The left’s cul­tural pu­rity

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

In July 1954, a 19-year-old Mem­phis truck driver recorded at Sun Stu­dio the song “That’s All Right.” When a lo­cal disc jockey promised to play it, the truck driver tuned his par­ents’ ra­dio to the sta­tion and went to a movie. His mother pulled him from the the­ater be­cause the DJ was play­ing the record re­peat­edly and wanted to in­ter­view the singer im­me­di­ately. The DJ asked where the singer had gone to high school. He an­swered, “Humes,” an all­white school. The DJ asked be­cause many callers “who like your record think you must be col­ored, singing the way you do.” Elvis Pres­ley from Tu­pelo, Miss., had com­mit­ted “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ray Con­nolly in “Be­ing Elvis,” Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a black Mis­sis­sip­pian, had pop­u­lar­ized “That’s All Right.” When Pres­ley first en­tered the record­ing stu­dio, he was asked, “Who do you sound like?” He replied, “I don’t sound like no­body.” Ac­tu­ally, he sounded like some­one meld­ing the sounds of gospel, coun­try and what was then called “race mu­sic” — mu­sic by South­ern blacks — to make some­thing new.

The hys­te­ria du jour, on cam­puses and else­where, against “ap­pro­pri­a­tion” il­lus­trates pro­gres­sivism’s de­scent into au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism leav­ened by philis­tin­ism. This “preen­ing silli­ness” — the phrase is from the Fed­er­al­ist’s David Mar­cus — is by peo­ple obliv­i­ous to the fact that, as Mar­cus says, “cul­ture blend­ing is cen­tral to the de­vel­op­ment of, well, ev­ery­thing.”

In­dig­na­tion about ap­pro­pri­a­tion is a new fron­tier in the ever-ex­pand­ing em­pire of cul­ti­vated vic­tim­hood: “Marginal­ized” per­sons from a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture sup­pos­edly are some­how wounded when “priv­i­leged” peo­ple — those who are un­vic­tim­ized or less vic­tim­ized — ex­press or even just en­joy the cul­ture of more pure vic­tims with­out their per­mis­sion.

The wear­ing of som­breros at tequila-themed par­ties trig­gered — to speak the lan­guage of the exquisitely sen­si­tive — the anti-ap­pro­pri­a­tion con­stab­u­lary at Bow­doin Col­lege. Ober­lin Col­lege’s palate po­lice de­nounced as “ap­pro­pria­tive” an al­legedly in­au­then­tic prepa­ra­tion of Gen­eral Tso’s chicken. Such non­sense is harm­less — un­til it morphs into at­tempts to reg­u­late some­thing se­ri­ous, like writ­ing fic­tion: Do not write about cul­tures other than your own.

With char­ac­ter­is­tic tart­ness, nov­el­ist Lionel Shriver re­sponded to this “cli­mate of scru­tiny” when, at a writers’ con­fer­ence, she clapped a som­brero on her head and said: We’re not sup­posed to try on other peo­ple’s hats? That’s what we’re paid to do. In­stead, “any tra­di­tion, any ex­pe­ri­ence, any cos­tume, any way of do­ing and say­ing things, that is as­so­ci­ated with a mi­nor­ity or dis­ad­van­taged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch.”

Eu­gene Volokh, law pro­fes­sor and mae­stro of the Volokh Con­spir­acy blog, drolly says: If only there were a word for “telling peo­ple that they mustn’t do some­thing be­cause of their race or eth­nic ori­gin.” Asks Franklin Ein­spruch, writ­ing in the Fed­er­al­ist, “Where does new cul­ture come from? It is copied, with al­ter­ations, from ex­ist­ing cul­ture. The process is re­pro­duc­tive. Sexy, even. So of course, the outrage-as-a-life­style wing of the pro­gres­sive Left wants to dic­tate rules for its proper en­joy­ment.”

The Fed­er­al­ist’s Robert Tracin­ski says ap­pro­pri­a­tion is ac­tu­ally learn­ing through ad­mi­ra­tion, adding: “The left loudly pro­motes its flat­ter­ing self­im­age as . . . more cul­tur­ally open and ad­vanced — more in­tel­lec­tual, artis­tic, and cos­mopoli­tan,” but its “ap­pro­pri­a­tion” tantrums re­veal how its fixation with “racial iden­tity and re­sent­ments ends up im­pos­ing the nar­row­est kinds of parochial­ism.”

The Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Jonathan Zim­mer­man, writ­ing in the Chron­i­cle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, says “the mostly left-wing quest for cul­tural pu­rity bears an eerie echo to the rightwing fan­tasy of na­tional pu­rity, which peaked dur­ing the so-called 100-per­cent-Amer­i­can cam­paigns of the early 20th cen­tury.” Of Chuck Berry, Zim­mer­man writes: “His first big hit, ‘May­bel­lene,’ adapted an old melody that had been recorded by coun­try-mu­sic per­form­ers like Bob Wills and His Texas Play­boys. Berry com­bined the ‘hill­billy’ sound of white coun­try with the African-Amer­i­can rhythm and blues that he im­bibed in his na­tive St. Louis.” For this, he was heck­led in Har­lem.

John Len­non said, “Be­fore Elvis, there was noth­ing.” Not re­ally: There was Crudup, and be­fore him there was a long, cre­atively tan­gled line of pre­cur­sors. Elvis, said Mick Jagger, was “an orig­i­nal in an area of im­i­ta­tors.” Ac­tu­ally, no cul­tural fig­ure is en­tirely orig­i­nal.

Lis­ten­ing to Ra­dio Lux­em­bourg late one night, teenaged Keith Richards heard “Heart­break Ho­tel,” and “when I woke up the next day I was a dif­fer­ent guy.” Bob Dy­lan, a free­wheel­ing cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tor him­self, said, “Hear­ing Elvis for the first time was like bust­ing out of jail.” Those who would wall off cul­tures from “out­siders” are would-be war­dens.

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