On “Cultural Appropriation”: Sanity at Last!

As an undergraduate in the early 1980s, I studied German and Russian literature in college. Over my adult lifetime, however, I’ve felt increasingly out of place in the humanities.

I’m not leftist. I don’t think capitalism is a bad word, although capitalists (like all people) sometimes do bad things and try to justify those things through their ideology. I also think racism is both evil and stupid: in all of its manifestations. So I have been horrified to see racist views come to be acceptable again in the very social and political communities that once loathed and fought racism. The form taken by the “politics of identity”, and the idea that people are defined inexorably by their racial/ethnic/cultural background, is different than that of racism in the early and middle 20th century, but those ideas are fundamentally racist.

Unfortunately, saying so in many humanities-oriented academic circles does not start a conversation about these ideas. It starts attacks by bullies, often bullies leading a Twitter mob. :/ I don’t enjoy being in the middle of a bunch of screamers, so I rarely try to talk about what I think is the terribly wrong direction taken by so many people and groups who at one time supported individual human rights and human freedoms.

All of this explains why I found an article in today’s Washington Post PostEverything section by political writer and blogger Cathy Young so refreshing. Finally, somebody who talks about why it is *good* for writers from one culture to use history, ideas, and forms of artistic expression from other cultures in their work!

Young doesn’t defend the condescending nonsense that was originally called “cultural appropriation” — art forms that demean, make fun of, and mock other cultures. Such works are disgusting and deserve no defense. However, she calls out the cultural avant-garde for its attacks on SF writer Catherynne Valente’s “The Orphan’s Tales” as cultural appropriation for drawing from myths and legends of other cultures. She then describes other examples of the same attitudes, some of them so extreme that they question whether people from a mainstream American or western European cultural background should study other cultures. Finally, she explains why she believes these attitudes are damaging to cultural understanding and help reinforce the very racism, intolerance, and narrow thinking that they ostensibly oppose.

Young gets it, IMHO. I’ve got her blog bookmarked now, and will be reading it regularly. :)

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