Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mulligatawny Soup, Fiction Writing, and Cultural Appropriation

Recently I was explaining to my children the origins of Mulligatawny Soup and it got me thinking about the latest cause célèbre of the political left-wing, 'cultural appropriation'. The delicious chicken curry soup originated in India and its name is an Anglicization of the Tamil words for 'spicy water'. It was popular with the British who served in India during the Raj and was one of many such dishes they appropriated when they returned home. You only need to visit British cities, particularly in Northern England or Scotland, to see the huge influence of Indian culture - and especially cuisine - on British life. The same applies to Indonesian culture in The Netherlands, North African culture in France and so on.

My musings on Mulligatawny coincided with reports of a speech by American writer, Lionel Shriver, who is best known for her book, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. Shriver was asked to address the Brisbane Writers Festival on the topic of 'fiction and identity politics'. The audience undoubtedly thought she would stick to the typical left-wing script about how important it is for authors to make careful deference to identity politics in their fiction, but they were to be disappointed. She signalled the tenor of her speech early on by stating that 'ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all.'

Shriver was, of course, referring to political correctness, but more specifically she was discussing the tendency of the left-wing to take offence any time anyone (or, at least anyone of European descent) adopts any symbol of another culture. She talked about the U.S. college that censured its students for wearing sombreros to a tequila party and the student union in the U.K. that banned its Mexican restaurant from giving out little sombreros (it seems Mexicans are particularly sensitive to appropriation of their headwear). Then she went on to discuss how writers and other artists are finding themselves subject to accusations of cultural appropriation for the mere act of creating a work that imagines the experience of someone of another culture. Shriver points out that it is the very act of appropriating other people's experiences that defines what is fiction (and if it were otherwise, it would be called autobiography).

Shriver said that 'the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with'. She is right - much contemporary fiction has become anodyne drivel - and I think she is bang on with the cause. Many contemporary writers seem much more concerned with convincing us of their bien pensant credentials than with telling a good story.

Some of my favourite writers are those of the early 20th Century, such as Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, who wrote mostly about their experiences of cultures other than their own. Their appeal is due to the fact that not only were they perspicacious observers of human nature but they conveyed their foreign characters with unapologetic and unadorned authenticity. Waugh's portrayal of an African dictator in Black Mischief is surely one of the greatest (and most comedic) characterisations in modern literature and it is sad that no popular writer today would write such a character for fear of invoking a secular version of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Shriver's speech, which was reproduced in full in the Guardian (you can read it here), drew a response from a woman in the audience named Yassmin Abdel-Magied who (surprise, surprise) took offence at what Shriver said and equated her views with those of Australian nationalist politician Pauline Hanson. The Guardian gave Abdel-Magied equal space to air her objections and it is worth reading her article (here), if only to appreciate the perverted logic of those who, in the name of redressing imagined historical wrongs, seek to deny fiction writers the very freedom to create.

Taking the objection to cultural appropriation to its logical conclusion, no one would be allowed to learn a language that wasn't of their own ethnic background, which would be a problem for the large numbers of European New Zealanders who, presumably for reasons of cultural virtue, have taken up learning Maori. My ancestry would make my study of Irish Gaelic okay, but I'd probably be in trouble for my Spanish and French.

This is where the left-wing are going. It is they who are doing the appropriating and, not content with appropriating our incomes, our property, our institutions and our language, they now want to appropriate our minds. Like Winston Smith's tormentor in 1984, they are not going to be satisfied with us paying lip service to their cultural hegemony, they insist we must actually believe it. But, of course, that has been their aim all along.

I only hope that more creators of our popular culture are as brave as Lionel Shriver and take a stand against the real threat of appropriation of our free thoughts.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Hillbilly Explains Why America is So Divided

If you want to know why Donald Trump has won the Republican Party nomination for president and is once again leading Hillary Clinton in the polls, you need only read the book I have just read - Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance. This autobiography of a young man growing up in rural Kentucky and small town Ohio describes a life that many would assume is the preserve of poor blacks in urban ghettos. The fact that the author is a highly articulate, white Yale graduate is the twist in the tale. Vance's upbringing in a violent, unemployed, drug-riddled and fragmented family is an increasingly common story of people in the 'rust belt' of America - places where all the big manufacturers (such as the Armco steel works of Vance's home town) have closed down or moved their factories offshore, taking all the well-paid blue collar jobs with them.

Vance talks with some bitterness about the elites in the cities on the Eastern seaboard and in California, who hold the working-class inhabitants of the 'flyover' states in contempt. He found himself the token hillbilly at Yale, where he was a source of greater fascination to the well-heeled faculty and students than any of the more-recognised minority groups at the university, and he describes a huge gulf in understanding between the lifestyle in which most of his classmates were raised and the circumstances of his own childhood. Vance transcended his upbringing because of a grandmother who provided him with a sanctuary amongst the violence and despair and who instilled in him a work ethic that many of his peers lacked. He discovered that Yale Law School, to which he won a scholarship, is a one-way ticket into the elite and he describes with fascination how he began to benefit from the connections and favouritism that ensure those who graduate from Yale have easy entry into their choice of high-paying and influential jobs.

The great divide in modern American society - and in all Western countries - it isn't so much about race or ethnic origin, despite what the political left-wing would have us believe. It is about a new form of class based on education, connections and political pull, and those who aren't part of the new upper class are increasing disenfranchised politically and detached socially from those who are. There was a time when an American working man could make an income that was sufficient for him to buy his own home and support a family in comfort. That is no longer the case, and the worst thing about it is that the elite know this and don't care - their sympathies aren't with the real working class but with those from preferred minorities whom they can enlist as victims in their political and social cause célèbres. This is why Donald Trump appeals to so many white, working class males - he is the only one on the political landscape who appears to give a damn about them.

American politics today is all about exploiting these divisions. Obama has spent eight years stoking the fires of racial, social and economic division and Hilary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon with her new-found enthusiasm for left-wing causes. Trump is stoking the fires from the other end of the train. They both present their constituents' fortunes as a zero-sum game, setting Americans against each other in a fight for a "fair share" of the pie. Their supporters on both sides are too foolish to understand that they are being cynically exploited or that under both Clinton's and Trump's policies, everyone will lose. The biggest fools are the members of the elite who appear blind to the fact that they cannot continue to enjoy their cosy positions forever while tens of millions of Americans in the MidWest and South cannot make ends meet.

Vance has given a remarkable, first-hand insight into both sides of the divide that threatens to become an irreparable rent in American society. He does not set out to propose solutions and while his story reminds us that individuals can always transcend circumstances, he offers us no assurance that societies can do the same.