Seventeen years ago, I flew into Seattle. I do this a lot, but this was one of those flights. Not just any flight, but one of THOSE flights. The kind in which everything seems to go wrong. Delays, turbulence, more delays, and then a few more delays.
By the time I got to my hotel in north Seattle, I was exhausted, frustrated, and on the verge of collapse.
I was also extremely hungry….
About a block from the hotel, I spied an Asian restaurant, Bahn Thai. I trepidatiously crossed the street and walked up the stairs to the entrance. For some strange reason, I was the only customer. The owner—who spoke almost no English and who was as kind as could be—treated me as royalty, and I still regard this as the most memorable meal I have ever had. I had never eaten anything like it. Excellence resided in every aspect of the meal, but my mouth was especially partial to the melding of various spices in ways I had never imagined.
And, it should be noted, I grew up surrounded by excellent bakers and cooks. The women on my mother’s Russian-German side were especially good at the art of cooking and baking. I learned a great deal from them, and, to this day, I remain convinced I have never met a better cook and baker than my maternal grandmother. Her much younger sister, Lonnie, is the only serious rival for the position.
Two things resulted from my having that Thai meal in Seattle. First, I became absolutely fascinated with Thai culture. I thought, not incorrectly, that the Thai people must be extraordinary to possess such culinary talent. Second, I decided that I would learn to cook Thai-style, and I immersed myself in every book I could find on the subject.
According to arguments propounded by several members of the modern left, my first reaction was racist, while my second is genocidal. You see, I have violated several cultural rules. I am not alone. According to the Washington Post (November 23, 2015), the University of Ottawa has cancelled a yoga class for beginners and the disabled on the grounds that it inappropriately appropriated a cultural treasure of India, a country once oppressed by the British.
But yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.
As one of my English friends notes in response to this news: “madness.”
Yes, pure and simple madness—yet, reality, none the less. And, such arguments will only gain in force. In part, this is what caused many of problems at the University of Missouri this past semester, especially for the “protestors” (read: selfish, arrogant, and spoiled brats) who demanded a “safe space” on public property. The same was true at several universities across North America, including Ivy League members, in the second half of 2015.
Because these bizarre incidents will continue to occur over the next several years, it is worth analyzing the reasons behind them and worth trying to stop them now before they become acceptable and mainstreamed into larger culture. They have, to be certain, become a troubling part of academic life, but most of those outside of academia rightly consider them—as my Engilsh friend noted—madness.
First, the obvious: Cultures merge all the time. This is a central process in history, and it has been since the first group of people met another group of people. Cultures meet, cultures clash. Everything from marriage customs to regional dialects to clothing styles to trade and commerce transform—sometimes dramatically but more often quietly—when different peoples encounter one another. Yes, cultural encounters always involve tensions, but they also allow for dynamism, creativity, and innovations in human existence.
This is as true for the spirit of a culture as it is for the material components of a culture. As to the latter… the potato and the tomato, as obvious examples, originate in the Americas. Are the Italians anti-Native American for transforming the tomato into a cultural icon? Are the Irish and Scandinavians guilty of cultural misappropriation and genocidal impulses for cultivating the potato? When the American Indians of the sixteenth century adopted the use of iron pots, did they steal from the poor European? After all, the Indians did not just adopt the iron pot, they clamored and, at times, killed for them.
What about cultural change at a less tangible level. Do the Norse pagans want to reclaim Thursday for Thor? The Roman imperials, July and August? While some fundamentalists Protestants reject the name “Easter” as pagan, employing the even creepier term, “Resurrection Sunday,” most Christians remain level-headed, content to keep the names of days and months that are utterly pagan. After all, who actually celebrates Friday as the day dedicated to fertility and the eating rites of Freya?
Second, what we are witnessing is liberalism in its last stages of innocence and imagination, and its descent into totalitarianism. Christopher Dawson—perhaps the greatest and most perceptive scholar of culture in the twentieth-century—recognized that liberalism serves merely as the historical stage between Christendom and totalitarianism. We might very well give lip service to the ethics of our Christian great-grandparents, but without a firm anchor in the heart of Christianity, that lip service will become meaningless at some point. The ethical foundation might last as long as three or four generations in a post-Christian world. At some point, however, a generation will ask “why” and the answer “because it’s the way it’s always been done” will mean nothing. At that point, cultural will adopt some form of universal relativism. This, however, cannot stand, and very quickly after, might will make right.
Third, the reaction on college campuses is a form of fundamentalism to the extreme. We are now at the beginning of what Dawson predicted, the death not only of Christianity but of Christian ethics. Without this touchstone, our young are grasping for something true. If they cannot find truth, they will grasp what seems true. The most basic element they understand is group think. And, rather than ethics, they have learned power. Therefore, at the moment, the supposedly subjected cultural group must not assert goodness but power. It does this by chastising those groups—more likely imagined than real—that have traditionally help power. Subjectivism is just fundamentalism in disguise.
Obviously, this is an important topic and one to which conservatives must give serious thought. I have only offered a most superficial glance at it. Yet, as we think about it and find our appropriate response, enjoy your yoga and visit Bahn Thai. Taste and goodness do, thank God, transcend the limitations of the accidents of birth, and connect us to every person who has ever lived or ever will live. We are, all of us, black, white, yellow, red, male, female, gentile, Jew….
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.