Days Black People Not Re-Enslaved By Trump

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Contamination

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an article in the NY Times entitled The Case for Contamination" Where he generally argues the benefits of globalization and connectedness, or at least it's inevitability. His opening example was the his meeting of the kotokohene in Ghana. He tells us of how the people waiting for the 'Hene were busy on their cell phones and of business planning and discussing the topic of the day. There's nothing really spectacular about his observation. In the 1400's I'm sure the business and topics of the day were also discussed prior to the entrance of the 'Hene. Indeed we know from history that Ghanians, be they Fanti or Assante, were traveling to Europe, learning European languages and reporting what they could of the world outside Ghana. But again this is not really THE point of the article, an excerpt from a book, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Mr. Appiah is releasing later this year. The real point is a critique of persons who may have problems with "modern" life encroaching on "Traditional" life of non-Western peoples. writes Appiah:

I've seen visitors from England and the United States wince at what they regard as the intrusion of modernity on timeless, traditional rituals - more evidence, they think, of a pressure in the modern world toward uniformity. They react like the assistant on the film set who's supposed to check that the extras in a sword-and-sandals movie aren't wearing wristwatches. And such purists are not alone. In the past couple of years, Unesco's members have spent a great deal of time trying to hammer out a convention on the "protection and promotion" of cultural diversity. (It was finally approved at the Unesco General Conference in October 2005.) The drafters worried that "the processes of globalization. . .represent a challenge for cultural diversity, namely in view of risks of imbalances between rich and poor countries." The fear is that the values and images of Western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world's native flora.

You'll note that I put "modern in quotes because I too have had serious problems with the arrested development of African culture. For example African art being only wood carvings and the like, but if it is say a digital model of an Antelope it is "Modern" art, it is American art, and so on. I have argued that such ideas stunts the growth of African culture and leaves it in the past unable to be a part of the present and makes it an object to be cared for and protected by others. So in this regard I can agree with Mr Appiah. However, Appiah does not even make that his point rather:



The contradictions in this argument aren't hard to find. This same Unesco document is careful to affirm the importance of the free flow of ideas, the freedom of thought and expression and human rights - values that, we know, will become universal only if we make them so. What's really important, then, cultures or people? In a world where Kumasi and New York - and Cairo and Leeds and Istanbul - are being drawn ever closer together, an ethics of globalization has proved elusive.

The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals - not nations, tribes or "peoples" - as the proper object of moral concern. It doesn't much matter what we call such a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first philosopher to call himself a "citizen of the world," we could call it cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously, because they take the choices individual people make seriously. But because cultural difference is not the only thing that concerns them, they suspect that many of globalization's cultural critics are aiming at the wrong targets....

Where they live, though, there is one everyday language (aside from the English in the government schools) and an agrarian way of life based on some old crops, like yams, and some newer ones, like cocoa, which arrived in the late 19th century as a product for export. They may or may not have electricity. (This close to Kumasi, they probably do.) When people talk of the homogeneity produced by globalization, what they are talking about is this: Even here, the villagers will have radios (though the language will be local); you will be able to get a discussion going about Ronaldo, Mike Tyson or Tupac; and you will probably be able to find a bottle of Guinness or Coca-Cola (as well as of Star or Club, Ghana's own fine lagers). But has access to these things made the place more homogeneous or less? And what can you tell about people's souls from the fact that they drink Coca-Cola?

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? Appiah touches on the reason, but only slightly and not as the problem I see it as. One of Appiah's concerns, also one of mine, is the economic consequences of not being "caught up" with the modern world:

Nowadays, everything is different. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the transportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world. Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave - perhaps to seek work at one of the new data-processing centers down south in the nation's capital - and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. 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.

Indeed it does not. In fact globalization is primarily being driven by economic interests. This is something I will return to later, but you'll note that the primary reason why homogeneity is bad is that it is uneconomical. Who wants to subsidize the poor economic output of backward people? Again, I partially agree with this as the famine in Niger shows the frailty of cultures who insist upon living a life simply because that is the way it has been done. But the true disagreement I have with Appiah is found here:

But preserving culture - in the sense of such cultural artifacts - is different from preserving cultures. And the cultural preservationists often pursue the latter, trying to ensure that the Huli of Papua New Guinea (or even Sikhs in Toronto) maintain their "authentic" ways. What makes a cultural expression authentic, though? Are we to stop the importation of baseball caps into Vietnam so that the Zao will continue to wear their colorful red headdresses? Why not ask the Zao? Shouldn't the choice be theirs?

"They have no real choice," the cultural preservationists say. "We've dumped cheap Western clothes into their markets, and they can no longer afford the silk they used to wear. If they had what they really wanted, they'd still be dressed traditionally." But this 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. But if they do get richer, and they still run around in T-shirts, that's their choice. Talk of authenticity now just amounts to telling other people what they ought to value in their own traditions.

Firstly I believe that the argument or "cultural preservationists" has been distorted by Mr. Appiah or he simply does not understand it. It's not whether baseball caps are to be or not to be imported into Vietnam or Africa, but why they are sent there? Indeed why does any country really import basic clothing rather than make it's own. Indeed Appiah later discusses Ghandi a suited South African lawyer. I would remind the reader that Ghandi later chose to cloth himself in the garb of his people, because he realized the symbolism of wearing English clothes rather than Hindu clothes. Indeed he saw the economic connection between the wearing of European clothing and wearing native clothes. The wearing, and importation of European and American clothing prevents the establishment of local industry. There was a news report on Nightline (During Ted Koppel's stay) about second hand clothing operations sending all manner of clothes to Africa where it is sold in open markets. So, as has been the case since colonialism, Africans are both the consumer and exploited. Again we'd ask, in the case of the baseball caps, why aren't Americans or Europeans interested in purchasing red headdresses of the Zao?

So Appiah has a problem with people being told to value their own traditions. Yet that is what every country tries to do. In fact the entire movement against colonialism and imperialism is based on the previously colonized and oppressed to recognize the value of their own traditions. Also it is arguable, as Appiah does argue that much of the rich in these areas are rich precisely due to their distance from their traditions. This topic is brought up and dismissed by Appiah himself:

The preservationists often make their case by invoking the evil of "cultural imperialism." Their underlying picture, in broad strokes, is this: There is a world system of capitalism. It has a center and a periphery. At the center - in Europe and the United States - is a set of multinational corporations. Some of these are in the media business. The products they sell around the world promote the creation of desires that can be fulfilled only by the purchase and use of their products. They do this explicitly through advertising, but more insidiously, they also do so through the messages implicit in movies and in television drama. Herbert Schiller, a leading critic of "media-cultural imperialism," claimed that "it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of the ruling sector in the center that shape and structure consciousness throughout the system at large."

That's the theory, anyway. But the evidence doesn't bear it out. Researchers have actually gone out into the world and explored the responses to the hit television series "Dallas" in Holland and among Israeli Arabs, Moroccan Jewish immigrants, kibbutzniks and new Russian immigrants to Israel. They have examined the actual content of the television media - whose penetration of everyday life far exceeds that of film - in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and Mexico. They have looked at how American popular culture was taken up by the artists of Sophiatown, in South Africa. They have discussed "Days of Our Lives" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" with Zulu college students from traditional backgrounds.

And one thing they've found is that how people respond to these cultural imports depends on their existing cultural context. When the media scholar Larry Strelitz spoke to students from KwaZulu-Natal, he found that they were anything but passive vessels. One of them, Sipho - a self-described "very, very strong Zulu man" - reported that he had drawn lessons from watching the American soap opera "Days of Our Lives," "especially relationship-wise." It fortified his view that "if a guy can tell a woman that he loves her, she should be able to do the same." What's more, after watching the show, Sipho "realized that I should be allowed to speak to my father. He should be my friend rather than just my father." It seems doubtful that that was the intended message of multinational capitalism's ruling sector.

But Sipho's response also confirmed that cultural consumers are not dupes. They can adapt products to suit their own needs, and they can decide for themselves what they do and do not approve of. Here's Sipho again:

"In terms of our culture, a girl is expected to enter into relationships when she is about 20. In the Western culture, a girl can be exposed to a relationship as early as 15 or 16. That one we shouldn't adopt in our culture. Another thing we shouldn't adopt from the Western culture has to do with the way they treat elderly people. I wouldn't like my family to be sent into an old-age home."

Again does anyone see a problem with this? The Zulu is taking in the lives of Americans via the TV but the American does not take in the lives of the Zulu. So there is one way communication; one way globalization of though. The Zulu is not only taking in and filtering with his conscious mind "The Bold and The Beautiful" his subconscious mind is taking in the cues of what the rich and powerful, do, speak and wear. indeed he will want these things if and when the opportunity arises. How do we know this? There are people who are trained in knowing how to reach their audiences. They are paid a great deal to make messages that will bypass that average filter and get into the minds of the viewer. Knowing this and the one way communication of ideas, are we not surprised when these ideas eventually take root? For example, the idea of not putting old people in homes is old hat in Japan. Yet now with the influence of America and Europe and the society becoming more and more concerned with the accumulation and showing of wealth and becoming more "me" centered; Old people are finding themselves in homes. It is not as widespread as in America, yet it didn't exist prior to this "globalization." Therefore Appiah, gives far to much credit to the ability of cultures to continue in the face of massive pressure from outside forces.

Appiah's next mistake which we alluded to earlier soon presents itself:

Talk of cultural imperialism "structuring the consciousnesses" of those in the periphery treats people like Sipho as blank slates on which global capitalism's moving finger writes its message, leaving behind another cultural automaton as it moves on. It is deeply condescending. And it isn't true.

In fact, one way that people sometimes respond to the onslaught of ideas from the West is to turn them against their originators. It's no accident that the West's fiercest adversaries among other societies tend to come from among the most Westernized of the group. Who in Ghana excoriated the British colonizers and built the movement for independence? Not the farmers and the peasants. Not the chiefs. It was the Western-educated bourgeoisie. And when Kwame Nkrumah - who went to college in Pennsylvania and lived in London - created a nationalist mass movement, at its core were soldiers who had returned from fighting a war in the British Army, urban market women who traded Dutch prints, unionists who worked in industries created by colonialism and the so-called veranda boys, who had been to colonial schools, learned English and studied history and geography in textbooks written in England.

The overriding problem of this example, though factually true, is that the Nkrumah's of the world are fare and few between. It is indeed the case that much of the message of the West has had it's intended (maybe...maybe not) results: Massive brain drains to European and American countries where people can live the lives they see on TV? So called leaders who spend more time in Europe than they do in their own countries (Mobutu comes to mind). Oddly Appiah states:

African and Asian empires were driven by the rhetoric that had guided the Allies' own struggle against Germany and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This wasn't a conflict between values. It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values.

I would remind the reader that the Allies had little problem with Germany until it decided to take over other parts of Europe. The Allies were only interested in their own freedom and their own equality and not that of non-whites. Therefore the African resistance to colonialism may have used similar language but I would be hard pressed to say that they shared the same values.

Lastly I want to look at one of Appiah's examples which truly underscores my position on the imperialism of media. Says Appiah:

Consider another example: In much of Europe and North America, in places where a generation ago homosexuals were social outcasts and homosexual acts were illegal, lesbian and gay couples are increasingly being recognized by their families, by society and by the law. This is true despite the continued opposition of major religious groups and a significant and persisting undercurrent of social disapproval. Both sides make arguments, some good, most bad. But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of "openly gay" people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.

Appiah has confirmed what many people have been saying about homosexuality in America for a while: It's acceptance is a result of the media bringing it into the living rooms (and now classrooms) of people who would normally not be confronted with the issue. As a result a greater acceptance of homosexuality as normal behavior ( if normal is behavior anyone does rather than behavior the majority of the population engages in) is seen. But the question I have had is why? I don't think the acceptance is really about tolerance ( which may be a by-product) but one of economics. Slavery was abolished by Lincoln not because he thought it was morally wrong but because it was an uneconomical system that prevented the employment of poor white men. Women were "allowed' to work because it increased the economic and military output of the US ( and other countries), Similarly, homosexuals are being mainstreamed simply out of economic necessity, Homosexuals as a group (in the US at least) are one of the highest economic brackets. Homosexual men benefit from sexism in that they will out-earn women for the same jobs AND they (until recently) did not have to worry about children if they did not marry to cover up. But back on topic, if Will and Grace are being projected around the world, then how long until those cultures pick up on it? If they reject that portion then what are the economic consequences. After all homosexual men in the West hold far more power than the peoples of the cultures wield on the west. And again, as I've been stating throughout this piece, 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.

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