To show off our recent remodel, my wife and I escorted a friend through our master bedroom.
Pointing at some pictures of Himba women, our friend said, “Better be careful or you’ll be accused of cultural appropriation.”
She said this with a smile to take the edge off, but she wasn’t kidding. We travel a lot and decorate our home with art and photographs from around the world. These particular photographs had been taken by my wife in Namibia.
Despite knowing that social justice was an important part of her worldview, I couldn’t help needling her. “The hell, you say. I appropriate cultures for a living.”
The smile vanished. “You aren’t serious.”
“Absolutely. I’m a novelist. It’s impossible to write fiction without appropriating cultures. My novels are populated with both sexes, people of all races, foreigners, and even crazies who live inside their own cultural enclaves. My stories would bore your socks off if I didn’t appropriate other cultures and include women and men.”
“That’s different,” she said dismissively.
“Different than what?”
“Different than the real world.”
My wife scooted out of the room. I could almost hear her mutter, I’m getting outta here before he pisses her off.
I was warming to the argument, however. “It’s the same … unless you want to live in a cocoon. Not me. Too bland for my taste. I plan on eating tacos, strudel, barbecue, hummus, and visiting P.F. Chang’s, whatever kind of food that is. I’ll continue to wear my Tilly hat from Canada, watch foreign films, ski on Rossignols, listen to vintage Motown, and say voilà, adiós, and tsunami.”
“You know that’s not cultural appropriation.”
“It is … or soon will be. As far as I can tell, cultural appropriation is whatever someone says it is. It’s a bludgeon to make you feel uncomfortable … like you just committed a faux pas that was extremely hurtful and rude. And it shifts. As soon as you learn to avoid some gaffe, your tormentor will claim something else as part of their cultural identity. It all meant to throw you off balance … a way of bullying … but much worse.”
“You’re wrong! I can’t believe you’re this ignorant. Cultural appropriation is taking what’s not yours. That’s bullying, not the other way around.” She shook her head. “Being called on it is not bullying.” Now she took a deep breath. “I hate bullying. I fight against it all the time. There’s nothing worse?”
“Death is worse. Torture’s worse. But that’s not the point. Accusations of cultural appropriation push us toward tribalism, and tribalism is a fatal malady for a nation state.”
“No, no, it’s true. The whole idea is to drive us into tribes so we’re easy to control. Multiculturalism, diversity, racial quotas, and identity politics cause a person to identify with their tribe, and then political correctness, cultural appropriation, racial activism and safe places keep us from melding into a cohesive unit. These social justice movements only seem schizophrenic. Progressives want us bunched together, preferably in high-rise cities, but not unified. If a tribe gets out of line, they want to be able to sic all the other tribes on the unruly. If we—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! Multiculturalism is healthy, cultural appropriation is bad. We need to interact with people of different colors without stealing their culture.”
“No, you don’t get it. You shove races together, but discourage them from sharing cultures because a common, blended culture will unite them. You want—”
“No we don’t!”
“Yes you do. You discourage non-whites from assimilating, and if whites adopt pieces of non-white culture you shame them. The goal is to mix up the races, but keep them separate. That’s how you boost tribalism. That’s why cultural appropriation is worse than bullying.”
“It’s not worse.”
“When people break into tribes, they start looking for an alpha leader for their tribe. They want a strong leader to beat back the other tribes, to protect their stuff, to raid the other tribes to get their stuff. It puts everyone at each other’s throat.”
“So we should all homogenize into some bland stew. You still believe that melting pot crap. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Assimilation is far from bland. It makes for a robust, growing society that combines what people like from different cultures. We don’t just show our preferences when we buy something, we also show preference in how we live. Every action we take, every phrase we utter. We’re mongrels with an amalgamated culture. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand what made the United States great.”
“I can’t believe it. Now you’re telling me you believe in American exceptionalism?”
“Well, actually I believe in money.”
“I knew it. Some honesty at last.”
I pulled a dollar from my wallet and pointed at the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States.
“That’s what I believe in … E pluribus unum.”
James D. Best is the author of numerous books, including Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the Constitutional Convention, and Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.