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‘Cultural appropriation’ a new assault on free speech

Written By | Oct 3, 2016

WASHINGTON, October 3, 2017 — Political correctness has metastasized with something called “cultural appropriation.” This opens a new front in the war on First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

  • After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single, “Unconditionally.”
  • Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar accused a Caucasian woman who practiced belly-dancing of “white appropriation of Eastern dance.”
  • Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetuated “cultural crimes” by imitating African-American rap styles.
  • At Oberlin College, students protested a “piratization”  of Japanese culture when sushi was served in the school dining hall.
  • In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was charged with cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.”

Read also: Political correctness destroys America’s melting pot traditions

Claude Monet Madame Monet in Japanese Costume (La Japonaise), 1875, oil on

Claude Monet – Madame Monet in Japanese Costume (La Japonaise), 1875

At the Kimono Wednesday event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife Camille in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for that very purpose.

Nevertheless, Asian-American activists and their supporters surrounded the exhibit with signs like, “Try on the kimono: learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today.” Others attacked “Yellow-face@the MFA” on Facebook.

The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Even after this concession by the museum, however, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”

At a September writers’ festival in Brisbane, Australia, American author Lionel Shriver attracted considerable attention by criticizing runaway political correctness, citing efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, and moves to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.

Read also: Political correctness and the First Amendment on college campuses

Little Bee book jacket

Little Bee book jacket

Shriver, the author of 13 books, was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from “cultural appropriation.” She deplored critics of authors like Clive Cleave,  an Englishman, who was targeted for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book “Little Bee.”

Shriver noted that in writing “The Mandibles,” she had been criticized for her depiction of the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. She defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation if it served her artistic purposes.

“Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said.

Writing in The New York Times after the meeting in Australia, Shriver, criticized her fellow liberals for embracing cultural conformity:

“Do we really want every intellectual conversation to be scrupulously cleansed of any whiff of controversy? Will people be so worried about inadvertently giving offense, avoid those with different backgrounds altogether? Is that the kind of fiction we want, in which the novels of white writers all depict John Cheever’s homogeneous Connecticut suburbs of the 1950s, while the real world outside their covers becomes ever more diverse? Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.”

Cover art for "The Mandibles."

Cover art for “The Mandibles.”

Professor Susan Scafid of the Fordham University Law School says that “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission is the definition” of “cultural appropriation.”

Writing in The New York Review of Books, novelist Francine Pose asks:

“Should Harriet Beecher Stowe have been discouraged from including black characters in Uncle Tom’s  Cabin—a book that helped persuade the audience of the evils of slavery? Should Mark Twain have left Jim out of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that, more fully than any historical account, allows modern readers to begin to understand what it was like to live in a slave-owning society? Should someone have talked Kazuo Ishiguro out of writing The Remains of the Day, the beautiful novel whose protagonist, a white butler in England before World War II, presumably shares few surface similarities with his creator? Should immigrant writers and writers of color be restricted to portraying their own communities?”

Francine Prose poses questions that today’s cultural police seem never to have considered:

“What would modern art be like if the impressionists and later Van Gogh had not been so profoundly affected by Japanese woodblock prints or if Picasso and Braque had not been drawn to the beauty and sophistication of African Art? Should Robert Bolano, a Chilean who lived mostly in Mexico, hot have focused, in the third section of 2666, on an African-American journalist, or set the novel’s final chapters in Europe during World War II? Don’t we want different cultures to enrich one another? Reading Chekov, we are amazed by his range, by his ability to see the world through the eyes of the rich and the poor, men and women, the old and the young, city dwellers and peasants. But had he caved to the pressures of identity politics and only described characters of his own gender and class, few of his six hundred or so stories would have been written.”

Author Cathy Young provides this assessment:

“Welcome to the new war on culture. At one time such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art—work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or art work, no matter how thoughtfully or artfully presented. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own critical experience, they’ve committed a creative sin.”

The protests being launched by the militant advocates of political correctness have, in Young’s view, a potential not only to chill creativity and artistic expression, but are equally bad for diversity:

“This raises the troubling specter of cultural cleansing when we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding. What will be declared ‘problematic’ next? Picasso’s  and Matisse’s works inspired by African art? Puccini’s ‘Orientalist’ operas, ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot?’ Should we rid our homes of Japanese prints? Can Catholics claim appropriation when religious paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary are exhibited in a secular context, or when movies from ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Sister Act’ use nuns for entertainment? Appropriation is not a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture. People have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated or reinvented from time immemorial. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences. America is the ultimate blended culture.”

Actor and playwright J.B. Alexander points out that,

“William Shakespeare never personally felt the sting of racism, yet he wrote the character of Othello. he was never subjected to anti-Semitism, yet he wrote the character of Shylock. Nor was he ever a female adolescent, yet he wrote the character of Juliet. And we are all the richer for it. Artists must be free to create characters that lie within the scope of their imaginations, not merely to replicate their own identities, because great art allows us to transcend those identities and recognize our common humanity.”

If the crusade against “cultural appropriation” continues, we may reach a point where only Jews can comment on the Bible, only Greeks can interpret Plato or Aristotle, and only Italians lecture on Dante or Machiavelli. Where will it end? Can only those of British descent appreciate Shakespeare or those of Russian descent understand Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?

More than 100 years ago, the distinguished black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois understood that art and culture, whatever the source, are relevant to men and women of all backgrounds. He declared:

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. from out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars. I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil.”

Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.