Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered some of the most sublime speeches of the 20th century. In them he used a mostly Latinate language to evoke the trials of the Israelites while quoting the writings of a slave-owning founding father. Irving Berlin, the songwriter who wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” was a Jew born in a Russian shtetl in a home with a dirt floor. Jessye Norman, one of the greatest opera singers of our time, is a black Southerner who is famous for her Wagner repertoire. Hamdi Ulukaya is a Kurd born in Turkey who now runs the most popular Greek yogurt company in America.

The point is that everything great and iconic about this country comes when seemingly disparate parts are blended in revelatory ways. That merging simply doesn’t happen in places where people are separated by race and ethnicity and class. And it’s not only what makes American culture so rich, but it is also a big part of the reason America is so successful. When we see a good idea, we steal it; when we have a good idea, the rest of the world is welcome to it as well.

More than half of the countries in the world now have some form of democracy — a system of government we enjoy and have evangelized, but was invented by ancient Greeks. Britain beat us to the abolition of slavery; the Isle of Man, New Zealand and Finland all decided to give women the vote well before the United States. Eventually, we got smart and borrowed these egalitarian innovations. In 1989, when the Tiananmen Square protesters wanted to express their yearning for freedom, they erected a homemade Statue of Liberty. But even Lady Liberty isn’t purely American: We have France to thank for the statue.

These days our mongrel culture is at risk of being erased by an increasingly strident left, which is careering us toward a wan existence in which we are all forced to remain in the ethnic and racial lanes assigned to us by accident of our birth. Hoop earrings are verboten, as are certain kinds of button-down shirts. Yoga is dangerous. So are burritos and eyeliner.

It’s no longer just the online hordes that will string you up for your unintentional sins, though the cost of that public shaming can be devastating. In Portland, Ore., activists recently created a list of “white-owned appropriative restaurants” for residents to boycott on the grounds that white people probably shouldn’t make banh mi or dosas. This summer, the University of Michigan posted a job…

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