To defeat the twisted ideology of the alt-right, we have to become more comfortable with cultural mixing and borrowing.
Today I listened to the most recent The Ezra Klein Show podcast, in which Klein interviews Angela Nagle, the author of a new book titled Kill All Normies, which chronicles the rise of the alt-right. During their conversation, Klein and Nagle discuss what draws people to the alt-right, and Nagle places much of the blame on culture. She argues that with the receding importance of religion and other traditional purveyors of culture and community, some individuals have been left floundering in a purposeless existence. Into this void have stepped alt-right demagogues like Richard Spencer, who promise that meaning can be found in embracing an ideology of white supremacy, misogyny, and xenophobia.
The search for meaning in a modern world where status is often linked to one’s job, and where good jobs for low-skill workers are increasingly hard to come by, can be a powerful draw. To counter this, Nagle believes that society needs to have a serious conversation about how we build a modern culture. As the foundational creed for a culture of modernity, Nagle suggests cosmopolitanism, a philosophy that posits that all people belong to a universal community, that human rights are paramount, and that we have a a duty to respect and aid others, regardless of their culture, background, or ethnicity.
I tend to agree with Nagle’s prescription, and in truth, it is one that much of the world already subscribes to, at least nominally. After the horrors of World War II, the nations of the world saw the need for institutions and declarations of belief that would counter the totalitarian doctrines propounded by fascists. To this end, they formed the United Nations, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and subsequently penned the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. All of these efforts had at their core a cosmopolitan worldview.
Of course, despite the good intentions of the founders of the post-war internationalist order, the world community has inevitably failed to live up to their ideals. Despite such shortcomings, cosmopolitanism seems like a creed that should be reinvigorated and actively promoted as a solution for America and the West’s cultural wasteland. But before the culturally adrift can be evangelized to cosmopolitanism, there is one obstacle that must be dealt with: the charge of cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation? It’s often defined as taking someone else’s culture and making it your own. What’s wrong with that, you ask? According to some on the left, everything. They claim that adopting facets of another culture is “stealing” that culture and necessarily exploitative. There are some nuances to the concept that I’m glossing over here, but that’s what it is in a nutshell.
Note that I’m not dismissing the idea of cultural appropriation writ large. Donning headdresses used by Native Americans in sacred ceremonies is obviously offensive, and plastering oneself in blackface is gross racism. But while we should be careful not to mock the cultures of others and subject their cherished traditions to derision, when the charge of cultural appropriation is leveled in the public sphere, it often results in patent absurdity. Such ridiculousness was on display in Portland earlier this year, when a food cart called Kooks Burritos was driven out of business after being accused of appropriating Mexican cuisine (no word yet if activists have sharpened their pitchforks for Taco Bell). In late 2015, the constantly choppy waters of social media erupted into a veritable tempest when news spread that the University of Ottawa had canceled yoga classes, citing concerns of appropriating South Asian religious practices (never mind that Indians have actively encouraged Westerners to practice yoga for decades). More recently, the pop singer Katy Perry was forced to run the gauntlet of public shaming when she chose to sport “cornrows,” a hairstyle typically worn by African Americans.
I could go on.
It’s evident that cultural appropriation is often used as a cudgel to enforce inane standards of “cultural purity,” but why is that a barrier to promoting cosmopolitanism? Well, cosmopolitanism inherently embraces the idea of cultures mixing, borrowing, imitating, and fusing with one another. So, if I’m someone being evangelized to embrace cosmopolitanism, I might be scared out of adopting its tenets if I think I’ll be railroaded on charges of cultural appropriation. Rather than face being pilloried by the hordes of online Jacobins who police cultural boundaries, why not just stick to my own culture? Why not just retreat into my shell and steep myself in my own provincial views, views that can often lead to the xenophobia and racism of the alt-right?
The alt-right is an appalling movement, one that could undermine the hard-won progress that our society has achieved in cross-cultural relations. To combat the alt-right’s intolerance, we need to embrace a culture that can appeal to people from different backgrounds, and cosmopolitanism holds the promise of doing this. But if we are to see cosmopolitanism succeed, we have to become comfortable with benign forms of cultural appropriation, ones that seek to celebrate, rather than denigrate, the cultures of others. Otherwise, we could face a turbulent future of increased tribalism and cross-cultural antagonism.