Thursday, November 11, 2004

The kitchen debate

That as one of Stalin's henchmen, Nikita Khruschev committed unforgivable atrocities is beyond question. And I mean not to apologize for him or for the Soviet Union, which has discredited socialism unduly, and perhaps permanently. But his exchange with Nixon in the so-called kitchen debate is priceless. The US had set up an exhibit in Moscow advertising the conveniences American industry was bringing to its workers, which found their quintessential expression in the modern kitchen. Nixon went to tour it with Khrushchev, and began to explain the kitchen as a wonderful way to make "life easier for women," whereupon Khrushchev interjects: "Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism." Am I the only one who misses this kind of discourse on the world stage?

The exhibit purported to be a cultural exchange, but it seems mainly geared toward Americans themselves, to help them understand that the consumption of convenience, and the ability to choose among a variety of maufactured goods, is the new national purpose, the new meaning of freedom. As Nixon put it: "Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses is the most important thing. We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference." Here diversity is celebrated for its own sake, not for any additional usefulness it provides. A thousand different houses allows for nothing more than difference, the opportunity for a person to express himself through their consumer choice of house. Consumption becomes self-production, which adds to the size of an economy as much as any other kind. The essence of America, the point of being American, becomes the ability to express yourself in this arena, through the variations of style afforded by capitalist competition. This operation seems to grant Americans a right to selfhood, a chance Russians were deprived of, but actually it strips Americans of the self they are born with, and encourages/forces them to discover some new self in consumption, in fashion, which comes from without and changes according to some one else's design, not that of the individual discovering himself. One becomes obligated to be a shopper to be someone in America.

Khruschev becomes the implicit defender of a kind of essentialism, a sense that one is born with a certain identity and rights as a Soviet citizen (purely fictional, as it turns out), and a defender of utility in its most basic form. Russians build things to last, for posterity, he explains, not to suit the present day's whims. The implication? People find satisfaction in contributing to this future, and find a sense of purpose and identity in becoming a link in a meaningful chain of history in the development of a tradition and a heritage; they don't need fancy gizmos and individualized consummables to make their day-to-day life significant. The surface differences of fashion are nothing to base a society on: "Mikoyan likes very peppery soup. I do not. But this does not mean that we do not get along."

Nixon asks, "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets? Is this the kind of competition you want?" But f course, this is a false reduction of the conflict: the merits of a social order can't be pinned to its military strength or its consumer products. It needs to be evaluated in terms of justice and equal opportunity. What happened in America was that equal opportunity to buy things was made to compensate for the lack of equal opportunity to do things, until now we have to think very carefully to even distinguish the two.

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