During the Halloween season, students all across the country were warned not to engage in “cultural appropriation.” That is, they should not dress like people from other cultures. A fraternity wanting to do an Ancient Egypt themed celebration was also chastised for “cultural appropriation” despite the fact that the Ancient Egyptian civilization has been dead for quite some time. Also, Ancient Egypt could be considered one of the great streams of Western civilization (due to their influence on the Greeks) so their culture is at least partly a contributor to our own.
As for the Egyptian students who complained, I have to wonder how many times a week they bring offerings to the great sun god Amun-Ra and who their current pharaoh is. Of course, they are most likely Muslims, a religion they surely appropriated from the Arabs.
Speaking of which, my uncle engaged in some cultural appropriation last week when he brought me some cactus fruit, a Mexican delicacy. I perpetuated this hostile assault against Hispanic culture by eating the cactus fruit. It was delicious. I further disrespected Mexican culture by going to a Mexican restaurant. Strangely, the Hispanic waiters didn’t seem offended by any of this.
I also appropriated Okinawan culture by learning Karate. The Okinawans shamelessly appropriated Karate from the Chinese martial art, kung-fu. The Chinese appropriated the Buddhist religion from East India.
Cultural appropriation has a long legacy. For example, the Roman Empire adopted the Celtic sword after several military engagements showed the initial superiority of Celtic fighting techniques. The Romans and Celts would go on to both conflict and collaborate to create one of the most vibrant streams of Western civilization. One wonders, if Rome had not culturally appropriated from the Greeks, Celts and even Egyptians would their own culture have been as rich? Without the gladius, the sword modeled after the Celtic blade, would they have united much of Europe beneath their rule?
Would the West be all the poorer without Rome? Without aqueducts and Latin poets, without their influence on law and government, where would we be? There are many other streams of Western civilization of course and, in many ways, it was Rome who brought them all together beneath a common authority. They were tyrannical, a quasi-fascist state, but they also encouraged trade and cultural exchange-what liberals now deride as “cultural appropriation.”
Liberals forget that Western civilization-indeed all civilizations-are collaborative. The Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Celts and Germans all contributed and each culture borrowed from others what they saw as lacking in their own. They learned from each other.
In the East, it was the same story. East India influenced Chinese civilization which in turn influenced Japanese and Korean civilization. Through trade, Hinduism spread from India throughout Southeast Asia. There are indigenous traditions of puppetry throughout the region that echo tales from the East Indian Mahabharata.
Surely, if the Romans were around today, they would receive complaints from “triggered” Celts offended by the “appropriation” of their sword. The Romans would have apologized and abandoned the use of the gladius. Perhaps, they would not have conquered the west. I could be exaggerating the effectiveness of the sword, but let’s imagine. The unique fusion of cultures we now simply call “the West” might never have been.
That’s the sad truth. Ultimately, cultural appropriation is part of the process of innovation and sometimes even the birth of a new culture from two old ones. It can be the vanguard against stagnation.