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totalitarianismSeventeen 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.

Bahn ThaiI visit Bahn Thai every time I am in Seattle. I have sent the owner a postcard or two, thanking him, and he generally recognizes me when I visit.

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.

Fresh Vegetables - Potatoes, Tomatoes.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?

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

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

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16 replies to this post
  1. No argument here, but if “it is worth analyzing the reasons behind [the incidents] and worth trying to stop them now before they become acceptable and mainstreamed into larger culture,” then this essay must have a wider audience. Pardon my presumptuousness, but with a book fresh off the press and your name appearing in many mainstream publications, you should have no trouble getting some variation of this piece published in a periodical whose readers might be persuaded by your instructive anecdote and sound reasoning.

  2. Vatican exorcist, Fr. Truqui, among other exorcists, strongly warns against the practice of yoga because the positions are based on gestures of worship to false deities (demons) and thereby open a person up to possession. It’s not merely breathing and stretching. It’s playing with spiritual fire.

    • David, there are hundreds of things we do daily that come from pagan cultures. Where do we draw the line? I have a hard time believing (though I’m no expert) that Yoga affects us any differently than say running on a treadmill. At least at a spiritual level. And, of course, my article used Yoga as one example. I spent far more time looking at food.

    • The first thing to say is that only some traditions in yoga do focus on the visualisation of deities. These are mostly the tantric and bhakti traditions. Buddhist and Jain yoga, and even some Hindu yoga simply isn’t focused on deities in this way.

  3. David, I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I have a hard time believing that any Catholic would condemn Hinduism as demonic. I’m sure there are Catholics out there who believe this, but Hinduism is ancient and noble, rooted in the Natural Law. Granted, I’m no expert, but an argument can be readily made that the gods in Hinduism are variations of the one God. We Christians also have three persons in one God.

    • If the Judaeo-Christian God is real, what then are the Hindu gods? And I find it difficult to accept that you are arguing for a similarity between the Holy Trinity and the pantheon of Hindu deities, with one of the most prominent three being known as Shiva, the Destroyer. This is far more arguably consistent with Appolyon, worshipped as a pagan deity, which is also the Destroyer and is mentioned in Rev 9:11. In no way does St John come across as considering this as one of any ‘variations of the one God’. Therefore it may be worthwhile reconsidering this. God bless.

  4. Cultural conservatives have been trying for at least the last thirty years to get Yoga out of various curricula because they think of it as indoctrination into a pagan (likely demonic) religion. Totalitarianism? Sometimes you just can’t win.

    • Thanks, James. This is an example of totalitarianism–left or right–being simply. . . totalitarianism. Fundamentalism, totalitarianism, bigotry–all variations of a theme.

    • What curricula? Do you just mean sport at school? Some Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, might object viscerally to other religions and cultures. Unfortunately, we have seen some of that here. But I doubt most cultural conservatives have felt this way. I would think most cultural conservatives have a lot of respect for traditional cultures and practices from around the world, in general. This doesn’t mean they necessarily think that, for example, Western schools should not focus on Western culture. Many cultural conservatives do think it best to bring someone up in their own cultural traditions. But that doesn’t equate to despising other traditions.

  5. I’m conservative, but I don’t care if they teach yoga in some college. I don’t think it’s up to me to keep people from taking whatever courses they want. I get more upset when, for example, an Israeli academic can’t visit to speak unless he first renounces his country’s positions vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Or Christian groups can’t meet because they’re considered intolerant. Want to improve the university? Get rid of professional, excuse me, intercollegiate sports, at least the really corrupting ones, the ones that both spend and bring in so much money that they practically HAVE to have corrupting influences.

  6. As Dr. Birzer says, “…[T]he supposedly subjected cultural group must not assert goodness but power.” If we Christians feel as threatened by other cultures as those cultures–including the subculture of the modern university–feel threatened by us, then everyone will require a “safe space” and the power to defend it. Someone must exhibit courage and lead by example. That is what the Christian is called to do, and he or she does it through goodness and love. The Catholic Church Herself shows the way. She is uniform in doctrine but allows for certain cultural variations in worship and tradition because she adores her people, whatever their “accidents of birth.” She even acknowledges the moral rectitude of many pagan philosophers and poets, and the text notes of the Catholic Study Bible published by Oxford University Press draw connections between aspects of Genesis and Mesopotamian myth and legend. The Puritans, aptly named, sought to expunge the world from Christianity; they are now relegated to history.

  7. Relegated to history? They’re admired by some churches and even taught about in seminary. Look at this:

    English Puritan Theology, 0ST605, 2 hours
    J.I. Packer, Ph.D.
    Reformed Theological Seminary, Virtual

    And there’s Leland Ryken’s book, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, for example.

    I don’t agree with the Puritans across the board, nor do I uphold them as an ideal. But there are groups that do.

      • “The Puritans, aptly named, sought to expunge the world from Christianity; they are now relegated to history.” This is from Kenneth Cote’s comment.

      • What we’re looking at is something I don’t have a term for. I guess it’s political correctness. Some things are being challenged on campuses, as I mentioned above. It puts people DOWN to say let’s not learn their culture because they were so oppressed.

        I spent time overseas before even starting college, complements of my father’s career. As a professor later, I noticed that the only students with something to say were either brought up overseas, such as missionary kids, or students who had either married or had spent time overseas in the military. The average American student who thinks being far from home is an out-of-state visit has blinders on, and can parrot some really strange teachings. “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.” I don’t know if this was student-led, but it is patronizing to the Indians, and protects them from nothing except perhaps the belief that they’ll have an easy time finding intelligent conversation about international and cultural matters on Canadian campuses.

  8. Thanks to all of you for the comments. I’m really glad that the post has sparked some discussion. I would like to note, however, that I was trying (successful or not is a different question) to look at cultural appropriation as a theme. Not at any specific cultural appropriation (though I do love Thai food), but appropriation as a cultural norm. I don’t know enough about Hinduism to embrace or condemn it. What little I do know intrigues me, but it’s not the central point I was trying to make.

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