by Christopher DeGroot (April 2018)
Day of the God (Mahana No Atua), Paul Gauguin, 1894
magine you had the power to transform the Olympics in a progressive sense. Instead of fiercely prideful competition, nations would get together every four years and, with all the self-importance and insincerity of a cocktail party after an academic conference at an Ivy League university, give out awards celebrating the universal athletic achievements. All nations being, like all people, equally deserving of respect, the awards would be the same. Like certain little league baseball teams, everybody would win, and no one would be unhappy.
This thought experiment, we quickly see, fails because it destroys the very idea of achievement. For, like all ideas of value, achievement is necessarily comparative. Tolstoy’s highly nuanced characters would not be as striking as they are without the mere types we find in writers like David Foster Wallace. Floyd Mayweather’s unmatched defensive skills would not be remarkable if he did not make even elite punchers look ordinary. The extraordinarily vast erudition of a man such as Leibniz would not be so impressive if it was not in stark contrast to a modern specialist. Sarah Vaughn would not deserved to be called “the voice” if singers like Britney Spears were not dreadful. And so on, endlessly.
Meanwhile, our human nature consisting of contradictions, many of us naturally, and rightly, feel sympathy for those who are, as it were, lesser than others. Indeed, though all too often mixed up with resentment, and though taken so far as to negate the idea of value per se, there is a certain moral value in the increasingly common desire that others not be “excluded,” because this endeavor aims to make people believe that they matter, a belief that, being a universal need, is a universal good. Those who most ardently affirm this—multiculturalists on the Left—are also characterized by an awareness of the past oppression of women and minorities. The problem is that this fundamentally moral and compassionate turn of mind is frequently applied in an incoherent fashion.
Consider, for example, the common charge of cultural appropriation. Of course, for multiculturalists, it must go without saying that cultural influence is a good thing; after all, there can be no multiculturalism if a culture cannot use another culture’s aesthetic practice, for example. And in principle, this is true whether it’s Ezra Pound or Kenneth Rexroth drawing on classical Chinese poetry, Duke Ellington drawing on classical European music, Jimmy Page drawing on the black blues tradition (which, given its Gospel influence, is itself much indebted to the “white man’s religion”), Gwendolyn Brooks drawing on Anglo poetic forms, or Akira Kurosawa drawing on the plays of Shakespeare, who was himself a great appropriator of Plutarch, Boccaccio and others. And yet, so-called cultural appropriation—a childish, resentment-driven misinterpretation of the complex phenomenon of influence—has become a moral evil for many on the Left.
It is a hollow and senseless notion. Christianity is growing in China because the Chinese, like so many other peoples on this unhappy, burdened planet, evidently feel a need for that religion. Nor is it reasonable for a person to think, for instance: “Well, despite my dead husband and sick child and monotonous life of laborious poverty, I had better not practice this religion, since it did not begin in my own time and place!” Those who champion human rights and democracy—European inventions, as it were—don’t feel obliged to explain why these do not become moral evils when “appropriated” by non-Western nations. No one in Africa would reject a vaccine because it was devised in, say, the United States or England. Worst of all, cultural influence is not only well-nigh impossible to prevent (in any free state); to condemn it because it involves so-called appropriation is essentially authoritarian, like the old Soviet tyrants who would not allow artistic works, many of them from abroad, which were not plainly in favor of communism.
A typical product of academic resentment, the concept of cultural appropriation, having made its way into the general culture, is now discussed in such lowbrow publications as Cosmopolitan and Teen Vogue. It thus joins simplistic academic concepts like “patriarchy” and “rape culture” as a surefire way of displaying your virtuous opposition. Quite an effective form of marketing for our academics and intellectuals! And, like the revisionist history that is now common even in secondary schools (yet another unfortunate consequence of the influential academic Left), it helps the young and impressionable learn the wisdom of hating their own culture, of being exceedingly fragile, and of being reluctant to do or say anything that might upset the ever more sensitive and therefore intolerant PC police.
The issue of cultural appropriation is especially difficult for artists, who are incessant appropriators, all for their own glory. Imagine Dante electing not to write his great epic poem because the genre, for him, began in Greece rather than his native Italy. The thought is ludicrous, for Dante was not a precious ideologue. The writer Suki Kim is. In a September 15, 2016 article in The New Republic, she recounts her horror upon hearing Lionel Shriver’s keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival of that month. For, instead of offering the usual pieties about “community and belonging,” Shriver called for absolute artistic freedom, a freedom that requires indifference to political correctness. Alas, poor Kim evidently needed a safe space from
the sight of a white woman who has had great literary success playing the victim. It was the arrogance with which she declared that being Asian is not an identity; sure, we don’t want to be stereotyped according to race either, but who is Lionel Shriver to tell us that? It was the casualness with which she declared that “any story you can make yours is yours to tell,” and that, “in the end, it’s about what you can get away with.” And it was the smugness with which she put that sombrero on, looking defiant, as though she had just won some childish bet. Her whole attitude conveyed her annoyance, but for those of us whose identities—racial, sexual, and cultural—have branded us as others throughout our lives, her smirks went straight through like a bullet.
Fortunately the smirks were not fatal, for Kim lived on to describe her feelings in detail:
And what was alarming was that there seemed to be no way for anyone who had not really experienced that kind of exclusion firsthand to truly understand any of it. At one point, a young Chinese-Australian volunteer who had been sitting in front of me turned around and asked, “What do you think about what she’s saying? I am Australian, born here, but this scares me.” She added, “It’s because she is an intelligent person that it’s even more alienating to me.” I looked around, and saw that we were the only two Asians there. In that moment, race had polarized the festival, and it became us against them. Connection and belonging—this talk was, as promised, not about that at all.
Kim says that Shriver is “playing the victim,” but there is no reason to think that Shriver—who in her speech gives several examples of people who criticized her fiction because it didn’t suit their own politics (as if the work were obviously obliged to do so!) or because she herself was not part of their identity—is “playing the victim” just because she opposes the petty folly that is Kim’s interpretation. “In 2013,” Shriver writes,
I published Big Brother, a novel that grew out of my loss of my own older brother, who in 2009 died from the complications of morbid obesity. I was moved to write the book not only from grief, but also sympathy: in the years before his death, as my brother grew heavier, I saw how dreadfully other people treated him—how he would be seated off in a corner of a restaurant, how the staff would roll their eyes at each other after he’d ordered, though he hadn’t requested more food than anyone else.
I was wildly impatient with the way we assess people’s characters these days in accordance with their weight, and tried to get on the page my dismay at how much energy people waste on this matter, sometimes anguishing for years over a few excess pounds. Both author and book were on the side of the angels, or so you would think.
But in my events to promote Big Brother, I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us, or you’re the enemy. I verified this when I had a long email correspondence with a “Healthy at Any Size” activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadn’t even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a book that was terribly pained by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged, could overcome the scrawny author’s photo on the flap.
She and her colleagues in the fat rights movement did not want my advocacy. I could not weigh in on this material because I did not belong to the club. I found this an artistic, political, and even commercial disappointment—because in the US and the UK, if only skinny-minnies will buy your book, you’ve evaporated the pool of prospective consumers to a puddle.
We see here a neurosis common to both Kim and the resentful rotund, and indeed to partisans of political correctness generally. They are in despair, so they act as though everybody is supposed to be as sympathetic as their therapists. In Shriver’s speech—the transcript of which is easily found online—there are a number of arguments about why political correctness is bad for everyone, and not just in aesthetics. Kim does not engage any of them, though she unsurprisingly says, “it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was so offensive about this spectacle—there was so much to choose from.” An exceptionally confused mind, Suki Kim struggles to make a coherent argument, but possessing the now standard intellectual self-righteousness, finds that “there was so much to choose from,” a smorgasbord of outrage for her insatiable appetite.
Kim feels it was “alarming . . . that there seemed to be no way for anyone who had not really experienced that kind of exclusion firsthand to truly understand any of it.” In the absence of a positive display of Leftist resentment, it is assumed that no one could understand Kim’s terrible plight. Perhaps, for Kim, the Brisbane Writers Festival was supposed be a kind of group therapy session. In any case, if she is vexed because she believes the non-excluded cannot understand precisely what she and other minorities have been through, then it is not coherent to blame Shriver or any other non-excluded person (that is to say, white people, who, being white, do not suffer as deeply as other races, we must presume) for this. If I have not fought in war, then it is idle to upbraid me because I cannot understand those who have. If you have not been robbed at gunpoint, as I myself once was, then it makes no sense for me to be upset that you don’t know what that experience was like for me. There is no moral failing and nothing “alarming” in literally not having walked in another’s shoes.
It is plain that Kim did not understand most of Shriver’s arguments, perhaps because she was unwilling to try, or perhaps because she is a generic PC type who insists on perceiving the world through an ideological lens, with all its unexamined assumptions. After all, these days we should expect as much from someone educated at an institution such as Barnard College. Kim resembles the human resources bureaucrat who, having been “offended” by a colleague’s direct language, works up a lawsuit on account of the “hostile work environment.” In short, she is a weak person who thinks it would be a virtue if everyone shared her vice. The world is found to be otherwise, and now she is a victim.
Again, Shriver had told the audience of many book reviewers and correspondents who had reproached her simply for writing about people unlike herself. Nevertheless, Kim could write: “She asked, obtusely, if a crime writer should have criminal experience to write authentically in her genre.” In her neurotic touchiness, Kim seems unable to see the aptness of the analogy. Nor did Kim grasp Shriver’s point about a failure of rounded characters. “She chastised an unnamed writer for including ‘mostly Chinese’ characters in his novel: “That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.” Indeed, if a character is flat, there just because of his race, then, qua fiction, he is a failure ipso facto. Here, as elsewhere, it is Kim who is obtuse.
“I worry,” Shriver says,
that the clamorous world of identity politics is also undermining the very causes its activists claim to back. As a fiction writer, yeah, I do sometimes deem my narrator an Armenian. But that’s only by way of a start. Merely being Armenian is not to have a character as I understand the word.
We should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth.
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
Shriver tells us that to be a type is not an identity, a view with which Kim agrees. But how very vexing be told that by a white woman! In her outraged response, Kim reveals herself to possess a wildly unbalanced mind, and a reflexive desire to assert feelings of resentment. For Shriver, “being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” The point here, to state the obvious, is that there is far more to people, and therefore also to rich literary representation, than what is evident at a glance. Now, if this is true (as it certainly is), the reception of this truth should not be changed because the person who expresses it is a white woman, just as the earth orbits the sun whether you are white, black, or brown.
Shriver thinks “we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth.” (The italics are mine.) We don’t choose those categories, but there is an empowering freedom—though hardly simple or easy—in taking control of our lives instead of just dumbly going along with the customs of our time and place. Shriver’s is a call for agency, both of aesthetic practice and living generally. Kim, however, will not let herself see this. “Race had polarized the festival,” she cries melodramatically, “and it became us against them,” us meaning the other Asian person in the room.
Happily for Kim, she found the victimhood she sought, as cliché as her language (“straight though like a bullet”). And yet it is her own way of thinking that is the problem, nor could it be more divisive. If personal responsibility is a good, then it should not be considered “racist” for a white person to say that black men must stop abandoning their children, but reasonable if Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams makes the same point. We shall never be able to deal with our most difficult problems if we have to play the cowardly game of allowing only approved races and genders to express certain opinions. Moreover, in Kant’s words, “whoever makes himself a worm cannot complain when he is then trampled underfoot.”
Kim was much bothered by Shriver’s manner—her “arrogance” and “casualness”—but it is likely that the satirist was having a bit of fun at the expense of those who are exceedingly touchy, like Kim. Contra Kim, it is plain that the actual problem is the confused thinking whereby she herself is “playing the victim,” and in that singularly cheap manner which is sure to afford a powerful feeling of “connection and belonging” with a lot of smug dullards in our age of resentment. In asserting that “the various ways in which cultural appropriation—the idea that white artists and communities have stolen elements of minority cultures in ways that are oppressive—was harmful to people everywhere,” Shriver is setting herself against a kind of groupthink that is both imaginatively and culturally limiting. The great literary critic William Empson taught us that it is the special power of literature to take us beyond ourselves by showing us what the lives of people who are very different from us are like. In Shriver’s words, “the spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion.”
Like Empson, Shriver affirms literature’s special power, via the imaginative writer’s empathy, to depict all sorts of people, including those whose experiences are unlike our own: like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, with its powerful representation of war, of which Crane himself had no experience, or Tolstoy in Anna Karenina describing a young woman’s strange mix of fear and love upon falling in love for the first time. In Corregidora, Gayl Jones explores human contradictions with stunning acuity; we are presented with the politically incorrect idea that there is actually love between black slaves and their white masters. The novel is a work of great courage and originality, but would it have been a moral evil—or perhaps thought a justification of slavery—if written by a white person, as Jones is not? To answer “yes” is to show that you are not a disinterested artist and thinker, but an ideologue à la Suki Kim. Empson also believed that writers are necessarily critics of their time. Striving to question ignorance and to criticize injustice, and challenging in general what J.S. Mill called “the tyranny of the majority,” they are outcasts by definition—which is by no means to say, mere political crusaders. Such vital work is not possible if, like Suki Kim, we bind ourselves with PC chains. Art is not just a matter of creation, but of principle as well.
In “The Genealogy of Dictionaries,” the lexicographer Robert Burchfield relates, what is now forgotten, that “Medieval European authors took it as axiomatic that their main purpose was to ‘translate’ or adapt the great works of their predecessors. The word plagiarism itself is first recorded in 1621, but the association of plagiarism with guilt and furtiveness came rather later.” Why shouldn’t those authors have done so? After all, in Emerson’s words, “the Originals were not original.” An inheritance which we both receive and impart, language is like the air, essential but owned by none. Language is like a broken piñata, its treasures to be snatched before the next hungry creature arrives.
Who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature—prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.
As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.
Indeed. In order to represent the immensely varied world in which we live, writers must function as “professional kidnappers,” holding a mirror up to diverse nature. Nor does mimesis purport to be reality itself (“authenticity”). Further, although we may oppose them, language and cultural practices—no less than eating and drinking, sleeping, and having sex—are contingencies we partake of as a matter of course in the thrownness that is human life. No one asks to be born; every person just finds himself alive. And, though we might make it illegal for a person to “get inside the heads of strangers,” people will continue to do so; if they don’t represent their imaginings on a page or screen or other medium, they will still at least imagine others, including those who are very unlike themselves.
What is strangest of all, perhaps, since she is said to be a novelist, Kim seems not to understand that all serious artists are absolutely devoted to their art, like James Joyce conning his family and friends into giving him funds so that he could have leisure in which to write. As such, they couldn’t be more indifferent to what is right or wrong according to political correctness. They are naturally hungry thieves, seizing upon whatever they find for the sake of their own glorious gain. “What joins all languages, and all men,” James Baldwin wrote in a letter to The New York Times, “is the necessity to confront life, in order, not inconceivably, to outwit death: The price for this is the acceptance, and achievement, of one’s temporal identity.” Temporal identity, in literature, means permanent identity, one’s name being etched in the literary firmament. The achievement is remembrance, the lasting acknowledgment of one’s greatness. Hence the distinctive pride of the great writers, from Pindar and Dante to Milton and Goethe, from Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson to Yeats and Bellow. Pindar tells us he is “an eagle soaring sunward.” Meanwhile others poets “vainly croak like ravens,” or “feed low like chattering crows.” This spirit of agon, this finest art which, like two boxers in the ring, says, in sum, “I am better than you,” is the supreme goal, and no serious writer will let political correctness hinder its pursuit.
“People evolve a language,” according to Baldwin, “in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)” In the end, we are all submerged, submerged by death, unless, that is, our words last, or our deeds do in the form of words. From the impulse of pride to prideful written individuation: that is the writer’s path. And like many a great spirit in other fields, it is spurred by ferocious competition. As a student V.S. Naipaul said in a letter to his writer father: “I want to come top of my group. I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.” And so that driven artist did. “If you can’t take the heat, get outta the kitchen,” runs the saying. Kim can’t take the heat, and the trouble with people like her is that they therefore assume the kitchen is wrong. But the kitchen is life itself, however one may feel about that.
In writing about his life and abusive father, Karl Ove Knausgaard alienated and offended many members of his family who believed he had violated their privacy. You may believe they are right. Indeed, the writer himself is well-aware of the complexity of the matter, that, in a sense, it is morally problematic. But, in any case, for him as for all other serious writers, the primary value is aesthetic, and therefore not to be subordinated to the value of not offending others, on any grounds. “Any story you can make yours is yours to tell,” says Shriver; “in the end, it’s about what you can get away with.” Yes. The reason is that literature is in essence a verbal construction; like composing a symphony, “what you can get away with” is determined by formal craftsmanship. Among the many forgotten truths in our Glittering Dark Age is that the artist is in essence a high artisan. Being a serious writer, unlike Kim, Shriver takes it for granted that literature is a matter of craft. Hence “the casualness” with which she argued for the writer’s freedom from political correctness.
It is revealing that Kim should be so distressed by that casualness. She assumes that Shriver should be a “Decaffeinated Other,” to appropriate an apt metaphor from Slavoj Zizek. Finding that she is not, Kim, who seems to be a typical damaged millennial, is jolted into offense. A sensibility this delicate would seem to need serious help, yet I fear that even Jude Butter herself may not do. Nor can I believe that a person who thinks as Kim does could possibly produce fine creative work. Answerable style she could not obtain. Perhaps she could be an adroit screenwriter of Lifetime movies. Certainly she has a talent for displaying superficial emotion and overblown indignation. For the same reason, a career as a feminist academic would seem to be highly promising for the boring bluestocking.
Great writers, it’s long been said, show us what no one else does, but like a man who knows what hunger is and who does not refuse a healthy meal, in order to feed on their nourishment you must be willing and able to interpret their work objectively and without bias. And they themselves must be free to write according to their own vision. Joseph Conrad could not have given us a Congo in which native and colonialist alike are savage if he had been censored from representing things as they are. It is a problem today that people are trained to impose a priori political agendas on “texts,” rather than reading them on their own terms. It as though upon making a new friend I should insist that he be like all my other friends, or like me myself. In time this leads to a culture of stunted writers who don’t want to say the truth, lest they offend some weak type or other. Such an incoherent approach invariably promotes a politically correct kind of perception, and so, a politically correct kind of evaluation. Very regrettable since a person for whom Bleak House is just a means to Marx will naturally be no more disinterested when it comes to “arguing” about abortion, climate change, or whatever. But perhaps close reading of a particular book—as with making sense of complex topics in politics—is simply asking too much of most people. Minds like Christopher Ricks and Marjorie Perloff seem no less rare than the great primary writers.
Those who think denouncing cultural appropriation is a moral good often justify the practice by referencing disparities of political power. So, for instance, it’s supposed to be a bad thing for the Anglo-Irishman William Butler Yeats to “appropriate” Japan’s Noh theatre, because, as the canting Left would have it, he is writing from a “European tradition” of “cultural hegemony” and “imperialism” (as if Egypt and Assyria, Persia and India, China and Japan knew nothing of imperialism and slavery). Now this belief, it should be understood, merely assumes that cultural domination is wrong, while in view of history, it is much more plausible to hold that such domination is the very essence of politics. Indeed, virtually all nations are founded on conquest and maintain themselves only insofar as they have a strong military defense, a reality that flows from the very nature of our animal existence. “What are all the records of history,” asks Dr. Johnson in “The Rambler No. 175,” “but narratives of successive villainies, of treasons and usurpations, massacres and wars?” Says Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil: “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation…” In a world of unforgiving competition, all geography is itself one long story of cultural appropriation, one people supplanting another, or else commingling with them even as their success bears testament to what was best in the earlier culture. In short, then, a person who is so bothered by cultural appropriation needs to make a cogent argumentwhat it means to live on planet earth, it will hardly do to just wax indignant, as if you are obviously right.
How absurd and wasteful, then, is the United Nation’s opposition to cultural appropriation, as if it had nothing more important to do! In June of last year, writing in National Review, Katherine Timpf reported that
Indigenous activists from all around the world are calling on a United Nations committee to make cultural appropriation a criminal offense.
The 189-delegate committee, which is a subset of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization, has been in Geneva this week working on a task that it began in 2001: Creating international regulations would ban people from “stealing” indigenous art, dance, and medicine.
Now, it’s important to emphasize that these advocates are not simply asking the UN to issue a statement calling out cultural appropriation as harmful; they actually want to implement laws and institute enforcement mechanisms to punish it as a criminal offense. As reported by CBC News, James Anaya, the dean of law at the University Colorado, spoke to the committee on Monday and demanded that the final document “obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions.
The assumption here is that a people has an exclusive claim to “traditional cultural expressions.” But of course, these are themselves frequently the work of cultural appropriation, or more accurately, mere influence (often so complicated and so old as to defy complete understanding), to our common enrichment. To be sure, though, we live in an age of lunatic ideology, in which a half-mad authoritarian like James Anaya, far from being seen for what he is, is widely considered virtuous. Today people resent all differences of power, rank, and superiority, and finally, even difference itself, since so long as we are all not literally the same, one can always find a reason to reject the idea that, in whatever respect, one is better than another.
Meanwhile victimization, of which cultural appropriation is an increasingly common example, is becoming an ever more facile and pernicious notion. It seems to me that the litter on my Philadelphia street is harmful to every resident in certain ways, but that’s not a good reason to think I am a victim of the litterers. The matter does not rise to the level of victimization. People will disagree about what makes a person a victim, according to their respective temperaments, but some temperaments are more worth having than others. It is foolish, for instance, to get offended if people, in a spirit of playful, pretend fun, want to don sombreros and dance around like Mexicans, the outrage about which activity Shriver mocked.
In general, in order to understand people—as opposed to utilizing your dealings with them to assert your ideology—it is necessary to try to understand their motives and intentions: and why believe that a bunch of white people (in Kim’s words, “those drunk, sombrero-wearing American college students in Cancun who supposedly are not giving any offense to Mexican culture”) who are pretending to be Mexican intend to disrespect Mexicans themselves? Even supposing this were so, the wisest response would be to ignore the dumb behavior. To be as easily offended as Suki Kim is necessarily to make life much harder than it needs to be—life which is always already hard enough. Socrates, the great gadfly of Athens, upon being insulted or even struck by his fellow citizens (for then, as now, nobody wanted to hear the unhappy truth), would say, rightly, that they were not acting upon him, for they knew not who he was. Minding your business and simply not caring about what other people think or do: these are commonsense virtues that, like privacy itself, are now vanishing, especially since there are so many pseudo-intellectuals who strive to appear outraged, though of course they are no more in earnest than the good team members of the corporate America they purport to loathe.
We must resist the growing tendencies to turn away from reality and to get offended at every little thing. Our students are ill-served by the cowardly professors and administrators who yield to their demands for safe spaces. Dangerously coddled young people, most of them products of the middle and upper classes, it would be best for them if their academic elders had the simple good sense, as older people once did, to tell them that they simply don’t know what they are talking about. In their simplistic claims of cultural appropriation, university students are about as impulsive and uncritical as they are when sexting while drunk at two o’clock in the morning. For many of them, this is a mere passing phase—just the sort of unknowing thing we all embrace with passion when we are young; one day they will look back and laugh at their foolishness, realizing they had no idea what they were doing, though they had thought otherwise. In the meantime, their academic elders are failing them, and for what? For comfortable lives, of course. As Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.”
We must look closely at experience itself for what it is; we must not go in for the academic herd ideology which has formed Suki Kim’s sad mind. For the very idea of cultural appropriation is a symptom of fear and of a concomitant wish to escape from the hard work of freedom and self-reliance—the true home of serious artists and thinkers—into academic herd ideology: a most comforting place for those many persons today who are somehow both distinctly smug and distinctly weak. There is no doubt that many people attack cultural appropriation for the same reason that they want to bash Donald Trump for allegedly being guilty of all manner of terrible –isms; for the same reason that they want to talk about how much William Wordsworth owed to the writing of his sister Dorothy; for the same reason that they want to join the chorus of castigation whenever a politician cheats on his wife or professional athlete is accused of domestic violence: there is a vital sense of righteous conformist belonging in all this disapproval, and in the media and the genteel academy a very good (albeit false) living. As David Hume puts it shrewdly in The History of England, “Where ambition can be so happy as to cover its enterprizes, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of all human passions.”
The awareness of historical injustice weighs on many a contemporary mind. It is in the background of ideas like cultural appropriation, and many people, in their excess, use it to make distorted interpretations of events and phenomena. But nothing good comes of being troubled by trifles in the manner of dim Suki Kim. No morality, and no welfare state is served by the foolish desire to stop people from drawing on the practices and customs of others. Nor is the daunting project of alleviating the massive amount of suffering in human life abetted by a refusal to discuss subjects that upset us. Insofar as we are given to self-deception where we should rather accept our own agency, we are more likely to remain willfully blind by thinking which encourages us not to see the world for what it is. This touches on one of the worst aspects of political correctness: it encourages people to think of themselves as mere victims of others (and implicitly, of history). Hence they overlook their own responsibility and status as particular moral agents.
Political correctness also makes us ill-prepared to grasp the complexity of our condition. Progress itself, for example, has a way of turning out to be more limited and complicated than it at first seems. Ideas drive the world—there is no doubt about it—but they tend to do so in a dysfunctional manner: so that often what begins as a just response to an evil, eventually swings in its own mad direction, producing a great many problems of its own. To deal with this phenomena, and our problems generally, we must return to a manner of frank speaking and writing, so that we can actually make sense of things together: our manner being in opposition to the academic and intellectual types, who are conditioned at our colleges and universities to disagree with others in an almost apologetic tone. There being hardly anything under the sun that does not offend their weak sensibilities, these prostitutes of intellectual integrity behave like children in the schoolyard, agreeing to disagree and giving others to understand that their toys are cool too. In Thoreau’s words, “O for a man who is a man, and…has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!”
The idea of cultural appropriation is a species of political correctness, which is a symptom of the perverse multiculturalist Left. Despite making much of the value of “diversity”—in truth, a very complicated thing which necessarily both enriches traditions and destroys them—the multiculturalist Left decries mere influence as if it were some kind of obvious evil. In this obtuse double-standard, they reveal that their actual aim is resentment for its own sake, akin to the sham believer for whom religion functions as a means to condemning and hating other people, in spite of all his lofty talk and smiling public face. As with their frequently simplistic calls for equality (usually involving that gross simplification of context which is now a kind of religious ritual, and usually, too, a confused notion that should be replaced with the sensible one of fairness, with its idea of proportional desert), the multiculturalist Left shows us that, far from being advocates of diversity, their actual endpoint is mere sameness (equality of outcome), whereupon, however, they shall face a new evil: having nothing left to condemn.
Christopher DeGroot—essayist, poet, aphorist, and satirist—is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His writing appears regularly in New English Review, where he is a contributing editor, and occasionally in The Iconoclast, its daily blog. He is a columnist at Taki’s Magazine and his work has appeared in The American Spectator, The Imaginative Conservative, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, The Unz Review, Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts, and elsewhere. You can follow him at @CEGrotius .
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