Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Culinary crimes

I like cooking the old-fashioned way and from scratch, usually for sake of slowness. But I'm very wary of claims to authenticity (in food or anything else, for that matter). For one thing, food doesn't need to be "authentic" to be typical or excellent.

And for another, I think authenticity is a theoretical notion that should be applied very thoughtfully or not at all. South Asia has had chilli peppers for only about as long as Italians have had tomatoes, the Irish, potaotes, and the Belgians / Swiss, chocolate, i.e. five hundred years. That's also about as long as -- perhaps a little longer than -- sugar has been widely used in most parts of the world. If we consider some foods as "authentic", "typical", or even symbolic of a culture today, it's worth also considering that, at some point in the past, they were new-fangled, upper-crust, weird, fashionable, experimental. In India, "chai" has an even shorter history as an item of mass consumption.

Innovation has always happened, and it's not inherently good or bad. Following a recipe precisely in order to be "authentic" suggests a lack of creativity, even though the skill may be evident. It's like a shagird singing exactly the same taan as the guru -- it speaks of poor training, the teacher's tyranny, and the student's lack of imagination and confidence. Besides, I don't think a specific recipe can be "authentic" -- even your grandmother and her sister would not cook the same thing quite the same way. What can be considered authentic or traditional (for want of a better word) though, is the idiom -- the way in which we might adjust, innovate, omit, or substitute. There's some predictability to that, based on the dominant notes we're used to, and the flavors we're exposed to. When someone talks about a cuisine, I think of the idiom. It would not occur to an Indian to add vanilla to chai, because vanilla is just not used in Indian cooking. So adding vanilla and steamed milk to chai is okay if you like that sort of thing, but I think it's misleading (or miseducating an uninformed public) to call it "Indian chai". Oh, and please nobody say "chai tea" unless you would also say "pizza pie", "pita bread", and "jeans pants". "Chai" is tea; no need to say it twice-twice. (Non sequitur: wish I could find the comic strip in which a dis-Oriented new age type was sipping a "Tai Ch'i chai tea latte".)

And misrepresenting others' cuisines appears to be a universal problem: we're guilty, too. I remember being surprised the first time I was served real espresso in India. It was well into my adult life, and the host was Italian. Each guest was asked if he or she would like tea or coffee. I chose coffee. What arrived was even more bitter than it was tiny -- but delicious! Until then, there had been an inexplicable conspiracy, at least in the India I inhabited, to pass off an eight-ounce, frothy, latte-like beverage as both espresso and cappuccino. If real espresso came in eight-ounce cups, many really laid-back Italians I know would be bouncing off the walls.
Photo from blackjava, captioned "Ritzenhoff My Little Darling Nilesh Mistry '03 Espresso Cup"

Sunday, April 22, 2007

An issue for Oprah, not Congress

On some issues, you can just count on America to learn the wrong lesson, and its media to reject almost any opportunity to introspect seriously, insistently turning prurient images into titillating porn-news. 9/11 spurred patriotism of the worst sort, and the Va. Tech rampage is all about a crazy kid whom no one could help. On the latter subject, two of my favorite rants are relevant.

One of them is how America's readiness to dispense psychiatric medication distracts from the issue of creating community integration -- acceptance, interaction, and support -- for people with behavioral and psychiatric problems. Too many people give off the impression of living seemingly normal lives. If they occasionally or regularly do something that hurts themselves and/or others, it's all too often well under the legal radar. Suppressing your symptoms to pass off as acceptable in society does not amount to real acceptance, support, or integration. The suppressants come complete with scientific explanations about dopamine, but have been rushed on to the market. Some of the most frequently prescribed medications for depression are known to increase the risk of suicidal behavior in teens -- how is that a cure for depression!? They make you feel better, like illegal substances, and it seems the main difference is that they are legal only because they are controlled -- by a highly vested nexus of pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, health management organizations, and psychiatric care providers. They are legal because they are legal. Well, I suppose no one's claiming they're ethical.

The other, more obvious, issue is, of course, guns. Gary Younge in The Guardian:

[Dave] Hancock [who works at the Bob Moates Sports Store in Midlothian, Virginia, and loves guns] believes there might be a case for stronger checks on the mental health of prospective gun owners. But if anything, he argues, what happened this week is an argument for more people to carry weapons, not fewer. "If one single professor had been carrying a legal weapon they might have been able to stop all this," he says.
Riiight. So every classroom must contain a professor with a gun, whose duty it is to fire when necessary to save the lives of the students. Campuses must give up their ridiculous insistence on being weapon-free (weapons are currently not allowed on the Va. Tech campus, nor are they on my campus). The guns-for-self-defence votaries say if it were legal to carry weapons on campus, we could take out a would-be killer before he killed too many people. But with more guns on campus, professors and students might have to exercise their "peacekeeping" duties more often. Makes for a great learning atmosphere.

The Guardian report says more than 30,000 people die every year in the US from firearms - more than one every 20 minutes.

"The right to bear arms" is enshrined in the constitution. The founding fathers intended it so that citizens could protect themselves against state tyranny. Now gun lobbyists argue that they want them to protect themselves from other citizens.

However, in the more violent cities in America there is hostility to that view. "When they wrote the constitution I don't think they really had this crazy kid in mind," says Debbie Yorizzo, a student-teacher at Hunter college.


Virginia governor Tim Kaine said on Wednesday that he held "nothing but loathing for those who take the tragedy and make it political".

And so Monday's murders were rendered into a purely emotional event borne from a psychotic moment - a subject more likely to be resolved by Oprah or Dr Phil than by the House and the Senate.

Like hot air, the week's coverage of the shootings expanded to fill the space available to it. The issue of gun control was occasionally raised but rarely seriously discussed. Instead, they kept asking "How could this happen?" America's innocence is one of its few eternally renewable resources. Its ability to shock itself with the predictable is itself predictable.

"Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell," wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American. "Wandering the world doing no harm." There were few who couldn't see this coming even if no one knew where or when.

Amid the hours of reconstruction and speculation, press conferences and pen portraits, we heard from creative writing professors about the tell-tale signs of psychosis in student literature and from student counsellors about referral procedures. Some of it was interesting. But whatever route the interviews took they always ended up at the same destination - if someone wanted to do this, there was nothing we could do to stop them.

By Thursday CNN was reduced to gleaning insight from the woman who drives the student shuttle bus and screening Cho's rambling rants. They beeped out the expletives as though the swearing was the most offensive thing about their content.

The rampage took place on Monday morning. It's Saturday morning in America right now. The National Rifle Association website says in a brief message at the bottom of the front page that their "thoughts and prayers are with the families. We will not have further comment until all the facts are known."
Photo from armyofmom blog entry dated 6/10/2005, captioned "giving the boys a 22 for Christmas"

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Economics and empiricism

An economist friend sent me this article, in which Princeton economist Alan Blinder, one of the brains behind NAFTA and a famous votary of free trade, is cautioning against free trade! Her comment: "it goes to show the 'caste system' that is pervasive in all societies. When NAFTA happened, the very same arguments held, but the number of jobs affected were lower and more importantly blue collar. Now that white collar jobs are being affected, there is a scramble. Should the number of people being affected matter? From a Rawlsian perspective, it shouldn't. The upside maybe that economists are forced to re-think the assumptions of neoclassical theory!"

About the "caste" bias, I have to agree, although I'd call it a class bias. After all, free trade was, from its inception, nothing if not a middle-class ideology. It was a reaction to monopoly trade capitalism (others wanted a piece of the pie that was being hogged by various countries' East and West India companies).

As for Blinder rethinking economics, it's typical that alternatives begin to be considered seriously only when canonical figures of the dominant ideology do the rethinking. Unfortunately, the dialectical process happens within the elite class, not between classes, and elites do not perceive all of reality until someone comes and kicks them between the eyes. Some of us historians have been arguing for a long time that, while free trade is a great theory, it has simply not existed in the age of capitalism.

I've been teaching this theme in my history survey classes. The closest thing to free trade (though not quite) ended in the early 1500s, just before the development of modern capitalism. This was the maritime trade between Europe and coastal northern Africa, the silk route (China through Central Asia), and the Indian Ocean trade. Until the late 1400s, no nation dominated, nor attempted to dominate, trade or trade routes; merchants shipped whatever was in demand (luxury goods, mostly), and pirates sometimes pirated. The big changes came in the second half of the 1400s, with the growing use of sea routes, and the concomitant development of new technology to use guns at sea. This was quickly followed by heavy inflows into Europe of bullion from Latin America (and it reached China pretty quickly). Inflation in Europe made food unaffordable for the poor, but expanded global trade so that plunder from Latin America could buy luxury goods from Asia. However, the word "global" must be used with caution, because economies were less tightly integrated then, and interdependence was not comparable to today.

So that became the end of whatever resembled free trade. THEN came the development of modern capital, i.e. joint stock companies (first mercantile, later industrial/imperial). Capitalism developed perfectly hand-in-hand with large-scale slavery, land-grabbing, and plunder. The trade fueled by modern capital was never free; there was always land-grabbing on a massive scale, exploitative resource extraction from colonies, crop monopolies (e.g. Dutch would not allow anyone else to grow cinnamon in Indonesia), forced labor, illegal ways to force open markets (war, opium trafficking), outright monopolies and cartels... the list is endless. This is why I'm convinced large-scale profit generation is impossible without exploitation.

So I agree with all the economists that free trade is a great idea. But as a historian, I have to emphasize that it's an idea: it never existed in any stage of capitalism so far.

Coming back to classical theory, I wish economists hadn't been so devoted to it for all these years that no other models were developed. As a grad student of International Relations, I used to get frustrated that my economics professors were unable to seriously consider any other possibility than the classical model, even if someone pointed out that it did not apply or work universally. I thought, and still think, they were ideologically attached to the classical model. The irony is that anyone who questions or challenges it is seen as ideological (how the labels fly! Communist, Marxist, Socialist, etc), even though they may be raising perfectly reasonable and empirically based questions.

The Blinder article also dwells on another theme that I often think about, though of course my thoughts are crude and inarticulate: I think the US will be a sort of third world country in a couple of decades -- too many of its young adults (20-30 years old) are inarticulate in any language, their middle and high school education are generally of poor quality, they have no solid vision of their country's future, they earnestly believe their broken systems work -- "managed" healthcare, social security, eroding technological superiority, the electoral college, politically appointed judiciary, academic corruption, debt (or, as one of my venerable economics professors used to say, "borrowing from the future" -- yeah, right!), and they think moving three towns away is a culture shock. This is a newsworthy job after college? They just don't know how the world works.

Unfortunately, I'm not convinced India and China are necessarily going to become quite first world. When Europe and the US got rich, they did it by screwing people in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, China, India, and Southeast Asia. But for India / China to get rich, they have to screw people in their own backyard (any SEZ, for example), and that's always harder to do -- the worst of the violence is geographically too close to both, the conscience and the wealth.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Richly deserved undermining

So American House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Syria. I'm not sure yet whom she met, and what transpired. But I had a good laugh when I read that the White House is upset because she was undermining White House policy. Funny thing is, some Republicans have been doing the same. Isn't it time it got undermined?! Have they not noticed in the White House that their Middle East policy is disastrous? Talk about wilful ignoring...

Photo: Pelosi chats with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in Beirut (Thanh Nien Daily)

Why don't people listen more?

You have to wonder about Rousseau's notion that human beings are innately compassionate (apparently he wasn't 100% convinced himself). In my experience, people don't always notice the suffering of others, often not even when others are drawing attention to it: Bhopal, Palestine, women who say no, kids who live in fear. It's usually a question of ignoring, rather than not noticing.

Anyhow, if you share my glowering mood, or if you just like Portishead:

So don't you stop being a man
Just take a little look from our side when you can
Show a little tenderness
No matter if you cry
Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be
A woman
It's all I wanna be, is all woman

Sunday, April 1, 2007

And speaking of whom...

... I will concede, grudgingly, that Monty Python are occasionally funny:

Barbarity, civilization, irony

The US has now joined in the row between Britain and Iran, over the 15 British Royal Navy personnel being held by Iran. Iran claims they entered Iranian waters illegally, and has demanded that Britain apologize. Presumably, in their response to Iran, Bush and Blair are seeking to uphold the fine principles and excusable behavior that their governments have displayed in Iraq, Guantanamo, etc. I'm not a big Monty Python fan, but here's Terry Jones in The Guardian:
...compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world - have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God's sake, what's wrong with putting a bag over her head? That's what we do with the Muslims we capture... Then it's perfectly acceptable to take photographs of them and circulate them to the press because the captives can't be recognised and humiliated in the way these unfortunate British service people are.

...The true mark of a civilised country is that it doesn't rush into charging people whom it has arbitrarily arrested in places it's just invaded. The inmates of Guantánamo, for example, have been enjoying all the privacy they want for almost five years, and the first inmate has only just been charged.