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| Monday, April 11, 2016

One of the most odious ideas propagated by our thought-policing culture today is that of “cultural appropriation.” At its core, appropriation involves an artist, designer or other creator who takes ideas from one culture (typically not his or her own) and applies those ideas to his or her own work. These days, it’s about the worst thing a creator can be accused of by the perennial critic class and the keyboard warriors of the far left on Gawker and Jezebel, short of actual racism or prejudice. It’s argued time and time again that using the elements of another culture is somehow a “theft” or minimization.

This is, of course, nonsense. The only thing cultural appropriation ensures is that the best elements that each culture has to offer are available to the world. This is the “melting pot” model of American excellence that has long been held up as the ideal model of cultural exchange. Like all good things, people can’t leave this alone — the latest replacement they’re trying to trot out is the “salad bowl.”

Speaking of food, even our own beloved dining hall is chock-full of supposed “appropriation.” My typical “I need to be somewhere else” lunch consists of pizza (Italian) and chocolate milk (a fusion of a Mesoamerican food with a ubiquitous Eurasian beverage). If it’s hot outside, I might grab an ice cream cone to eat on my way back to the dorm. Now is there a better rebuttal to the politically correct obsession with cultural appropriation than the ice cream cone? The original ice cream cone was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, where Arnold Fornachou had run out of paper dishes in which to serve his ice cream. Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi happened to be selling zalabia (a waffle confection) at the next stand over. He rolled his zalabia into the first waffle cone, and the ice cream cone was born. What wonderful and delicious things we can make when we share our cultures!

And how about art? As Picasso (and later Steve Jobs) said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” My favorite piece of music, Czech composer Antonin Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” incorporates many themes from Native American music and African-American folk music. Is it any less beautiful because of this? Would “Star Wars” have been possible without Lucas sampling Kurosawa?

But perhaps the greatest demonstration of the foolishness of obsession over cultural appropriation can be found in science and mathematics. Even the most basic TI-84 freely mingles dozens of Latin variables and Greek operators with Arabic numerals. On the page, Lobachevsky, Ramanujan, Fibonacci and Gauss can gather together and freely let thoughts flow. The point of origin of an idea is irrelevant; the determination of its value is made entirely on merit (If you don’t believe this, please perform the following subtraction in your head: MCMCDLXXVIII-DCCCLXXXIV).

What the left sneeringly calls “cultural appropriation” isn’t harming or restricting the human race; it’s the lifeblood of progress. If you have a problem with people sharing their cultures, there’s certainly nothing stopping you from walling off yourself from the rest of the world and refusing to accept any new ideas. However, know that you’ll only be condemning the culture that you so cherish to a slow death as the world outside innovates. We’ll wave at you from Mars.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Kathryn Dennee

    Well-written article! I’ve also been interested in this infatuation with cultural appropriation; I don’t know if it’s a very new idea, though. I often think of an Eminem lyric from 2002: “To do black music so selfishly / and use it to get myself wealthy.” I imagine this discourse has gone on much longer than you or I. In any case, American culture today seems to reject and discount the influence of black culture on white culture, especially. I hesitate to claim, however, that opponents of such appropriation genuinely believe that this practice “harms or restricts the human race.” Cultural appropriation may be felt as a violation of a sensitive or painful perspective; it may represent a rejection of authenticity and transparent vulnerability. I, for one, believe that authenticity in art is nonessential; however, some artists work is highly personal, even in its culture, and thus, they may be hurt when outsiders brazenly intrude otherwise safe spaces.

    • Johnny Whichard

      I think you just perfectly laid out why this will always be a touchy subject with people….I don’t think the perceived “insensitive” or the perceived “too sensitive” could ever make each other entirely happy.

      • Kathryn Dennee

        It does seem to be a polarizing discussion, but here’s to hoping we can collectively find the “middle way.”

  • vrepo

    I generally agree with what you say and am also bothered when people always refer to that “cultural appropriation” but there is something that I think you forgot to take into consideration. What is often a problem when elements from another culture are used is that they are approached very superficially. Thus, the problem is not that you steal something but that the quality of this thing is degraded. I am all for cultural exchanges but in a lot of cases today that means reducing Italy to pasta, France to the Eiffel tower and Russia to vodka. That phenomenon is often accompanied by a weakening of the “appropriators” ‘ own culture and leads to a global cultural pauperization.

  • João Pedro Santos

    You really don’t understand the meaning of “cultural appropriation”, right?

    • Mr. Pockets

      Where is the author’s description off?