Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

            So-called “political correctness” on our college campuses—the shaping or censorship of thought, expression and deportment to conform to certain cultural dogmas of a mandarin intellectual caste—is rapidly moving from being merely annoying if occasionally amusing to seriously threatening and dangerous.  You have all heard or read about various absurd instances (the prosecution of festive sombrero-wearers at Bowdoin, the banishing of the noun “American” at the University of New Hampshire, etc.)  More serious is the growing list of invited speakers who have been disinvited or shouted down when they stood at the lectern.

            A teacher of medieval literature might be secretly jealous of those whose message is important enough to protest and to censor.  I have certainly put a few people to sleep, but in forty years of lecturing on many subjects I experienced only one indignant public protest, when in a tangential sentence I expressed my opinion that there was literary evidence of probable editorial intervention in the narrative of the gospels as they have come down to us.  A man leapt up, noisily, and huffed out of the lecture hall.  I almost felt I had finally made it.

            The most obviously politically incorrect people tend to be on the one hand business executives, politicians, and officials (governmental or non-governmental) deemed reactionary, and on the other social scientists and public intellectuals deemed conservative.  But artists and imaginative writers are more and more frequently being called to task.

            The idea that all serious cultural analysis is necessarily based in the three circumstances of race, gender, and class is what has authorized the politically correct strait-jacket.  That is, race, gender, and class are the only things really worth talking about.  When applied to works of art this triad often leads the commentator away from imagination and empathy, precious qualities of much great art, to dull sociology and dubious economic theory.

            The thought crime du jour for the politically correct is “cultural appropriation”.  I think I understand what this phrase means—beyond the admonition that Bowdoin boys better not wear sombreros unless they also carry Mexican passports.  When applied to writers, the phrase “cultural appropriation” means the spiritual and artistic effort to imagine and depict with conviction characters and situations very different from oneself and one’s own.  There are genuine problems involved.  I first became aware of them acutely in the late 1960s with the controversy over William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner—a fiction deployed in the imagined voice of the leader of a Virginia slave rebellion of the 1830s.  There were those who took the view that no white writer had the ethical right to do that.  That seemed to me nonsense then, and seems nonsense now.

            In the current moment of rampant identity politics and maximal racialization of almost everything, it is hardly surprising that the issue has again become current.  It has been much in the news this past week because of a controversial keynote address delivered by the American novelist Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers' Conference.  Its title was “I Hope the Concept of Cultural Appropriation Is a Passing Fad.”   She followed this in the Times with an account (“Will the Left Survive the Millennials?”) of the experience of delivering the talk, which featured a high profile walk-out by an ethnically indignant fellow writer.  I have not read Ms. Shriver’s fiction, but if it is as good as her polemical essays I had better get to it quick.

            Writers are well advised actually to know something about what they write about; and they should be judged by whether they do so well or badly.  But if everyone claims an artistic monopoly on large swaths of cultural experience, the result will be a literature of solipsism.  Great books are not paeans to parochialism but claims upon universal aspects of the human spirit.  Humanists used to quote with approval a maxim of the Roman playwright Terrence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.  “I am a man, and I regard nothing of humanity as alien to me.”  Maybe men can say something about women, and vice versa; maybe blacks can say something about whites.  It is even possible that a spinster like Jane Austen might write a small shelf of immortal books all about marriage.

            There is a good deal of historical evidence concerning the dismal effects of political correctness on literary creation.  Many intellectuals of a hundred years ago truly believed that the Russian Revolution would usher in an era of literary liberation and creativity such as the world had never seen.  The aristocratic epic of Tolstoy, the puerile mysticism of Dostoyevsky—all this would shrivel into oblivion before the humane powers of Socialist Realism.  By 1934 Max Eastman, an early American Communist, an expert in Russian literature, and one-time editor of The Masses, published a book, Artists in Uniform: a Study of Literature and Bureaucratism, in which he examined the state of letters in Stalin’s Russia.  That state was dismal, but also terrifying as it presented an image of a literary culture toward which the tendencies of many left-wing intellectuals in the West at that time seemed to be drawn.  It may be time for an Eastman revival.

            As for the term “cultural appropriation”, it seems to me a largely meaningless redundancy like “power politics” or “food nutrition”.  Culture is largely appropriation, and the process of appropriation has become ever more rapid and robust with the dramatic developments in transportation and communication characteristic of modernity.  Cultural appropriation is one of the chief indices of American dynamism in our cuisine, our dress, our religious and secular rituals, and in the fashionable ideas that dominate the humanities departments of our colleges and universities.  And I challenge any writer of English to try to write a few intelligible paragraphs free of what the historians of language call "loan" words.