March 13, 2014
American diners eternally immersed in the 50s where Elvis is always on the jukebox dot the world from London to Tokyo. Rockabilly is bigger in Japan and Germany than it is in America. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty are scattered all over China and a generation of Asian filmmakers influenced by American films has come to Hollywood to make movies that are then redistributed around the world.
America has always been a machine for mixing and remixing cultures. Americans have Greek, Jewish and French first names, music that combines Celtic and African influences, and movies where British directors hire Australian actors to portray ordinary Americans. Any group trying to untangle that mix and patent their "contribution" would have as much luck as a divorcing couple trying to sort out their individual belongings after sixty years of marriage.
To whom does the lowly hamburger belong? To the Germans whose urban name it carries, the Mongols who invented it, the Russians who introduced it to the Germans or the Wisconsin man who began selling it that way? It doesn't really matter. What really matters is how the burger tastes.
If the Jews and Greeks began calling in all their cultural debts, we would all be poorer for it.
In recent years, cultural protectionism has gone from being the obsession of beleaguered European states doling out millions in absurd cultural grants to another weapon wielded by professionally outraged minority activists who lay exclusive claim to what they consider their culture.
Minority authors claim the exclusive right to write about minority characters. Minority filmmakers claim exclusive rights to minority stories. Gay associations demand that gay characters must be played by gay actors. Transgender activists demand that transgender characters must be played by transgender actors.
If you want to make a movie about a disabled man, break the actor's legs first. If you want to tell a story about a half-Indonesian half-Colombian transgendered environmental activist in a wheelchair, you had better find one of those or you're a wicked racist, ableist, transphobic colonialist appropriator.
We live in a strange world in which the UK, which is rapidly losing its identity to excessive immigration, provides tax breaks to makers of video games based on their 'Britishness'. Meanwhile Salon Magazine runs a silly article in which Randa Jarrar, an Arab woman, bemoans white women belly dancing as an offense against her "brownness."
It's unclear if she would be comfortable with suitably brown women from Latin America taking up belly dancing.
The denunciations of cultural appropriation never work in reverse. No one is going to complain when Egyptian writers plagiarize French novels or half the world churns out even worse imitations of truly terrible American pop music. Katy Perry wearing a Kimono is a hate crime, but the Rockabilly dancers in leather jackets and poodle skirts twirling in Toyko's Harajuku Park aren't going to face condemnation.
American caricatures of Japanese or Mexican costumes are offensive, but Japanese and Mexican caricatures of Americans are ordinary. The compass of offense, as usual, only points in one direction.
If Randa Jarrar, who is offended by white female belly dancers, decides to dance a waltz, there would be no talk of cultural appropriation. When Paul Robeson sang an aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, no European-Americans rose to protest the thoughtless theft of their cultural treasure.
America's multicultural society is already dysfunctional enough without self-appointed custodians of belly dancing culture drawing red lines and declaring everything that they can lay claim to off limits.
It is particularly ironic that Jarrar, a woman from a culture which comfortably pilfered math from the Indians, religion from the Jews and science from the Greeks is insisting that belly dancing should be the private property of her culture. If every culture that contributed to the Arab world got to call in its chits the same way, Randa Jarrar and her compatriots wouldn't have a whole lot left except belly dancing.
And maybe not even that.
The fallacy of the cultural appropriationists is to assume that their culture originated in some primal source. That is rarely the case. The American example is only a faster and more vivid demonstration of how cultures blend and mix, passing on ideas, customs and dances.
It is entirely possible that belly dancing actually originated in India. In that case, it's Randa Jarrar who is the cultural appropriationist. But that's a facile way of looking at it. Whatever the origins of belly dancing may be, there is little doubt that the Arabs added to it. In the same way the white women that Randa Jarrar moans about will eventually add to it as well. For all I know, they already have.
Successful cultures don't pout when someone plays with their toys. Instead they incorporate those innovations and build on them. It's only insecure failed cultures that jealously lay claim to the foods and dances that their ancestors lifted off another tribe a hundred years ago and demand exclusive rights to them in perpetuity.
On college campuses, Muslim activists accuse Jews of culturally appropriating their Hummus and Pita. A variation of Pita was likely the original "unleavened bread" that the Bible describes the Jews bearing out of Egypt during the Exodus, but like belly dancing, cultural possession has become nine tenths of the politically correct law.
The United States has never been bogged down before by arguments about whether the Germans or the Mongols ought to lay claim to the hamburger. America was built on the philosophy that the hamburger was here and that everyone ought to enjoy it and find ways of making it better.
That is what distinguishes successful cultures from failed cultures.
The culture war of those crying cultural appropriation, stamping their feet over white privilege and claiming to be offended by kimonos and belly dancing is a reactionary attack on the cultural exchange that made America into a culturally rich and tolerant nation. The ideal of the culture warriors is a society of ghettos where all culture is locked away in a preserve whose use has to pass a cultural review board.
A culture that is locked away dies. And a culture is not just carried by its people, but also by its friends and its enemies. When Rome destroyed Israel and took away its sons and daughters as slaves, their culture spread across Europe and the Middle East. When Randa Jarrar visits a mosque, the prayers that she recites have their distant origins in religions carried along by Israeli refugees to Arabia.
The Jewish refugees who returned to Israel from Morocco, Syria and Egypt brought along with them Arab songs and poems. And then Arabs listened to bootleg recordings of Ofra Haza singing their songs even as their countries remained in a state of hostilities.
The interplay of cultures isn't always a good thing, but it is the current along which a society moves. Those who cry cultural appropriation aren't protecting a culture; they're carving out a career of killing it. An America of cultural preserves in which we could no longer tell each other's stories, eat each other's foods and sing each other's songs would become a balkanized society with no tolerance and no future.
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