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Two Cheers—At Least—For Cultural Appropriation

The Left wants to wipe it out. Have they thought about what that would mean for the Third World, human rights, jazz?
Louie Armstrong

The other day, while scrolling through YouTube, I happened across a recorded version of “Go Down Moses” featuring vocal and trumpet solos by the great Louis Armstrong. It was beautiful, moving, and eloquent. It was also a blatant case of “cultural appropriation.”

The concept of cultural appropriation couldn’t have come along at a more inappropriate moment. Just as the mainstream media, Soros-ite one-worlders, and ivory tower egalitarians had united to denounce the Trump administration’s pursuit of what they call “protectionism” in trade, many of the same anti-deplorables were launching a drive for militant protectionism on the cultural front. It couldn’t be more silly—or more evil.

I offer the following illustration from the (virtual) pages of that great compendium of contemporary facts, factoids, and follies, Wikipedia: “A non-Native person wearing a Native American war bonnet as a ‘fashion accessory’ is commonly cited as an example of cultural appropriation.” Wikipedia goes on to cite “[t]he African-American academic, musician and journalist Greg Tate [who] argues that appropriation and the ‘fetishising’ of cultures…alienates those whose culture is being appropriated.”

Hmm. As I looked at the photo of Louis Armstrong, clad in “European” clothing, and listened to him singing biblically-inspired English lyrics—and following it up with a trumpet solo played on a sophisticated, valved brass instrument invented in Europe—I realized that Armstrong was a culture bandit, a man guilty of linguistic, religious, sartorial, technological, and musical “cultural appropriation.” After all, the words he was singing, the musical notation system and arrangement, the instrument he was playing, the Judeo-Christian biblical lyrics, and the very clothes he wore were all, by leftist standards, “appropriated.”

Like Wikipedia’s “non-Native person wearing a Native American war bonnet,” Armstrong—non-white, non-Jewish, non-European, and descended from a race and a place in which none of the elements in the picture and the performance existed—was a cultural criminal by today’s warped standards. Yet, somehow, I didn’t feel violated in the least. Nor did I believe that Armstrong’s stylistically “black” phrasing and pronunciation of the English-language lyrics in any way “fetishised” them. Quite the contrary. They illustrated how cultures can often cross-pollinate for the better, how there is an instinct for beauty and goodness, often dormant but never dead, that is a part of our common humanity.

What would happen if the Left ever managed to wipe out “cultural appropriation”? For starters, in the absence of Western medical knowledge, millions of babies born into the so-called Third World would die in infancy, even as their parents’ life expectancy plummeted. Books, films, phones, refrigeration, rail, car and air travel, and the Internet would all vanish from much of the earth. So would the very concepts of human rights, rule by law rather than force, representative government, sanctity of person and property, and the printed word itself.

With no “appropriation” allowed, jazz would have to be confined to North America; Arabic numerals would be restricted to India, where they originated; Swahili would be eliminated in most of Africa since it was a commercial lingua franca imposed by Arab slave traders; wine and brandy would be limited to Georgia and Armenia, where they were first cultivated; tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate, and even Egg McMuffins would never cross the Atlantic or Pacific; and haggis would be strictly confined to Scotland (that I could live with).

By now I’m sure you get my drift. The world is a hopelessly, magnificently criss-crossed, overlapping, and interrelated tangle. There’s no going back. Whatever good has come out of mankind’s stumbling, staggering march through the millennia should be cherished by us all: neither forced on anyone nor forcibly withheld.

A parting example. The foundations of modern India are in large part the result of cultural appropriation. An ancient civilization based on a racist philosophy—and a subcontinent ruled for thousands of years by alien invaders of one sort or another was colonized by Great Britain and by the late 19th century all of what is today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—with the exception of a few small French and Portuguese coastal enclaves—was ruled directly or through “native princes” by the British. A subcontinent that had stagnated for many centuries was given modern infrastructure, education, and health systems, an “alien” concept of justice based on law rather than corruption, and the beginnings of a parliamentary system.

Two cheers—if not three—for cultural appropriation.

Aram Bakshian Jr. is a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts have been widely published in the United States and abroad.