Cultural appropriation and cultural (d)evolution

Madame_Jeanette_and_other_chilliesThe venerable journal The Atlantic is now publishing pieces with these headings: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation: Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive. “Potentially positive”? The very fact that that needs to be specified suggests how far we’ve come. Whole cuisines are based on borrowing from other cultures. When I was visiting Bangladesh in 1990 my cousins were surprised to find out that potatoes were indigenous to the New World. I didn’t even want to bring up the history of the chili pepper. The same people who assert that race is a fluid incoherent arbitrary social construct can render judgments about the boundaries and values of cultures, often not their own, and act as if they’re Platonic timeless ideals (all the while asserting that they don’t hold to this model, when admitting to realistic flexibility about the fluidity of culture and identity would render their Maoist jeremiads toothless).

Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food
Sacred object to Hindus being appropriated as food
Brass tacks: the idea of “cultural appropriation” is an academic term that has bled into mainstream discussion as a way for various elites to police people and put them in their place. By creating an academic construct whose boundaries and criteria are known (OK, honestly, made up ad hoc on the spot) only to the initiate they can deign to provide lists of “dos and don’ts” to the plebs. It is 21st century abracadabra. You feel uncomfortable with something, and generate the appropriate academese to justify your feelings post hoc. The whole project would seem farcical if it weren’t so serious. Oberlin’s cafeteria cultural appropriation fiasco shows what happens to this sort of cultural tool; pedantry is drafted to serve prosaic needs. Basically, the food was shitty, so the students started making recourse to the garden variety ideological levers that they’re taught to take seriously. In the 1960s privileged students at elite universities taught Marxist theories realized that they were the oppressed class which needed to ignite the revolution. How far campus radicalism has fallen! Oppressed by shitty mystery meat modern day students are offended and declare that it’s “Not OK.”

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