Monday, October 21, 2013

Pay it retrociprocally

Restaurant Oliviera, Nice. Photo by Mong789.

In his Elementary Structures of Kinship (1948, English version 1969) Claude Lévi-Strauss described the then commonplace phenomenon of solitary diners in a Provençal lunch place sitting at adjacent tables, or sharing a table for two. Each has a little pichet of red wine and a glass at his place setting, but instead of pouring himself a glass ("himself" because it's hardly going to be a woman eating alone, in southern France in the 1940s), he pours one for the stranger, who pours one for him in turn. Because society, as Lévi-Strauss learned from his great teacher Marcel Mauss, is made up of acts of motivated and unmotivated exchange, this economically meaningless gesture creates a sociality on the spot that doesn't have to go anywhere, a moment of human community.

I was reminded of this famous moment in the history of structural anthropology by a tweet that showed up today: [jump]

I love how this story (in the Times's Sunday Review, by Kate Murphy) is magically attached to Steven Erlanger, a Bad Writer I think of as my own special discovery, a Times reporter whose solemn Edwardian imbecility is unknown to Driftglass, Thers, and Mr. Pierce. And what do you think stops Mr. Erlanger from getting cynical about America? What tugs at the heartstrings of someone who can't hear about five-week paid vacations and universal free day care (the French disease) without jowl-jiggling rage and resentment?

It's a curious new custom inspired by the movie Pay it Forward (2000, based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde): when you're feeling blessed, undeservedly favored by fortune, you take your family out (or you can go on your own) to the local Taco Bell or Wok 'n' Roll or MacDonalds, ordering from the drive-through, and when you present your credit card to the robot you tell the living cashier inside the restaurant to cover the bill of the car behind you. Sometimes that car reciprocates, or I guess I should say retrociprocates, and you can get a chain of up to 40 or so people, each paying for the next; only the last, of course, actually getting a material advantage from the thing.
“This is an example of goodness gone viral,” said Ms. Ryan, who since the publication of “Pay It Forward” has become somewhat of a clearinghouse for random acts of kindness.... 
Perhaps the largest outbreak of drive-through generosity occurred last December at a Tim Hortons in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when 228 consecutive cars paid it forward. A string of 67 cars paid it forward in April at a Chick-fil-A in Houston. And then a Heav’nly Donuts location in Amesbury, Mass., had a good-will train of 55 cars last July.
It's possible that some of those do-gooders in line at the Chick-fil-A patronize the place specifically to demonstrate their hatred of sodomites, but that didn't stop them from wanting to be nice.

One of the things people like about it is the anonymity:
“If you paid for someone inside a restaurant, they would see you,” said Jessica Kelishes, a marketing representative for an auto parts distributor, who pays it forward at Del Taco, McDonald’s and Starbucks drive-throughs in Banning, Calif. “I just do it out of kindness rather than for recognition.” She said her kindness stemmed from feeling blessed and wanting to share her good fortune. 
That's probably why she explained her motives to the New York Times, giving her full name. There's no anonymity like the kind you get by showing up in the Sunday opinion pages. In fact, she only wants to be anonymous with respect to the beneficiary, or the next link in the chain. So they can't say thank you, or no thank you. (In the Provençal café, refusing the glass of your neighbor's wine would create a problem, like a casual insult; you'd never be able to be friends.) You don't even know how much it's costing you until it shows up on your credit card statement.
Via StealingShare.
In this way, people who may be furious at the thought of their tax money going to feed poor Ethiopians, or SNAP beneficiaries, give themselves a sense of goodness by providing lunch for somebody exactly like them, someone who owns a car and a credit card and takes them for lunch to your own favorite place, say the Old School Bagel Café in Tulsa, moments after you do it yourself, the person you know for certain doesn't need it. And instead of creating a moment of community it creates a tiny wall between you and your beneficiary, who will never know who you are, be able to thank you, or be able to pay you back. They can only pay you backward, joining in your alienation without joining in your life.

Economically speaking, it looks like crowd-sourcing charity to achieve the least valuable result possible. I can't help wondering what Matt Yglesias would say about it; he'd certainly find it funny. As for Steven Erlanger, what is he thinking? Maybe he just enjoyed how it's the opposite of France, or of the part of France (which he no doubt says is not "la vraie France", because it has working people in it) that he doesn't like.


This weekend's NYT travel section coincidentally featured Erlanger's farewell to Paris (he's transferred to London)! Mostly a giftbox of quotations like the dragées or Jordan almond candies that consecrate middle-class French rites of passage, but
There is a deep and hostile racial and religious politics that is trying to redefine what it is to be French, in a country that feels as if it has lost its way — its place in Europe slipping, its moral leadership tainted by Islamophobia and ultranationalism.
This, too, is part of the Parisian story. You only need to travel to the 19th Arrondissement, with the gorgeous Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where young gangs of Muslims, Africans and Jews fight for turf, or head for the street markets around Tati, in the 18th, or spend time in the Gare du Nord, one of Europe’s busiest transit stations.
There, businessmen and tourists avert their eyes as young Roma male prostitutes jostle with Tunisian female prostitutes and underage Muslim and black bandes de filles (girl gangs) from the poor suburbs come into Paris, changing out of their modest clothes on the trains, to meet boys and shoplift. Armed police do gruff identity checks of young people of color, despite a ban on racial profiling.
And yet at the same time it's far from all filthy:
There is a culinary experimentation that is not merely faddish, and there is an effort, to work with vegetables and spices to produce dishes of wonder and delicacy. Alain Passard’s L’Arpège is a pricey marvel, and I once dreamed about Guy Savoy’s artichoke soup with black truffle and Parmesan.
But even at the traiteurs, the food shops like Dalloyau, there are creations of imagination: a vegetarian omelet in layers, like a cake; and the best pistachio macarons I’ve had. (N.B.: mediocre baguettes, though.) At Fauchon, you can take away a risotto with langoustines and a bottle of decent white that make a fine dinner at reasonable cost. 
Note how the Roma male prostitutes and underage bandes de filles exemplify the deep and hostile politics, nationalism and islamophobia! Note how the businessmen and tourists avert their eyes (he should have added, except for the johns)! Note how the writer is of such a richly open disposition that he can appreciate the qualities of a bourgeois establishment like Dalloyau (of all the pistachio macaron joints in all the towns in all the world he had to walk into mine)...

And the copy editor, falling into an uncomfortably stuffed doze, let that comma after "effort" go by...
Printed dragées. Image from Picstopin.

No comments:

Post a Comment