The Liberal Fantasy of Cultural Appropriation

Albert Einsein c. 1921 (Library of Congress)
Some academic leftists believe every culture has the exclusive right to its products.

Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, “cultural appropriation” stands alone. Since it’s spreading among American undergrads at a bubonic pace, it deserves a closer look.

According to Fordham law professor Susan Scafidi, cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Right here on NRO, Katherine Timpf has chronicled a smattering of recent appropriation crises: Westerners eating sushi, studying yoga, wearing toe rings. Professor Scafidi explains that appropriation is worst when “the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive” and religious in nature. Like yoga, which began as religious meditation, or toe rings, which — according to the online magazine Everyday Feminism — began as matrimonial accoutrements in the Orient.

Something else that has been appropriated from its religious origins: diatonic music — that is, virtually all modern music. The major and minor scales began as “church modes,” developed in the early churches of Europe. Church modes evolved from the Temple music of Jerusalem — along with harmony, whose first historical appearance appears to have been the antiphonal hymns sung by the two choirs of Levites who stood and sang opposite each other in the Jewish Temple.

Young non-Christian, non-Jewish leftists must renounce music.

Something else that dates back to the Jerusalem Temple: sandwiches. History’s first recorded sandwich was invented by the Jewish sage Hillel, who proposed celebrating Passover by eating the commemorative sacrifice of lamb sandwiched between two soft pieces of matzoh — which reminded Jews of the exodus — along with bitter herbs, to remind them of slavery.

Jews demand that non-Jews renounce sandwiches. Olive oil, too; it has deep liturgical significance in Judaism, and history’s oldest olive-oil samples and presses have been discovered in Israeli archaeological digs.

#share#Back on the Christian side: Perspective was discovered by the liturgical artists of Florence, where its development covers the walls of some of Italy’s greatest churches. Also invented in Italy’s churches and monasteries: the bulk of the architectural and engineering breakthroughs of the Renaissance. Not only did most great men of the Renaissance study in Christian academies, many — like Alberti, and the Fras Angelico and Filippo Lippi — were ordained. Europe’s monasteries were also responsible for the German friar who discovered genetics (Gregor Mendel) and the Belgian priest who conceived the Big Bang (Georges Lemaître).

Of course, it was a Christian — Newton — who discovered Newtonian physics, and a Jew — Einstein — who discovered relativistic physics.

Of course, it was a Christian — Newton — who discovered Newtonian physics, and a Jew — Einstein — who discovered relativistic physics. Jews and Christians invented the majority of modern medicine — antibiotics and vaccines — and the majority of advanced mathematics. The automobile was invented by the Jew Siegfried Marcus, and the airplane by the Christian Wright brothers — who were the sons of an Evangelical bishop.

Christians and Jews demand that young leftists renounce modern art, science, and transportation.

And the ancient Greeks want drama back, and democracy. A few young Peronistas think Japan wants sushi back. Perhaps Italy wants pasta and pizza back, Germany, hamburgers and frankfurters, and Denmark, danishes. Et cetera, et cetera.

#related#Every normal person understands that every one of us stands on the shoulders of giants. Newton, Einstein, Aristotle, the inventors of the danish, and so on. And, though the West gave the East computers and plastic, and the East gave the West gunpowder and silk, undergraduates have given us nothing. But that’s not their fault — they’re young and innocent. They know nothing. You can’t blame an undergraduate for panicking about cultural appropriation any more than you can blame a puppy for chewing up your baseball mitt. That’s why these kids are in school — to learn things.

The spineless, weaselly deans and presidents of America’s universities should try to remember that.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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