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Op-ed: Novelist Trolls Crowd At Writers Festival With ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Uproar Ensues

September 16, 2016

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There’s a saying used when discussing culture wars about “the pendulum swinging back the other way.” What it means is that once the actions of one side become so outrageous that they can no longer be ignored, the opposing side will respond in kind to send the pendulum back towards the middle.

That appears to be happening now in the ongoing battle over political correctness.

The latest blow was struck by American novelist Lionel Shriver during the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia.

As reported in the New York Times, “Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.”

Shriver’s address – which event organizers billed as a speech on “community and belonging” – focused mainly on accusations of appropriation against fellow novelists.

She cited complaints against “Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book “Little Bee.” And herself for “using in “The Mandibles” the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband.”

Shriver also stood fast in defending her right to use characters of whatever minority group she so chose.

“Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said.

And perhaps it’s that line of reasoning that should stand out the most.

There has been an ongoing push on college campuses and in other progressive environments to bring diversity to the forefront of our ‘national conversation’ as they say about such things.

But all too often – as you can see from the headlines listed below — it seems that conversation has focused on what we are apparently, and quite explicitly are forbidden to do in the name of diversity.

We’re Not A Costume“: What This Native American Woman Wants You To Know

Freshers: is your fancy dress costume racist?

Lena Dunham Says the Oberlin College Food Court Serving Sushi and Banh Mi Is Cultural Appropriation

College Diversity Training Comes Too Late

Bowdoin College Students Punished for Wearing Sombreros Raises Questions of How We Talk About Intolerance

College Students: Doing Tequila Shots on Cinco de Mayo Is Cultural Appropriation

Anyway you get the point. It seems as if the new diversity in progressive America means stay in your lane, keep your head and eyeballs focused straight ahead, and exit the ride eight decades later when a nurse removes you from life support and calls an orderly to wheel your carcass down to the morgue.

And that’s unfortunate because the “this is my culture and I’ll cry if I want to” mentality is doing more to divide than to unite.

Typically this is where I would launch into a lengthy diatribe about free speech and academic freedom, etc. And all of that stuff is great and very important, but when it comes to the war on ‘cultural appropriation’ what’s really at stake is our national identity.

In middle school and high school social studies classes students are taught that the United States is a melting pot, or as my teacher Mr. White (which by the way is a perfect coincidence for an Op/Ed on cultural appropriation) would call it ‘a salad bowl.’

He called it a salad bowl because a melting pot would entail the full surrender of one’s own cultural identity to the greater American sauce, while a salad bowl would allow cultures to mix with each other while still maintaining the characteristics that made them unique.

What the regressive left seems to be pushing is some sort of pseudo-segregation under the guise of diversity. Each culture retains its own characteristics while being forced to acknowledge and accept the quirks and idiosyncrasies of other cultures all whilst being expressly forbidden to enjoy their most palatable features.

It’s here where I feel compelled to step in. You see I’m an Italian American, and it would not be outrageous to say that my culture is among the most appropriated in the entire country. Turn on the TV during an NFL Sunday and you will be inundated with ads for fast food pizza chains like Papa John’s – hardly authentic Italian – of course for a 90’s kid childhood Saturdays revolved around Mario and Luigi if you were a Nintendo house, and a crime fighting band of turtles with Italian names no matter what your preferred gaming system. There’s also The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, Donnie Brasco, and countless other TV shows and movies that highlight my culture’s darker side, and we can’t get enough of them.

I’ll take a leap and argue that among other things, the seeping of Italian culture into the greater American diaspora is part of what helped my grandparents and great grandparents go from lower class immigrants to middle class Americans.

That’s right! In the process of having their culture appropriated Italians were able to grab a piece of the American dream.

The same goes for the Irish, Germans, and Jews – groups that came to America during a massive wave of immigration 100 to 150 years ago, and rubbed elbows with each other on the streets of major American cities. (Here I am writing this article mere blocks away from where it all happened on New York’s Lower East Side). They also received a rather cold reception from the ‘true blue Americans’ who had gotten here only a few years earlier.

While that wave of immigrants came mostly from Europe, the latest wave comes from places like Asia and South and Central America. They come from places with incredibly rich cultures and heritages that we can all enjoy and learn from.

The mildly unfortunate fact is that in addition to being the land of opportunity, and a land of diversity, America is also a land of McDonalds and Disney World. It is inherently American to McDonalds the hell out of everything. So while my knee jerk reaction to a Papa John’s ad might be “get the hell out of here, that’s not pizza, don’t you dare do that to my favorite food” – my rational brain tells me that as long as there is America there will be Papa John’s or some other pizza chain to rise up in its place. That a side effect of living in America is that some people will eat a poorly constructed pie made of sub-par ingredients and think to themselves “boy do I love Italian food.”

And that’s fine. I accept it the same way my Irish friends accept green bagels on St. Patrick’s Day, and the way my German friends accept that hot dogs served from a vat of dirty water, by a Middle Eastern guy on 42nd Street aren’t authentic Bavarian brats.

We accept all of these things because being American means sharing your culture with people from a diverse array of backgrounds, and yes at times that involves looking on and laughing to yourself as those people ‘appropriate’ your culture through the mud.

So whether it’s sushi in the cafeteria, a pathetic attempt at banh mi, sombreros and tequila on taco Tuesday, or an awful slice of frozen pizza leave your cultural inhibitions and sensitivities at the door and join us in this big bowl that is the American experience. After all we have enough to argue about as it is, and every salad tastes better with a little sriracha.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go answer the door – the delivery guy is here with my steamed dumplings and lo mein.


This contributor is a Marine veteran that has served in the Middle East. Due to the sensitive nature of his current job, he has requested to remain anonymous.