11/24/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

Learning From the Silk Roads: Spices and the Demos

In my last post, I suggested a connection between spices and democracy. This notion sent Professor Rao, my old friend and foil, into paroxysms of laughter.

RAO (holding his belly): What?? What on earth do spices have in common with democracy? We all know spices on the Silk Road were luxury items enjoyed by aristocrats only. A smidgeon of nutmeg cost its weight in gold! Why do you think the kings and queens of Europe were willing to empty their coffers for all those ships seeking new routes to the spice trade?

ME: Let me explain. A focus on spices - or food, more generally - changes our perspective on politics, generally, and world politics, especially. Rather than centering all attention on the palace, we shift to the kitchen. After all, isn't that where the spices turn into objects of desire? Without the artistry of cooks and their co-workers fashioning nutmeg into an exquisite flavor, for example, how would we know the value, not just the cost, of nutmeg? It would remain an ingredient only.

RAO: Still, isn't the kitchen subject to the palace? Without a palace, where would the kitchen be?

ME: By the same token, where would the palace be without the kitchen and all its workers?

RAO: I see what you're doing! You're turning to old man Marx: "Workers of the world unite!" and all that jazz. Sorry, but world history has demonstrated it's an utter failure. Even so-called Communist China has turned to American-style capitalism! Not to mention Russia, Tanzania, Cuba, and so on. All the former strongholds of Marx and Lenin have given up.

ME: You misunderstand. I'm not talking about class struggle. I'm speaking of something quite different.

RAO: Could we have some tea? This discussion is parching me. And cookies, too! One can't drink tea all by itself.

ME (sighing): Alright...(puts kettle on and opens a tin box, offering it to Rao).

RAO (munching on a cookie): Where were we?

ME: There's another way to understand politics and power.

RAO: Ah yes! What do you mean?

ME: When we focus on the kitchen, we are not restricting power to how Machiavelli saw it: that is, the exclusive domain of the Prince. Instead, drawing on food to understand power turns it into something larger, more creative and encompassing - and therefore more inclusive. To paraphrase an African saying, it takes a village to make power. (For this reason, it's not enough to kill a dictator and expect his people to suddenly embrace "democracy.") A more inclusive understanding of power recognizes the contributions of women and femininity, not just men and masculinity; local knowledges and practices, not just outside "expertise" flown in for the occasion; and the role of aesthetics - dare we say, sensuality? - in decision-making for public policy, not just calculations of costs and benefits.

RAO (indignantly): What's sensuality got to do with public policy?! Shouldn't it proceed on the basis of hard facts, rational reasoning, and objective implementation? How else could we expect orderly governance, otherwise?

Uh, could I have a splash of milk in my tea? Thanks very much.

ME (pouring milk): Again, we need to acknowledge there's a difference between value and cost. Without aesthetics, how can we determine the sustainability of what we want and why? Sure, everybody wants a happy, prosperous life. But it shouldn't come at the expense of our health or our spirit. And before you flinch at the word "spirit" spoken in the same breath as "public policy," I ask you: how else can we have any sense of a shared life with our fellow dwellers on Earth - and I'm not just speaking of homo sapiens - if we don't take matters of the spirit seriously and integrate it with public policy?

RAO: Clearly, people need to be educated about what's in their best interest!

ME: But who's educating whom?

RAO: Of course, we are! We who live and work in the advanced, industrialized economies have the knowledge, expertise, technology, capital, and power to do so. In fact, we are obligated to educate the world so everyone can become more like us.

ME: Don't you think the people of the Amazon, for example, also have their kind of knowledge, expertise, technology, capital, and power? If we have a kitchen paradigm of world politics, then we can cook up something together. We could blend these multiple worlds and transform them into an exquisite flavor of desire for all to enjoy...

RAO: All this talk of food is making me hungry! Let's continue over dinner.

ME: OK. But beware, my next subject of discourse might give you indigestion.

RAO: Please! I'm not some hothouse orchid. What's your next challenge?

ME: Culinary cosmologies.

RAO: We'll need drinks.

[To be continued.]