An anthropologist tells the secrets of cultural appropriation

Summary: The PC police are on the prowl for cases of cultural appropriation. Here anthropologist Maximillian Forte explains its ahistorical origin, nonsensical logic, and valuable function (helping to keep us divided and weak).

The Emergence of the Chief
“The Emergence of the Chief”, statue on the Loyola campus of Concordia University in Montreal.


Cultural Appropriation, Cultural Exploitation, Cultural Genocide: Problems of Neoliberal Diversity Management.

By Maximilian C. Forte
From Zero Anthropology, 19 December 2017.
Reposted with his generous permission.

In Canada, “a yoga instructor …says her free class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled because of concerns over cultural appropriation ….‘There were some cultural sensitivity issues and people were offended’,” this despite the fact that yoga was deliberately spread to the West by Indian gurus and was meant to be shared.

In Lethbridge, Alberta, high school students were publicly denounced for adopting cowboys and Indians costumes, for a private Halloween party, with the accusation that their appropriation was wrong and offensive. One commenter questioned the logic of race-based exclusivity that surrounds borrowing items from another culture: “If they’re allowed to use all of the things white people use, why can’t we do this? It’s like saying no one can use electricity or something because white people invented it”.

In Toronto an art gallery shut down the exhibition of artist Amanda PL’s paintings, inspired by Anishinabe art — Chippewa artist Jay Soule declared that, “what she’s doing is essentially cultural genocide, because she’s taking …stories and retelling them, which bastardizes it down the road. Other people will see her work and they’ll lose the connection between the real stories that are attached to it”. Genocidal hate crime? Amanda PL explained her motives in these terms: “I just tried to learn all I could about the Aboriginal culture, their teachings, their stories, and I’ve tried to capture the beauty of the art style and make it my own by drawing upon elements of nature within Canada that have meaning to me”. She then rightly detected the racism that is loaded into such accusations: “I think it’s a shame to say that an artist can’t create something because they’re not from that race. That’s like saying any other culture can’t touch something like abstract art unless you’re white, or you can’t touch cubism art”.

In a US college, there was a demand that white students stop wearing hoop earrings, while another was physically assaulted for committing the egregious crime of wearing braids. There seems to be a new “cultural appropriation crisis” where exclusivity and property ownership are asserted, ironically, in the name of “inclusivity” just as people are shamed in the name of “respect”. The word “appropriate” (two different meanings, two different pronunciations) has become the keyword of the moment. How is sense to be made of all this?

As an Italian Canadian, perhaps I could respond by insisting that “all of you non-Italians must stop ordering pizza from outlets that are not owned and operated by authentic Italians — in fact, just stop eating it altogether, and remove all that pasta and sauces from supermarket shelves while you’re at it”. From now on, I could add, “it’s Italian food for Italians and by Italians, only”. (But then there is the problem that South America might want to “take back the tomato,” leaving us sauceless. Worse yet if they reclaimed the coffee bean, because suddenly our tempers would be forced to cool down to unbearably Anglo-Saxon levels.)

Instead, what I am going to do is raise the political and anthropological questions that are being stumbled over wildly by campus commissars and gatekeepers with rampant ambitions, while pointing just how much of this contrived debate represents the advance of two twins: neoliberal forms of property and New Victorian forms of propriety, with moralism and mass-orchestrated emotionalism masking the politics of elite domination.

Cultural appropriation


A Poorly Defined Problem.

This will not be either the first or the last time you read that the fuzzy word “culture” is inserted as a modifier when people do not really know what they are talking about, but nonetheless want to ornament their claptrap so it sounds important and serious. The problem is even worse than we thought. It now seems that the words modified by “culture” are themselves confused, misunderstood, conflated, or turned into a god-awful stew dished out by instant media pundits and polemicists. That our Canadian “journalists” are intellectual and emotional adolescents is not helping matters, especially as they seem too eager to amplify the gasps and shrieks.

Restricting the discussion to Canada alone, over the past couple of years, yields some very prominent abuses of these conceptual terms, with the result being poor choices, poor advice, and poor policies — probably by design, not by accident. We live in a world where action is favoured over meaning but only ever that action, it seems, which yields little except frustration, delay, and calls for even more action. Action is like technology: a wellspring of gimmickry. Both the dominant elites, and the collaborating opportunists at the street level, would prefer a world without clarity, where we communicate with one another in the absence of clear meanings, where speech is devalued, and we instantly respond to gestures and sounds. This is one way to achieve dehumanization: desocializing human beings into acting without meaning, transforming politics into mere instincts.

The manufacture of confusion and obfuscation is also a great boon to lawyers, especially the bulk of the legal class that derives its windfalls from the sale of protection to the powerful. Suddenly, unlike in the streets or in the media, words really matter in a courtroom setting. Now even the most basic terms are subjected to the kind of fastidious, forensic legalistic torture that leaves one wondering whether it is ever safe to speak, anything. This is the other side of the trap.

We thus have a situation where the absence of clarity (not to mention the absence of logic) is encouraged when it comes to taking action, but then it is open to punishment in the judicial setting. That is the trap we live in — in Canada as elsewhere. The aim, whether it was carefully designed as such or not, is to maintain a constant state of war-like dissension, because in the absence of shared meanings there can be no shared values, and in the absence of shared values then “society” itself becomes an illusion. Presto, you now have the neoliberal dream of Margaret Thatcher come to life.

Where society has been abolished, the elimination of national borders becomes a no-brainer. (Where the neoliberal dream became a delusion is when it sought to cancel borders around still existing national societies — their mad rush towards the globalized world had them putting the cart before the horse.)

Grand Theft Culture

Is it “Cultural Appropriation”? And if it is, what’s the problem?

Somehow, somewhere, this makes sense to someone: that the best way to learn about and appreciate Aboriginal culture is to ignore it completely, lest you draw on any influences it might have. Just in case you are somehow personally touched, and incorporate your country’s indigenous experience into your personal understandings, then shame awaits you. Supposed respect for difference has tilted in the direction of censorship — don’t look, don’t touch, don’t speak. So much for “multiculturalism,” and so much for “diversity”.

The other option is to approach Aboriginal cultures in a permanent state of genuflection, treating some rather ordinary people as if they were sacred objects, to be viewed sideways with averted eyes, always to be showered with words of praise and adulation. This is romantic primitivism turned into a permanently regulated hierarchy.

One has to also be a fairly privileged patrician, if your preoccupation is to take offence at the feathers on some child’s head. What an untroubled life of leisure one must ordinarily enjoy, for the minor trespasses to take on monumental dimensions. Constantly subdividing society, we busy ourselves with developing complex codes of offences and new NGO bureaucracies, just to focus on the interests of a fraction of a fragment of the population. With freshly imported lists of pronouns from the US, we erect obscure legal frameworks to punish and silence Canadian citizens into submission.

In the name of multicultural diversity in Canada we are busy building a regime of reciprocal ignorance, mutual suspicion, and segregation. Canada produces a phony masquerade of “cosmopolitanism,” an anti-creolization that sorts people out into individual little boxes, each one untouchable and cut off from communication with any another box. Again, instead of a real, living society, the result seems to be something that looks more like a filing cabinet, an easy-to-manage archive, or a prison. Just keep piling in the “differences,” and then keep them separate — surely no society will ever flourish in such barren ground.

When “cultural appropriation” is criminalized, what could be worse? Praising “cultural appropriation”. Then what is the very worst? Not believing in “cultural appropriation”.

Intellectual Property

Imagination versus Private Property.

Enter the guilty party, one Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of Write (the magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada). His offending statement was,

“In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him”.

What motivated his apparently perverse curiosity in other cultures? That he found much of Canadian literature to be “exhaustingly white and middle class” because, in the words of this report, “writers are discouraged from writing about people and places they don’t know”. The Writers’ Union of Canada promptly announced the resignation of Niedzviecki, offering an apology and a promise to revise the magazine’s editorial standards. Another member of the editorial board also resigned in protest, against Niedzviecki. The editor of another Canadian magazine, The Walrus, allegedly resigned in protest against the Writers’ Union of Canada for shaming Niedzviecki and treating him as a “hate criminal”.

The apparent aim is to supposedly return Canadian literature to being like a sedative: inoffensive, uncontroversial, soothing, and pointless — in other words, “exhaustingly white and middle class” (one needs to know Canadian WASP culture to understand the truth of the last statement). We can go back to talking about how the cottage needs new shingles, the ultimate summer BBQ, or the fastest way to repair one’s jetty. But we already have a magazine that does just that: it’s called Cottage Life, which is now by default the zenith of (permissible) Canadian literature. (It’s actually quite interesting, and the articles are usually very well written.)

Niedzviecki seemed to have run afoul of various gatekeepers, that is, the self-appointed retailers of “true Indigenous culture,” those Native entrepreneurs that have sprung up in the academy and law schools, who assume the right to speak for all Natives, and to demand their cut. Now we are told that what Canada has had all along is a long history of “cultural appropriation” — that it “exists” and “causes real harm”. Not to defend Niedzviecki — because he won’t defend himself, he simply admitted guilt — but how is what he described either “appropriation” or “harmful”? “Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities” — that was his core message. The way “imagine” is used could imply “learning about” and “learning from” as well as “thinking about” and being “inspired by”. Do you really prefer to have white Canadians (the majority) who do none of these things when it comes to their indigenous compatriots? What is improved by such ignorance and avoidance?

On one level, it seems as if, suddenly, the methodology used to abolish a national society resorts to the tools used to defend nations: borders. That would be yet another contradiction being added to liberalism’s gargantuan heap. On another level, perhaps, it makes sense: capitalist sense. The neoliberal desire may be to dissolve political borders around nations (because these can impede transnational capitalism), and to replace them with commercial borders drawn around “peoples,” with endless bickering about intellectual property rights, royalties, and recognition. Either way, sharing is banned. What was normal and customary is thus turned into something freakishly offensive, expensive, and subject to regulation.

Rod Dreher, writing for The American Conservative (one of the very few intelligent publications left in the US), has an interesting yet selective take on this story. His exclusive focus is on the cultural politics of this Grand Inquisition that has abolished all forms of artistic borrowing in the name of a hallowed ethnic purity (even if the indigenous ethnicity presumably being “protected” was never one that historically sought purity, and was itself open to borrowings, adoptions, adaptations, and collaborations of all kinds). What he misses though is that all of this is not just the politics of what he calls “the left” — it’s a capitalist politics that has turned cultures into private property.

Fortunately, in everyday life, most people proceed either unaware of, or indifferent to, such manufactured dilemmas. They borrow and exchange to their hearts’ content — and nothing will stop that, perhaps not even building “great big walls” between communities and individuals.

CBC logo

The CBC: An Identity Politics Machine.

No story is too small for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). We find the CBC — a public broadcaster, paid for by the Canadian public — zeroing in on a small group of high school kids in a small town in Alberta, enjoying themselves at a private Halloween party, and turning their supposed transgression into national news. The school administration — which apparently believes it has ownership rights over students’ private lives at home — felt compelled to publicly upbraid the students. Parents, it would seem, have been abolished. Then the CBC invited in some professors to add to the round of public bullying and shaming of the students …over the kids’ choice of costumes, for Halloween.

The CBC acts as an identity politics machine. It loads its “news” website with a daily stream of stories about minority identity issues, as if they were of earth-shaking importance, and its editorial tone is that of a self-appointed guardian of the regime of political correctness, copied from the US. Indeed, the CBC could easily be seen as a branch plant of the Center for American Progress. Abandoning any ethics of fairness in favour of liberal authoritarian ones, it shuts down comment sections on stories close to the heart of Liberal sensitivities, or about minorities, while opening them up for anything about the political opposition, Russia, Trump, and so forth. The CBC even considered censoring the news not to provoke a public backlash against Syrian refugees when one was revealed to have sexually assaulted six teenage girls.

In a liberal authoritarian regime, the goal is to keep the despised citizenry ignorant of the dangers to which they have been exposed by the regime’s disastrous foreign policy. This is done in the noble name of combating “Islamophobia”. Presumably it is also combating Islamophobia for Canada to give a green light to the problem-free re-entry of Canadians who fought for ISIS.

With its body of written work produced by forgettable freelancers, the CBC functions in multiple ways as an expression of neoliberal principles.

Keeping Canadians under surveillance for transgressions against politically correct identity politics, with the aim of subjecting transgressors to discipline, turns the CBC into a New Victorianhousekeeper. With its focus on subjectivity, identity, and emotion, and its clearly unstable and unreliable ways of acknowledging reality, the CBC’s staff echo post-modernism. We might recall that post-modernism rose to prominence at the same time as neoliberal ideology.

Moralism misdirects attention from politics, trying to stall people from realizing that they are being “schooled,” as adults, by large and impersonal institutions staffed by self-appointed experts, engaged in daily censorship. Lastly, the neoliberal production principles at work in the CBC, with its use of “flexible” staff consisting largely of young, inexperienced, insecure, and not too knowledgeable persons, plus its recurrent mimicry of US mainstream media, plagiarizing from the US’ culture wars, round out the picture of the CBC as part of the globalist, neoliberal syndrome, guided by the Sorostutored technocrat that is Justin Trudeau.

Unfortunately, the CBC is not alone. Even those media organizations that (disingenuously) claim to object to identity politics, such as Fox News, are heavily loaded each day with stories precisely about identity politics — never transcending or explaining such politics, but rather diving in and splashing around merrily in the deep end. They risk losing at least half their nation to the North Korean nuclear strike they are insistently provoking, and they worry about football players kneeling during the playing of the anthem.

Canada's History

What do they know about “cultural appropriation”? Is it part of Canada’s history?

The question remains as to whether Canadian polemicists know what they are talking about when they denounce “cultural appropriation”. I don’t think they do. I think they are misrepresenting the phenomenon and bloating it to useless dimensions, sloppily borrowing American terminology, and bending the reality of Canadian history out of shape. I also detect a familiar narrowing of the dominant vocabulary that is authorized for use by the media in public discourse, so that one term or phrase is used to do the work that previously several different concepts handled.

Confusion is the inevitable result — and that is by design. It is intended that we should be confused, since that spawns endless circular debates, irresolvable conflict, parties speaking past each other — all of which works against sharing, against acculturation, and against building a stronger national society. It also works against the indigenization of Canadian society, the cultural side of the economic citizenship that I defended here. Instead we are turned into mutually hostile bands of litigants, constantly parsing each other’s statements for even the smallest sign of something which we might find offensive. We are constantly feigning fainting spells, our delicate selves being so overwhelmed by the daily outrages against our reputation (brand).

Some well-placed Canadians do not know the difference between cultural appropriation and assimilation, and the errors that ensue lead to a falsification of Canadian history. To begin with, assimilation in its most basic historical sense involves a dominant group (typically colonizers) absorbing or incorporating the dominated group (the colonized) into the social and cultural norms of the dominant group. The indigenous culture is thus meant to be extinguished, and those who once belonged to that culture now acquire a new culture — they are converted to the culture of the dominant group. The indigenous culture is in no sense “valued” by the colonizer — it has no value, it can be held in contempt, and was usually targeted for erasure.

Not to be mistaken with the unidirectional process that is assimilation, acculturation involves “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936, pp.149–150; see also Herskovits, 1937, p. 259).

Both assimilation and acculturation are examples of culture contact, culture change, and more broadly, “diffusion”. Cultural appropriation, which is not as well defined as the previous terms and does not enjoy as long a history in North American anthropology, is muddled because it could mean taking over or taking from or simply borrowing. The corollary is that when a culture has been subjected to appropriation, that culture continues to exist intact: I can claim that your culture is now mine, but that does not mean you cease to have your culture; I can acquire select values, practices, and motifs, and make them my own, and again that does not mean you lose those elements; I can borrow an item, inspired by you, and you lose nothing as a result. Where cultural appropriation seems to rise to a condition of conflict, is when commerce and formal ownership are involved — but then that takes us to cultural exploitation, which is far removed from simple acts of sharing and borrowing.

Focusing just on the pair — assimilation vs. appropriation — recent evidence in Canada shows the monumental errors that are made when appropriation is used to handle the meanings of several very different concepts, all at once. Here, for example, is Jesse Wente, a Canadian Aboriginal, not a chief of a nation but a self-described “Ojibwe dude” who, not to be falsely modest, is a figure in the Canadian mass media, a self-appointed gatekeeper and culture broker, and a purported specialist on “diversity” and “inclusion”. Wente recently vented the following…

It’s easy to say you don’t believe in cultural appropriation when it’s your culture that has been forced on many, while erasing there’s [sic]”.
— Jesse Wente (@jessewente) May 10, 2017

He is right: it would be easy to say that, because it’s wrong. What Wente describes in that quote has nothing at all to do with “cultural appropriation” (it’s the opposite), and everything to do with assimilation. At no point does he describe the dominant culture taking from the dominated culture. This shows that Wente does not even know the meaning of appropriation.

However, by accident, especially in making us correct his mistake, he points to the actual reality of Canadian history, which has been one of assimilation, rooted in utter disdain for Aboriginal cultures, expressed in a desire to beat the living crap out of those cultures and turning Aboriginals into clones of white people. Aboriginals did not “appropriate” modern, Western, Christian, individualist and capitalist lifeways: these were forced on them. There is no such thing as an involuntary appropriation. It’s the same history of assimilation that made it possible for Wente to write in English.

Canadian policy was never about making Canadian settlers more like Aboriginals, to encourage appropriation — to even suggest that is a terrible perversion of Canadian history.

The history of residential schools in Canada is not a history of “cultural appropriation”: it is a history of assimilation. In 1883, Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, explained the residential schools policy to the House of Commons…

Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men”.

(That will take us to the next section and how genocide has been conceptually mangled by deliberately and confusingly rephrasing it as “cultural genocide”). The policy of residential schooling was explicitly an assimilationist one — as expressed in the famous words of Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932…

I want to get rid of the Indian problem….Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

It was a policy of “taking the Indian out of the child,” and abolishing the Indian altogether. The idea was not to create a tabula rasa as an end in itself, but to erase and replace, by forcibly converting the child to the dominant, British Canadian culture. It is closer to being cultural imperialism than it is to cultural appropriation. However, since the authorized discourse in the elite-controlled media has successfully narrowed the vocabulary of Canadians, no such mention of imperialism ever surfaces, in any context.

We can conclude that the problem with the “cultural appropriation” idea, as deployed by gatekeepers, is that it either does not actually describe and explain the phenomenon to which it is assigned (and thus does not exist), or it does exist in other contexts but we are not told why that is anything other than the normal course of cultural diffusion. We also know that cultural appropriation is not a prominent part of Canadian history, which instead emphasized assimilation of indigenous peoples. Finally, in some cases, what is being marked as cultural appropriation is instead actually cultural exploitation, which is more than just borrowing. Do you get the sense then we are being told there is a cultural appropriation “problem,” when none actually exists?

As for cultural exploitation, that is not an easy issue to settle. Numerous Aboriginal hip-hop musicians in Canada borrow from US sources without apology, just as in central Australia there are Aboriginal reggae bands, playing their music without sending shiploads of tribute over to Jamaica. This is not to mention the many dozens of zombie films made over the past century, all done without paying royalties to Haiti. (Perhaps the producers of The Walking Dead were very clever in avoiding use of the Z-word.)

The problem lies with the intentional spread of rules of “intellectual property” by governments and international bodies working in the service of a neoliberal political economy. An expert class of managers arrogates to itself the right to instruct and aribitrate over how we can learn from and be inspired by other cultures. So much for “market freedoms” then, and so much for “globalization,” when the very upholders of both of these are revealed to be little more than rent-seeking racketeers.

The Specialists and Vested Interests: Reengineering Social Discourse.

Homo Academicus 
Available at Amazon.

Enter the lawyer: Olufunmilayo Arewa is a professor of Law, at the University of California, Irvine, writing in The Conversation US, an online publication made possible by many of the usual giant capitalist US foundations and expeditionary philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and so forth. The “funders” vary by country, but are usually an assemblage of banks and foundations.

The Conversation is part of a growing trend that Pierre Bourdieu warned about decades ago in Homo Academicus (pp. 112, 119, 120, 267, 268, 297): the blurring of the lines between academia and journalism which reduces the autonomy of universities, makes them answerable to market audiences, and introduces journalistic standards of renown into a field previously dominated by standards of scholarship.

Thus it is not surprising to see Arewa’s piece in The Conversation — it is not so much predictable as it is almost mandatory that it would appear there. A lawyer, writing as a journalist, based in a major US university, backed by powerful foundations, all of which gives us a glimpse into the dense cluster of special interests that have been vested in the manufactured debates around cultural appropriation. This is a field dominated by elites — academics, journalists, bankers, lawyers — not an organic outgrowth of some popular outcry existing at the “grass roots” of indigenous communities.

Not to keep the phenomenon safely out of the reach of such special interests, Arewa (in loose language uncharacteristic of careful lawyers) blurs the lines between cultural appropriation and cultural exploitation. The accent is on exploitation, an arena fraught with danger, with loud claims for compensation, restitution, reparations, profit sharing, royalties, etc. An example of this deliberate slippage is where she writes, “borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships” which she quickly follows with a mention of opportunities to “control or benefit” from cultural “material”. I do not mean to suggest that Arewa is careless, sloppy, or lazy — I think that the language that bleeds from one concept to another is deliberate, intentional, and vested with special interests. The aim is to produce a “problem,” a problem that can only be solved in the legal arena and the marketplace. It is a neoliberal problem of diversity management, that demands neoliberal technologies of control and capital accumulation. Culture is turned into “material” that can be “controlled” by someone. (Who? You can guess.)

There is nothing ambiguous about this: if you read Arewa’s piece you will see the words above immediately followed by a section devoted to artifacts, museums, and a bunch of dollar figures — translation: culture as property, held by institutions, sold in the marketplace. It is the finale of her piece that gives away the motive in writing it…

“An understanding of both borrowing and appropriation should be incorporated into legal, business and other institutional frameworks. In fields such as intellectual property law, greater recognition of the power structures underlying borrowing in different contexts is important. This can be an important starting point for blocking future exploitative cultural flows. And it can help prevent extraction of more cultural booty”.

This squarely places the discussion of cultural appropriation in the neoliberal zone, where everything is commodified and then privatized and thus subject to the “rule of law”. Culture — whatever that was — becomes a matter of “intellectual property law”. Luckily, being a lawyer herself, Arewa is one of those who presumably stands to benefit. And that is the trick behind all of these attempts to regulate our speech and social interactions: subject them to regulations, censure and censor violators, and create capital for specialists who appear, as if by magic, to expertly mediate the whole problem…a problem they conceptually manufactured in the first place. The final gift is that the rules and norms of capitalism can be used to heal the rifts caused by capitalism — this really is magic.

There is one more area, a critically important one, where the conceptual wizardry produces benefits for elites, and losses for those who are supposedly meant to be protected, and that is the Canadian invention of “cultural genocide”.

Cultural Genocide: the genocide that was becomes one that wasn’t.

Stop genocide

It was shocking to see Canadians accepting the notion that the history of residential schooling — where children were forcibly taken away from their Aboriginal parents, to school them out of their Aboriginal heritage — has been officially defined in Canada as “cultural genocide. Conveniently, there is no such concept under international law, and it thus whitewashes Canada’s reputation for what it really is: a state guilty of genocide.

Of course, no state guilty of genocide has the political capital needed to lecture and threaten target states of the periphery. “Cultural genocide” avoids that problem, and is useful for evading any talk of UN sanctions and Security Council resolutions.

There was no conceptual need to speak in terms of “cultural” genocide — everything that is essential to the history of residential schooling is already covered by the existing UN “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” and has been since 1948. The key text comes under Article II, particularly point (e)…

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

A lawyer quoted by the CBC, reportedly made the following points: “Schabas compares the use of the term genocide to a very hot spice that ‘transforms something from being rather old news into something that gets the headlines’. Sometimes, he says, it also makes it harder for victims to reconcile with the perpetrator groups”. That is one remarkable statement. Not only is the history of residential schooling in Canada not “old news” (it only ended in 1996), the nature of the term being like “hot spice” never stops Canada or other Western nations from liberally applying it whenever convenient, against target nations abroad.

Wholesale fictions of “genocide” were invented about Libya in 2011, to justify NATO’s intervention — few, let alone in the CBC, were ever heard to say, “Hold on now, that’s a hot spice term, and if we use it then that might prevent the victims from reconciling with the Gaddafi government”. Instead, much of this CBC article, in the ample tradition of liberal hypocrisy, casts about for the appropriate legal scholar to lament about how, aw shucks, it’s too bad we do not have “cultural genocide” in international law…when the current convention against genocide already covers exactly what happened with Canadian residential schools.

Such blindness is not incompetence, it is wilful. It was sad to see indigenous leaders abide by all this, as if they had won something significant, instead of acknowledging the political fraud for which their experience was hijacked. How ironic then that this indigenous “leader” should declare: “If you can’t identify what the issue is, then you really don’t know what you’re working with”.

Stop Neoliberalism

The Neoliberal Reengineering of Culture.

In my book, Ruins of Absence, Presence of Caribs, the central concept and argument focused on the “reengineering of indigeneity,” where indigenous identity became vested with the interests of specialists emanating from several arenas surrounding the Caribs in Trinidad & Tobago: the national state, the Catholic church, the mass media, local business enterprises, local government, academia, tourism, NGOs, and international governmental organizations. We see a similar vesting of special interests in the fabrication of the “cultural appropriation crisis” and the story is not one of mendacious leftists (there are those too), but should instead be seen as reflecting neoliberal capitalist patterns.

Lawyers, professors, journalists, and other self-appointed gatekeepers: these are some of the specialists, sanctioned by the media and governments, who litigate and adjudicate the neoliberal commerce in culture, that is, culture turned into property and removed far beyond sharing, parody, mutual insults, and all the interactions that make up everyday social life. To be clear, never once have we heard any sort of popular indigenous outcry over “appropriation” — what we are made to hear instead are the voices of lawyers, academics, media pundits, and diversity consultants who show up with business cards, courtesy of the new cultural policing. We are therefore dealing with interests vested in reengineering culture into a series of specialist turfs, accompanied by calls for recognition, rewards, and fees.

Regulation of culture by the rule of the marketplace generates bureaucracies, and these bureaucracies create capital for the culture brokers that arise to take advantage of the opportunity. Even better, the manufacture of conflict over “appropriation” produces the space for appointed experts to intervene, and to inevitably acquire capital. This is the path of culture that is instrumentalized, or even weaponized.

Amanda PL

Rather than borrow from Aboriginal painters, Amanda PL (the opening paragraph; in the photo on the above) should cease and desist, lest she is accused of practicing “cultural genocide”. Yet, it is with the capitalist — not Aboriginal — conversion of culture into commodified property that Aboriginals will be rendered as the new untouchables, too expensive to even converse with. And that is going to end up being more like genocide than anything Amanda PL has done, because it will serve to forcibly remove Aboriginals and their culture away from the Canadian mainstream. But then is that genocide, or is it cultural genocide? Canadians don’t know. Thanks to poor concepts, we gain a poor understanding, make poor choices, which leads us to take the wrong actions, and results in failed or unjust policies.

The culture of capitalism, with its commodification of everything, with its focus on copyright and profits, produces another distortion. Now indigenous leaders are supposedly speaking indigenous truths through the language of capitalist commerce. Assimilation? Mission accomplished.

This is the paradox of the globalists: to preach the virtues of so-called “openness” and “diversity,” while developing more intricate and pervasive forms of censorship that work to shut down interaction and learning. The only way to resolve the contradiction is by acknowledging that the globalists are selling a superficial cultural hoax in order to advance a deeper ideological and political-economic project: the commodification and privatization of everything, and the abolition of social cohesion at the root of nationhood.

The cultural scam of globalism is built on two con jobs: selling protection to the favoured minorities of the moment, and,expanding securitization (as in “safe spaces”).

The desired end state is an order ruled by censorship (preferably self-censorship) — not a society, but a collection of individuals, rendered mute, detached, and sterile. It’s worth noting that ideas of sterilization, cleansing, and censorship belong to a pattern, a family of concerns for public order, hygiene, and purity. At the root of this is something that binds Old and New Victorians: the elites’ maximum distrust for the masses, their fear of the masses, and their contempt of the masses. It should not be surprising to see some continuity between eugenics and “democratic elitism”: both work to elevate elites, experts, managers, and technocrats against “lesser” citizens and voters. In fact, they would prefer to abolish universal suffrage, and replace it with daily policing by the media, universities, NGOs, and so forth. The key problem that such globalists and “progressives” refuse to confront is this one: In the absence of society (the neoliberal utopia expressed by Thatcher), and the social cohesion it offers, then who will rush to protect the individuals who constitute the elites?

The Old Victorian WASP norms of segregation become the New Victorian concerns over the prickly offensiveness of members of the white race doing or looking like their Aboriginal neighbours. With the renewed imposition of distances and mutual ignorance, colonialism wins. With the distortion of indigenous principles of exchange and sharing into capitalist principles, assimilation wins. With culture turned into exclusive zones that forbid trespassing, capitalism wins. With the commodification of culture, subjected to laws governing private property, neoliberalism wins. With the breakdown of national society into pockets of mutually suspicious, mutually hostile camps led by specialists concocted in universities and media labs, then we have no society: neoliberalism wins again.

Finally, while understandings of “cultural appropriation” are clouded probably beyond repair, leading muddled minds to make confusing and contradictory statements and opening the door to self-promoting opportunists, this does not mean that the exploitation of culture (material and/or symbolic) does not exist. We see more examples of real exploitation of culture than can be listed here (or anywhere) — generally they involve concrete acts of extraction and profit-seeking by those who turn dominated cultures into instruments of gain. As we see currently in the US, with an example of the exploitation of culture (going well beyond “appropriation”) perpetrated by Senator Elizabeth Warren, such acts are in no way inconsistent with liberal identity politics — they are its direct outcome.



Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website). It is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

Ideas! For ideas about using Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about left-wing politics, and especially these…

  1. Populism arises amidst American workers abandoned by both Left & Right.
  2. An anthropologist looks at the empty identity politics of America’s Left.
  3. An anthropologist explains how immigration serves the needs of capitalism.
  4. Michael Hudson asks if identity politics will break up the Democratic Party.
  5. How the Left sees its political violence: as innocents victimized.

Two books by Maximilian Forte.

Slouching Towards Sirte
Available at Amazon.
Who is an Indian?: Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas
Available at Amazon.

11 thoughts on “An anthropologist tells the secrets of cultural appropriation”

  1. Trudeau has been trying to included gender issues and feminism as part of Canada’s approach to trade agreements and foreign aid. Wouldn’t this be considered cultural imperialism? The media (especially CBC) seems to be on side.

  2. I define culture as the consensual beliefs, habits, customs and traditions derived from a group genome’s interaction with its circumstances over time. And I define civilization as a culture that is so dominant, so influential, that other cultures willingly subsume within even at the expense of their own.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Culture, in its our time — unlike that of Kant, who created (or popularized) its modern use — has no clear meaning. In that sense, it is like the term “pornograph.” We know what it is, but can’t agree on a definition.

      To understand how we use it, see this from Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. “Culture” is a link or placeholder in our minds for something important that we’ve lost. People who have “culture”, like those of classic Athens, don’t talk about it (any more than fish do about water).


      The interesting response to the nature-society tension, much more fertile than the return to, or nostalgia for, nature, can be summed up by the word “culture.” It seems to mean something high, profound, respectable — a thing before which we bow. It joins nature as a standard for the judgment of men and their deeds but has even greater dignity. It is almost never used pejoratively, as are “society,” “state,” “nation” or even “civilization,” terms for which culture is gradually substituted, or whose legitimacy is underwritten by culture.

      Culture is the unity of man’s brutish nature and all the arts and sciences he acquired in his movement from the state of nature to civil society. Culture restores the lost wholeness of first man on a higher level, where his faculties can be fully developed without contradiction between the desires of nature and the moral imperatives of his social life. …

      It seems there are two different current uses that, while distinct, are linked. First, culture is almost identical to people or nation, as in French culture, German culture, Iranian culture, etc.

      Second, culture refers to art, music, literature, educational television, certain kinds of movies—in short, everything that is uplifting and edifying, as opposed to commerce. The link is that culture is what makes possible, on a high level, the rich social life that constitutes a people, their customs, styles, tastes, festivals, rituals, gods — all that binds individuals into a group with roots, a community in which they think and will generally, with the people a moral unity, and the individual united within himself. A culture is a work of art, of which the fine arts are the sublime expression.

      From this point of view, liberal democracies look like disorderly markets to which individuals bring their produce in the morning and from which they return in the evening to enjoy privately what they have purchased with the proceeds of their sales. In culture, on the other hand, the individuals are formed by the collectivity as are the members of the chorus of a Greek drama. A Charles de Gaulle or, for that matter, an Alexander Solzhenitsyn sees the United States as a mere aggregate of individuals, a dumping ground for the refuse from other places, devoted to consuming; in short, no culture. …

      Culture founds the dignity of man. Culture as a form of community is the fabric of relations in which the self finds its diverse and elaborate expression. It is the house of the self, but also its product.
      It is profounder than the modem state, which deals only with man’s bodily needs and tends to degenerate into mere economy. Such a state is not a forum in which man can act without deforming himself. This is why in the better circles it always seems in poor taste to speak of love of country, while devotion to Western, or even American, culture is perfectly respectable. Culture restores “the unity in art and life” of the ancient polis. …

      Here again we live with two contradictory understandings of what counts for man. One tells us that what is important is what all men have in common; the other that what men have in common is low, while what they have from separate cultures gives them their depth and their interest.

  3. I was hoping for a more persuasive and thought-provoking essay. This was a rant. I’ll check out the American Conservative article to which he refers. I’m hoping that that author presents a more dispassionate critique of this “cultural appropriation” phenomenon that seems to have gained such adherents. I welcome any suggestions from other commenters!

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Professor Forte gives a large body of facts and analysis. If calling all that a “rant” helps you to dismiss it, well whatever.

  4. The 800 pound overlooked gorilla in the room is Christianity, which is the Greco-Roman cultural appropriation of the Old Testament God of the Jews. The Jews know this. That’s why they don’t “believe” in the New Testament. Jews were portrayed as the Christ killers, guilty of the crime of Deicide. Christians have too much emotional identity cash in their own culturally appropriated relationship with OT-NT God to see this.

  5. For me, the term “Cultural Appropriation” is an abomination because it reflects little knowledge of psychology, sociology or history.

    “Cultural appropriation” implies that by borrowing features from another culture we impoverish that other culture. The analogy would be that by reading a library book, I impoverish the person who next reads the same book.

    “Cultural appropriation” is not a concept that is wrong, but a concept that is meaningless. Cultural sharing enriches both cultures by creating a basis for harmony between peoples of different cultures.

    By definition, “cultural appropriation” has nothing whatsoever to do with imposing a culture upon people who resist acquiring new borrowings, such as the Canadian Indians who resisted having their children taken away to residential schools. The difference is that “cultural appropriation” is an active endeavour, whereas people who have a culture imposed upon them are either passively accepting the imposition or are resisting.

    You cannot have it both ways: you cannot have a concept that forbids borrowing from another culture because you find some aspects attractive and at the same time use the same concept to describe imposing your culture on others.

    For these reasons, the very term “cultural appropriation” as a concept is simply muddle-headed virtue signally with no benefits to anyone except the self-satisfaction of the prigs who promote the concept.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s the best brief analysis of “cultural appropriation that I’ve seen. Thank you for posting it. Lots of meat to it. Esp this (I love apt metaphors):

      “‘Cultural appropriation’ implies that by borrowing features from another culture we impoverish that other culture. The analogy would be that by reading a library book, I impoverish the person who next reads the same book.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: