I know you, and you know me…

Evidently some person wrote a rather sad article on Salon about why they can’t stand white women belly-dancing. I won’t link to it, because Salon deserves no reward for publishing it. This whole PC-ness campaign has gotten so far off base it is meeting itself coming around the other direction. In a misguided attempt to not be racist and be more sensitive to other cultures they’ve created a paradox in which no one can not be racist, and we shouldn’t even learn about other cultures. It’s really…sad. I can’t think of a better word for it.

I will, however, direct you to a fine rebuttal from Euqene Volokh, which includes this sample of rabid PC-ism on steroids:

Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

To which Eugene Volokh responds thusly:

Appropriation — the horror! People treating artistic genres as if they were great ideas that are part of the common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group. What atrocity will the culturally insensitive appropriators think of next? East Asian cellists? Swedish chess players? The Japanese putting on Shakespeare? Jews playing Christians’ Christian music, such as Mozart’s masses? Arriviste Jewish physicists using work done for centuries by Christians? Russian Jews writing about Anglo-American law? Indians writing computer programs, using languages and concepts pioneered by Americans and Europeans? Japanese companies selling the most delicious custard cream puffs? Shame, shame, shame.

But, wait: Maybe — and I know this is a radical thought — artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came.

Maybe telling people that they can’t work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be … rats, I don’t know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean “telling people that they mustn’t do something, because of their race or ethnic origin.”

I know I am trying to avoid controversy and not be negative lately, but this sort of thing absolutely must stop. Our desire to not be offensive is becoming its own self-parody. Meanwhile, we have people with no qualifications to speak for another culture shoving their noses and opinions in where they’re not needed, telling other people what to do and how to think. Seriously, just who is the one conscripting another culture for their own personal gain here? I’m tired of stupid people, well-intentioned or not, telling me what to do, as if they possess the one, ultimate, time-proven, irrefutable approach to how to live.

Does she seriously think people in other countries have nothing better to do than worry that somewhere in America women might be learning belly-dancing without proper appreciation of the cultural context? Absurd. As if it should bother me at all that somewhere in the New Guinea highlands a melanesian is doing a bad Elvis impersonation (that’s not knocking New Guineans–there are few Elvis impressions that aren’t bad).That’s not to say appropriation with the intent to make fun of people is okay. It’s not, though even there I defy anyone to uniformly define the appropriate use of humor. But…well, again, let’s hear from Mr. Volokh:

As to the blackface analogy that the article offers, the objection to blackface is that it originated as mockery of blacks, and is generally understood as continuation of such mockery. When white woman are “dressed in Orientalist garb with eye makeup caked on for full kohl effect and glittery accessories” — or for that matter, when people who aren’t of European extraction wear traditionally European formal clothing to play classical music, or non-European ballet dancers dress in European costumes — they aren’t trying to mock or belittle the group whose garb they are using. Rather, they are doing what performers have done throughout history: dressing the part.

Precisely. Wouldn’t it be more offensive to borrow just some of it without paying any credit to the original context? True, they may not completely understand why they’re dressing that way, but the attempt itself has merit toward understanding those who originated the art form. And if they do end up modifying it to the point that they’re abandoning the cultural context–well, they wouldn’t be the first. As if the 60’s peace/hippie movement developed spontaneously without any cultural appropriation.

Everyone borrows from everyone else, usually with complete sincerity, even if they don’t retain much context. But then if a cultural element has deviated from the original to where it has lost its cultural context is it still that original art form, or some sort of derivation subject to an entirely new context? Should we be concerned about our Chinese or Italian food not really resembling their original models, or do we just acknowledge it’s not really indicative and move on?

In any case, these proponents of PC-ism like to believe they are intellectuals–the only ones smart enough to tell everyone else what to do. And perhaps they are, but considering how they go about it, I doubt it. They’re engaging in thinking without having really learned first. They forget about the greater context of history (if they even took the time to learn it in the first place) and view everything through the very small, narrow lens of their modern, politically-motivated sensibilities, forgetting that sensibilities themselves are subject to change. In the process they miss everything of consequence.

I’m currently reading “Guns, Steel, and Germs: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared M. Diamond, in which he examines the various elements that allowed cultures to develop and evolve through time, and why some cultures became more dominant. Cultural and technological appropriation is just part of the evolutionary process. If Primative Man A saw Primative Man B out planting millet he didn’t worry about whether he’d be offending PMB by borrowing that handy little idea. Likewise, if PMB saw PMA’s village developing social structures for the redistribution of resources to benefit the entire tribe, he would borrow the idea and modify it to suit, not fret over whether or not it would make PMA feel insulted. And if PMA saw PMB playing a shawm or sackbut he might try to trade for one and perhaps even learn a few tunes from PMB before he headed back home to share what he’d found. That’s one reason why Euro-asian cultures developed more quickly–they had ample opportunities to borrow from one another, and they used them.

Which raises another point. In “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranea”, by David Abulafia, we learn that it is practically impossible to totally separate European cultures from Middle-eastern cultures from African cultures, etc. The Mediterranean was an aquatic highway of cultural exchange. Jews, Muslims, Romans, Greeks, Moors, Slavs, Francs, Bretons, Gauls, Celts–hundreds of cultures all interacted with one another, shared with one another, borrowed, and stole from one another. They even conquered, enslaved, and forced their cultures on one another. There cultural elements far too numerous to count were adopted and made part of other cultures. The same goes for languages.

In that light, how can we say people from Western Culture shouldn’t appropriate from Middle-eastern culture? Is it even possible not to? We already have, and we aren’t even conscious of it. That trireme sailed a long time ago, sweetheart. And can we be completely certain that arabic belly-dancing wasn’t influenced by Egyptian or Jewish dancing, or that they didn’t adopt some steps from Slavic dances? Do the Arabs really “own” belly-dancing from a cultural purity standpoint?

I would love to issue a challenge to the writer of that Salon article: Pick the culture you are most familiar with. Now live that culture pefectly, eschewing anything appropriated from another culture. I’ll even give you an easy time limit: say, everything up to twenty years ago is fair game. Just nothing appropriated since 1994. Don’t borrow anything from any other culture after that point. Now, live for five years without appropriating anything from any other culture.

Good luck.

Why would anyone even want to push for cultural purity in the first place, even under the guise of cultural sensitivity? As Mr. Volokh suggests, the very notion is racist, or at least elitist.  It’s saying “I don’t believe your culture has anything worth borrowing.” Because anyone with a modicum of intellect knows that if something has intrinsic value, it will be borrowed, adapted, and synthesized–political correctness be hanged. You can’t stop cultural dissemination. Just ask any culture that has tried to resist the influence of American culture. The idea that we should leave someone’s culture entirely to them should be the gravest insult one can give that culture: “You keep it all to yourself because frankly, you’re welcome to it.”

I would think it would be much more affirming and empowering, to appropriate some PC catch-phrases, for one culture to say to another, “hey! I see what you’re doing there, and I think that’s pretty darn cool! Let me try!” Doesn’t anyone believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery anymore? Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, but are we really making fools of the culture we borrowed from, or are we making fools of ourselves? Seriously, in a world of 7 billion people, why should the opinion of 300 million matter that much. They’re laughing at us, often deservedly, and no one is worried they might hurt our feelings.

I certainly fail to see what good drawing lines between us is supposed to do. Aren’t we supposed to be trying to make connections with one another? Aren’t we supposed to be learning how to empathize with others? Shouldn’t we be trying to imagine what it’s like from their perspective? How are we supposed to do that if we don’t walk a mile in their shoes, or dance a dance in their slippers? Cultural exchange used to be the way we were supposed to bring peace to the world. It may not have worked as well as that, but it did work. The world is smaller and flatter than it used to be. We understand more about other cultures than we used to. And that is a good thing.

We did that by making connections through culture, and it never would have happened if we’d have been constantly alert against appropriation. Wasn’t the addition of black baseball players one of the first steps to gaining cultural acceptance for blacks as a whole? Is anyone suggesting we should have kept our culture pure and not allowed them to appropriate our sports? You may recall that people tried that for a while, and not only didn’t it work, but both sides lost out.

We’ve certainly appropriated Asian culture, but along with that has become a greater acceptance of asians as well. Heaven knows the Japanese have appropriated elements of our culture–and now out-American America at our own game sometimes. It could even be said that we’re now up to the point of appropriating their appropriations of our appropriations of their appropriations. If you could follow that. My daughter is excited about these anime rock star characters that are now being translated into English for American consumption. Who had first dibs on cartooning and animation? And rock-n-roll? And yet my daughter is largely ignoring American pop stars to go gaga over Vocaloids. Well played, Japan. Well played indeed.

Oh, wait. I mean, bad Japan! Bad! Stop that appropriation!

No I don’t mean that. I find the ideas expressed in that Salon article to be ludicrious, if not outright repulsive. Wasn’t the idea of “one world” supposed to be our brightest, best destiny? How exactly do we do that if we don’t share culture? Every time we borrow from someone else with the intention of studying and understanding that thing, we open another avenue for understanding those who developed that thing in the first place. Every time we show appreciation for something created by someone else–enough appreciation to try it ourselves–we build a bridge over which we both can walk. Every time we say “No! Mine!” we build a wall.

The world has enough walls.

I say let the white women belly-dance. And let the arabic women rock and roll.

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One Response to I know you, and you know me…

  1. It is simply one MORE opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of American society … or rather the dominant society. You have to be diverse, but you have to do without borrowing. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t. Kirk would not accept it … a no win scenario.

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