Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The U.S.A as a Smorgasbord

The following are my musings on recent political events here, from the AWOL debate about the president to the proposal of a constitutional amendment to 'defend' marriage.

The United States of America is not a melting pot, or even a tossed salad of different ingredients. If it resembles any culinary treat at all, it resembles the smorgasbord: an offering of many separate dishes together; some cold, some hot, some savory, some sweet. It encourages greed and gorging, and the outcome of this is indigestion when the warring ingredients meet each other in the stomach. Indigestion and possibly ulcers.

But also an exquisite sensory experience, a cookbook full of flavors. Whatever one wishes to eat, the smorgasbord provides it: old, familiar dishes in abundance, novel experiments from every culinary culture ever invented. Still, too much variety in food causes increased appetite which causes obesity, an engorgement of everything from myths and religion to body sizes. We dinner guests at this table are obese in such a way, full of grandiose dreams and stomach aches, conflicting desires and violent rage, beautiful principles and the intent to be good. But to feel this maelstrom in ones stomach is hard, so hard and painful. It would be a relief to simplify the menu, limit it to wholesome myths and stories, lofty principles, easy ideas.

No dinner guest can agree about which these might be, of course, so the menu can be changed only with force, ruthlessness, aggression, which are then met with force, ruthlessness and aggression. For how could it be otherwise when ones favorite dishes are threatened, those on which everything depends? And threatened by someone who is not the same, is different, is The Other (who shouldn't have been allowed in the room in the first place, should be booted out now, or at least made to respect this religion, this ideology, this language, this dish.).

There is a violence in this country, in its dining-room, which differs from the violence of guns and knives. This is violence as a basic push-and-shove in how to run a country, a kitchen or a world, open and in-your-face kind of violence. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you're not for us you're against us. America: love it or leave it.

But what do you expect, no mere mortal can survive serenely the overabundance, the glut of aromas, tastes, philosophies which attack each other, and the diners, at this table of choices. No mere mortal in some other countries even needs to try, for smorgasbords are rare, and many nations have long ago agreed on a menu of just a few dishes. Boring, perhaps, or, as many believe, a sign of government oppression on freedom of choice. But not always; in some cases the choice of dishes is limited because that is what the diners wish, having come to their preference along the same shared road of a shared past. This may have once contained a smorgasbord, too, but the battles it caused, if any, are now faded into a shared mythology.

But the United States of America is a teenager, as countries go, and its repast is freshly laid. The ingredients are appetizing: freedom, faith, justice, equality of opportunity, but the final dishes can't satisfy everybody: private property, religious orthodoxy, free markets, democracy, equality. Which would you like to sample? How about intolerance, fanaticism and aggression? No? But these, too, are on offer. And so are caring, neighborliness, kindness.

So the dinner guests pick and choose, watching other diners with wary suspicion, urging them to try a different dish, and when this fails, forcing them to do so. Or they taste every dish on the table, hoping that the hot balances the cold, the savory neutralizes the sweet. No wonder that it sometimes seems better if someone else plans the menu: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Rupert Murdoch, or perhaps even a divine power or a president. But this would never satisfy the majority of the diners.