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Canada’s Cultural-Appropriation Tempest, Five Years Later

· 9 min read
Canada’s Cultural-Appropriation Tempest, Five Years Later
Public art featured at the Cultural Centre of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation (also known as Kwänlin Dän kwächʼǟn, which translates to “Whitehorse People″), whose traditional lands are located in and around the city of Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada. 

A few weeks ago, I was approached by Indigenous journalist Robert Jago, who was looking to do a podcast episode about cultural appropriation—with a focus on Sasquatch as his main case study. He asked me for an interview, and sent me a list of questions, some pertaining to my (glancing) involvement in the Canadian media tempest surrounding cultural appropriation in early 2017.

(By way of background: I came out as a cultural universalist in a May 12th, 2017 newspaper column—a viewpoint that proved to be very much at variance with the prevailing posture among my progressive colleagues at the magazine I then edited. When I joined Quillette later in 2017, I remained interested in the topic.)

The issue remains a point of fixation within the field of Canadian arts and letters, and so I told Jago that I was reluctant to simply sit in front of a microphone and shoot from the hip. While I might thereby offer a few interesting quips, I told him, I was more likely to say something that (at least in decontextualized form) would simply rekindle all the old animosities that surrounded this subject five years back. So instead we agreed that I’d send Jago some thoughts in written form and, on that basis, he’d decide if I had anything specific to say that was worth including.

I’d intended to jot down a few brief speaking points. But, as anyone who knows me at all might have predicted, I ended up emailing Jago a somewhat lengthy manifesto, which follows in (lightly) edited form. Jago’s podcast episode has now been published, with some of my thoughts included in it. And I invite Quillette readers to listen and decide for themselves where the truth on this issue lies.

“Cultural appropriation” typically gets defined in a way that depends on whether one is defending it or denouncing it. If you’re defending it, you prefer to look at the big picture: Every new kind of art form, literary genre, style of dress, or cuisine typically represents a mix of inherited and borrowed elements. Shakespeare’s sonnets were written in an Iambic pentameter that Chaucer had “appropriated” from the French and Italians. So if Indigenous or African poets want to appropriate it from the English, no one has any basis for complaint. If you define cultural appropriation in this big-picture way, the concept isn’t just permissible. It’s artistically necessary, and indeed inevitable.

But if you’re denouncing cultural appropriation, on the other hand, the argument is more persuasive when your frame of reference is small, local, and community-rooted. I’m thinking of the (white) novelist or film director who passes through a region, and hears some garbled version of folklore that relates to a nearby Indigenous community. The guy thinks, “Oh wow, that’ll make a great novel” (or TV show, movie, etc.), and then makes a mint without consulting (let alone cashing in) the Indigenous community.

So the debate over cultural appropriation is like a lot of debates: It’s really easy to win if you get to define the terms. And since both sides pick definitions that suit them, it can become a dialogue of the deaf.

Indeed, there’s often no dialogue at all. Rather, both sides are apt to retreat into apocalyptic language about, respectively, (a) totalitarian censorship, and (b) white supremacist (cultural) genocide. This is absolutist language that leaves no room for nuance or discussion.

The cultural-universalism side of this dialogue is represented by people like me. I write about every topic under the sun, and so I get my back up when someone tells me that I’ve got to “stay in my lane.” My whole career is built around hopscotching from one idea to the next without worrying (much) about who gets offended. For me, the imposition of rules on what people are allowed to write about isn’t just an annoyance. It’s an existential threat to the creative faculties.

But if you’re on the other end of this—say, you’re a member of a small Indigenous community whose history and folklore have yet to be recorded or celebrated in any definitive form—you don’t care about some white guy in Toronto whining about how he can’t do the equivalent of wearing a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo. A small First Nations community might get only one real shot at telling its story to the world. If that shot gets used up by an outsider who strip-mines the locals’ oral history for a bestseller, that can no doubt feel like existential threat to one’s cultural autonomy. It’s like: “So you took our land, punished us for using our own language, sent our kids to residential schools, and now all we really have left is our culture, and you want to steal that, too?”

There’s this trite expression that often gets trotted out these days: Intent doesn’t matter, only the harm you cause. But of course, intent does matter. And if an author, director, or artist intends to respectfully and accurately include a community’s story in his or her work, then, for me, that’s very much a mark in their favour. That said, I absolutely do not think that this means there is an obligation to “honour” or “uplift” the community in question—let alone express “solidarity” or “allyship” with them. Doing so means you’re writing activist propaganda. What I mean, rather, is that you shouldn’t be intending to mock or belittle whole swathes of humanity.

The problem is that, in Canadian cultural circles at least, this isn’t really the standard that’s applied. I’ve spoken to a number of Canadian writers who, out of the best of intentions, invest their own funds in “sensitivity readers”—a process that can be not only expensive and time-consuming, but also creatively ruinous, since these consultants often are bursting with ideas about how to turn your novel or movie into a specimen of the above-referenced activist propaganda. I know one woman, in particular—a novelist—who appeared before a First Nations tribal council, and got its official permission to include a character in her book whose identity related to their community. But then a community member, someone not even involved with the band leadership, went after the woman and tried to smear her as racist. This is after she’d dotted every I and crossed every T of the sensitivity-reader process.

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a (shockingly good) Tablet article about the old Jewish community in Harbin, China. And I happened to be reading it around the same time I was writing down all of these thoughts about cultural appropriation. It made me realize that my views on this subject can’t really be separated from my own Jewish heritage.

My father’s family lived in Harbin, part of the Jewish émigré community in that city that helped build the trans-Siberian railroad for the Russians. (My paternal grandfather’s first wife, who died giving birth to my father’s Russian-Mexican half-sister, was apparently the daughter of Harbin’s rabbi.) While my dad’s family got out of Harbin safely, many of the other Jewish Harbin residents were slaughtered by (in chronological order) White Russians during the Russian Civil War, Japanese invaders during the 1930s, and Communist Chinese troops in the 1940s. But the current Chinese administrators in Harbin know how to make a buck, and so they’ve turned much of Harbin into a sort of Jewish theme park.

Except that, as Tablet writer Dara Horn explains, all of the exhibits are kitsch, the depiction of Jewish culture is shallow and falsified, and there’s no mention of all the slaughter that took place. It’s really one of the purest examples of “appropriation” I’ve ever heard of. And yet, when I read Horn’s article, I wasn’t really offended at all. Indeed, I thought that what the modern Chinese hucksters are doing in Harbin is actually quite hilarious.

And the reason for my insouciant reaction seems quite simple to me: We Jews have lots of opportunities to tell our own story, in movies, books, journalism, you name it. So what if the Chinese are selling a dishonest, commodified schlock version of Harbin’s Jewish history? It’s not like the real truth isn’t out there—in Horn’s article and a dozen other places. (One book I can recommend, for instance, is Herman Dicker’s Wanderers and Settlers in the Far East: A Century of Jewish life in China and Japan.)

And that gets us to the unspoken rule that seems to govern what counts as forbidden “appropriation” and what doesn’t. Communities that have lots of chances to tell their stories, educate people about their culture, get the real version of their histories into the books—they’re not going to be particularly concerned with the issue. If someone makes a remake of Fiddler on the Roof with an all-gentile cast, who cares? It might be pretty good—and, if not, there are plenty of other versions out there. On the other hand, I know that I absolutely wouldn’t be this flip about the issue if I were part of a small Indigenous community that had never had its Fiddler, nor its Diary of Anne Frank, Exodus, Herzog, let alone the Bible, Talmud, and all the rest.

Since the whole cultural-appropriation issue blew up, in fact, it’s made me think about how much of my attitude regarding the issue is tied up with my Jewishness (lapsed soul that I may be). Since the Babylonian exile, Jewish culture has been portable—contained in books—because we’d been thrown out of Judea and Samaria, and disconnected from the rites of temple. Jewish culture became an appropriated mishmash of every place we went—every refuge, every exile, every shtetl. Everyone knows that Yiddish is a stew of German and Hebrew (with some Aramaic). But our centuries of wanderings have produced numerous other mash-up languages like this—including Ladino, a kind of Spanish Hebrew that, though now obscure, was once an important language of commerce for generations of Mediterranean traders. Did the Spanish appropriate Hebrew or did we appropriate Spanish? If a time machine allowed me to go back and ask a 16th-century merchant this question, he’d think the inquiry was either pointless or entirely unintelligible.

Everything I am describing here—all the promiscuous acts of appropriation and “rootless cosmopolitanism” (to appropriate a phrase from antisemites)—is the very opposite of the idealized conception of indigeneity, especially as that ideal has become venerated in the world of (white) Canadian arts and letters. That ideal guides us to imagine Indigenous people ahistorically—as pacifistic children of the forest, timelessly rooted to a particular patch of land, transmitting their authentic Lorax-like wisdom from one generation to the next, until such time as their unchanging Eden was desecrated by European steel and fire. Seen through this idealized prism—which is now promoted endlessly in treacly Canadian media commentaries—the idea of appropriation really does seem like something predatory and quasi-criminal.

When I look back at what happened in 2017, I don’t find the demands from Indigenous cultural figures unreasonable. They were simply articulating their concerns (such as I’ve tried to describe them above, to the best of my ability as an outsider to their communities). What I found more unsettling was the complete surrender to this viewpoint among Canada’s traditional wasp intelligentsia, which pretty much sank to its collective knees in a great spasm of cultural surrender. It was this reaction that fed into my pre-existing sense of alienation within the old-stock world of privileged Group-of-Seven-collecting white people who still run things in Canada’s arts and literary spheres. During my brief stint as editor of a bien-pensant magazine, I always felt myself an outsider to that world (though I should say that I was treated generously, financially and otherwise, and given more or less complete freedom to express my dissident views). And our very different reactions to the cultural-appropriation controversy helped confirm my impression that the gulf between our two worldviews was insurmountable.

The fact is that Canada’s white literary and artistic eminences generally seem quite bored with their own stories—which is to say, their own propaganda about how their ancestors built up Canada with a cross-country railway, bilingualism, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and all that other schoolbook stuff that causes my eyelids to droop just from describing it in point form. And so when another group of Canadians with a new and more morally urgent-seeming message started setting down instructions about what stories Canadians were allowed to tell, and who was allowed to tell them, the established grandees quickly complied. My refusal to help them wave the white flag on this issue wasn’t the only reason I left Canadian journalism for Quillette. But it definitely helped make my decision easier.

I still have plenty of stories to tell, and to help others tell. And so do millions of other non-Indigenous Canadians who, like me, are from immigrant families and communities that aren’t yet bored of their own stories. Ultimately, the bounds of cultural appropriation are something that will have to be negotiated with us at the table, too, alongside the Indigenous writers and artists who properly began this conversation in the first place.

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