If Madonna were a standard white person, her appearance at the August 2018 MTV Video Music Awards—at which she delivered a rambling, self-referential soliloquy about the influences she’d absorbed from Aretha Franklin while costumed in an alarming getup that might, in Hollywood parlance, be described as “Bride of Frankenstein Meets Ancient Egyptian Concubine”—would have brought the leftist brownshirts snarling like rabid coons into the streets and onto the Sunday talk shows. But no, in the afterglow of her pledge to blow up the White House after Donald Trump’s election, she still had a few shreds of street cred. On the other hand, the white Anglo-Saxon teen who innocently chose a high-necked, form-fitting Chinese dress known as a cheongsam—popularized by upper-crust Chinese socialites in the 1930’s—to wear to her high-school prom in Woods Cross, Utah, in the spring of last year, was forced to endure a blizzard of abuse from leftists claiming to be appalled at her racial and cultural insensitivity. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” and “colonial ideology” fogged social-networking sites, but the lovely Keziah Daum stood her ground and pointed out that she bought the dress in a vintage clothing shop because of its beauty and style. Yet the hullabaloo over Miss Daum’s choice of gown is useful for what it demonstrates about the left’s determination, in its increasingly strident authoritarianism, to intrude into the personal choices of the tens of millions of everyday Americans routinely demeaned by such stalwarts of cultural probity as Kamala Harris, Alyssa Milano, and the kangaroo court of unruly, badly dressed leftist floozies on The View.
Demonstrating his skewed philosophy of economics during his re-election campaign in 2012, Barack Obama sneered that “if you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” To Obama and his sycophants, the aspirations of average Americans—the rubes he denounced during his first campaign as “clinging to their guns and religion”—have no relevance or value. This is the cavalier attitude progressives have more recently adopted to suggest that, if you open a Mexican restaurant and your name is Wilson rather than Hernandez, you had no business at all building that business. Not only that but, in the opinion of shrewish CNN commentator Ana Navarro, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, a Nordic blonde of Danish-Italian ancestry, had no business dining in one.
Today’s block-wardens, overwhelmingly elitist whites, want everyone to know that only people of a certain culture are allowed to “own” or even understand that culture, and that anything else is cultural intrusion or, in the latest terminology, “cultural appropriation.” It is sometimes thought that culture becomes history for keeps but, with news cycles and the endless white noise of Twitter churning at an ever-faster rate, the state of culture today is a blur. The pink pussyhats of the 2017 Women’s March to protest the Trump election, then considered so provocatively heroic, have already been derided by the left as “the Confederate Flag of white feminists” (Medium) and also “transphobic” (NBC News), one of the newer faculty-lounge words that prudish leftist pedants, in their fury to win absurd reality-free arguments, have stuffed into the lexicon as they continue to maul and distort the English language.
The Keziah Daum incident—which the left no doubt regarded as a flagrant violation of the new Handmaid’s Tale wardrobe edict—was merely one of a series of outlandish cultural spats that have pitted leftists against not simply average Americans, but even the likes of Katy Perry, caught dressed as a geisha at the 2013 American Music Awards—or Zac Efron, his hair in cornrows last summer “for fun.”
Harmless white college students dressing as Mexican banditos for Halloween parties and girls costumed as Polynesian princesses have been denounced as racists. A lineup of leftist enforcers, true to their doctrinaire authoritarianism, have proclaimed that white girls should not practice yoga, have their eyebrows thickened, or wear hoop earrings, lest any descendants of the Maharaja of Jaipur or the bruthas of Black Lives Matter be offended. When Vogue ran a photo of Kendall Jenner with teased, almost Afro-style hair, the unquiet souls of social-justice warriors fired off their predictable charges, braying witlessly about racism. Their aim is to turn culture into a regular prison mess-hall riot of accusation and public shaming, with punishment and disgrace for everyone. To them well-meaning enthusiasm is irrelevant—it just won’t do to “trespass on someone else’s culture.” In the old days, one saw signs that read “no Irish need apply”; today, it’s come to “in black culture, no whites need apply; in Latino culture, no Anglos need apply,” and so on.
Some months ago, The Nation published a poem in which a white writer made use of black vernacular English, and the psychotic uproar that ensued prompted the magazine to issue a lame and pointless admission that they had “made a serious mistake.” In point of fact the poem was fourth-rate drivel, but the magazine’s nitpicking critical angst—one writer stressed how important it was to “know your lane”—hinged upon the unpardonable sin of a white poet’s use of black slang, not the pedestrian silliness of the verse itself.
It has always been considered normal to feel pride in one’s culture, but honest curiosity about, and even expertise in, cultures other than one’s own is now under attack. In 19th-century French literary circles, a fascination with exoticism and with the cultures of the Middle East and Orient emerged and continued into the 20th century, with such prominent writers as Gustave Flaubert, Pierre Loti, and later, André Gide and others writing evocative books about Egypt, Turkey, Polynesia, India, and West and Central Africa. Relatively more recently, however, when the erudition of Bernard Lewis, the great British historian of Islam long resident at Princeton University, was denounced some years back by the Palestinian apologist and faux scholar Edward Said, Lewis forthrightly answered that “if westerners cannot legitimately study the history of Africa or the Middle East, then only fish can study marine biology.”
Here in America around 1924, the white American jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke began to star as a soloist on such tunes as “Singin’ the Blues” and “I’m Coming Virginia” with the all-white Frankie Trumbauer, Jean Goldkette, and Paul Whiteman orchestras, and there was astonishment in the jazz world that the 21-year-old, who barely read music, had become so accomplished in this black art form at such a young age. Beiderbecke, a terrible alcoholic, drank himself to death by age 28, but his legacy as an early trumpet star has long been secure. Yet, according to current leftist theory, he should never have become involved in a culture not his own, let alone as a star soloist, and there are academics and even black musicians who have long belittled the efforts of such outstanding white jazz soloists as Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Marian McPartland, and Stan Getz as the opportunism of inferior copycats. These critics suggest that whites should not be playing black music because there is no way they can “understand” it and are somehow stealing it. Johnny Otis, a Greek-American jazz drummer who after World War II became a leading pioneer of the genre of black music formally defined by the record industry after 1949 as “rhythm and blues,” personally promoted the early careers of Little Richard, Etta James, Jackie Wilson, and other black singers who became world-famous. Yet, by the current segregationist logic of the left, he should have been banned from this genre of music altogether. Otis (né Veliotes) became so intimately involved in black culture that he opened a Los Angeles blues club, The Barrelhouse, married a black woman, hosted a blues show on KFOX-Radio in Los Angeles, produced tours by black musicians until late in his life, and personally “lived black” in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Today, leftist malcontents might well denounce his life as flagrant cultural appropriation, just as Al Sharpton has denounced whites and Asians moving into Central and West Harlem as “interlopers.” If not for their lionization of Latinos as eternal victims, the more extreme culture warriors might well find fault with the surge of Latinos into baseball, a sport invented by whites in the 1830’s.
So what’s going on? Honkies playing black music? Venezuelan and Dominican immigrants turning the double play at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field? White chicks serving up Mexican vittles and slinking around in Chinese duds? Lawsy, lawsy, lawsy, what is the world coming to? More to the point, what became of the left’s alleged high-minded support for honest dissent and the embrace of “alternative” cultures and lifestyles? What’s gone wrong?
The short answer is that the left, its inbred authoritarianism evolving into totalitarianism, has weaponized identity politics and is determined to destroy anything it can’t control. It is now focused on a revision of entire areas of American culture, from political to social to artistic to legal. If leftists have long been misguided, underhanded, and doctrinaire, the new and improved progressive incarnation is far worse—vicious, abusive, paranoid, and off the leash, with few ideas other than to impose a regimented, totalitarian culture on society and no true enthusiasm for anything other than character assassination, legalization of marijuana, transgender rights, character attacks on heterosexual white males, the transformation of comedy into attack lines against perceived opponents, and attempts to destroy the Electoral College, the Senate, and the constitutionally guaranteed right to presumption of innocence until proven guilty—only part of what Obama called the “radical transformation of America.” Now, wild with spite, leftists are attacking anyone and anything they dislike, distrust, or claim to fear. Hunter S. Thompson’s evocative description from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—“firing wildly into the cactus from a car full of drugs”—comes to mind, and not in a good way. The left’s bygone self-proclaimed principles were always arguable and suspect, and today those principles have gone up in smoke, leaving only the determination to seize power by any means: backstabbing, intrigue, treachery, preposterous conspiracy theories, election fraud, cultural perversion, and the undermining of the U.S. Constitution.
The cultural world of today’s progressives is an hermetically sealed fool’s paradise of perpetual indignation, rage, and madness, a politically correct group-think project in which common sense is outlawed, no countervailing arguments are tolerated, compliments are seen as patronizing, and any aspiration to traditional quality or excellence is viewed as suspicious and unacceptable. The idea that qualifications are important is seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, or intersectionally all of the above, and any pride of accomplishment in one’s own culture and history is ridiculed as triumphalist and evil. To historical illiterates such as these leftists, the denunciation of one’s own culture, civilization, background, and race is a mark of virtue, a badge of wisdom and moral sophistication.
More recently, however, the left has introduced a new wrinkle—adopting and exalting aspects of other cultures as significant and even noble, using them to claim moral superiority while disparaging others as insensitive and inauthentic. Thus the rush to defend Muslims after the September 11 attacks—“they invented algebra!”—and such whimsies as Denmark’s Hug-a-Jihadi program to encourage Muslim inclusion. Other examples include the overweening enthusiasm for transgender bathrooms or assertions that support for illegal immigration, open borders, and sanctuary cities is evidence of grand humanitarianism. The stampede to assume all manner of peculiarly biased cultural stances has often been turned on its head, as in the suggestion by some noisy black activists that David Dinkins, the ineffectual first black mayor of New York City, was, although gracious and dignified, somehow inauthentic because of his impeccable diction, vocabulary, and grammar and, although for years a familiar figure in New York politics, suddenly attempting to “act white.” The same charge has been leveled against Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, and prominent black conservatives of impressive professional credentials.
Senator Elizabeth Warren stands by her claim that she is of Native American ancestry, although her 1/1024th possession of Cherokee blood is ridiculed by the Cherokee Nation’s own spokesmen. Perhaps she based her latest initiative on the four easy steps from the new edition of How to Claim Native American and Samoan Ancestry: First, claim Cherokee ancestry; second, buy colorful Cherokee outfit on Amazon; third, begin ingratiating correspondence with current chief; and fourth, assume a hip new name. Voila! Cultural appropriation, progressive-style. Likewise, Texas über-candidate Robert Francis O’Rourke goes by “Beto,” a Latino nickname for “Roberto.”
The left’s crazed rampage through America’s institutions has, since the 1960’s, now reached the level of full-scale attacks on the most basic principles of such long-established traditions as freedom of speech or the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. We may have thought we knew the left back then, but perhaps it wasn’t possible to imagine the bizarre extremes to which today’s progressives, fired up by hatred and ready to boogie, are determined to go to delegitimize the Judeo-Christian tradition and destroy the nuclear family. Michelle Obama’s much-touted, self-congratulatory exhortation of “when they go low, we go high” seems peculiarly comical today, coming from a woman who once proclaimed that she had never been proud of America until her husband’s run for president. Indeed, the left has rarely “gone high” in modern history. Today, their ingrown pathologies have been politicized to destroy ages-old definitions of sex, file lawsuits to deprive nuns of their rights, scavenge body parts from fetuses, equate the often-frivolous banter of male-female courtship to sexual assault, and romanticize murderous machete-wielding gangs and other foreign-born miscreants as innocent “undocumented immigrants”—all part of their postmodern virtual virtue of “going high.”
Given their ignorance of historical reality and weakness for pseudo-events and sight gags dressed up as “culture,” it should come as no surprise that the cultural acuity of today’s progressives is not up to the standards of Mark Twain, Nöel Coward, or even Oscar Levant. When such long-established gestures such as the “V” for victory are now condemned by antagonistic progressives as coded “dog-whistles,” master songwriter Frank Loesser’s playful 1944 male-female duet feature “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is branded an ode to date-rape, and anchor Megyn Kelly is booted from NBC for her ill-considered comments about blackface, it is clear that open season has been declared on everything and everyone. As for Madonna, her vivid imagination for transgressive dress may be forgiven for a while longer, but her proverbial goose may be cooked if she makes one more appearance at an awards ceremony that is deemed “mondo bizarro”—no cultural appropriation intended.