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When has culture not been appropriated?

Kenneth D. Gough • Aug 12, 2018 at 8:30 AM

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed by all Community Voices columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the Johnson City Press.

The opponents of cultural appropriation may have a point. Consider:

By what right do we in the U.S. of A. get to enjoy ethnic cuisines? Is there anything more important to a culture than its food, and is our appropriating them any different than cultural theft?

How can we in good conscience appropriate Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Ethiopian or Cuban foods, or even European cuisines such as French, Italian and Spanish? How insensitive of us to think that we can indulge our taste for any food we happen to like, whether or not it’s prepared and served by natives of the land where it originated, whether or not they migrated here in hopes of opening a restaurant to satisfy our craving for novel tastes. No, we should confine ourselves to foods native to the U.S. of A.

Oh, well, so much for the hamburger, that delicious ground beef sandwich which originated in Hamburg, Germany. And sandwiches, named after the 4th Earl of Sandwich, a man with a serious gambling problem. And pizza, as well as anything and everything involving pasta. (The Italians, of course, have their own serious problem, having appropriated pasta from the Chinese centuries ago.) And lutefisk, although the Swedes and Norwegians are welcome to it; fish preserved in lye isn’t that appealing. On the other hand, I’m really going to miss watermelons (Africa), tomatoes (probably Peru), potatoes (also Peru), corn (the Maya in Mexico), and apples (Kazakhstan).

To demonstrate our new-found respect for the people of all cultures in our multicultural world, we must give these food back to their originators.

Of course, this is just the beginning of our journey into cultural sensitivity. I’m sure the Huns want their trousers back, the Greeks want their philosophy back, the Romans want their laws back, the Indians want zero back, and the Jews want their land back (oops, I guess we can take things too far!). The Japanese need to give jujitsu back to the Chinese, and it will suit me just fine if they take back animé. Shakespeare’s plays situated in Italy — Romeo and Juliet, Othello, etc. — down the memory hole.

The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and all the rest need to apologize profusely for their appropriation of American blues and give their billions in earnings to charity. Every recording of Jimmy Rogers, who never heard a sound that he didn’t appropriate while practically inventing country music, should be destroyed. Bela Fleck needs to put down his banjo (derived from African slave instruments), and Earl Scruggs must, of course, be scrubbed from memory.

The beautiful and enormously talented Rhiannon Giddens is nonetheless a black American woman, so how dare she sing arias in French, German and Italian, and dance tunes in Scots Gaelic, as I recently heard her do in Richmond, Virginia? Oh, and then there’s the Irish fiddle tune she played on the violin and the jig she danced — culturally inappropriate if anything ever was.

In good conscience, can George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, set in the black slums of Charleston, ever be performed again? Or Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, set in Japan — the horrors! And to get really high culture, Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World, in which the Czech composer appropriated American tunes, must disappear from the repertoire. He should have stuck to Old World themes, and would have if he had been the least bit woke. Another dead white European male, thinks he owns the world!

If this hasn’t convinced you of the vapidity and stupidity of the idea of cultural appropriation, I can go on for another 6 or 8 thousand words. Cultures have always borrowed from one another, traded with one another, learned from one another, mocked one another, laughed at one another. It’s how culture advances. No one is the poorer because I like tacos and Thai food, and we’re all the richer for the likes of Rhiannon Giddens singing whatever she pleases, and William Shakespeare, Antonin Dvorak and George Gershwin taking inspiration wherever they found it. All of the mixing and matching, playing with this and that to see what works best and what’s most pleasing, makes the world a wealthier, better place.

The social justice warriors who think otherwise are insufferable prigs who have fallen into the dead-end trap of identity politics that treats people as nothing more than members of frozen, immutable groups, incapable of individuality or growth. By assuming that prejudice is not only innate but always malign and inescapable, it normalizes and institutionalizes bigotry, the only question being which bigot wields power over the other bigots.

As for me — pass the chipotle sauce. I like it on pad thai.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.

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