By David T. Jones on May 28, 2017

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Charles Caleb Colton

Washington, DC - Sometimes one is impressed over the trivial pursuits of injustice collectors.  (One of) the latest “viewings with alarm” has been the contretemps over “cultural appropriation.”

The intimation appears to be that the “culture” of a specific group is itself the equivalent of patent-protected material, and that nobody is permitted to act in a manner that reflects another member/group of society.  

It is hard to imagine anything more absurd.  History and society advance by the spread of ideas, inventions, and associated technology.  Culture, not just biology, is constantly evolving.  Otherwise, my Chinese mother-in-law would never have been permitted to read Shakespeare as a child.  Or members of First Nations to use rifles while traveling on snow mobiles.  

The attitude raises a variety of questions:   

Should children be prevented from acting as their parents wish them to act, inculcating them with “parental culture,” but rather to grow up unfettered by any rules beyond their state-of-nature impulses?

Are immigrants of assorted national backgrounds to be forbidden from “acting Canadian” and instead required to continue whatever cultural practices were their norm in native lands, e.g., female genital mutilation?  Even if they wish to adopt Canadian cultural values/practices and abandon “their” culture?

Will religious conversion be prohibited? (or treated as blasphemy?)  Interracial/interreligious marriage?  Will aboriginals/First Nations be forbidden from leaving reserves to “appropriate” nonaboriginal skills and education? 

Can I read books written only by authors who write in my original language—with translations forbidden?  What would be the status of learning a “foreign” language?

What would aspiring artists be permitted to copy (when any observer of Impressionist paintings knows that the Impressionists tried out the styles of their colleagues)?  Should Roman “copies’ of Greek statues be destroyed?  

Could an African-American male play the part of Lady Macbeth—or an African American female play the role of King Lear?  Can no Caucasian ever play jazz?  Or “sing the blues”?

Should African Americans be banned from playing non-African sports, e.g., baseball, football, basketball?

Could I as a Welsh-origin Protestant wear green on Saint Patrick’s Day?  Crew a “Dragon Boat” race on a Chinese holiday?  Attend the religious ceremony of another faith?  

Should vaccines and medical practices—indeed all technology--be limited to their national inventors?

Hopefully to ask these questions is to answer them—and the debacle of complaint that “someone else” is doing “your” thing is relegated to arcane court cases over theft of intellectual property.

Because the historical reality has always been that individuals copy elements of already developed regimes in the process of developing their own “style.”  Such is the richness of the “melting pot” approach (admittedly more honored in theory than fact) that underlies United States attitudes toward immigration.

And in the political dimension, E Pluribus Unum (from many, one) is the unifying dimension of United States politics which melded 13 fractious colonies into the “United States.”  

And we have been eager to share our political philosophies, governing structures, social attitudes, and general cultural outlook as epitomized in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It certainly isn’t regarded as “cultural appropriation” that elements of these documents are repeated/modified in the governing documents of others.

But why should the concerns of one racial/cultural group be unavailable for comparison with others?  To be sure, “Black Lives Matter.”  However, so also “Blue [police] Lives Matter.” And, indeed, “All Lives Matter.”  The point is general; it is not to be appropriated by any group; the point is not diluted by expansion from the particular to the general.

The obverse of “cultural appropriation” is the total disappearance of specific cultures/languages throughout history.  Who knows if/how Neanderthals practiced religion (or not) and whether they “spoke” in more than grunts and gestures.  Find me a speaker of Sanskrit.  Or an Egyptian scribe able to draft a petition in hieroglyphics. 

But we can also be pleased that there are cultures that nobody has “appropriated.”  Aztec human sacrifice is one element of Native American culture that one concludes we can do without in the 21st century—along with the society that practiced it.  And nations throughout the world continue to work to eliminate “cultures” endorsing/embracing slavery—once a historical norm.

There is a Chinese aphorism “Enough to eat; enough to drink; now you can riot.”  With nothing real to worry about, the “cultural appropriator” fall into the latest category of wanting the rest of the world to play by their restrictive rules.


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