SAY IT WITH ME: THIS IS SATIRE!
I’ve been silent long enough. When college students complained in 2015 that the Asian-themed food in their cafeteria was a mockery and appropriation of a grand culinary tradition, I said nothing. College students have no money after all, why should they complain about bad food, no matter its origin? For whatever reason, though, the more recent news of two white women in Oregon closing their burrito cart over protests of their cultural appropriation of Mexican food, finally allowed me to see the light. And not just in what I do or don’t eat—even though, I’m proud to say, taco night has now been replaced in my own home with another Italian night, since it’s much easier where I live to get takeout pizza than takeout Hungarian or takeout Slovenian.
But being a reader and a writer foremost, I was dismayed above all else at the cultural appropriation that, like a cancer, has infected my own profession. To illustrate just how blind I’ve been, and how easily duped, all I had to do was look at the kinds of books I’ve read this year. Two examples will suffice:
An Irish male novelist who, first of all, wrote a novel mostly from the point-of-view of a woman—in fact, this author is “famous” for his sympathetic and apparently accurate depictions of women. The woman in this novel was orphaned at an early age and (this being Ireland in the 1940s) was raised by nuns; once she reached adulthood she was sent to work for and later married a local widower the reader is made to believe has had a sad enough life to justify this unjust arrangement. When a few years later she falls in love with another man, and while in the end she does choose to stay with her husband, there is no explicit comment—from the woman or the authorial narrator—on how unfortunate and downtrodden her situation really is. Instead, all we get is a dramatization of human interaction and emotions, beset by the biases of the story’s time and place. The reader is apparently supposed to come to his or her own conclusions, since the pathos of the situation is only “inferred.”
In other words, the outrage that should be there is not there, and all the while the author has stolen the kind of experience which must have plagued Irish women at the time, and for his own gain. The message, assuming there is one, is lost beneath the mere empathetic presentation of human relationships. And so I now think it’s high time for two things: first, not just for white men to stop portraying experiences that aren’t their own, but for anyone of any race, religion, or nationality to stop portraying any experience that is not their own. We have all hidden behind claims to “imagination” and “sympathy” long enough, especially in assuming that art is separate from politics. And second, it is time for our artists to take their cue from the cheapest advertising and the dumbest slogans, and to finally do away with nuance and complexity, and even with empathy, and instead give us uplifting messages and lessons. We need to be told things, not shown them—and we need to be told the right things.
A second example: through the writings of academics and archaeologists, for years now I’ve loved to read about ancient Europe, and yet when I read about the Oregonian Burrito Cart Controversy, it struck me: what larger injustice can there be, than these “scholars” picking over the earth and digging up the bodies of cultures that are not here to defend themselves from this indignity, let alone from misinterpretation? I have therefore vowed to not read any of these authors until they release the DNA results that (at the very least) shows they are somehow related to the people whose graves and living spaces and even jewelry and kitchen implements they are constantly despoiling and making a living off of. Seen in this light, the very study of history—and of that other favorite subject of mine until now, comparative religion and mythology—is not just impossible but actually offensive, since even the belief that I can know anything about a tradition not my own smacks of some hidden desire of mine for control and appropriation.
As to the poetry I have tried to write about these ancient peoples, then, I now see the error in my wish to “imagine” what the lives of others were like and, using my own heritage as a guideline, I should be able to salvage at least those set in ancient Ireland, Germany, Italy and Slovenia. This will do away with much of my writing from the past few years—but then, I’ll also be able to sleep at night.
However, cultural appropriation in the written arts is even more insidious still. It’s one thing to realize that art isn’t actually about empathy, or about putting ourselves in another’s shoes or using our imaginations to portray the experience of any one and any thing we freely choose to. Because when we take the next step and realize it’s actually about segregation, and allowing people to create and critique only those kinds of works which reflect their own heritage, suddenly the darkest seed—at least of art involving language—is revealed: indeed, simply peruse the etymologies in just one page of any good English dictionary and you’ll see how many of “our” words have been derived from other languages, and many of those due to colonial depredations.
So terribly many of our words are soaked in the blood of past injustice that, for the time being (and excepting the few paragraphs left in this post), I can’t even in good conscience continue to write at all, let alone read. And if I could, I would do my best to get by without speaking as well. I would ask that thinking people of conscience everywhere follow me in this regard, although I suppose that at some point even thinking in the English language will have to go as well. But all the better, since we’ll have the chance to create a pure, unsullied form of everyday expression that will never have been used by bad people, or for bad reasons.
What this means, in part, is that we will have to do away with art altogether. Just for a time. I’m not sure how we would enforce this, but the important thing is that this is how I feel, and sincere and well-meaning ideas shouldn’t be discounted just because they seem ridiculous. This is a drastic but, I think, a necessary step. Any important realization, when it’s first made, seems like the exaggerated and childish whining of young people and their teachers using the reality of racism and discrimination and bigotry and being unable to keep it from encapsulating everything. But given time, its wisdom will show through.
I’ve heard the unthinking among us say that with ideas like this, “The political left will eat itself.” That is, they will cannibalize one another over constant charges of prejudice and bias until no form of thinking and expression are actually possible. Now I’m no predictor of the future, but if the left does end up eating itself, at least it won’t be with a culturally-appropriated burrito.