The problem with cultural appropriation is that people do it so damned badly

Peggy Noonan made a fool of herself this week. That’s not news.

She did so defending the memories of Confederate generals, using terrible history and worse moral reasoning. Again, pretty much dog-bites-man.

But she managed to do it in an interesting (though hardly original) way: trying to use a Yiddish expression and getting it completely wrong. She thus illustrated what seems to me the real issue underlying the overused phrase “cultural appropriation.”

The underlying story is simply that the Washington National Cathedral has decided to remove stained-glass images of Robert E. Lee and his co-conspirator Stonewall Jackson. I don’t have much to add to that argument other than to point out that Noonan strays from the truth when she claims that the outcome of the Civil War was “reconciliation,” without mentioning that the reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites was based on an agreement to impose an additional century of totalitarian subjugation on Southern blacks.

The botched cultural appropriation came in Noonan’s Tweet of protest:

A shonda. They were figures in the greatest, most killing moral struggle in US history. They didn’t tweet, they took to the field and died.

For now, let’s ignore the multiple moral confusions Noonan managed to pack into those 140 characters and concentrate on her linguistic confusion.

Shonda” in Yiddish means, roughly, “shame.” Apparently Noonan was trying to say that the decision by the Cathedral chapter was shameful. Alternatively, she could have been trying to say that the decision was “a shame” (= a pity, too bad, regrettable). Or, since one consequence of shameful behavior is scandal, maybe she meant that removing the window was scandalous. In any of these cases, it’s not obvious what work the Yiddish word does there that an English word couldn’t do as well.

But “shonda” is a semi-familiar word in Yinglish not for the meanings which have good English equivalents, but in the phrase “a shonda fur de Goyim,” which means, roughly, “a shameful thing done by a Jew that will allow non-Jews to spread scandalous reports about Jews in general.” The underlying practical assumption is that de Goyim, or at least some of them, are always hostile to Jews and looking for scandal concerning them. The moral conclusion is that it is the duty of Jews to one another not to furnish material for such scandal; a Jew who cheats is damaging the entire tribe.

Applied to Jews in the U.S., that whole idea seemed a bit quaint until we had Presidential advisers tossing White Power gang-signs from the White House podium. But the notion that you owe it to people who share your identity not to bring shame on the group is a useful one, and the ability of Yiddish to express the whole analysis of negative reputational externalities in five short words illustrates the value of keeping Yiddish expressions alive even after it has virtually disappeared as an actual spoken language.

Which brings us to cultural appropriation.  Making fun of Noonan, with her Irish surname, for using a Yiddish expression is just childish. At some point she might want to point out that (e.g.) the prevalence of racism and anti-Semitism among core Republican voters, and the tolerance (at least) of racism and anti-Semitism by Republican elected officials, is a shonda, allowing those of us who are not Republicans to defame Republicans in general, and that Trump, by keeping Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller on his staff, is committing a wrong against Republicanism. And if she chooses to say that using Yiddish because it can’t be said as well in English, why shouldn’t she? Irishpeople using Yiddish is as American as glatt-kosher Mongolian barbecue.

No, the evil Noonan illustrates is clumsy cultural appropriation. If you’re going to borrow from someone else’s culture, be respectful enough to understand what it is you’re borrowing and get it more or less right, not like a Cub Scout pack butchering random phrases from assorted Native American cultures in ersatz ceremonials. Noonan’s performance here was shamefully, even scandalously, incompetent. But - unless someone thinks it reflects badly on Irishpeople in general - it wasn’t a shonda.




From the comments: hilariously bad try at saying “Blue Lives Matter” in Irish Gaelic.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

13 thoughts on “The problem with cultural appropriation is that people do it so damned badly”

  1. This. That mangling of 'shonda' was the very first thing that leapt out at me from that tweet (and it stuck mainly because the rest of the sentence brings to mind that famous photo of a locomotive that crashed out of the upper story of the station)

    I was pointed to another example of this, which, ironically was of someone clumsily appropriating Gaelic:

  2. Or, as my 12-year-old keeps saying, "Fetchez la vache!"

    I think it's particularly interesting for Noonan, who is presumably an ethnic catholic, to be using the phrase about an episcopal church's decision, especially given the ongoing work among right-wing religionists to brand most sane denominations as not really christian.

  3. To me, the most blinding example of bad cultural appropriation has got to be Vanilla Ice. Hands down. In explaining what was wrong with that, you get at the root of the problem.

      1. I think it's St-Denis where the revolution broke all the windows and they've since been replaced by mostly clear panes. The effect is truly wondrous — a medieval church that's a light-filled shrine instead of a tomb.

  4. Cultural appropriation is more complicated than just, ". . . be respectful enough to understand what it is you’re borrowing and get it more or less right . . ." though that's certainly necessary. And for the kind of example you're using, a single phrase used in an opinion piece, that is probably sufficient. I spend a lot of time being a fiction writer and talking to other fiction writers, and in that realm, there are other considerations. (Note: I mostly write fantasy/science fiction, where authors build fictional societies from the ground up, but it is still an issue in other genres.)

    One is that it's very easy to write people out of their own culture. If you appropriate bits of a culture for your work, especially if you appropriate enough that it's recognizable, but the inhabitants of your fictional society are otherwise quite unlike the culture you've borrowed from, that can be problematic. As always, this is a more sensitive issue if the bits you're appropriating are from an oppressed culture and the one you're transplanting them to is the culture that did the oppressing.

    Another problem comes when you take recognizable cultures and make them your bad guys. Even if you get the culture right, this can be a problem. A variation on this is when your protagonist comes from that culture and is heroically determined to make some massive change within it.

    None of these are always problems, and there are certainly discussions to have about them. This topic comes up pretty much every year at the 4th Street Fantasy convention I attend and we have friendly arguments about it (as well as a couple of jackasses who routinely are not arguing in good faith, though it may have blown up badly enough last time that the jackasses don't come back). I highly recommend Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, especially in this context Two Serpents Rise and Last First Snow, for handling all of these issues well with a culture heavily derived from the Aztecs.

  5. A general question, with a specific example: Can "Thou shalt not engage in cultural appropriation" be squared with "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? Example: African-Americans, well under one percent of the world's population, have long had and continue to have hugely disproportionate cultural influence. It centers on music — jazz, blues, rock and roll, rap/hip-hop — but extends beyond that. Would that influence exist in world scrupulous about avoiding cultural appropriation? If not, is there an argument that absence of that influence would be a good thing? Is there a sufficiently agreed definition of "cultural appropriation" to support a serious discussion?

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