As you know I try to avoid overt politics, but sociology—how human societies are ordered and disordered—fascinates me. Today I bring another example.
It seems there is a group that is asking the United Nations to make what they call “cultural appropriation” illegal. A Dean of the University of Colorado Law School said that the UN should negotiate a legally binding document that would “obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale, and export of traditional cultural expressions”.
The utter nonsense of this idea just overwhelms me. My first reaction was one of dismay. I’m British, Irish, and German according to my DNA, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up Spaghetti Bolognese for Steak and Kidney Pie!
As I looked into it though, it got worse. Noodles were invented by the Chinese. Even if I had some Italian DNA I’d have to get permission from China to have my spaghetti. Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill would have to close their doors.
And speaking of China, if the owners of the Oriental House restaurant—the best Chinese buffet in the Fourstates—couldn’t serve Ozark hillbillies and Oklahoma cowboys, they would soon be broke.
So who gets the corn? Americans? Or Native Americans? At a minimum it would all have to stay here, but what would we do with it? How would Hispanics and other Latinos make tortillas? I guess we could negotiate an agreement and make it “consensual”. But it would have to be reciprocal or Taco Bell would be in trouble.
I suppose if it were determined that corn belongs to all Americans we could make moonshine. It goes down very smooth; it just doesn’t have quite the nutritional value of a tortilla.
Some of you will say I’m just being silly. This is not about food or commodities, it’s about cultural and intellectual property. Really? Again I ask: Who makes that decision?
I make my living working for an Indian Tribe. They are great people to work for, and I like being here. Because of my appreciation and respect for all of those in “Indian Country” as it is called, I have two watercolors hanging on my wall. Yes, they were painted by a Native American artist. I enjoy them immensely. One of them depicts a young Indian on a horse. He is wearing feathers, and holding his lance and shield. Very iconic.
But wait. The indigenous peoples of this continent did not have horses. Horses arrived with the Europeans. They were quickly appropriated by the native peoples, but they didn’t originate here. Did the artist ask permission to use that image? Maybe he tried, but who would he ask?
Who gets to lay claim to horses? Probably not even the Europeans. They got them from the Central Asian steppes, and the North African coast. My ancestors took those animals, and through the process of selective breeding created the breed we know today as the Thoroughbred.
Thoroughbreds came with the early settlers to America and mixed with other breeds to create more new breeds. The Morgan Horse is a totally American breed, and was used along with other breeds and cross-breeds to create the even more famous American breed, the Quarter Horse.
My point, of course, is that all of our various cultures have something that was “appropriated” from another culture. It how our species, homo sapiens, behaves. Businesses today even memorialize this appropriation. They call it “Best Practices”. Selecting the best of a culture and incorporating it into your own is how mankind has made it this far. After all, we Europeans turned Americans, wouldn’t be here today if our ancestors had not appropriated many of the ways of the native Americans who were here before us. There was a time when schools actually taught that fact. If not for a man from the Patuxet tribe named Squanto, we were told, the Pilgrims would have all died. We were taught to admire and respect him. I still do.
In the end, cultural appropriation is the best way to disseminate ideas and practices. I’d love to see more people appropriate the American concept of “Equal Justice Under the Law”. It’s a much better way than sending soldiers to foreign cultures to “Nation build”. If I can appropriate what I like, I can make it mine. If you come using force to make me make it mine, you’ll have a fight on your hands.