Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

Word on the street is that the PC police are at it again. Their new unreasonable expectation is that people should avoid “cultural appropriation,” which in the minds of anti-PC columnists means that literally no one should ever engage with any cultural artifact outside of their own culture. I mean, who could possibly think that, right?! What does that even mean?

Back here in the real world, no one does actually think that. No one wants hermetically sealed cultural bubbles, other than perhaps white supremacists. In reality, the key word is appropriation. The goal is not to prevent cross-cultural dialogue, but to insist upon it. The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.

So here are a couple examples. If Eminem claimed that he invented rapping, that would be cultural appropriation. If he collaborated regularly with black artists who accepted him as a member of their artistic community, that would be healthy cross-cultural dialogue. If he became increasingly detached from that black community as his career progressed and accepted being treated as the only rapper on earth, then he would be edging toward cultural appropriation even after a non-appropriating start. If I read a book about Buddhism and decided to start a Buddhist retreat without ever talking to a single living Buddhist practioner, that would be appropriation. If I read a book on Buddhism and decided I wanted to practice and hence started consulting with actual practicing Buddhists who have a living connection with the places and communities where Buddhism originated, then that’s healthy cross-cultural dialogue. Odds are, it would take a lot of work before I got to the point where I could start a Buddhist community of my own without it constituting appropriation, and I would need to make sure that the actual pre-existing Buddhist community I had joined approved before doing that. If I thought they were being overly narrow-minded, then I would have to take responsibility for the appearance of cultural appropriation and expect to receive criticism in that regard.

There are some borderline cases. For example, I taught a couple courses on Islamic thought with only minimal engagement with real-world Islamic communities. To some extent, I think that’s justified — my whole approach to religious thought is historical rather than sociological — but it was also partly laziness and a generally anti-social predisposition. At the same time, I didn’t claim that I discovered Islam or that I was the only or best source for authentic Islamic teaching. If someone rated my performance “problematic” in this regard, I couldn’t help but hear them out and promise to do better next time. That’s life. Other things I have done have been called out as problematic as well, and I survived. Sometimes I think people’s concerns are exaggerated, but most of the time I think they have a point. It’s my decision how to respond and whether to take their criticism seriously, but if I don’t change my behavior, I don’t have a right to never be criticized. Again, that’s life — there’s no way to be perfectly insulated from all criticism in advance.

No one is perfect — and by the same token, no one is required to jump straight to the most outraged defensiveness any time someone points out a mistake that they might not have thought of on their own. If the anti-PC columnists are so concerned to preserve the great tradition of cross-cultural dialogue, they might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation instead of (wait for it…) appropriating the concept of “cultural appropriation” for their own ends and defining it in whatever way they want. The best way to preserve cross-cultural dialogue is to engage in it, instead of unilaterally proclaiming your righteousness from on high.

The problem with “backlash” arguments

Yesterday, two prominent centrist luminaries, Joy Reid and Kos of Daily Kos, took to Twitter to blame low voter turnout among minorities for Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio. This is a disturbing example of victim blaming, not least because Trump actually lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It is only the most explicit version of an increasingly popular trope in mainstream commentary, which I would call the backlash argument. If we denounce Nazis too much, then people will dig in their heels and identify as Nazis. If we use physical force in protest settings, then they will unleash even more force. If we attend too closely to the needs of racial minorities, then we will alienate white people. Etc., etc., etc.

The problem with this type of argument is that it treats reactionary opinions and actions as an immutable force of nature. Only our side has moral agency and responsibility — they are machine-like creatures of instinct, who decide what to do purely based on what we do. The underlying logic is identical to the public discourse on police shootings, which I critique in the opening of The Prince of This World: the victim always could have acted differently, always “had a choice,” whereas the police officer “just reacted.” In this type of victim-blaming rhetoric, the tendency of police officers to murder black people in cold blood is held constant as a brute fact that the victim is responsible for navigating.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to anticipate the probable effects of our actions. But if people choose to join the alt-right, it’s not the fault of people who are annoying on left-wing Tumblr — it’s their own fault. If people support Trump, it’s not the Democrats’ fault for hurting their feelings by taking identity politics seriously — it’s their own fault. The upshot of this observation is not to properly distribute blame as an end in itself, but to recognize that they are free responsible human agents who have chosen to take sides against us. They are not automatons to be manipulated through carefully calibrating our messaging to avoid triggering their poor pathetic hurt feelings, but enemies who must be defeated or, failing that, contained. Conservatives are constantly complaining that liberals are patronizing, so let’s take them seriously as fellow human beings and hold them responsible for their actions by depriving them of power.

The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.

Their oppressive regimes and ours

When people are trying to justify a military intervention in another country, they often present it as a case of rescuing the people of that country from their own oppressive regime. In such cases, we learn that the rulers are extremists with no popular legitimacy, who are only clinging to power through force. Hence, in Dick Cheney’s infamous words, they are sure to “greet us as liberators.” There are always at least three or four countries actively being painted with this brush in the mainstream US media at any one time — Iran and North Korea are perennial favorites, and Venezuela is becoming increasingly popular — and even if direct military action is not contemplated, “supporting” the resistence or opposition is viewed as mandatory.

Now we Americans find ourselves in the unfortunate position of being ruled by an extremist regime with no popular legitimacy. Though it is not supported sheerly by force, it does rely on various institutional features that are either intrinsically rigged (the Electoral College, the Senate) or have been actively rigged (gerrymandered district boundaries). The leader of this regime has scapegoated minorities, delegitmated his electoral opponents, and encouraged his followers to engage in violence. In short, if the US were a non-Western country, the West would be shipping weapons to Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel right now.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that no one is calling — even jokingly — for other countries to invade the US and rescue us from Trump. And there’s a good reason for that: a foreign invasion is almost always the worst possible thing that can happen to your country. No matter how oppressive the regime is, open war is almost always worse, and no matter how much you hate the bastards, allowig yourself being ruled by foreigners who have absolutely no sense of obligation toward you is still hugely risky. I hate Trump as much as the next guy, but if Chinese battleships were landing on the coast of California, my first thought would not be, “Yes, this will absolutely, definitely be better than our current situation.”

It would be nice if the experience of Trump led liberal hawks to question their assumptions about the preferences of other countries. But I doubt that will happen, because rule #1 of American foreign policy is that no country is like the US and therefore empathy would be actively misleading — as the homeland of stable institutions that always reflect the popular will, we have nothing to learn through spurious comparisons with the unwashed masses of the world.

On the old saw, “Remember your enemies are human too”

The notion that political enemies are human, too, sharing our common human hopes and fears, triumphs and vulnerabilities, is often deployed in a way to downplay political division and enmity. In reality, though, the fact that our enemies are human, too, is what makes them morally accountable. If they were inhuman monsters who thrived on death and suffering, then we would expect nothing of them but sadism. The fact that they share our common humanity, that they have experienced love and pain and disappointment and satisfaction just like us, is what makes it so intolerable that they would, for instance, vote to take away people’s access to health care just because they said they would, with no plausible narrative for why such a thing is beneficial as public policy or even as an act of political expediency.

The fact that John McCain would get up off his deathbed to participate in this cruel farce does not make him a hero, it makes him a bad person. He had a perfectly valid excuse to skip the vote. Indeed, he had a perfectly valid excuse to resign his senate seat altogether and wash his hands of this mess. Those would both be understandable human actions. What he chose to do instead was completely gratuitous and cruel, which is comprehensible only as an attempt to bask in the media’s adoration one last time. That motivation is human, and that’s what makes it morally blameworthy. If he were a mystical creature who fed on the praise of journalists, then we could write it off as a survival instinct. Since he is a human being with human moral agency, we are entitled to our equally human moral judgment. And in my judgment, which is my right as a human being, John McCain is an evil man and anyone who is trying to use his unfortunate medical condition to distract from that fact is a fool at best and a fellow villain at worst.

Yes, our enemies are human. That’s what makes them enemies. That’s why their actions are unacceptable — because they are just like us. If we can make the morally right choice, so can they. And they have not.

Better Skills

As political slogans go, “Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” is in many respects… suboptimal. Yet I do think that it represents mainstream Democrats’ vision in an authentic way. They agree with the Republicans that all of life should be a ruthless competition, for all eternity. They agree that the individual should be responsible for every decision and outcome, as a matter of principle. The difference is that the Democrats want to set things up to slightly decrease the chances that you will irrevocably screw up, whereas the Republicans want to leave losers to die. Hence Democrats come up with a plan whereby people are forced to buy health insurance, while the Republicans openly muse about how maybe having a preexisting condition means that you are a bad person who deserves to die. On the job front, Democrats want to help people become more competitive on the job front, while Republicans think colleges should be burned to the ground.

What we’re dealing with here, fundamentally, is two different strategies for bringing the job market into equilibrium and restoring America’s global competitiveness. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of short-term advantage for particularly industrious individuals, but the end logic of their plan is to commodify those in-demand job skills, converting ever more occupations into disposable cheap labor. Democrats are opening up the possibility of economic survival to more people, but not really increasing the number of slots available. The Republican strategy, by contrast, appears to be to let the dying communities just die — not to drive up wages for those left behind, but apparently out of a sheer desire to make sure that the losers lose.

It’s as though the Democrats are Chigurh from No Country for Old Men: you’re most likely going to die, but you do have the option of a coin toss. The Republicans don’t offer the coin toss. Which one is better? The Democrats, obviously! But if you were someone in a dying community that had been starved for jobs for a generation, the kind of place where everyone leaves if they can, would you bother getting up in the morning to pull the lever for that option?

On “National X Days”: An ontological investigation

The era of social media has seen a remarkable proliferation of “National Days” dedicated to particular themes. Today, for instance, I learned from Twitter that it is #NationalFriedChickenDay. I enjoy fried chicken as much as the next guy, and so I understand, to some extent, the impulse to take some time out to focus our attention on its unique virtues. Yet why should precisely today be set aside for the purpose of reflection on fried chicken, not only for a chicken-loving individual but for the entire nation?

The designation of a “National Day” certainly indicates some level of official authorization. The clear implication is that we are not dealing with a merely local phenomenon like a hypothetical “Taco Tuesday,” observed only in a particular school cafeteria, with no expectation that anyone outside the immediate community should be expected to serve, or indeed even to think about, tacos on that or any other Thursday. In the case of “Taco Tuesday,” the source of the designation is clear: either the cafeteria staff or their superiors. Yet who has the power to declare the “National Days” known to social media? The President? Congress? Much as I would like to envision them plotting out a calendar of National Days rather than plotting to abandon the poor and sick to death, I doubt that there is a presidential declaration that today is National Fried Chicken Day. Is it some kind of industry trade group? Some guy at KFC?

What is interesting to me is how incurious we are about this question of authorization. We might ask about it, but it is always rhetorical and sarcastic. Though I am a prime candidate to do so given that I am wasting my time writing this post, even I am not going to waste my time searching for the source of National Fried Chicken Day. The very fact that it is trending on social media — especially in the form of a literal hashtag, as with #NationalChickenDay — is enough to make it “a thing,” or better, a meme.

Is it “really” National Fried Chicken Day? The question makes about as much sense as asking whether Kermit drinking tea is “really” a meme. Yes, it is as real as any meme is. This is not to say there are no limits. The series of foreboding images with the caption “I would like to add you to my professional network on Linkedin” (Killer Bob from Twin Peaks, etc.) that I posted a few weeks ago is not “really” a meme, because no one else joined in. Nor would it “really” be National Ontological Investigation Day if I simply declared it to be so. It would have to reach a critical mass, sufficient for the algorithm to pick up on it and create the self-reinforcing cycle of trending.

And so when we ask who decides it’s National Fried Chicken Day, there is a sense in which we all do, insofar as we entertain the idea once it is presented to us. There is a deeper sense in which no one decides, because the “decision” on whether a given National Day has reached critical mass to be distributed further is a function of the impersonal algorithm. Coming from another angle: presumably industry trade groups and fan clubs have declared such National Days from time immemorial, so to that extent there is probably someone out there with an investment in the topic who has declared the day. Yet who decided that such days should be taken seriously, that they should at the very least be presented as fodder for our cynical social media riffs? In other words, who decided that we should be fed a serving of meaningless bullshit every day? I don’t know exactly who, but they probably are determinate individuals with names and faces that are knowable. They decided that a good way to make money would be to get us talking about #NationalFriedChickenDay, and I bet they’re millionaires.