Does “Cultural Appropriation” Mean “Cultural Aggression”? Ubi ars, ibi patria (Stefan Zweig)
Zweig meant his variation of the old adage “Ubi panem, ibi patria” as an expression of the universality of beauty and culture and its power to unite people, regardless of ethnic background, nationality, or social class. His view of culture is certainly an ideal, one that is not acceptable in the modern game of identity politics. Currently, America’s netizen culturati are in a knot over the concept of “cultural appropriation”. The phrase is a semantically null assembly whose sole purpose is to create the illusion of division. The closest encyclopaedic explanation is the notion that there is no such thing as cultural exchange or fluidity in ideas, and any attempt to cross or meld cultures is an act of oppression against a vague and inconsistently chosen minority. Accepting compliments is not a distinguishing trait of the cultural police.
America’s netizen culturati are in a knot over the concept of “cultural appropriation”.
The latest furore began in early May, when a young lady tweeted a photo of herself wearing a dress inspired by the Asian ao dai for prom (a formal dance held in honour of those graduating from high school). Before the evening was finished, a young man, trading on his Asian surname, led an internet jacquerie against her, proclaiming that her dress was “cultural appropriation.” His exact words were “My culture is NOT your **** [expurgated] prom dress.” Over the last few weeks, the lady has (correctly) refused to apologize for her taste in clothes and maintains that she selected the dress for its aesthetic value alone.
The defence of aesthetic beauty and personal taste represented by the young lady reveals the cognitive dissonance between genuine culture and strained cultural semiotics. When Claude Monet painted his wife in a Japanese kimono (La Japonaise, MFA, Boston, USA), he created a tribute to a culture he admired. The voices in the heads of the PC cultural plods, though, inform them that the painting is an act of theft – something intangible is taken when a person of different ethnicity or cultural background uses such idioms.
The mentality is distinctively similar to that in the fable of the dog-in-the-manger. The entailed rhetoric, in its tortured existence, introduces the very obscurantism that opponents of the arts, especially the fine arts, denounce: an undercurrent of elitism that presumably locks out the masses, who are assumed to be confused by the obtuse vocabulary and antiquated customs. In the UK, the campaign has reached such a risible point that opening a kebab shop, if one is not of the original ethnicity, is an act of cultural appropriation.
In these instances, though, PC culture plod (PCCP) is the one who wishes to place a veil over specific cultures and their idioms, rendering them the domain of an elite chosen solely on biological or social factors. PC Plod, a character in Enid Blyton’s children’s series Nobby, is a caricature of a dim-witted policeman who always arrests the wrong person before locating the genuine criminal. What Blyton meant as a comic foil has become personified in the social justice warrior, especially those focused on higher culture. In their world, regulating something as subjective and personal as taste buds is perfectly logical.
The defence of aesthetic beauty and personal taste represented by the young lady reveals the cognitive dissonance between genuine culture and strained cultural semiotics.
The American version of the “cultural appropriation” stance is inherently racist since it discriminates on the basis of DNA in determining an individual’s legitimacy in artistic form or personal expression. There is a sub-“appropriation” category that uses social class as a similar divider, but this incarnation is less prominent than the ethnicity-based view. Since both perspectives exist without regard for skill, execution, or any objective metric vis-à-vis the arts, any difference in ideological description is negligible.
The ridiculous aspect of the “appropriation” belief is that it is an intellectual boomerang, which returns and injures the thrower. The yowling PCCPs are only denying themselves; the veil of their outrage does not permit them to see or to appreciate the intrinsic core of any work of art or piece of music. It would be impossible to read a book for the pure joy of the act. The great museums, concert halls, opera houses, theatres, and libraries and bookstores exist as targets for the plods’ rage. The closest these people come to the contents of these buildings is to stand outside protesting Shakespeare’s Othello for the appropriation of skin colour, and, by extension, culture; reading the play appears to be beyond the ability of many of the PCCPs. Verdi’s operatic version is usually spared such demonstrations since it is rare for the professionally outraged to inquire deeply into the nature or history of their prey, causing the opera to escape their notice. In the search for cultural offense, the essence of culture is obliterated. These people become blind and deaf in a pitiable quest for banal utility, for something that is within their bourn.
In the search for cultural offense, the essence of culture is obliterated.
There is no rational justification for the creation of artificial cultural barriers. The “cultural appropriation” argument is inherently chauvinistic, and as such is prone to ugliness and emotive ignorance. It is the lack of reason that indicates the argument’s purpose: division for its own sake.
The division created by claims of cultural appropriation is tribalistic. The theory separates people into groups of them-versus-us. Since it operates within culture and its manifestations, the idea of the iniquity of cultural amalgamation is a negation of the universality of human nature and its creations. The inclusionary, egalitarian sentiment of ‘to each his own” which the PC cultural police claim to represent is unattainable in reality when the entire ideological system rushes to erect fences. Rather than bringing on the brotherhood of mankind, the PC cultural plod introduces war. The result is atomisation.