Cultural Appropriation and Racial Segregation

I have already expressed my displeasure with the movement of policing “cultural appropriation” back when there was a backlash against the Kimono Wednesday event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Like all moralizing efforts, cultural appropriation policing is rife with contradictions and hypocrisies.

There may have once been some merit to the idea of cultural appropriation. If you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you could be disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own, at least in the eyes of people who are offended. It doesn’t hurt to be a little mindful of these things when the doctrine is not taken to an extreme, but the margin cam be razor thin.

I once traveled to Okinawa and talked to a local cab driver who told me a little about traditional Okinawan culture and how he was sometimes offended at the insensitivity of the tourists from the mainland. Private grave sites, though unusual and spectacular as they may be, should not be a place for taking photographs, for example. He also did not like hibiscus patterns used on swimsuits and hibiscus worn as hair ornaments. Hibiscus, in his view, was a flower for the dead to be solemnly offered to graves. It was insensitive, he said, that the flower be treated so frivolously. In Hawaii, however, a hibiscus worn behind a woman’s ear represents her romantic situation, vaguely like an engagement ring though not as constricting. As such it has become widely accepted as a tropical symbol of love. The hibiscus is also the national flower of Haiti, Malaysia, and South Korea. It also represents the Hindu goddess Kali. Thus I believe the Okinawan cab driver, though genuinely offended he may have been, was over reaching when he claimed ownership of the hibiscus flower and tried to dictate how its symbolism could and could not be used.

As for the Native American headdress, almost none of the feather headdresses in use in North America are traditionally made. Most employ the use of epoxies and other modern materials. The vast majority are factory-made in China. Few actual Native Americans actually possess the skill to make traditional headdresses with traditional methods. The best traditional headdress craftsmen are Japanese. The skill is being preserved by a small group of enthusiasts who were initially inspired by Hollywood Westerns.

Hollywood Westerns also influenced Japanese movies and revolutionized the samurai movie genre. Samurai movies were once derisively called “chambara”, which is a word that represents the sounds of swords clashing. Like pornography, the point of the movie was not the plot but the action. The influence of John Ford et al changed that forever. Movies about the samurai no longer climaxed in the battle between the Red Clan and the White Clan. It became a dispute over humanity in the murky middle ground between civilized rectitude and outlaw justice. This in turn influenced Hollywood Westerns by John Sturges and others, Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone and others, all the way to George Lucas. But it did not end there. Terence Young threw a samurai and gunslingers in the same movie in a French-Italian-Spanish co-production Western. The influence went back to a Hollywood Western by Antoine Fuqua. And Takashi Miike took the samurai-movie-influenced Westerns, moved the stage back to Japan, and created a major mashup. That is the nature of cultural cross-pollination.

We live in an increasingly globalized world and we cannot keep foreign ideas out of our local neighborhoods. The tourists wearing swimwear splashed with hibiscus patterns are not appropriating Okinawan culture but are importing a Hawaiian one. You cannot put a lid on everything that offends you.

Except for the extreme ideologues, most people seem to agree that it is the nature of culture to mix. Overly rigid application of “cultural appropriation” to every element of culture only stifles progress and creativity. Some people have been trying to come up with a definition for “cultural appropriation” that is supposed to work.

A writer named Briahna Joy Gray recently suggested that “disrespect” and “economic exploitation” should factor in. I believe this is utter nonsense. A White man presenting a foolish performance in blackface is not “cultural appropriation” but racial mockery. And Led Zeppelin not giving credit to Delta bluesmen who wrote their songs is not “cultural appropriation” but outright plagiarism. In this context, the term “cultural appropriation” becomes an instrument for softening the truth, perhaps in the same ballpark as calling toilet paper “bathroom tissue” and impotence “a virility problem”. Led Zeppelin is not stealing, they are just culturally appropriating.

Gray goes on to cite Elvis Presley as an example of “cultural appropriation” backed by unilateral commercial gain, which is faulty reasoning on two fronts. In Presley’s day, black artists remained poor and white artists who covered them became rich, not because of “cultural appropriation” but because of racism, theft, and oppression. She also conveniently ignores that Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, which was a sanitized and neutered version of Big Mama Thornton’s outrageously sex-themed song, would have made even less sense if it were sung by Nat King Cole. Presley was a master of musical sexuality in the way Cole was not. The fact that one singer was white and the other was black becomes irrelevant. Presley was white, but so were John Lennon, and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom had covered the same song with much less success. Presley owes his success primarily to Presley.

Jazz and blues, and eventually rock, began primarily as the music of African Americans, which only came into being when Africans, with their own musical traditions, came into contact with Western musical tones and musical instruments. Black music is African inspired music, not actual African music. And Black music, like jazz and blues, are a fusion of African and European traditions; a product of cultural cross-pollination. It never would have come into existence at all if cultures did not mix.

In fact there is very little justification for policing “cultural appropriation” and most examples of “justified” policing, on closer inspection, are not justified at all. The vast majority of the cases are just plain ridiculous. There was a burrito shop in Portland run by two white women that was forced to shut down on accusations of cultural appropriation. That sounds extreme as a stand alone incident, but becomes even more outrageous in light of Anthony Bourdain’s statement that the best French chefs in North America are Mexicans. Why is it cultural appropriation for white people to cook burritos, but not cultural appropriation for Mexicans to be French chefs? No pun intended, this is my beef with this issue.

My problem with making cultural appropriation extend to everything is not only that it stifles creativity, but that it normalizes white supremacism.

Why is it never wrong for an Asian or an African to wear a necktie, but wrong for a White person to wear a Zulu necklace? That is actually a trick question. A “White” person is a fiction. Anyone from Greece to Finland, from California to Vladivostok can be “White”, though almost nobody is purely genetically of European origin. “White” is not an actual race. It is a social race. And there is really no such thing as “White” culture, as one look at Albanian or Polish traditional costumes will show.

If an Asian or an African wears a necktie, he is seen as moving one step closer to “civilization”, while a White woman in a Zulu necklace is seen as moving away. A Mexican who becomes a French chef is moving up in society, whereas white women serving burritos are headed in the opposite direction. An attack on “cultural appropriation” is a reinforcement of the doctrine “White good, colored bad”.

The very concept of “cultural appropriation” is supposed to hinge on the history of domination and oppression. Non-white people have been conquering, oppressing, and enslaving each other for millennia. So if a Chinese woman wears a Japanese kimono, or a Japanese woman wears a Chinese cheongsam, why is that not cultural appropriation? Because White Domination over other races is somehow a special kind of domination. Policing cultural appropriation, which is based on the dichotomy of “white vs non-white”, reinforces this notion and serves to glorify white superiority.

The opposite of “cultural appropriation” is “racial conformism”, which is another way of saying “put the coloreds in their place”. If you object to White people wearing Zulu necklaces, what you are actually saying is “Let the Zulus wear Zulu necklaces.” The end result is racial segregation, not by physical walls, but by culture.

Opposing racism is fine. But if you oppose an ill defined notion of cultural appropriation, and focus it on the “white vs non-white” dichotomy, you are not opposing racism but enhancing it.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Fiction, like movies and music, thrives on cultural cross-pollination. Long before modern publishing, the oral folklore of yamamba, the Japanese witch creature, and baba-yaga, the Russian witch creature, shared similar stories. Krampus, the horned anthropomorphic creature of Eastern Europe, and namahage, the horned anthropomorphic creature of northern Japan, share almost exactly the same legends. Stories have traveled the world and fused and meshed for millennia, changing small elements over time to adapt to different environments. Yet recently, a writer named Catherynne Valente was accused of cultural appropriation for adopting elements of Russian folklore in a fantasy novel. I could respond to this nonsense in any number of ways, but what if I told you that those fantasy elements that segregationists seemed to object to were not Russian folklore at all, but Japanese folklore, which has its origins in Chinese folklore, which was heavily influenced by Tibetan folklore, whose origins can be traced to Hindu mythologies, which has parallels in Macedonian fairytales, which bare resemblance to Russian folklore, but can also be traced to Egyptian origins? Stories cross react over cultural boundaries. That’s the nature of it. It is unavoidable.


The Bedpost of Intellectualism

I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.

Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.

Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane.  Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.

This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.

Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.

Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.


I once posted this on the internet.

What kind of a samurai are you?
1. Life is a long uphill road. Never speak of death as long as you live.
Tokugawa Ieyasu
2. To rush to death is as much cowardice as running from it.
Nitobe Inazo
3. When in doubt, choose the course most likely to end in your death.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo
4. Believe yourself to be already dead and you shall know no fear.
Miyamoto Musashi

Bushido is the philosophy of the samurai. But it encompasses a wide spectrum of how samurais thought, and taught their offspring to think. Most books on bushido are educational, recording the life lessons of some warrior for posterity. Nitobe Inazo’s book Bushhido: The Soul of Japan, originally published in English for the Western audience, was an exception in that it tried to introduce Japanese culture to the world as refined and civilized, worthy of inclusion in a world then dominated by Caucasians.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a battle hardened warrior, had differences with his peacetime master after his older lord died, and he secluded himself in retirement where he dictated his beliefs to a younger samurai, which became the book known as Hagakure. Miyamoto Musashi was a mercenary who never quite found a master to serve, wrote the Book of Five Rings while drifting as a masterless warrior. Both are reminisces of disgruntled old men who were misfits in a pacified world, and are somewhat cynical, not to mention radical. Meanwhile, the Testament of Ieyasu is the words of a successful man who reached the zenith of power and authority, but it is merely a short verse. The story behind the verse is told in the volumes of Mikawa Monogatari by Okubo Tadataka who also happened to be a disgruntled old misfit in a world of peace.

The idea of bushido was actually distilled and perfected during the time of peace between 1603 and the 1868 when Japan was largely without war, and consequently without need for warriors. In the early 18th century, a hundred years after the last of the wars, the samurai could no longer justify their position in society, and their right to collect taxes, on the grounds that they bled for the other classes of the nation. They consequently had to justify their position by imposing a higher moral standard for themselves. The idea was refined by the philosopher Ogyu Sorai who fused Confucianism with bushido and preached what some people would call blind obedience. His thoughts on the forfeit of self interest was so extreme, even hardliners later criticized his teachings as impractical, but his ideas, in one incarnation or another, survived.

The thing bushido philosophies tend to have in common is the deadly serious nature in which people are encouraged to apply themselves in everything. The samurai made a matter of life and death out of serving tea. Failure was never an option and the bar for a perfect success was always impossibly high. A samurai was never good enough in life or death. If you need to sum it up in a few words, bushido was fanatical perfectionism backed by relentless self-criticism. Being a samurai was not about being happy.

I can tell you first hand that being raised in a samurai household is no fun. Most people in Japan, even of the samurai class, have abandoned this way of thinking and this way of living. I certainly did not raise my children this way. I recently went to a funeral of a 92-year-old man, a doctor, who lived his life according to the philosophy of Hagakure. He gave his life to his work and waged his life on perfection throughout his living days. As noble as that lifestyle is, I feel a dissonance with the man. There was a slide show introducing the man’s life during the ceremony. By all accounts he was a stern man who took everything, particularly his work, very seriously. Every time a photograph with him smiling with his grandchildren was shown, the speaker said the picture revealed “an unexpected facet of his life”. Think about that. The man lived the sort of life in which the unknown secret side of him was him smiling with his grandchildren.


The Five Stages of Internet Addiction

Stage 1.
You surf the web, because you have five minutes to kill and you think you might find something interesting.

Stage 2.
You find yourself looking at your smartphone during dinner time, reading Twitter in the toilet, link hopping on Tumblr at coffee break, checking up on Facebook while at work, looking up the access count of your WordPress account while driving, and watching YouTube all night in bed.

Stage 3.
You troll movie stars, criticize politicians, get banned from Facebook groups, rant on YouTube posts, make enemies through Google Plus, and collect death threats on Instagram.

Stage 4.
You realize that you have like-minded souls, eccentric compatriots, fellow weirdos, mentors in heresy, and disciples of  your own brand of subversion.

Stage 5.
Your eyes are opened to a whole new world of minority thoughts, fringe ideas, obscure books, over-analytical movie interpretations, mind-opening art appreciation, hallucinogenic music deconstruction, and un-dreamed-of inspiration.