Cultural Appropriation

It should be a surprise to no one that I am an old, curmudgeonly unreconstructed fuddy-duddy, completely obsolete and part of a dying breed. I doubt there’s anything that reflects that so much as my views on the idea of “cultural appropriation”. I think it’s loopy. Consider two incontrovertible facts:

  1. We’re all immigrants. With the just barely possible exception of a handful of people living in East Africa we’re all from somewhere else. The U. S. is a land of immigrants. So is Saudi Arabia. And China. It’s just a matter of timing.
  2. With the exception of a few hundred people in New Guinea nobody’s culture developed in a vacuum. Without cultural appropriation there would be no culture at all.

I know, I know. It’s about feelings not facts. IMO it’s the stuff of psychoanalysis not political analysis.

12 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    Yeah, I don’t get it either. I’d think you’d WANT the good parts of your own culture appropriated.

  • steve Link

    I am not sure why we care about this stuff that starts on campus. College kids always do stupid stuff. We don’t all eat goldfish. We don’t all live in communes and have free love. It seems to me the proper way to deal with this stuff is to ignore it or just make it clear we don’t care what they think.


  • michael reynolds Link

    I’m going to cheat and re-use a comment I write on a kidlit blog:

    All of Christianity is cultural appropriation. It’s a book (the Torah) re-purposed as a prelude to the New Testament. The oppressed (Jews) had their culture appropriated by the dominant culture, (Rome essentially). The appropriation led to still greater oppression of Jews, since when it comes to killing Jews, no one holds a candle to Christians.

    The other day I was driving (big, old white dude, in a Mercedes with a 20 dollar cigar in my mouth, just so you have the full obnoxious visual) and singing along with the Melodians on By The Rivers Of Babylon. And I asked myself whether this was cultural appropriation. After all, I’m not Jamaican, and I am not oppressed, indeed I am one of the presumptive oppressors, part of the dominant culture.

    For those not familiar with the song, the lyrics:

    By the rivers of Babylon
    Where he sat down
    And there he wept
    When he remembered Zion

    Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity
    Required from us a song
    How can we sing King Alpha’s song
    In a strange land?

    Oh, the wicked carried us away in captivity
    Required from us a song
    How can we sing King Alpha’s song
    In a strange land?

    It’s obviously a song about slavery, sung by black musicians in Jamaica. But while the song is meant to evoke slavery, it is clearly based not on black slavery, but on the oppressed Jews captive in Babylon. Jews did not worship King Alpha, (Haile Selassie) they worshipped Jehovah.

    Cultural appropriation? By Jamaicans of Jewish experiences? Or is it a musician drawing a connection between the experience of his people, and the experience of my people, the Hebrews? Isn’t it actually just great that 2,600 years after the Jews entered the Babylonian Captivity, a terrific song can bring that to life?

    (Just to round out the fun, the lyrics have been rewritten by Boney M., a German-produced group, to remove the Rastafarian references and be more Christian.)

    It is certainly tacky to dress up as Sexy Pocahontas on Halloween, but broadening that out into some doctrine of cultural appropriation, won’t work. The idea of cultural appropriation rests on applying a narrow lens in terms of history, and it flies in the face of the fact that the appropriated culture is often the only thing that survives of that culture, and it flies in the face of the free exchange of ideas which is necessary for any culture to thrive. It is an ill-considered, artificial, contradictory bit of pop philosophy.

    Consider: had the Nazis succeeded in destroying every Torah on earth, what would have survived is the culturally appropriated Christian bible, and thus, the Torah.

  • Guarneri Link

    There are therapists who can help you sort through your neurosis, Michael.

    Oh, and you have some guy over at OTB lamenting your departure.

  • That’s a good example, Michael, but you haven’t gone far enough. The Torah is a cultural appropriation from the civilizations that came before. The story of Moses being found among the bulrushes? That’s the story of Sargon the Great. Noah and the Flood? That’s right out of the Gilgamesh Epic. And so on down the list. Everybody appropriates from everybody else.

    Bringing things up to the modern day, do people think that West African music and poetry (which they are putatively relating to American black music and poetry) grew up on its own without external influences? Nonsense. They have clear relationships with Arabic poetry and music. Which have clear relationships with earlier Greek, Persian, and Egyptian music and poetry. Everything is related to everything else.

  • michael reynolds Link


    The Torah is entirely original and if any Akkadians want to dispute that they can have their intellectual property lawyers meet ours. Granted we Hebrews may have a slightly disproportionate number of IP lawyers. . .

  • Andy Link

    I just read last week that genetic testing showed that the MacNeil clan in Scotland, who long claimed royal Irish descent, are, instead, just the descendants of Viking raiders.

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Andy, what right does science have to dispute a people’s tradition?


  • PD Shaw Link

    @michael, that’s a good comment and I’ll appropriate part of it to make mine own comment: “It is certainly tacky to dress up as Sexy Pocahontas on Halloween . . .”

    1. I just wish for some recognition that dressing up as an Indian Princess is at worst a form of positive stereotyping. From the initial European-American encounters, the Indians were seen as uniquely exhibiting positive qualities of bravery and liberty that were inspiring, as well as negative qualities.

    2. Indian history is full of its own exaggerations and in the case of government sponsored Indian museums, I think the word “propaganda” is appropriate. On college campuses, self-appointed white guardians roosting in the Anthropology department protect the culture by marginalizing the study of Indian origins (because they are seen as making Europeans and _Native_ Americans equivalent) and creating authenticity standards that perpetuate falsehoods, like the Indians “lived in harmony with Nature.”

    3. I read Charles Mann’s “1491” last year, which makes a good case that America had one or two ancient civilizations that should be studied with the same level of respect as Mesopotamia and Chinese. But his effort to build respect for these cultures was somewhat forced and he ultimately conceded the problem in discussing the absence of the wheel. He points out that the simple moldboard plow (v-shaped) was unknown to Europeans until 2,000 years after invented in China. The Eurasian civilizations were superior over the long-run because there was trade, commerce and sharing of technological innovations over the larger lateral landmass.

  • perpetuate falsehoods, like the Indians “lived in harmony with Nature.”

    I suppose it depends on your operative definition of “harmony”. If slash-and-burn agriculture is harmonious, then I guess they did.

    One of the complications is that lumping all North, Central, and South American civilizations into a single “Indian” category is wildly misleading. When Columbus arrived there were about 1,000 distinct nations. For some the way of life mostly consisted of raiding their neighbors. That’s something the romantics have tended to forget.


    You don’t really have to go as far as 1491. Just read The Oregon Trail.

    Now that the Mayan writing system has been deciphered I suspect we’ll see more serious study of their history. Having no history (by definition a written account) is an impediment to being studied with “the same level of respect as Mesopotamia and Chinese”.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The organizational structure of 1491 is based upon Mann’s perception of the three most common misperceptions of pre-Columbus America that persist in school textbooks.

    1. Indian societies were larger than perceived. This was the aspect that attracted me to the book, but I don’t think I learned anything new, other than perhaps a greater density of people living along the Amazon River. Early Spanish accounts once considered a myth are probably varnished truth. The evidence for greater density is mostly in Central and Southern America.

    2. Indian civilization was older and more sophisticated than perceived. The civilizations discussed in this chapter are almost entirely MesoAmerican and Andean. The major technological points are maize and cotton textiles. I don’t think the limited extent of writing samples is favorable to the argument, but one or more alternative neolithic revolutions seems pretty important.

    3. Indian Civilization had a greater impact on the environment. I found many of the examples interesting and unknown to me, other than the Cahokians changing river courses. I didn’t realize the extent to which bison habitats must have been purposely created and extended by slash-and-burning forests, or that eradication of certain species (like passenger pigeons) must have been an intended to reduce competition for nuts and maize. What Europeans in North America encountered was not a state-of-nature in which Indians were benign caretakers, but the remnants of an artificial wilderness in decline after disease had ravaged the Indians.

  • I appreciate the synopsis, PD. Genuinely.

    I don’t think the limited extent of writing samples is favorable to the argument

    One of the things we’ve learned, remarkably enough within the last twenty years, is that Mayan writing is not as scarce as was once thought. We just didn’t recognize it as writing.

    One of the problems it looks as though Mann is confronting is that for the last 300 years (at least) most of the commentary about Indian civilization has been by romantics, whether of European or Indian descent.

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