Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Sunday, July 23, 2017

In defense of cultural appropriation

Dear Hannah,

The first thing you've got to remember in any discussion of cultural appropriation is that aside from a slew of top-notch performers and basketball stars, black people have contributed almost nil to American greatness because they weren't allowed to and they are painfully aware of it.  They have given us some good soldiers and some good fathers and occasionally a great writer or an actor; but when it comes to the things that we really give praise for, the conspicuous additions of generals and heroes and scientists and tycoons and theorists and spiritual leaders and directors and metaphysicians and literati and champion presidents; the things we really take pride in and associate ourselves with when we want to feel good about ourselves as a nation, the truth is that black men have contributed far less to us than we have to them; and when they really have contributed, their contributions have done more to advance black people than Americans in general.


This painful awareness of racial inadequacy in all but a couple of areas of life is the heart of all complaints about cultural appropriation*.  There is no such thing as cultural appropriation of whiteness because no white person is terrified that anyone is going to run off with our heritage.  In general we consider black libertarians acting in Hamlet an improvement**, and any Arab who ditches Islam for Mormonism a godsend.

Whites aren't worried, for instance, that blacks are going to do rock and roll better than we have and "steal" it from us, or that our racial monopoly in science is in peril, or that Spike Lee is going to make a new Game of Thrones and George R. R. Martin is going to be put out of business.  Simply put, black people defend "black things" because they are worried white people are going to be better at them.  They have been forced out of industries and occupations for generations until they became very good at other things, and now that they're very good at other things they want to stay the best at them.  In essence we are dealing with a racialized mercantilism.  What you can't accomplish with talent you force on others with rules.

I add to this that no man is completely free of his heritage.  A history of suffering injustice is likely to make people unjust.  The backward suggestion that races must never learn from each other; the baffling ignorance about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery; the childish inability to not even not share a toy, but to object when another has an equal toy, can all be traced to a history of subjection and a deep-rooted complex of inferiority; a fear of being outdone in the few things you have a history of doing well by the people who have constantly asserted their superiority.

I believe the modern theory of cultural appropriation began with jazz.  Nobody wanted to be like or marry the slaves and then they were set free; and freedom meant a degree of mixing, and mixing meant a sharing of culture.  For a while black culture was thought inferior and then all of a sudden it wasn't.  The thing that black people did made white people jealous.  The energy, the vibe, the (at the time) earthy and sexual nature of the new music set people dancing wildly, and white men wanted to make people go wild.  So in an unexpected turn of events, a people who were trying to be white were faced suddenly with a tide of people who wanted to act black.  A monopoly on one of the only industries blacks could go into was suddenly in competition with whites who could (theoretically) choose anything.  To one people it was just another choice.  To another it was one of the only choices.  Then came the blues.

Once again a surge of black energy and the soul of black suffering penetrated the clubs and bars and meant something that whites could never have made for themselves.  Black men started it and then ended up fighting whites for it.  And the same thing happened with rock and roll and the same thing happened with rap.  Blacks would build something indisputably black in one of the only areas they were successful and whites would capitalize on it and oftentimes do better.  They would create a brand of cool on their own and the people who hated them worst would steal it.  Muddy Waters gave way to Led Zeppelin.  Chuck Berry gave way to Elvis.  Tupac passed the tradition to Eminem and Aretha Franklin passed the torch to Adele.   And it isn't that music or clothing belongs to a race.  It's that the black experience of suffering and slavery in the new world gave birth to things that even Africans never came close to, and these so-called African Americans, a breed of people with a culture incomparable in many ways good and terrible to any on the face of the globe, want to keep it to themselves.

In the black man's defense (and a kind of extreme irony) white people had already invented cultural appropriation before black men had ever thought of it.  The term is new but the idea is old, and the idea is old because the feelings of jealousy and pride are eternal.  Barbara Tuchmann writes in A Distant Mirror that European society in the 14th century was divided into the clergy, the nobles, and the peasants; and the bourgeois peasants were making gains; and the gains had made them wealthy; and immediately after acquiring wealth they began to dress like the nobles.

Being confused with the peasantry was (of course) an unacceptable insult to the majesty of the master class; and so, lacking the fiscal ingenuity of the working class but holding almost entirely a monopoly on violence, they decided to tell the bourgeois how to dress themselves.  A ban was placed on the wearing of certain fabrics and colors; trimmings and jewelry were permitted and banned to varying degrees in varying locations; peasants in many places were forced to dress in black and brown; and a noblewoman's number of costume purchases was determined according to her rank.  The nobility wanted to remain noble, and nobility was a kind of a sham.  They couldn't keep themselves above the others naturally so they had to do it by force***.

Cultural appropriation has also done its work in economics, particularly in the areas of patents and protectionism.  Before the dawn of classical liberalism England was known for its wool.  Adam Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations that many a merchant had gotten rich off it, their techniques and breeds were far superior to the rest of Europe, and because of this the manufacturing of wool became a serious source of revenue to the crown.  Fearing the loss of superiority to France and any number of eager competitors, the ruling class placed the wooling industry in something closely resembling slavery.  The manufacturers were not allowed to travel with or sell their wool freely, and punishment could range from the loss of a hand to a certain and violent death.  Those of us who laugh at our ancestors for this should note we do nearly the same thing today.  If anyone patents anything and anyone can do it better, we tell the better man he had better not do it or we'll go off and ruin his livelihood.  When the Chinese are taking our manufacturing jobs we threaten the Chinese with embargoes.  They offer better so we offer trouble.

What's worth remembering here is that life is never static.  Existence, and especially conscious existence, is a competition.  Freedom means other free men are free to beat you in love and business and music and glory.  If you're on top of anything there is always someone trying to knock you off it and black Americans know it.  They have been knocking whites off stages and football fields for decades now because whites had kicked them off of speaking platforms and doctors' chairs for centuries.

What we owe the black man we have already largely given him.  Not content with recognizing his greatness we praise even his mediocrity; celebrating his second-rate heroes for an entire month at a time****; cheering every time a black woman becomes the first black Seinfeld impersonator in Alabama or the first black pogo-jumper in Mississippi, and sending people who can barely form a sentence to the once-best schools in the nation.  And many times we send them for free.

What we ask of him is the same thing we ask of any other free man.  To fight his best to be the best if he wants to be the best, and if he can't be the best, to freely revere the person who actually is.  Great black men are free to be anything they want.  They can be presidents and they can be bums.  They can sing opera and they can wear wear tie-dye.  We only ask the same in turn, and wish that whites be allowed to compete with blacks in anything as boring as jazz, and with Mexicans in anything delicious as tacos.

Your father,
-J

*If we consider the case of Disney alone, they did The Lion King better than Africans could have and Aladdin better than the Arabs and Moana better than the Hawaiians and Pocahontas better than the Indians and Mulan better than the Chinese.  It's no wonder black people are terrified of white artists.  We have done the world better than the world.

**The great spiritual difference between the races can be proved by comparing a fear of illegal immigration with a fear of gentrification, and I think spells out anything we really need to know for our general benefit.  A man who is terrified of illegal immigration is worried the country is going to get worse.  A man who is terrified of gentrification is worried the country is going to get better.

***Tuchmann's example is from the Middle Ages, but a much closer one is available.  It's a crime all over America to impersonate a policeman because policemen are worried about losing their power.  A surge of false policemen means a skepticism about real policemen; and a skepticism about real policemen leads to a loss of authority.  Their culture, the ways they talk and dress and command, is their power.  The moment they lose it they become like the rest of us; so the rest of us have decided that they shouldn't be able to lose it.

On this note it's remarkable that there is nothing so quintessentially racist as telling a race to act like their race.  As such the best defense against an accusation of cultural appropriation is asking how exactly your race is supposed to act.  And while I'm not strictly against racism (my sense of humor forbids it) I am against hypocrisy, and these people are the universe's most embarrassing hypocrites.  As such they ought to be relentlessly made fun of.

These people are not to be confused with Democrats or even the majority of our black people.  These social justice warriors and "woke" evangelists, many of them the same rule-counting self-glorifying goosesteppers who used to infest our churches but can no longer defend the book of Genesis, are almost all of them of a third-rate intelligence, a fourth-rate charisma, and a fifth-rate sex appeal.  The one thing they will never consider in an unwoke statement is whether or not what you're saying is true.  Despite their pretending to be rebellious you will be hard-pressed to find an original thought among any of them; and their entire theology, handed down by an unquestionable largely-state-funded priesthood and regurgitated ad nauseam, revolves around worshiping and advancing certain kinds of people -- which means they are not allowed to praise or criticize freely, which means they are not allowed to think.  Their one advantage they have over their twins at the Westboro Baptist is that they are not breeding, and if they are, they are not breeding much.  

****Black History Month is an insult to the dignity of African Americans and can best be summed up by that essay of Mencken's where he insulted the entire south and then a Georgian state historian responded embarrassingly.  Mencken writes,
It is as if the Civil War stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays, or a single public monument (built since the war) that is worth looking at, or a single workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things. Once you have counted Robert Loveman (an Ohioan by birth) and John McClure (an Oklahoman) you will not find a single southern poet above the rank of a neighborhood rhymester. Once you have counted James Branch Cabell (a lingering survivor of the ancien rĂ©gime: a scarlet dragonfly imbedded in opaque amber) you will not find a single southern prose writer who can actually write.[Pg 139] And once you have—but when you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf. Nor an historian. Nor a sociologist. Nor a philosopher. Nor a theologian. Nor a scientist. In all these fields the south is an awe-inspiring blank—a brother to Portugal, Serbia and Esthonia."
The state historian of Georgia's (accidentally) hilarious reply:
Who has not heard of Asa G. Candler, whose name is synonymous with Coca-Cola, a Georgia product?
The first Sunday-school in the world was opened in Savannah.
Who does not recall with pleasure the writings of Frank L. Stanton, Georgia's brilliant poet?
Georgia was the first state to organize a Boys' Corn Club in the South—Newton county, 1904.
The first to suggest a common United Daughters of the Confederacy badge was Mrs. Raynes, of Georgia.
The first to suggest a state historian of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was Mrs. C. Helen Plane (Macon convention, 1896).
The first to suggest putting to music Heber's "From Green-land's Icy Mountains" was Mrs. F. R. Goulding, of Savannah-- 
--a defense more insulting than the attack.

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