Monday, January 17, 2005

Iron Chef America, Iraq, Capitalism and other structures of oppression

A lot was going through my head today as I was alternately cleaning the floor, digging a trench and doing dishes. On three distinct topics:

I hope this doesn't sound like an out-of-the-closet admission when I say I'm a hardcore, diehard Iron Chef fan. I like watching masterful chefs use big knives to cut through things, creating impromptu strategies to defeat their opponent and finally conjuring up world-class meals. A lot of Iron Chef fans out there in the forum and blog worlds happen to not like Bobby Flay. Now, I can see someone saying, as I do (and as a non-initiate said last night when we watched Flay v. Bayless Buffalo battle), that Bobby has seem to have some unpleasant aspects: maybe a hot temper and a very weird energy. He's a lot nicer out of the stadium than he is in, that's for sure. That doesn't mean that he's a bad chef or that he didn't legitimately deserve to split with Morimoto 1-1 or beat Sakai. It just means that he has some personal problems. This criticism is made to seem more legitimate by the fact that Bobby makes some mistakes when competing. So far, I have yet to see him make something that people have literally said is bad; Morimoto, who escapes these fans' scorn, has done so (in Battle Asparagus, as well as elsewhere). Nakamura also made something that forced Kaga to declare a rematch. Bobby seems to have a competitive urge that makes him a great cook, but also makes him make mistakes while striving for greatness in the kitchen. He, like Morimoto, goes for inspiration and experiments a lot. Like Morimoto, that leads him to make mistakes.

I bring this up because last night he went against Bayless and fought a very close and very good match, making saliva-inducing food in Battle Buffalo. Both men did an excellent job, I felt, and the judging reflected that: One point in plating (a well-deserved point, as Bobby's usage of the colors of the sauces was that step more complex than Rick's work) sealed the deal; the judges felt that both Rick and Flay produced beautifully tasting and creative dishes showcasing the flavor of Buffalo. Flay did make some mistakes: his sous chef messed up a mango chutney, for example. I'm willing to bet that a lot of mistakes that Flay makes are actually caused because he doesn't get a very good synergy with his sous chefs. There are some, though, who felt that this was an illegitimate win, as was his win over Sakai and Morimoto. Folks, at some point you have to stop making conspiracy theories. Bobby almost won over the judges in his first battle against Morimoto, won a 4-1 in his rematch and made the judges comment that he showed a new way for treating Ise-ebi as well as astounding Akebono, produced excellent dishes with Morimoto in the tag team (even though I was rooting for Sakai/Batali), and also won over the judges in Trout and Buffalo. There are so many judges that it can't just be that everyone is out there to appease him, especially with the attitudes of people like Jeffrey "The Man Who Ate Everything" Steingarten. (On a side note: Jeffrey seems cultured, but he is ill-mannered, gluttonous, provides little useful commentary and is an egotistical pompous moron. Please, someone bring back Kishi-San! I'll even take Masaaki Hirano!) Sakai took his battle with Flay lightly, having a good time and experimenting, and he just didn't appeal as much to the American judges. Call it "small-minded" if you wish, but Flay has won over a Japanese judging table: The judging table for his rematch had Akebono, Lafleur (an American diplomat) and three Japanese judges. If he had only won over one Japanese judge, then I could see the critique of anti-Flay fans; yet he won over two, including the famously hard-to-please Kishi. Against Bayless, he has four more years of experience and fought a well-done and technically sound battle, producing eye-popping dishes that really showed Iron Chef America to be worthy of its moniker.

Now, moving from that diatribe: I'm always impressed to see the cowardice of even liberals regarding Iraq. The common liberal pap is, "Well, we shouldn't have gone to war, but now we're there so we should fix it." First of all, I'd hardly call turning Iraq into a neo-colonial platform for US interests in the Middle East "fixing" anything. Even Pat Buchanan has termed what's going on here "imperialism", because it is blatantly obvious to anyone not totally deluded by propaganda. Second of all, we have no right to stay in Iraq irrespective of what may happen if we may leave. If people in Japan during World War II had said, "Well, gee, sorry critics, but now that we're in Manchuria, we shouldn't leave because they'll fall to the Communists", would we have applauded them as our lefist candidate or we would have called them moral lunatics in the guise of angels? I'd say the latter, and yet Kerry won approbation from normally right-minded members of the left and liberals. Sorry, everybody, but in foreign affairs, the only advantage Kerry would have is that he's so wooden we'd know he's a puppet. Domestically, of course, is a different story, and that's the real reason to protest Bush's illegitimate and illegal bid for power that he got away with for a second time (see Greg Palast's excellent reporting on this topic). Third, people like Scott Ritter, no one's leftist, can recognize that American bombing and continued presence is disempowering moderates and empowering conservative and extremist factions. The loose coalition against American interests that we so laughably call "insurgents" (i.e. revolutionaries fighting for their own country against foreign invaders) is composed of Ba'athists, religious fundamentalists, foreigners (just as in Afghanistan against the Russians, but nobody mentions that, calling the moujahadeen "Afghan" even though they're mostly Saudi) and mostly ordinary people. The Ba'athists had successfully infiltrated the religious right, associating Saddam more and more with the conservative power bloc in Iraq. The longer we stay in, the more likely that this coalition will become even more extreme and undemocratic. As of now, their message to the American people is fairly inspiring. Whether or not its insipid propaganda is only something we can test through one way: Near-immediate pullout, with a timetable for transfer of authority to Iraqis, and with the US taking a far less active role. We have disgraced ourselves by supporting Saddam, then destroying the revolution against him, then putting into place the sanctions regime; we have no right to do anything. America should, out of its own pockets, provide money to rebuild hospitals, schools, and so on, but should have very little influence whatsoever.

And finally, I was thinking: How true is it that capitalism is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, etc.? At first glance, the claim has little credence; capitalism co-exists all the time with institutionalized or de facto inequity, as it did, say, in the Jim Crow days, or in other countries where a small foreign minority has accrued a vast majority of the wealth of the market (see Amy Chua's World on Fire, a very balanced and non-partisan tome). But there is some truth: Because capitalism encourages the economy to view people simply as producers and consumers, as atoms of consumption, and not as humans, it will in the end have anti-racist tendencies.

The key points to remember are: 1) This doesn't exonerate capitalism. Were a system to be put into place saying, "Every day, one of you will be shot. It will be determined randomly, with no preference for any race, gender, sexual orientation or social status.", only the most deranged would say that that would be a just system. Of course, in this case, capitalism enshrines power based on wealth and status, so that's not really even a fair comparison. Nonetheless, the point remains clear: A system being devoid of racism or any other type of prejudice does not become excused if it has internal faults. In this case, the internal faults are myriad: personality distortion, inefficiency, ecological destruction, inequity of power and wealth, starvation, and a wholesale assault on liberty. 2) Capitalism may have anti-racist tendencies, but they don't appear very strong. They're certainly not strong enough to back up the consistent and facile conservative claim to "Let the market take care of it" when speaking about racism and sexism (a claim that, of course, repljcates the Marxist economism of attributing every problem in society to the economic system). If, say, a product can be made more profitable by exploiting racist imagery (news shows or TV shows like COPS, home security systems, and so on) or sexist urges (the entire array of beauty cremes and products whose ads have one underlying message: "You're not good enough"; such as an ad for a skin creme designed to deal with wrinkles that showed women in their mid 30s seriously concerned about wrinkles and even saying they wanted this creme 10 years ago, IN THEIR MID 20S), then the most basic market analysis will show that the marketing scheme will appeal to those prejudices. If workers are poor because of racism, such as in South Africa, and thus are willing to do certain tasks for cheaper, then a capitalist would be unlikely to move against it. (In South Africa, certain disinvestment programs did have an effect, but that was as much due to the effects of the African National Congress and economic changes in South Africa than due to any good natured behavior on the part of capitalists). Even people like Nozick, no one's statist and an unabashed free marketeer, could see that racial prejudice created by non-market forces could not be dealt with justly and effectively except by non-market forces. Further, if inequity exists, markets are likely to enhance them by giving more and more power to the already empowered, and increase tension in a distinct way.

Like I pointed out in my comment on the Stepford Wives: If our economy would be more equal, then the people in the economy wouldn't be as concerned about their privilege relative to one another. If I stand to gain 100 dollars from racism and I'm making 1000, the fact that racism costs so many billions of dollars a year (as it does) matters little to me: I'd prefer the relative gain more than the absolute gain. If I'm making, say, 100,000, then despite my racist feelings, I may opt to attack prejudice if only for efficiency purposes. Simply put: Capitalism, by enhancing inequity of wealth and power, serves to make people wish to gain more wealth and power to fight their racial/gender/sexual "rivals", causing either a rush to control the market or a rush to the state. This conclusion was made by Chua, incidentally. Conversely, a good economy reducing inequity would reduce those pressures and make racism, sexism and homophobia seem more irrational and less necessary. If everyone's pie is about the same size, then I have less incentive to steal from my neighbor: I have more than enough pie as it is.

This is one of the many reasons why I continue to advocate parecon (look at Robin Hahnel and Mike Albert's many books on the topic, a lot of which is available free on and ). While thinking on these topics, I also ruminated myself into an interesting observation. I oppose capitalism out of a deep moral sensation, so my search for an alternative is an "Anything but" sort of search. However, someone who was of a more capitalist or raw economic bent could say: "Hmm, I don't like central planning [whether or not Keynesianism is necessary in a market economy is another discussion; I, of course, believe it is, others may disagree]. It tends to encourage authoritarianism and tends to have all sorts of inefficiencies. But I can see that even the best markets are often flawed and markets rarely reach the kind of competitive equilibrium they'd need to reach. I'd therefore opt for something decentralized that surpassed these market problems." That's exactly where parecon comes into play.


Blogger Miklos Fejer said...

Very interesting blog.

I was just wondering if you realize that it is capitalism that has given you this venue with which to espouse your views? The free market competition that capitalism produces is a source of progress and innovation, of which internet blogging is but one example. Unfortunately, capitalism does also have a very Darwinian aspect in that there are survivors and those who can barely hang on and eventually get pushed out of the game.

Keep up the good work man! I will definitely keep reading!

7:46 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

"I was just wondering if you realize that it is capitalism that has given you this venue with which to espouse your views? The free market competition that capitalism produces is a source of progress and innovation, of which internet blogging is but one example."

A reasonable point. Let me rebut.

A) A Soviet commissar or a king could easily say the same to a dissident. Any economy, even if less dynamic than capitalism, will see some innovation, some growth, etc.
B) I don't think it actually IS capitalism that gives this growth. For one, the example you choose is very revealing: the Internet was developed by the Pentagon. The whole system relies upon extensive state subsidy, intervention to establish the rules and punish miscreants, etc., all of which is an inefficient use of the political system. As I say in posts on innovation: One can predict an exponential growth in innovation irrespective of economic systems because more and more data can be cross-compared.

A and B combined mean that this argument confuses gains from capitalism with inevitable gains or gains made outside of capitalist rhetoric. Note that growth rates have declined since the institution of the neo-liberal regimes.

C) Parecon would be infinitely more innovative: no incentive to hide one's knowledge from others, an economy that maximizes each person's creative potential, no externalities or commodity fetishism, etc.

I agree with the comment of "Darwinian", though except to note that Darwin himself believed there to be nobility in self-sacrifice for others: the earthworm.

9:16 PM  

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