case, business-suited men with cell phones wait on a palace veranda in Ghana for their audience with the king of Asante as traditional songs and the blowing of a ram’s horn announce the king’s arrival. The king asks how Appiah is faring at Princeton, and Appiah learns that the king will soon visit the U.S. again, for a meeting with the head of the World Bank. It is a hybrid world, where tradition bumps up against the new, new thing and each extends arms to invite the other to dance.
Appiah’s own experience tells part of the tale. Born in London (where his Ghanaian father studied law and met his upper-class English mother), he spent early childhood in Ghana, returning to England when his father was imprisoned by Kwame Nkrumah. Appiah took his several degrees at Cambridge, then came to the U.S. to accept an appointment at Yale. He now teaches philosophy at Princeton and lives in New York with his male partner, a New Yorker editor. He is a second-generation cosmopolitan in every sense of the word, and seems to feel at home in his skin wherever it happens to reside.
Much of his work has opposed the idea that we are limited by arbitrary facts of identity—race, sexual orientation, and so on—which tend to become dictates; instead, he asserts the individual’s freedom from all imposed categories. From the perspective of individual liberty, I agree. The existence of such categories virtually guarantees that some people will feel free to enforce them. African American intellectuals may be told they “act too white.” I’ve been accused of being both too Jewish and not Jewish enough (though not by the same arbiters of Jewishness). Gay actors are condemned both for being in the closet and out of it. Underlying all such judgments is the idea that anyone has the right to make them for others, a slippery slope that eventually leads to racial purity laws.
But in his Times essay, Appiah elaborates an entire cultural policy based on nothing more than the individual’s right to make his own path by walking through the cultures of the world. On October 21, 2005, I wrote about UNESCO’s “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions,” adopted the previous day by member states with only two no votes, one of which came from the United States. Appiah sets up a straw man to stand in for those who endorse the Convention. He calls them purists and compares their relationship to cultures under pressure from globalization to the anxious “assistant on the film set who’s supposed to check that the extras in a sword-and-sandals movie aren’t wearing wristwatches.” He says (without a shred of evidence) that those concerned to preserve cultures want to force people to “maintain their ‘authentic’ ways,” a goal I have never heard anyone espouse (and I am moderately well-informed on this subject). And he dismisses those who feel their own cultures are threatened by globalization as merely expressing discomfort with change: “[T]he world, their world, is changing, and some of them don’t like it.”
Too bad, he says, discussing the plight of those affected by global agribusiness’s restructuring of their traditional agricultural base: “We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.” Too bad, he says, discussing those whose markets are flooded with Western goods, affecting their own livelihoods and making local products unaffordable. “[T]his is no longer an argument about authenticity. The claim is that they can’t afford to do something that they’d really like to do, something that is expressive of an identity they care about and want to sustain. This is a genuine problem, one that afflicts people in many communities: they’re too poor to live the life they want to lead.”
Appiah deploys a full set of old-chestnut clubs to beat the idea of cultural protection into the ground. Who’s to say what’s authentic? “[T]rying to find some primordially authentic culture can be like peeling an onion.” (Who’s trying? Straw Man?) “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.” (Who’s advocating societies without change? Straw Man?) American media aren’t shaping world consciousness, because “how people respond to these cultural imports depends on their existing cultural context.” (And that they all respond to precisely the same words and images is negligible?) He condemns the argument that people around the world are “blank slates on which global capitalism’s moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on.” (But who makes that argument? Straw Man?) He says the logical exemplar of opposition to globalization is a current grouping that values cultural purity, tries to force people to be authentic by its own definition, rejects modernity, and so on: the anti-cosmopolitan global community of “young, global Muslim fundamentalists.” Do we want to be like them? He says that the kind of cultural change that protects diversity and respects individual rights comes slowly and organically, not as the result of arguments like the present one about globalization and cultural diversity. But this is just silly: no one can prove such arguments are not intrinsic and necessary to the process of change, preparing conceptual ground for lived realities. (Except maybe Straw Man.)
Appiah’s main point is made in a single sentence: “Shouldn’t the choice be theirs?” My answer is yes. Agreements like the UNESCO convention are aimed at creating the conditions to make that possible for people who, unlike Appiah, lack the personal resources to treat the entire world as their playground, choosing location, association and entertainment at will. To pick a single example, the film industries of some of the most vibrant film-producing cultures would be moribund without some form of domestic content requirement and some form of tariff and/or subsidy to make local producers able to compete with the deluge of American product. Other than cutting Hollywood’s billions by a few dollars, what is the harm in that? The crime against individual choice? The evidence of purism? There is none.
I have a favorite story that pertains. There was once a rich man who loved his money so much he never gave a penny to charity, but considered himself pious because he was so diligent in observing other commandments, prayers and fasts. He asked for the rabbi’s blessing, but instead of giving it, the rabbi drew him to the window near the entryway of the study house.
“When you look through that window,” the rabbi asked, “what do you see?”
“Why, I see people,” said the rich man, “out in the streets, going about their business.”
Now the rabbi directed the rich man’s gaze to a mirror. “And what do you see here?”
“Myself, of course,” said the rich man, perplexed.
“It’s the same with the soul,” said the rabbi. “Through it, we see other people, their joys and pains, clear as glass. But if you allow it to be covered with silver, you see only yourself.”
And here lies the problem: in Appiah’s Times essay you will find no mention of class, and the sole mention of poverty is the trivializing one I quoted above: “too poor to live the life they want to lead.” Privilege doesn’t insulate you from pain: young Appiah’s suffering at his father’s imprisonment was real and terrible. But it does insulate you from the realities of choice at ground-level. And as a person whose entire life has been swathed in privilege and who now finds himself opposing a global consensus about leveling the playing field a bit, Appiah evidently cannot see how callous his arguments have become.
The dilemma of culture in the 21st century? The privileged who are driving globalization see only themselves, cherish only their own freedom to remake the world while eating their fill from the storehouse of world cultures. Globalization has an upside for many: I love being able to sit at my computer and sample the music of the world, or being able to connect at the click of a mouse with colleagues around the globe. But that’s only one side of the story. The other is displacement, deracination and struggle: did you know that there are 250,000 foreign domestics in Hong Kong alone? That one in ten Filipinos works overseas, most in low-paying domestic jobs, creating an epidemic of motherless families back home?
It’s not corporations that bear the social cost of their running roughshod over the world, it’s communities and yes, as Appiah says, individuals. We have a responsibility to ameliorate that harm. Developments like the UNESCO convention on cultural diversity are signs of hope, signs that awareness and ethics have impelled some of the economic haves to promote protection for the have-nots. I’m sorry someone as smart as Anthony Appiah has put himself on the wrong side of that debate.