Appropriate Cultural Appropriations

Why is cultural appropriation a Bad Thing?

"Cultural appropriation" is one of the silliest taboos of our ongoing Culture War.  The other day, the Independent published an article saying that white women should never wear hoop earrings because they belong to black or Latin Culture.

We believe that nobody should wear hoop earrings because getting them caught on something could be pretty painful, but who are we to tell women what to wear?

This topic went over the top when an American girl posted a Facebook picture of herself with her prom date.  Some twit noticed that she was wearing a Chinese qipao or cheongsam and wrote a vehement tweet saying that she had no right to steal from Chinese culture.  The twitterverse went nuts.  Googling "American girl wears Chinese dress to prom" found 57 million hits!

The international flame war got so intense that a British journalist visited a Chinese neighborhood to find out what actual Chinese people thought.  He had a hard time getting anyone to understand what the fuss was about, but answers split neatly by gender.

The cheongsam was designed to flatter Chinese figures and most of the men had seen Westerners wearing cheongsam who shouldn't have.  They couldn't decide without seeing a picture.  Their consensus was that the dress was OK - based on her contours and not on her race.

Chinese women had a different view.  They giggled at the idea that anyone would tell a woman what she could or could not wear.  The Chinese have centuries of experience observing oddball behavior by non-Chinese barbarians, of what importance was one more example?  If we really must go there, how dare nonwhites appropriate greenbacks, which were invented by dead white males?

Bourgeois Battles

Some battles in our culture war are far more consequential.  In 2017, the Philadelphia Enquirer published an op-ed "Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture" by Amy Wax and Larry Alexander which began:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture.

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

That advice isn't new.  It amplifies the formula for the American Dream found in the Bible:

And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.  I Thessalonians 4:11-12

This passage is how the authors started their path to a flame war which was far more intense than the cheongsam war:

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period. ...  [emphasis added]

The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.

Then they really stepped in it:

All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy[emphasis added]

Ms. Wax is the tenured Robert Mundheim Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School..  Even though she was speaking of very few of the many customs which make up a culture, she'd have been fired absent tenure because of the racism, sexism, and other evils expressed in her op-ed.

The idea that any culture or even a custom could possibly be superior to any other is unthinkable.  Even though our liberals are slowly becoming aware of the evils of the custom of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), they seem unaware of the evils of sharia law - and even with FGM, the horror was fairly muted when an American judge correctly ruled the performance of FGM on one's minor children to be a practice which could be restricted only by state law and not federal law.

Similarly, for all their talk about the evils of poverty, liberals refuse to note that in 2017, only 6.8% of married black families were in poverty compared with 30.8% of unmarried black mothers in that year.  There is nothing about marriage that is related to race in any way; people of any race have an equal ability to choose whether to assume the obligations of marriage or not.  Why, then, do we not more strongly encourage marriage culture, when it is known to be effective in improving the lives of all races including those most behind, victimized, or oppressed?

Alas, liberals have decreed that anyone who implies that any aspect of culture or custom might have anything to do with happiness, prosperity, or societal well-being is a hate-filled cultural chauvinist who must be silenced by any means necessary.

Technology as Culture

Most academics who specialize in literature, history, or any of the soft sciences tend not to see technology as an important part of culture.  Their living quarters bristle with electric appliances and are usually heated by oil or gas furnaces without their having to think much about it.  They drive to work on paved roads and use computers, the Internet, and smart phones without pondering the high degree of technical skill needed to keep these modern miracles working.

It's not possible for any nation to become wealthy without large cities - the concentration of people of different skills makes commerce and wealth creation possible.  Amazon plans to put part of its new headquarters in New York City specifically to take advantage of its intellectual infrastructure.  Infectious diseases make city living extremely hazardous in the absence of modern sanitation, an unfortunate aspect of crowding that has been true for thousands of years.  The Guardian reports on a Swedish woman who died of plague 5,000 years ago:

"This is the earliest strain of the plague that we know about, and it probably played a big role in the decline of the population," said Simon Rasmussen at the University of Copenhagen. "You suddenly have this big outbreak and a lot of people are going to die." ...

Rasmussen believes the plague may originally have emerged as a human disease in the unprecedented mega-settlements that started to be built about 6,000 years ago in what are now Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. The settlements were home to tens of thousands. But with so many people living in dreadful sanitary conditions and in close contact with animals, the sites were perfect breeding grounds for bugs. "This is the classic, textbook example of what is needed for new pathogens to develop," he said.  [emphasis added]

Ancient empires such as Rome had to draw country folk into the city to replace people who died.  In the late 17th century, John Graunt, one of the earliest demographers, noted that London needed about 6,000 incoming migrants per year to make up for all the people who had died.

When most people die young, it's not possible or cost-effective to invest in mass education - much of the investment is wasted when the young die before they're able to do anything useful with it.  Only the wealthy could educate their children well enough to make technical progress by building on what had gone before.  It was also a more worthwhile investment for them, since they had the other resources available to improve their offspring's chances of making it through childhood alive.

Getting clean water into a city and taking dirty water out is one of the foundational technologies of any urban civilization because its absence is such a monumental cause of disease and death from infection.  In 1857, no US city had a sanitary sewer system; by 1900, 80% of urban Americans were served by one.  Even so, urban lifespans were 10 years shorter than in rural areas in the early 1900s.

Economists David Cutler and Grant Miller found that improved access to filtered, chlorinated water alone accounted for nearly half the decline in mortality experienced in American cities between 1900 and 1936.  Other measures such as pasteurization of milk and limiting apartment crowding also helped.

In all such cases, technical progress led to cultural change as people became habituated to increased cleanliness.  People who lived longer were more productive and better able to gain the knowledge required to improve their societies.  As life expectancies increased, it became more worthwhile to invest in educating the young who were increasingly likely to live long enough to use it and return the investment.  The average educational level of the modern society grew by leaps and bounds which kept increasing the technological abilities of the society as a whole.  This virtuous cycle of incorporating cleanliness into education-driven technical progress has led to our high-tech civilization.

Technology has made our lives a great deal more comfortable and given us access to incredible amounts of goods, education, and entertainment, but there is a hidden cost: our society needs armies of dedicated, highly skilled blue-collar laborers to keep it going.

Our transportation system uses automobiles, aircraft, subways and other forms of mass transit.  First-world agriculture is based on fossil-derived fertilizers and diesel-powered farm equipment which feeds vast quantities of food into the transportation system.  Cell phones need the fiber optic web of cables and a vast number of cell phone towers.  Skyscrapers need elevators and are built in cities which need water purification systems to supply fresh water and sewer systems to handle used water.

What happens when someone flushes a toilet at the top of a 100-story skyscraper?  How do building engineers keep water and solid waste falling from that height from rupturing pipes at the bottom?

Maintaining all this requires a high level of education, dedication, and competence which isn't always available even in the United States.  Despite more than a century's accumulated experience with chemistry and other technologies needed to supply clean water, children have suffered from lead poisoning due to incompetent water supply management in cities such as New York City, Newark, and most famously in Flint, MI., to name a few examples.

Lead poisoning is subtle; some technical issues are more spectacular. On September 13, 2018, excess pressure in natural gas lines owned by Columbia Gas caused explosions and fires in as many as 40 homes in the Massachusetts towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.  Although the surviving homes have electricity, they don't have heat, stoves, or hot water because the appliances and gas mains have to be replaced.  Politicians are screaming that the utility has to pay, but what local utility has the assets to cover replacing all the pipes in half of three towns in a few months?  In the end, ordinary people will pay for it all, as they always do.

Infections Coming Back; Life Span Dropping

What Ms. Wax would call "bourgeois customs" such as discouraging rats and other vermin by not littering, not urinating or defecating in the streets, brushing teeth, and other basic sanitation customs are now less respected than at the turn of the century.  Infectious diseases which had been eliminated in the US are coming back, partly due to disagreement about who should be permitted to move into the United States.

Culture has consequences.  Our earlier education system trained the armies of tech workers who maintain our infrastructure, but that sort of knowledge-based education is going out of style in favor of building self-esteem via social engineering.

On the family front, our culture war has led to the birth of many fatherless children.  Fatherless mobs burned down Detroit and shoot each other in Chicago, but talking about it is a far worse offense than an American wearing a cheongsam.  After a bloody Chicago weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that although Mayor Rahm Emanuel understood the problem and described it well, his statements were not acceptable to his fellow liberals.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was accused Wednesday of victim shaming for citing an absence of values and character in the African-American community after the weekend bloodbath in which 71 people were shot, 12 of them fatally.

Shari Runner, until recently the president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, said the mayor's blame game is offensive and insensitive.

What does Ms. Runner expect the mayor to blame?  The guns?  The people who use them?  Straw purchasers who legally buy guns and illegally turn them over to gang members?  Public schools which failed to teach them how to tell right from wrong?  Guns are already illegal in Chicago.  Harsher gun bans aren't likely to accomplish much; the problem lies elsewhere.  Ms. Runner may be offended when the mayor calls her constituents criminals, but isn't she offended when her constituents shoot each other?  Isn't that a criminal act?

Has our culture war become so fraught that we can't even discuss family pathologies?  Murdered young men and those who die through opioid abuse represent a serious net drain on society rather than a positive.  Professor Wax and Mayor Emanuel were correct in pointing out that the Chicago guns-and-drugs culture doesn't prepare young people particularly well for success in our knowledge-driven high-tech society.

Having so many die early has brought down the average American life span for the second year in a row.  Our culture war has real casualties - people die when we get it wrong.

As is our custom, we look to history for examples of earlier culture wars so we can see how they played out.  So in the next article in this series, we'll jump back two centuries, and contemplate the culture war over how the Indian education system should be organized during the British Empire period.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Great start. Looking forward to more editions. I believe Ms. Wax should be seen as one of the stalwarts of contemporary American culture. She stated the obvious....parents, education,marriage, children... but got pilloried for it. She was doing a scientific study...measuring real life results....but got smacked by the social justice warriors. They aren’t interested in facts, just selling their agenda.
I guess the soft under belly of the current urban family is the lousy education system in major urban areas. Dedication to educrats compensation is not the same thing as educating young folks. Many seem to leave school feral...with their next stop the penal or rehab system. Hope that is covered in future editions.

December 20, 2018 9:39 PM

I am so sorry to hear that another University has axed a professor of great value. I dearly hope that Ms. Wax has better fortune in the future.

December 23, 2018 10:26 AM
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