Are there any non-crazy arguments against cultural appropriation?

Of all the crazy ideas to come out of the left, the hysteria over cultural appropriation seems the most “Onion-like”, i.e. most like a parody in the Onion newspaper.  It’s not like rent controls or the minimum wage, where I see their point but respectfully disagree.  It just seems crazy.  Maybe that’s because I am of a generation that grew up celebrating cultural appropriation as the hippest of all lifestyles.  I can’t imagine my life without the music of Dylan, the Stones and Led Zep, all of whom culturally appropriated black music on a massive scale.  Ditto for the global film industry, which involves wholesale cultural appropriation.

When I make that argument to people on the left they roll their eyes and say, “that’s not what we are talking about, the problem is racial insults like the Washington Redskins.” Is that all it is?  I don’t read enough of this nonsense to know.  Tyler Cowen recently linked to (and mostly disagreed with) a post by Maisha Johnson, which supposedly represents a good source for understanding what the fuss is all about.  And that post repeats all the crazy, left wing, anti-capitalist, white people are “privileged” nonsense that one associates with caricatures of the loony left.  It has the complaints about white rock music, white people doing yoga, white people eating burritos, etc., etc.

But in the end even she doesn’t seem to believe what she writes.  In anticipation of the likely “you can’t be serious” response of her readers, she says:

I’m not saying you automatically can’t enjoy Mexican food if you’re not Mexican, or do a yoga-inspired practice if you’re not Indian, or use any other culturally specific practice in the US.

What!?!?!?  She just spent hundreds of words telling us not to do those things.  So which is it:

1. The whole movement is a lie; no one believes it.

2.  She’s serious, but wants to provide an “out” for liberal elitists who have cosmopolitan taste.  So she sprinkles her essay with a few comments here and there on the need to be aware of other cultures, sensitive to their predicament.  In other words, it’s racism when a construction worker buys a burrito for lunch, but not when an English professor dines at a Cambodian restaurant.  After all, the English professor is “aware” of the sad history of how Cambodia has been exploited by the West.

I can’t imagine agreeing with any argument against cultural appropriation, which goes against almost everything I believe in.  Freedom, cosmopolitanism, creativity, individualism, etc.  (British white rock stars didn’t just steal black music; they used it to create something entirely new and exciting, just as black American musicians borrowed from Western culture to create jazz.) But I could at least respect their view, it if were applied evenhandedly—if all types of cultural appropriation were considered inappropriate.  Instead then give a pass wherever a group is thought to suffer from some sort of “power imbalance”.  In other words, it seems like nothing more than the latest iteration of Marxism.

The New York Times has a new editorial in support of cultural appropriation:

It doesn’t help that at the very moment that white supremacists in this country are reviving Nazi-era ideas about the purity of blood, the left is treating culture as something just as immutable. Two can play at this dangerous game. Indeed, the left’s insistence on cultural partition makes nobody happier than Richard Spencer and his fellow travelers on the alt-right, who are expert at mimicking the left’s identity politics to give voice to their twisted ideas of national and racial segregation. Americans should think very carefully before engaging with a politics that bears an eerie similarity to the beliefs of the people that marched on Charlottesville, Va.

The comparison with fascism is an interesting one, but an even better comparison would be China’s Cultural Revolution.  After all, fascism is not particularly anti-elite, whereas both the Chinese Maoists and the American campus Marxists are.  One side of my wife’s family was scorned for their “landlord privilege”, which is the Chinese equivalent of white privilege.  The Maoists were obsessed with tearing down statues.

The campus left may not be fascist, but every time they think up a crazy new idea they push hundreds of thousands more Americans into the arms of the Trumps and Bannons of the world.  I want nothing to do with either group.

PS.  If you look at the right angle, and squint hard enough, you can almost see the business community’s fetish for over-the-top intellectual property rights protections.  I wish Chinese would culturally appropriate much more Hollywood culture, and thumb their nose at the US copyright office.

PPS.  I’m still waiting for an intelligent definition of “currency manipulation”.



60 Responses to “Are there any non-crazy arguments against cultural appropriation?”

  1. Gravatar of Russ Abbott Russ Abbott
    2. September 2017 at 11:55

    I had thought that the concern was not whites using something from another culture: doing so is paying tribute to that culture. I thought the problem arose (or was claimed to arise) when someone portrays someone of another culture. If I (white) were to write a play with a black protagonist, one could argue that I don’t have the experience to know enough about a black person’s life to be able to portray him accurately — and therefore shouldn’t be putting white words into black mouths.

    I’m not sure I agree, but I thought that was the core issue.

  2. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    2. September 2017 at 12:21

    I think I’ve read the article you’re linking to and the only argument that is halfway sensical is that it isn’t fair that, for instance, a black musician couldn’t become famous for rock music but Elvis did. The same thing was noted in the article for yoga. It’s not so much that people shouldn’t do yoga, but that rich white peoples shouldn’t have more access to yoga studios than poor Indians.

    While I agree that the privilege of access can be problematic, the reaction that white people shouldnt ‘blank’ always feels like a terrible solution. We don’t begin to understand and accept other cultures by excluding ourselves from them. It would be racist to tell a Chinese chef that they could only open a Chinese restaurant and it’s just as racist to shame them when they open a Mexican restaurant.

  3. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    2. September 2017 at 13:50

    @Chris – Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Bo Diddly and Little Richard are pretty famous.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. September 2017 at 13:56

    Russ, That’s a issue, but not necessarily the main issue. Interestingly, white authors/directors are also accused of racism when they do NOT include non-white characters.

    I would add that most people have not experienced life as the opposite gender, so this argument suggests that male authors should not include female characters, and vice versa.

    Chris, As far as I know, most Japanese restaurants in America are run by Chinese-Americans. Lots of Italian restaurants are run by Greek Americans.

    Music seems an odd choice of a field to emphasize the unfairness of the system, as blacks have achieved notable success in popular music. Perhaps not as much as they deserve (I’d agree with that complaint) but success that is orders of magnitude greater than what has been achieved by Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. On a per capita basis, perhaps even more success than white Americans.

    Does anyone know if Eminem was accused of cultural appropriation?

    You said:

    “It’s not so much that people shouldn’t do yoga, but that rich white peoples shouldn’t have more access to yoga studios than poor Indians.”

    This is the Marxist aspect of the movement. I’m pretty comfortable with the rich having more access to BMWs than the poor, and I don’t see why yoga studios would be different?

    You said:

    “It would be racist to tell a Chinese chef that they could only open a Chinese restaurant and it’s just as racist to shame them when they open a Mexican restaurant.”

    This reminds me that the same people who say it’s racist to try to live as another race, say it’s perfectly fine to adopt a different gender identity.

  5. Gravatar of Kyle H Kyle H
    2. September 2017 at 14:09

    No, I’m not the first king of controversy

    I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley

    To do black music so selfishly

    And use it to get myself wealthy

    – Eminem

    It’s cool as you long as you (w)rap yourself in a flag.

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. September 2017 at 15:25

    Jeff, Just the tip of the iceberg.

    Kyle, The elites know how to protect themselves with irony.

  7. Gravatar of Sam Sam
    2. September 2017 at 15:34

    Eminem definitely did get flak from the hip hop community, but he confronted it pretty head on. The first real line of his most successful single “The Real Slim Shady” is “Y’all act like you never seen a white person before”, and he goes on to amusingly subvert the cultural appropriation argument by accusing Will Smith of producing a sanitized version of hip-hop devoid of foul language for purely mercantile reason.

  8. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    2. September 2017 at 16:36

    Professor, to what extent is this a real significant issue in the first place? I mean I never came across an actual person in my life that said Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin (my favorite) were stealing from other cultures and therefore should not have been allowed to record their music. Honestly, have you ever met someone who told you such a thing?

    There are a lot of loonies in this world, and quite a few of them end up thinking they are ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ or whatever- but they are not. “Cultural appropriation theories”, if they exist apart from the fringes of loonies, are not at all ‘liberal’ ideas, or ‘progressive’ ideas, or even lefty ideas. Please don’t try to stick those idiots in with everyone to the ‘left of center’.

  9. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    2. September 2017 at 16:46

    Like so many other so-called “progressive” movements and ideas, the movement against cultural appropriation is strongly anti-liberal and conservative at its core ─ not so say reactionary and racist.

    PPS. I’m still waiting for an intelligent definition of “currency manipulation”.

    When the exchange rate of a currency is not determined by a free market but set by a small group of experts and/or the government.

  10. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    2. September 2017 at 17:04

    I agree with this post.

  11. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    2. September 2017 at 17:05

    Well I don’t know if you allow this sort of thing, but here is Led Zeppelin playing one of my favorites.

  12. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    2. September 2017 at 20:01

    If you look at the right angle, and squint hard enough, you can almost see the business community’s fetish for over-the-top intellectual property rights protections.

    That’s what it comes across as to me, a kind of masked resentment and anger that a community’s supposed intellectual property (even if it’s not actually legal as such) is being used without their permission and without them profiting from it.

    I remember reading some articles back when Nashville Hot Chicken started to catch on, from people who were upset that the black proprietors and chefs who created the cuisine weren’t profiting from its popularity.

  13. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    2. September 2017 at 20:02

    And of course a lot of it also is the endless, “holier-than-thou” status competition among the Internet Social Left getting a larger audience than usual.

  14. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    2. September 2017 at 20:18

    Since you have not stopped me yet here is another favorite from the Zeppelin. Just in case some misguided people who think they are liberals thought the last one was misogynistic or something equally goofy.

    I should find ‘Going to California’ since you just did do that but I wont clog up your blog anymore.

  15. Gravatar of Jack Jack
    2. September 2017 at 21:29

    The anti-appropriation people are some of the biggest motte-and-baileyers (see SSC: I’ve ever seen.

  16. Gravatar of Luke Perrin Luke Perrin
    3. September 2017 at 01:18

    I think Scott Alexander had some good things to say here:

    “When an item or artform becomes the rallying flag for a tribe, it can threaten the tribe if other people just want to use it as a normal item or artform.

    “Suppose that rappers start with pre-existing differences from everyone else. Poor, male, non-white minority, lots of experience living in violent places, maybe a certain philosophical outlook towards their condition. Then they get a rallying flag: rap music. They meet one another, like one another. The culture undergoes further development: the lionization of famous rappers, the development of a vocabulary of shared references. They get all of the benefits of being in a tribe like increased trust, social networking, and a sense of pride and identity.

    “Now suppose some rich white people get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for innocuous reasons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-existing differences, and they can’t be easily assimilated into the tribe. Maybe they develop different conventions, and start saying that instead of being about the struggles of living in severe poverty, rap should be about Founding Fathers. Maybe they start saying the original rappers are bad, and they should stop talking about violence and bitches because that ruins rap’s reputation. Since rich white people tend to be be good at gaining power and influence, maybe their opinions are overrepresented at the Annual Rap Awards, and all of a sudden you can’t win a rap award unless your rap is about the Founding Fathers and doesn’t mention violence (except Founding-Father-related duels). All of a sudden if you try to start some kind of impromptu street rap-off, you’re no longer going to find a lot of people like you whom you instantly get along with and can form a high-trust community. You’re going to find half people like that, and half rich white people who strike you as annoying and are always complaining that your raps don’t feature any Founding Fathers at all. The rallying flag fails and the tribe is lost as a cohesive entity.”

  17. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    3. September 2017 at 05:21

    Great post – it’s always good to call out this kind of nonsense.

    On the topic of Eminem – I always thought being discovered by Dr. Dre of NWA protected Eminem from many (though not all) of these attacks.

  18. Gravatar of Gwen T Gwen T
    3. September 2017 at 05:51

    I used to think appropriation was bullshit, but then I had an experience that made me rethink.

    I identified as a “values voter” in high school, and was the only Bush supporter at my high school. In college, I was one of a very few people who was not in love with Obama’s “charisma”, and didn’t like the idea of nationalizing health care. After college I drifted away from conservatism a bit, but still kept the Republican label out of inertia.

    In 2016 I was planning on voting Republican, but then Trump happened. I was appalled to see my fellow “conservatives” lining up behind a man with less experience than Obama, and fewer scruples than Bill Clinton. Other GOPers agreed with me, and started the #neverTrump hashtag.

    #neverTrump was for Republicans who felt that their country was more important than their party. We wanted to stop Trump at any cost, even if it meant crashing the convention or voting for Hillary. For someone who had identified as a Republican, since high school, that was a dramatic statement.

    And then I saw my liberal friends appropriating it. People who would have never supported Bush or Romney or Rubio were suddenly sporting the #neverTrump hashtag. They hadn’t experienced the trauma of watching their own party cash out its values for a reality TV star. They just saw #neverTrump as a trendy of saying “Trump sucks.” Changing the messenger changed the message.

    I don’t know if my liberal friends committed a sin, but they certainly irritated me. It’s hard for me to frame a moral theory of what exactly they did wrong, but subjectively it felt wrong. So I understand why minority cultures might feel wronged by appropriation, even if they can’t articulate a formal ethical theory.

  19. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    3. September 2017 at 08:44

    Cultural appropriation is just another way for people with no real complaints to claim victim status. Of course it’s nonsense, but so are most of the other claims to victim status in our politics.

  20. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    3. September 2017 at 08:54

    I’d never even heard of these appropriation complaints. Am I alone here? Am I living in a bubble, or do these sorts of perspectives have to be sought out?

  21. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    3. September 2017 at 08:59

    Scott, I thought I provided an intelligent definition of currency manipulation. It would involve pegging a nominal exchange rate to target a certain trade deficit level.

    Of course, I don’t think that’s intelligent policy, and nor is a response to such a policy, other than head shaking.

    Also, I don’t remember any talk of a Chinese trade deficit target when China was being accused of currency manipulation, but I didn’t see you as calling for an actual example of this policy.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2017 at 11:15

    Thanks Sam.

    Jerry, I don’t think you know what’s going on in this country. “Cultural appropriation is evil” is being taught in our high schools, along with “you should recycle” and all the other propaganda. Talk to a bunch of young people and you’ll find this is far more widespread than you assume.

    Christian, You said:

    “When the exchange rate of a currency is not determined by a free market but set by a small group of experts and/or the government.”

    I have absolutely no idea what that means. Are you saying Bretton Woods was currency manipulation? Why did the EU adopt a fixed rate regime to stop currency manipulation.”

    All countries influence their exchange rate. What does “control” mean? Are you talking about real or nominal exchange rates?

    Brett, Yes, and thank God the patent office does not allow recipes to be patented.

    Luke, That may be the reason, but if so it’s an incredibly weak argument, much weaker that I expected.

    Gwen, I’d suggest you take a deep breath and try to be less irritated by these sorts of things. All of us experience irritation almost every single day. It’s no big deal.

    Scott, My daughter says this stuff is taught in high school, as if it’s not even controversial. She was shocked that I thought cultural appropriation is fine.

    As far as currency manipulation, the nominal exchange rate is not the issue. I’m looking for a definition that’s consistent with actual real world complaints about the issue. What exactly is bugging people.

  23. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. September 2017 at 14:39

    @Scott Sumner

    Are you talking about real or nominal exchange rates?

    My definition is only true for nominal exchange rates, I guess. I think I got your point a few months ago: There’s no such a thing as currency manipulation. There is no meaningful concept of it because the “real” exchange rate cannot be manipulated in a meaningful way.

    So what’s bugging people, you ask? I think the problem is that your concepts are correct but our mind is not built to understand your concepts easily. It takes time and thinking to understand. Most people follow their intuition and so the people who talk about “currency manipulation” win the debates over and over again.

    The same is true for NGDP targeting, price bubbles, EMH, reasoning from a price change, and so on. Your concepts are correct but not intuitive.

    Maybe you got irritated because parts of you realized that you actually ended up in camp Blue. And that hurt.

  24. Gravatar of Massimo Heitor Massimo Heitor
    3. September 2017 at 17:15

    I interpret the whole “cultural appropriation” thing as “I want to raise the status of my favored ethnic/cultural group and reduce status of rival groups and this is a somewhat socially acceptable avenue of pursuing that.”

  25. Gravatar of Josh Josh
    3. September 2017 at 23:58

    I think there is a value to a limited, constrained, well-defined concept of cultural appropriation.

    Simply borrowing or being inspired by the cultural output of a culture other than your own, either as an individual artist or as a movement, is clearly not a problem. In fact, that contributes to the intellectual wealth of both communities, and to the cultural commons as a whole.

    There is, however, an observable effect in which a hegemonic, dominant paradigm can, through its use of the cultural markers of smaller, less dominant cultures, effectively permanently alter those markers for everybody, including the culture from which those markers were sourced. Seeking to avoid that is a worthy and worthwhile goal. That is simply being a considerate hegemon, having due regard for your own power.

    So America and its artists cannot, however they try, however they mangle the markers in the process, culturally appropriate from, say, Japan. Gwen Stefani’s Harijuku Girls was not culturally appropriative, it was just bad. Very often, this issue arises for works that are simply bad, as if the speaker needs a stronger, more objective way to shut down something that is just poorly conceived and executed, but “bad” should be enough of a criticism of art by itself.

    America and its artists can, however, culturally appropriate from its own Native Americans, who do not have a strong enough internal culture to resist powerful external depictions of their own history and their own markers, meaning that the common understanding of that history and those markers – both within their community and outside of it – will come to be defined by the external depiction rather than remaining vitally, if weakly, in the control of the community from which they have come. We can see many examples of this interplay between dominant and submissive paradigms: the British in Southern Africa (and elsewhere), the Spanish in Latin America, the Romans throughout Europe. So many disappeared nations vanished culturally before they vanished politically; this is in fact an attested tool of war, and is why throughout history, conquerors have used religion and culture as a way of pacifying peoples who they wish to integrate.

    This is important for several reasons. First: if we want to avoid homogenisation of culture, which is a risk in a globalised age, then positive steps must be taken to preserve distinct cultures. It’s better for us in the long term if the global economy of intellectual and creative output is as diverse as it can be, and that may occasionally require some conservationist work, just as we may, for example, have to stop eating cod for a while at some point.

    Second: if the capitalist hegemons want to preserve the argument that they are different from the rapacious, conquering hegemons of the past, then a good way of doing so is to take strong, positive steps to ensure that they wield their cultural power sensitively. We still speak with respect of those empires, like Darius’ or Nebachudnezzar’s, which took pain to protect the religious and cultural rights of their subjugated peoples; if the social and political ideas of the capitalist project are to survive then we needed to be regarded with at least as much affection.

    Third, it’s just the right thing to do. See, for example, the difference in the way that Australia treats its Aboriginal culture and New Zealand treats the Maori. One could not argue that Australia’s approach has anything to recommend it, in either concept or output.

  26. Gravatar of Scott H. Scott H.
    4. September 2017 at 04:25

    Luke Perrin…

    Were was Scott Alexander when Jackie Robinson was entering baseball? He might have nipped that whole thing in the bud.

  27. Gravatar of Pat Pat
    4. September 2017 at 06:14

    At root it’s about money, plain and simple. Who will get the money from exploiting something? A legitimate question, IMO.

    The issue’s been discussed in science for many years in the context of pharmacology. When a drug company finds a vital treatment by asking indigenous tribes about medicinal plants, who deserves the money from that treatment once it’s developed and marketed?

    I have also seen it in tourism. I once visited a Maasai village in which an entry/photography fee was required, because the villagers had found out about professional photographers who were coming in, taking pictures of them, and selling those pictures for money that the villagers never saw a cent of. I thought their instituting a fee made a lot of sense.

    In art and culture, it can be a more confusing situation because the things you need to do to generate market share sometimes oppose the things you need to do to make sure your group benefits from that market share. For instance, how will aspiring authors from different cultures get publishing contracts? Well, you could stoke the public’s appetite for books featuring protagonists from different cultures – hence the push for books to contain diverse characters. But then white authors start writing to that market, instead of the market’s opening up more opportunities for authors from the cultures in question – hence the cultural appropriation debate. In some genres, you get people suggesting outright that there be a year in which nobody reads white male authors, or in which no publishing contracts are awarded to them, which makes the underlying motive perfectly clear.

    I sympathize with the frustration that leads to this kind of stuff, but I don’t see it succeeding in the long run. For one thing, as the world becomes more diverse everybody’s books will contain more diverse characters, drawn from the author’s experience of the world, and then how will anybody even identify cultural appropriation? If what folks want is to support publishing authors from an individual group, they should work for that directly, rather than setting up rules that will be increasingly difficult to understand, let alone enforce.

  28. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    4. September 2017 at 08:01

    Once you have identity politics creating privledged ethnicities and cultures: cultural appropriation serves the role of denigrating outgroups from adopting the totems of the privledged groups. In a dose of double-think, this is described in reverse terms. We saw the mask drop with the “deplorables” comment during the campaign. Appriopriators surround themselves with the insignia of a higher status culture than their own (think Edward VIII paying the bagpipes) to show they are cultured above the “deplorables”

    Within geographies where deplorable culture is pervasive–e.g. Texas–you see very little appriopriation and a lot of pride. Appropriation takes place in areas where group identity is privledged and the appropriator is a low social status trying separate themselves from what their community calls the deplorables. In Texas the dormant culture rejects group identity as paramount (being a successful mix of Hispanic and European cultures) … so the terminology of appropriation is not invoked even if some from another culture say carries a gun.

  29. Gravatar of guest guest
    4. September 2017 at 09:49

    > The comparison with fascism is an interesting one, but an even better comparison would be China’s Cultural Revolution. After all, fascism is not particularly anti-elite, whereas both the Chinese Maoists and the American campus Marxists are. One side of my wife’s family was scorned for their “landlord privilege”, which is the Chinese equivalent of white privilege. The Maoists were obsessed with tearing down statues.

    There’s actually a historical link here, so this is not surprising at all. Maoism was _hugely_ popular among radical-minded university students in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, at least in Europe (“Marx, Mao, Marcuse!” being a common catchphrase of the notorious 1968 protests in France, for example.) And the people who were students back then are the professors of today – so it’s no surprise that we still see those familiar refrains about “bourgeois privilege”, the need for constant “self-criticism” and whatnot – albeit somewhat altered by a renewed focus on non-class-based distinctions – _this_ feature was drawn from the work of Frankfurt School ‘theorists’, including Marcuse. (Some people seem to conflate the ideas of the Frankfurt School with the modern left, but this is actually wrong – when it comes to politics, those theorists actually espoused rather traditionalist ideas!) Maoism really is crucial if you want to understand where the college looney left comes from, and there is at least a plausible arguments that they should be properly regarded as _literal_ Maoists. If nothing else, they’re certainly looking to implement some “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of their own!

  30. Gravatar of D.O. D.O.
    4. September 2017 at 11:41

    How exactly American schools teach that cultural appropriation is wrong? Do they tell kids not to listen to the white rap and not to eat burritos (unless the kids are of Mexican extraction)? Or do they prohibit white kids to come to school with Afro do?

  31. Gravatar of Stuart Armstrong Stuart Armstrong
    4. September 2017 at 16:19

    To define currency manipulation: it’s like angelcide – it’s a crime that some people can commit, and other can accuse them of committing, that’s actually impossible.

    Ignore what you know about currencies, markets, and balance of payments, and imagine the world works differently. Imagine that, for example, that if you devalue your currency you will gain an `unfair’ advantage through your exports and this will make you more powerful, to the detriment of those who haven’t devalued their currencies. If you have a worldview like that, then currency manipulation is well defined: some level of interference in the free market to gain an advantage by devaluating your currency. To be a proper manipulation, it has to be a major intervention, thus the odd requirements about currency reserves and changes of assets and so on: these are the signs of large-scale deliberate intervention.

    So I’d say that currency manipulation is pretty well defined, if you have a wrong view of reality (similar perspective for many-but-not-all examples of bosses “exploiting” workers).

  32. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    4. September 2017 at 17:08

    Christian, You said:

    “I think I got your point a few months ago: There’s no such a thing as currency manipulation. There is no meaningful concept of it because the “real” exchange rate cannot be manipulated in a meaningful way.”

    No, that’s not my point. The real exchange rate can be affected in an almost infinite number of ways. Which of them count as “manipulation”?

    Josh, Interesting answer, but I see America becoming more culturally diverse as it becomes globalized, not less. People are always looking for new cultural ideas, which gives a sort of advantage to smaller cultures.

    Pat, You said:

    “At root it’s about money, plain and simple. Who will get the money from exploiting something? A legitimate question, IMO.”

    Actually it’s about more than money. Even Halloween costumes on college campuses have becomes hot button issues, for reasons unrelated to money. When people are criticized for their hairstyle, it’s not about money. Ironically when it comes to gender it’s the conservatives who oppose cultural appropriation (transgender).

    D.O. Students are not banned from doing those things, but they are criticized for adopting the styles of another culture (hair, jewelry, clothes, etc.) I’ve heard some real horror stories that would shock people. Students are being traumatized.

  33. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. September 2017 at 17:12

    Stuart, You said:

    “So I’d say that currency manipulation is pretty well defined, if you have a wrong view of reality”

    Really? I’d love to see this definition.

  34. Gravatar of Bob Murphy Bob Murphy
    4. September 2017 at 17:13

    In general I am sympathetic with the guffawing of Scott (in the OP) and the majority of commenters here, but are you guys really saying you don’t see the point when it comes to Pocahontas? Again, the writer of that article wasn’t saying she thought little girls dressing up like a Disney princess had any ill intent, but it *is* kind of creepy isn’t it? (I think the Wikipedia account is halfway between the Disney version and the version described by the “everyday feminism” writer.)

    But that’s all a sideshow. The *real* issue is this: Did Rolling Stone actually claim that “Elvis invented rock and roll”? I find that hard to believe. The writer doesn’t provide any quotation, and the link she gives doesn’t either.

    Does anyone know more about this? I’m guessing the people complaining about appropriation here are overplaying their hand, and that Rolling Stone didn’t literally claim Elvis invented rock and roll.

  35. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. September 2017 at 17:37

    Bob, You said:

    “Again, the writer of that article wasn’t saying she thought little girls dressing up like a Disney princess had any ill intent, but it *is* kind of creepy isn’t it?”

    Maybe it’s a generational thing, but when I grew up Halloween was regarded as a wholesome, non-political holiday—a time to have some fun. So no, it doesn’t seem at all creepy to me.

    When you see pictures of Japanese girls doing their “cosplay”, does it make you feel your Western culture has been “appropriated”?

    I honestly don’t get this, and wish someone would explain it to me.

  36. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    4. September 2017 at 18:24

    There is an easy explanation for “cultural appropriation” being considered harmful- it is goofballs looking for an audience for a ridiculous idea. If this is a major problem on college campuses then you professors are doing a major fail somewhere.

  37. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    4. September 2017 at 18:25

    When I went back to Japan in 2001, I saw five or six high school girls practicing hip hop dances but they also wore make up and a type of hair to mimic black pop stars. It looked odd to me at first, partly because that wasn’t a thin in Japan in the 90s, and also since just a very small group was doing that but didn’t think of something like cutlural appropriation. Anyway, that might be a closer example than cosplay.

  38. Gravatar of Pat Pat
    5. September 2017 at 04:08

    Scott, I agree that the recreational accusations of cultural appropriation among students don’t stem from concerns about money. But I would argue that they are irresponsible perversions of the real battle about money.

    There’s no serious issue that can’t be turned into an excuse for people who don’t really have a stake in it to bully one another. Eventually, the issue begins to look as if it was never anything more than an excuse to bully, and the problem it was initially trying to solve goes unaddressed. That’s happening to a lot of social justice issues right now, in my opinion. It’s also my opinion that we should push back against this tendency and try to direct attention back to the actual underlying problem. If that allows us to point out how recreational social justice is undercutting the whole movement, good!

  39. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    5. September 2017 at 07:58

    I think a disconnect on these issues is about how a thing can be problematic, or even overtly bad, without being unacceptable or irredeemable.

    Hey, like the concept of “cultural appropriation.” British rockers re-packaging black music for a white audience (some of which was actually stolen, btw) is good to the extent that it’s spreading culture we find appealing. But it’s less good than expanding and promoting the black artists directly, a thing that, at the time, did not happen at least in part because of race (honestly, maybe entirely).

    That’s not going to make me stop listening to Zeppelin, but it might make me think about seeking out Big Rita instead of just consuming Miley Cyrus’s imitation (or not as neither interests me and I’m not even 100% certain I’ve got the right comparison). I think it’s useful to be aware that the source material is out there even if ultimately you’re fine with copycat product.

    It’s just really weird to me when a white person finds the concept of privilege crazy. It should be obvious how much a white person born in America (especially to stable, educated, middle class parents) has benefited from circumstances relative to pretty much anyone else in the world. You could have been born a subsistence farmer in rural China.

  40. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. September 2017 at 08:22

    Adam, I would add that whites didn’t just copy black music, they changed it pretty significantly.

    You said:

    “You could have been born a subsistence farmer in rural China.”

    That’s exactly why I find the concept so silly. It could equally apply to Black or Hispanic Americans. Does a homeless 28 year old former Iraq soldier who is addicted to meth feel “privileged” if he is white? How about a 51 year old woman who’s husband left her and she’s dealing with ovarian cancer? How about a white person suffering from depression?
    How about a 16 your old white boy or girl that’s bullied every single day at school? These sorts of generalizations are pretty meaningless. And how do we determine which groups are privileged? Is it the majority group that controls the government? Then are blacks in South Africa privileged? Is it income levels? Then are Jews and Asian-Americans privileged relative to white Christians? I have no idea what people mean by such broad and vacuous generalizations.

    If people want to say group X has more power and money then group Y, that’s fine. Whites in America have more power and money than blacks or Hispanics. But to point a finger at a specific white person and call them “privileged” is simply offensive. What do you know about their life? And yet that’s exactly what they do every day on college campuses—point fingers.

  41. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. September 2017 at 08:32

    @Scott Sumner

    The real exchange rate can be affected in an almost infinite number of ways. Which of them count as “manipulation”?

    Then the definition seems to be easy: All of them (or none of them). Or more specifically: All interferences that are not caused by a free market.

    It’s like with any other price. I assume you agree that prices of goods can be manipulated so the same mechanism should be true for the price of money.

  42. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    5. September 2017 at 09:42

    “As far as currency manipulation, the nominal exchange rate is not the issue. I’m looking for a definition that’s consistent with actual real world complaints about the issue. What exactly is bugging people?”

    You eliminate any definition which in a logical deductive sense should count as manipulation because it is “not what is bugging people”. You have set up the question so that there is no right answer because you believe that “whats bugging people” has internal inconsistencies when they discuss manipulation. Why not just say that the “following people who claim manipulation” are inconsistent and illogical.

    Whats “bugging people” is they assume that other countries “move” their currencies around to put them in an advantageous trading position, thus “stealing jobs”. At least some people believe this.

    But whats your point? All countries have policies about their currencies—-and since you exclude any definition which is self evidently designed to impact the value of a currency, why do you care about the people whose definition is flawed? Again, for the third time, I wish you would just say what you mean rather than asking us to find this zen meaning of manipulation.

  43. Gravatar of Bob Murphy Bob Murphy
    5. September 2017 at 11:42


    Again, I am 97% in agreement with you on this one. I skimmed the article you linked to, and the only argument she made that seemed decent was the one about Pocahontas. She said Pocahontas had been kidnapped and forced into marriage, and so because of that, it was arguably creepy that little girls are dressing up as her.

    In response to me bringing up this modest point, you answered: “Maybe it’s a generational thing, but when I grew up Halloween was regarded as a wholesome, non-political holiday—a time to have some fun. So no, it doesn’t seem at all creepy to me.”

    Right, Halloween wasn’t political when I was a kid either. But if some girl dressed up as Anne Frank, wouldn’t that be a little bit creepy?

    Or you asked about cosplay. If a bunch of Japanese teenagers dressed up as (a young) Monica Lewinsky, and you asked how they knew about her, and they said it was a Disney film talking about young women learning about the political system, that might make you squirm a little?

  44. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    5. September 2017 at 12:36

    In the big picture, we have a long history to adopt, adapt and integrate from other cultures. Cultural appropriation is integral to our culture. Appropriate away.

    But, I will admit, it seed a little odd when I saw a group of international fashion models wear feathered headdresses and buckskin bikinis and march down the cat walk for Victoria’s secret. Perhaps because the “appropriation” was so superficial it seemed more strange.

  45. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    5. September 2017 at 20:34

    Christian, Once again, you are in so far over your head that you don’t know which way is up.

    Michael, I don’t know what you mean by “logical deductive sense”.

    You said:

    “But whats your point? All countries have policies about their currencies”

    But which of those policies count as currency manipulation? Be specific.

    Bob, It seems like you have more of a beef with Disney than you do with the little girls with feathers in their hair. I didn’t see the film, so I won’t comment. But I have no reason to doubt your claim.

  46. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    6. September 2017 at 06:27

    Scott this is an example of the decline of public intellectuals. Cultural appropriation used to mean something like this: going to a village in Ecuador and finding some traditional shoes and then returning to America with a pair and selling the design to a big shoes company that makes millions with the latest fashion.

    This hypothetical isn’t a clear cut case of wrongdoing but it is an interesting concept to think about. Are these designs that some villager made intellectual property? Can they be reproduced without compensation?

    But because we have such a paucity of public intellectuals we end up with the deluded masses thinking people have a monopoly over hair styles or some such piffle.

    On the right and on the left there are people telling others what they can and can’t do. These folks are merely the parsons of the left.

    Make sense now?

  47. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    6. September 2017 at 06:56

    ‘I would add that most people have not experienced life as the opposite gender, so this argument suggests that male authors should not include female characters, and vice versa.’

    Which is a bit of a problem for Shakespeare studies (which has enough mysteries, as it is). See ya, Lady Macbeth, Gertrude, Portia, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia. Not to mention Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

  48. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    6. September 2017 at 08:58

    Doesn’t collaboration solve the cultural appropriation problem. For example, the recent biography of Mr. Jefferson co-authored by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf. The book’s thesis is much more convincing because of the collaboration of an African-American female author (best known for her books regarding Jefferson’s African-American mistress) and a white male author (best known for holding the position as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at UVA). The two went on a nationwide book tour that was fascinating, with just the two of them sitting in chairs discussing Jefferson.

  49. Gravatar of Mabuse Mabuse
    6. September 2017 at 09:28

    The best argument against cultural appropriation I’ve seen said that the point was to guard against blatant hypocrisy; that people from one culture shouldn’t emulate the trappings and practices of another culture while overall believing negative and harmful beliefs about that other culture, that it wasn’t fair to take things from cultures that you didn’t respect, basically. How that is interpreted in practice is a fraught matter; however, and the person who I heard made this argument said that in the end it came down to “aesthetics” and “optics” so it still had a whiff of “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” about it.

    And your comparison to IP protection isn’t very far off, seeing that there are rumblings at the WIPO right now about the creation of “culture marks” to give cultural organisations control over the use of certain practices and trappings of the culture that they represent.

  50. Gravatar of Benny Lava Benny Lava
    6. September 2017 at 09:50

    There is already some cultural IP though mostly tied to geography. Scotch whisky has to be from Scotland and no whisky made in America or any other country but Scotland can label such things Scotch whisky.

  51. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    6. September 2017 at 13:51

    Well, okay Scott, I think this time you got me right there. It went over my head and I don’t know which way is up anymore.

  52. Gravatar of Jerry Brown Jerry Brown
    6. September 2017 at 17:21

    Christian List, don’t feel bad. When someone tells you that you are ‘in way over your head’ it is because they can’t explain what they mean to anyone who doesn’t already agree with their preconceptions. A more honest, better answer would be ‘I can’t explain it’ or ‘that is what I believe’, instead of an insult like “you don’t know which way is up”. And Sumner did open the door for your discussion with his PPS., which has nothing to do with the rest of the main post.

  53. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    7. September 2017 at 12:57

    Short answer: no.

    All cultures, since there ever were cultures, “appropriate”. Are the Japanese supposed to give up tempura because they got it from the Portuguese? (The word comes from the Latin temps.)

    It is amazing how little historical understanding those obsessed with the sins of history have.

  54. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    7. September 2017 at 14:28

    Regarding other topics you are correct. I remember cases when Scott was just being wrong. But in this specific case I agree with Scott’s criticism. I’m not feeling bad about it. I’m just a bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to nail him.

  55. Gravatar of Phil H Phil H
    7. September 2017 at 16:33

    I think I can see the problem with cultural appropriation as a species of basic courtesy. A writer I very much like once cut through the complexities of culture clash (for US business travelers in China) with the phrase “don’t be an asshole”, and I think you can approach cultural appropriation in the same way: cultural appropriation is doing an activity that is (regarded as) distinctive of a certain other group *and being an asshole while you do it*.
    So: using a Native American name for a football team is OK; not asking to see if the name you picked is cool is just rude. Singing hip hop is fine; singing hip hop without properly engaging with the existing hip hop community seems rude. Writing female characters is fine; writing female characters and then having other men exclaim over your brilliance in the pages of influential journals, when female writers clearly do the same thing just as well, seems like a classic male dick move.
    So I agree that appropriation doesn’t really make sense as an ethical category in itself, but if you read it as a response to certain categories of discourtesy, then at least you can make sense of it. I’d agree that a proscription against cultural appropriation taught in schools seems like a bit of an error.

  56. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. September 2017 at 20:01

    Phil, I agree.

  57. Gravatar of Tyrrell McAllister Tyrrell McAllister
    14. September 2017 at 06:27

    Here are three arguments against cultural appropriation (CA) that I can kind of understand. (In the end, though, I either don’t buy them, or I think that the benefits of cultural sharing outweigh these cost.)

    (1) Some CA supposedly amounts to mockery. The result is to diminish the status and power of people in that culture. Alleged examples are team mascots, Halloween costumes, and Charlie Chan.

    This is the weakest argument, because it’s making a claim about difficult-to-measure effects on the vaguely defined status of amorphous social groups.

    On the other hand, for the same reason, you can’t be certain that such claims are false. And you shouldn’t just trust your own intuition on this kind of thing, because you don’t have a bird’s eye view of the entire complicated network of power and status that makes up our super-culture and all of its various subcultures. So it does make sense to listen to how other people think so-called CA affects their social standing.

    (2) Some CA amounts to diluting a piece of the cultural commons from which people in that culture were benefiting.

    For example, people choose their clothes based on how they want to be seen by others. Tie-dye, for example, has a certain meaning in our culture. You wear tie-dye if you want people to see you in a certain way. But suppose that our culture found itself immersed in some larger surrounding culture, and people in the larger culture started wearing tie-dye without any knowledge of the whole system of sartorial signification within which tie-dye is situated in our own culture. Now there’s a bunch of people walking around wearing tie-dye who don’t mean to signal what tie-dye signaled for us. As a result, tie-dye loses its signaling value for us. Having lost this signaling tool, we are now poorer.

    In some cultures, such markers of meaning are a lot more potent than they are in ours. So the loss of these markers results in a correspondingly greater loss of value. This seems to be part of the objection to the appropriation of clothing, jewelry, and hair styles.

    (3) Some CA is seen as a theft of intellectual property, where gains in status and material wealth go to people outside the culture that might have gone to people within the culture. Here the people resented are not so much of the outsiders who use the innovation (people who eat Mexican food, say). Rather, the people resented are the outsiders who sell the innovation, or who gain status as “trendsetters”. The profits and the status gains could have gone to the people within the culture, who, on this view, deserve a kind of corporate credit for the innovation.

  58. Gravatar of J Mann J Mann
    14. September 2017 at 12:19

    IMHO, Eminem is more often accused of being either inauthentic or overrated as a result of his race, although cultural appropriation comes up sometimes as well. (I.e., either that his work isn’t worthwhile because he’s white, or that he wouldn’t be so successful if he weren’t white).

    He gets around it by:

    1) Ignoring it. As long as his albums sell and he can get airplay and interview time, he doesn’t need to pay attention to it. Plus frankly, if all the rapping about drug abuse, rape and murder didn’t shut him down, a little appropriation wasn’t going to.

    2) He has lots of support for and support from black rappers. He was discovered by Dr. Dre, and has promoted a bunch of up and comers. (This is something some CA proponents argue for – that it’s OK as long as you appreciate and support the culture).

    3) He’s unignorably talented.

    4) He addresses the issue all the time – sometimes by calling it out, sometimes by just absolutely savaging people who bring it up (in critical raps, of course). He has a long running series of underground “beef” raps against Ray Benzino of the Source Magazine, which are too long to summarize here but basically argue that he put in his time coming up and should be respected, while Benzino is a talentless hack and should not.

  59. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. September 2017 at 09:00

    Tyrrell, Good comment.

    1. I don’t think team mascots are ever a form of mockery, although I do oppose the “Redskins”, as the term is now somewhat offensive.

    2. I think CA adds more to the culture (via synergy) than it subtracts.

    3. I think the IP laws are already far too strong.

    J Mann, Thanks for that info.

  60. Gravatar of Rikske Rikske
    20. March 2022 at 07:19

    I have a black friend who had two children with a white guy. The children both have curly hair, but were not allowed at a festival for black hairstyles. The fact that they were only 50% was enough to deny them the right to own these hairstyles. This was supposedly to protect this part of black culture.

    So my question to those people is: with more and more children of black people being being mixed race, and with likely indications that more and more people will be mixed race in the future, aren’t you actively destroying this part of culture when smaller and smaller portions of people have access to it?

    You might not like this, but purely black and purely white people will disappear sooner than we think.

    Culture is a living thing that grows, evolves, expands and influences. It’s a testament to where people were at a certain moment in space and time, and it shows us who they came into contact with. If a black guy with dreads can live in an expensive Brooklyn loft, it’s only normal that his culture is going to influence whoever he comes into contact with. Same with music. If black music is played on the radio, it’s going to influence white people who hear it. That’s not automatically a bad thing.

    Someone had the right idea that native Americans shouldn’t be ridiculed and turned into mascottes. But some people took that idea way too far by over-analysing and pulling the problem out of its context. It’s a blurry line that some interpret too rigidly, doing a lot of damage to the anti-racism message along the way.

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