WASHINGTON, June 12, 2017 ⏤ The question, “Shall only Italians be permitted to make or eat pizza?” would be considered absurd at any other time or place in history. But not in contemporary America, where identity politics and notions of “cultural appropriation” have led us down bizarrely irrational paths.
In Portland, Oregon, two white women were recently shamed into shutting down their burrito cart after telling a local reporter that they had “picked the brains of every tortilla lady” in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico to create an authentic product.
In the Portland Mercury, one writer stated:
“Portland has an appropriation problem. Because of Portland’s racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are always treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.”
In Portland, there is a Google document listing the white-owned restaurants that have appropriated cuisines outside their own culture. The list was originally intended for private use, but it was released by someone to the public pealing death tolls.
What may have killed the burrito stand, Kooks, is the local Wilmette Week online site that raved about the burritos and reported the careless comments made by the women who created the business. They were excited about being an American success story:
“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Kooks co-owner Liz Connelly told WW. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”
By her own admission, Connelly appropriated the recipe of Mexican tortilla makers to create her own recipe for the tortillas that Kooks would use in its burritos.
For each entry on the Google document, alternative restaurants owned by people of color are suggested. One “Appropriative Business” is Voo-doo Doughnut, a small doughnut chain accused of profiting from a religion thought to combine African, Catholic, and Native American traditions.
Discussing the notion that it is wrong to “appropriate” cuisines other than that of our own ethnic or racial group, Professor Krishnendo Ray, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University, argues:
“If you pay attention to the food and to the language and to their lives, that is not a colonizing act. I, in general, do not think appropriation is a bad thing. Should we all be imprisoned in our little holes, with our cultural walls, completely closed off to others? If you are eating another’s food, engaging with their lives, engaging with their way of conceiving the world, that is a welcome engagement. That is how newness enters the world.”
Adding to the insanity, artists, according to the “cultural appropriation” police, should only portray members of their own racial group. Recently, the Whitney Museum in New York displayed a painting called “Open Casket,” depicting the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was tortured and murdered by two white men, purportedly for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.
The white artist, Dana Schutz, was denounced for cultural appropriation.
One critic, an artist named Hannah Black, said that Till’s killing was black “subject matter” and demanded that the painting be destroyed. Others denounced Schutz for “appropriating” black trauma.
In fact, the artist replied, she was addressing the subject of maternal trauma, the pain of Till’s mother.
In another case, a sculpture called “Scaffold” was exhibited at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It depicted the gallows used in various executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862. Native Americans protested. The artist, Sam Durant, said he was showing “the racial dimension of the criminal justice system.” He didn’t put up a fight and agreed to have his work taken down and destroyed.
When we destroy art, we destroy our cultural history.
Conservatives and liberals have been equally critical of such efforts to limit speech and artistic expression. Richard Cohen, a liberal columnist, provided this assessment of “cultural appropriation” in these cases:
“Neither the execution of the Indians nor the lynching of Till is owned exclusively by a particular community. These were American outrages, committed by Americans against Americans and I, for one, will not be shut out. I was horrified by Till’s murder when it happened. I was the same age as Till and the memory is seared into my memory as a frightening realization: This can really happen in my country.”
In many instances, cultural appropriation, in Cohen’s view, is a positive good:
“The great jazz singer Billie Holiday recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ on April 20, 1939. It is a song about lynchings, inspired by the 1930 murder of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who were photographed, like in the words of the song, ‘hanging from the poplar trees.’ Holiday sang the song so often and it meant so much to her that she apparently came to believe she co-wrote it. She didn’t. Abel Meeropol wrote it. He was a Bronx high school teacher, white and Jewish. Now, maybe he would be called a ‘cultural appropriator.’ Irving Berlin and other Jewish songwriters of Tin Pan Alley were influenced by the black music and musicians of New York. As Elvis Presley was decades later, they were clearly ‘appropriators,’ but what could they do? Ignore what they were hearing? No, they were musical aggregators.”
We see the excesses of identity politics on a regular basis at our colleges and universities. In May, students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington took over the college, occupied and barricaded the library and berated Professor Bret Weinstein outside of his classroom for refusing to participate in an event in which white people were invited to leave campus for a day.
He was told by police to hold his classes off campus due to safety concerns. Weinstein was confronted outside his classroom by dozens of students who demanded that he apologize or resign for writing an allegedly “racist” email. His email took issue with “A Day Of Absence & Day of Presence” demonstration, for which white students, faculty and staff were asked to leave campus for one day. He wrote:
“On a college campus, one’s right to speak, or to be, should never be based on skin-color.”
Weinstein considers his own politics to be on the left and is a staunch opponent of all forms of racism. An open letter has now been signed by more than 50 of his faculty colleagues calling upon the school administration to open an investigation into Weinstein. The letter found nothing objectionable about demanding whites to abandon campus for a day. It is Weinstein’s objection that they found unacceptable:
“Weinstein has endangered faculty, staff and students, making them targets of white supremacist backlash.”
In a social media post in early June, Weinstein indicated that punitive measures have already been taken against him, saying his access to the online faculty directory had been cut off.
Ari Cohn, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Evergreen cannot punish Weinstein for speech with which it disagrees:
“Faculty members retain the First Amendment right to speak out on matters of public concern and that’s exactly what Bret Weinstein did. He saw that students were engaging in their own protected expression and offered a counter argument. To punish a professor for engaging in that kind of speech would be highly inappropriate.”
We can fill volumes with examples of limitations on free speech in the name of one form of identity politics or another. At Yale University in 2015, students shouted down sociology professor Nicholas Christakis after he tried to defend an email sent by his wife, Erika Christakis, who stood up for the right to wear inappropriate Halloween costumes.
Earlier this year, a mob of students at Middlebury College in Vermont injured Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics, during a protest over a talk she agreed to moderate with social scientist Charles Murray. In May, Middlebury disciplined 67 students for what happened that night, with nothing more than the equivalent of a demerit.
At Duke University, Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic theology at the Duke Divinity School, resigned after colleagues and administrators tried to punish him for criticizing a “training” program emphasizing what he viewed as a politically correct, and less than accurate, view of racism. The theologian stirred controversy when he responded to a facultywide e-mail sent by associate professor Anathea Portier-Young that encouraged attendance at a two-day anti-racism program:
“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, cliches and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, it’s all liberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show.”
Elaine Heath, Dean of the divinity school, condemned Griffiths for using a mass email “in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable.”
Heath tried to schedule a meeting with Griffiths but refused to let him bring a sympathetic colleague, Prof. Thomas Pfsu, to serve as a witness. She eventually barred him from faculty meetings and threatened to take away his access to research funds. Rather than go through disciplinary procedures, Griffiths will resign after the 2017-18 academic year.
There is no evidence whatever in his emails of the “racism” or “sexism” of which Griffiths is accused.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association Of Scholars, says that viewpoint intolerance is becoming more common in higher education:
“[P]olitically correct administrations pull out all of the stops to silence the last few remaining non-progressives on their faculty. Most of the silencing that occurs on college campuses occurs invisibly. There is no public trace of it because people self-censor. Or if they come under pressure, they concede the point and shut up. A case like Griffiths’ stands out because Griffiths decided to go public.”
This year’s commencement season saw identity politics at work on many campuses. Harvard’s black graduate students decided to have their own commencement ceremony with no whites in attendance. A few hours after Harvard’s black commencement, about 120 students attended the third annual “Latinx” commencement.
Michael Huggins, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy school and a planner of the black commencement, said that the segregated ceremony “is not about segregation,” but “an opportunity to celebrate Harvard’s black experience.” But what if a white graduate promoted an all-white ceremony in these terms?
Harvard is not alone in promoting this new form of “acceptable” segregation. Emory and Henry College in Virginia held its first “Inclusion and Diversity Year-End Ceremonies.” The University of Delaware joined a growing list of colleges with “Lavender” graduations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students. At Columbia, students who were the first in their families to graduate from college attended the inaugural “First Generation Graduation.”
American universities are no longer bastions of free speech. This has been true for many years, but is getting worse. Prof. Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin at Madison argues that free speech and tolerance are in far more trouble on our campuses today than in the past:
“Today’s suppression differs from the previous era in three key respects: It is more passionate and aggressive; it is more student-initiated and driven; and it extends the reach of censorship more deeply into everyday campus life and the life of the mind.”
Identity politics, limitations on free speech and strange notions of “cultural appropriation” are taking us down very unusual paths⏤paths which lead away from a genuinely free and open society. In the future, perhaps only those of English descent will be able to read Shakespeare, only Greeks read Plato and Aristotle, and only Jews read the Bible⏤not to mention only Italians being permitted to eat pizza.
Some on the nation’s campuses may look forward to that kind of world. Most Americans of every race and background recognize it for the absurdity it is.