I recently engaged in a Facebook discussion with a couple of Facebook friends regarding the kerfuffle about some disparaging comments the chef / gourmet-show host Andrew Zimmern made here and here about Chinese food, and Asian food generally, in the US. Considering that the conversation about Zimmern’s critique occurred among three Facebook friends, my remarks were uncharacteristically sharp. (One Facebook friend said "abrasive".) What aroused my ire was that the Zimmern critique provoked yet another round of bend-over-backward-til-your-vertebrae-crack political correctness that evidently holds that all works on the part of people of color, particularly people of color who are recent immigrants, should be immune from open and honest criticism and replaced by approbation on the part of the critic, particularly if said critic is a white Westerner. If such an attitude were confined only to discussions of matters culinary and gastronomic, it would be trivial. But that pattern of demanding absolute perfection, in this case, in the matter of culinary critiques, and seeing any deviation therefrom as at least a "micro-aggression", is part and parcel of the kind of attitude I have come to call “boutique progressivism” -- Bill Maher uses the term "liberal purist" – and that was partially responsible for the rise of Donald Trump and Republicans to high office. Such progressives' standards were set so high that they approved of almost no one on the left, and the right rushed in to fill the electoral vacuum by default.
Be it noted up front that, in critiquing Asian cuisine in America, Andrew Zimmern was critiquing the food, not the people. Problem is, Zimmern’s antagonists tend to equate the two: everything immigrant people of color do has to be viewed in terms of a rather conscious and intentional bias toward knee-jerk approval. Anything less is seen as “racism,” at least implicitly. Zimmern described Asian food in America as “horseshit” – his term, not mine – and my discussion partners immediately jumped on this as a personal attack on the chefs themselves, even though the accounts of Zimmern’s critique (see 2 links above) contained not so much as a hint of personal animus. One of my interlocutors argued that Zimmern should have moderated his critique, and the language he used to express it, because he was speaking to and of immigrants. (Speaking to immigrants, yes, but, as I said, not speaking of them.) Consequently, it was argued that he should have used more diplomatic language in his culinary critique. This advocacy of diplomacy contains more than a mere hint of what has often been called “the soft racism of low expectations”, i.e., “Oh the poor dears from Vietnam or Cambodia or Thailand are far too fragile to handle honest language, and so might be frightened by excessive candor”.
Indelicate honesty also recently got the astronaut Scott Kelly in trouble, because of Kelly’s fulsome praise of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (Scott Kelly is the brother of Mark Kelly, who is married to shooting victim Gabby Giffords.) This example of “boutique progressivism” is exceptionally egregious, because it was largely the steadfast leadership of Mr. Churchill that guided England through the darkest days of the Battle of Britain … while the United States sat on the sidelines of the European theater, making money from President Roosevelt’s program of Lend / Lease. PM Churchill’s cardinal sin was that he had the bad luck to have been born into the British aristocracy of the late 19th century, in fact, born at Blenheim Palace, when Britannia ruled the waves, the sun never set on her Empire, and had imbibed the consequent sense of entitlement that went with both. Well … quelle domage! I regard both as eminently forgivable – in fact, to be expected – but my siblings among “boutique progressives,” who expect nothing less than perfection of their putative heroes, seem to expect such archetypal figures to be egalitarians born out of due season.
What particularly galls me, at least with respect to the Zimmern matter, is the knee-jerk, unreflecting, accusation hurled at Zimmern of “cultural appropriation.” Someone -- and I guess it has to be me -- needs to point out that, were it not for “cultural appropriation,” there would be no human culture. Everything, every aspect of every culture, came from somewhere else, some other culture, some other people. No exceptions. "Originality" is a non-existent abstraction, like the "frictionless surface" so familiar to undergraduate physics students.
But with regard to matters culinary, the people so quick to critique Zimmern for culturally appropriating Asian cuisine have evidently never heard the word “peranakan.” Peranakan cuisine, found almost exclusively in Singapore, resulted from the migration of Chinese food southward, through Thailand, and down the length of Malaysia – and finally to Singapore – absorbing and undergoing a myriad modifications and enhancements in the process. I have spent quite a lot of time in Singapore, and, thanks to a Boeing colleague who married a gracious Singaporean woman, I became well-acquainted with peranakan cuisine. It is spectacularly delicious, especially a divine creation called beef rendang. If this is “cultural appropriation,” then, frankly, all cultures should appropriate like hell, especially within their respective kitchens. (To be sure, I do reject cultural appropriation in matters pertaining to a people's deepest identity, which is why I oppose importing seder rites into Christian churches. Ditto hanukkah. Seder is, and ought to remain, Jewish, and hanukkah is most decidedly not the "Jewish Christmas". But adapting, e.g., chicken tikka masala to Western tastes is not a matter of essential cultural identity.) I am amazed that people attacking Andrew Zimmern for his putative offense of “cultural appropriation” of Chinese food do not attack Singaporean – and Thai and Malaysian – chefs for the same crime. But I strongly suspect that there is a racial / ethnic element to all this: it seems to be quite permissible for Asian people of color to culturally appropriate from one another, but quite impermissible for a white Western dude like Andrew Zimmern to do the same thing.
As for Scott Kelly’s critique of PM Churchill … boutique progressives should not throw stones as long as their own houses are made of glass. Either that, or they should take equal delight in critiquing their own heroes. I give you three examples: (1) Mahatma Gandhi, who said that instead of fighting to defend themselves, e.g., the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Jews of Europe should simply lie down, practice perfect pacifism, and allow the Nazi war machine to roll over them. Even as gentle a soul as Martin Buber was moved to express outrage at such a suggestion. (2) The latent racism of Jesus Christ vis a vis Canaanites. (3) The well documented evidence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s marital infidelities, so often recorded by Director J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance. If boutique progressives, so anxious to valorize purity of mind and ideology, can forgive such acts and attitudes on the part of people like Gandhi, Jesus, and Dr. King, why are they so reluctant to forgive Andrew Zimmern’s honest critique of, e.g., General Tso’s chicken, American style? Since Gandhi, Jesus, and Dr. King were not white guys, perhaps I can be forgiven – though probably not – for at least entertaining the possibility of a latent ethnic element in this double standard.
Why is this important? Very simple … the boutique progressive insistence on utter purity and perfection makes it nearly impossible for boutique progressives to vote for political candidates who are simply good – even for candidates who are simply “just good enough”. And when candidates fall short of that criterion, boutique progressives instantly light the torches, sharpen the pitchforks, and start looking for a short rope with a noose at the end and a tall tree to hang it from. The consequence is that, by insisting on voting into office only angels, they end up being complicit in voting into office demons. Demons like Donald Trump. (Yes, I insist that is the right word.) Remember the convulsions of apoplexy boutique progressives visited upon themselves about Hillary Clinton having given a couple speeches to, e.g., Goldman-Sachs? So now, instead of Hillary giving speeches to Goldman-Sachs mandarins, we have Donald Trump giving speeches extolling the virtues of the Charleston neo-Nazis. Boutique progressives were aghast at the prospect of Hillary using military force to defend American interests – something Presidents all the way back to Washington have done. Instead, we have Trump creating a power vacuum in the Middle East by precipitously pulling American forces out of Syria, and perhaps out of Afghanistan, apparently at the behest of his fellow authoritarian, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. (Unfortunately, red lights did not flash, nor did alarm klaxons sound, when Vladimir Putin praised Trump for this withdrawal order.) At this point, I would gladly settle for a President who was indeed “just good enough” – though such a nondescript non-entity would no doubt be opposed by boutique progressives like Cornel West and Wes Howard-Brook, who would only vote for Jesus Christ … oops! maybe not … see previous paragraph.
This is my fear for the presidential election of 2020: that boutique progressives will once more demand absolute, utter, pristine, uncompromising, unadulterated perfection, the same way they demanded it of Andrew Zimmern, the same way they demanded it of Scott Kelly, and thereby, instead of settling for mere competence -- President Bush the Younger is looking pretty damn good right about now -- once more end up facilitating the re-election of Trump and thereby perhaps the final downfall of American constitutional government.
Like all forms of romanticism, boutique progressivism is, at its deepest root, and like all demands for perfection, in essence authoritarian.
James R. Cowles
Andrew Zimmern ... Flickr / Punch Pizza ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
P. F. Chang's food ... Mark Hillary ... CC BY 2.0
Winston Churchill ... PublicDomainPictures.net ... Public domain
Beef rendang ... FotoosVanRobin ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic
Chicken tikka masala ... Rezwalker ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Bernie Sanders ... US Senate ... Public domain
Donald Trump ... White House ... Public domain
Gandhi ... PublicDomainPictures.net ... Public domain