The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture

Arbitrary Timelines:

As already discussed (spec. with regards to hair-styles), the demonization of Cul-Ap involves a conceit regarding the origins of the cultural element at issue.  The charge that someone has smuggled memetic contraband across cultural lines requires one to engage in a quixotic attempt to identify the ULTIMATE source-culture of the designated meme. That identification is invariably based primarily on present exigencies, not on historical realities.  As it turns out, exactly which culture is anointed as the TRUE OWNER depends on how far back in history one opts to terminate one’s inquiry.  Such a temporal threshold is inevitably arbitrary.

As I will try to show, in order to assert that a designated meme “belongs” to a certain culture, one is forced to ignore all of the history that preceded the purported source-culture’s adoption of it.  Such conceit is no better illustrated than with iconography and holidays (especially when they are sacred). Yet it is even illustrated by quotidian memes like catch-phrases or clothing fads.  We must ask: Where did it begin?  And who started the trend?  Oftentimes, a discrete origin does not exist.  Any given culture is not a fait accompli; it is a work in progress–the result of having incorporated memes from extant cultures during its own development. That process is STILL HAPPENING.

Cultural elements generally have a history that predates the culture that now claims the element as its own. Beer is originally from Egypt.  Mocha is originally from Qatar.  Coffee is originally from Ethiopia.  Yet we never associate the consumption of such things with their source-cultures.  Why not?  We choose to start the history of beer, mocha, and coffee at some point LATER ON.  This is only natural.  Each culture is inclined to take credit for a meme that it fancies to be a signature trait of itself.  So we are apt to associate wine primarily with French and Italian culture…even though it was originally PERSIAN.  (Thanks, Shiraz.)  If we were to enforce the strictures suggests by Cul-Ap-phobes, tea would be off-limits in England (since the Brits appropriated it from India after colonizing the sub-continent).

Contrary to the popular adage, apple pie is originally British, not “American”.  (Apples originally came from Kazakhstan, by the way.  And pie goes back to ancient Greece.)  “Just as American as apple pie,” it turns out, means NOT (originally) American after all.

As mentioned, the iconic (white) cowboy of the “wild west” in American folklore is a derivative of the Mexican “vaquero”.  Peanut butter was first used by the Incas and Aztecs.  And don’t get Italians started on the origins of REAL pizza.  Why aren’t the Nahua people incensed by Skippy?  Well, probably for the same reason Neapolitans aren’t incensed by Pizza Hut.  One people’s cultural heritage is not threatened by another’s adoption of this or that cultural element; as their pride need not be anchored to any particular meme.

Alas.  If we were to take the logic of Cul-Ap-phobia to its logical conclusion, only Qataris could eat mocha, only Ethiopians could drink coffee.

We all incorporate elements from various cultures into our own repertoire…then, eventually, fancy it to be our own.  Paying tribute to antecedent adopters undermines cultural pride; so we tend to elide any heritage that countermands our own.  This goes for technology as much as it does for cuisine.  Gunpowder, the concept of vaccination, paper, and moveable type are originally from China; yet rarely do those in the Occident commemorate these vital Oriental contributions.

Though certain memes might CURRENTLY be integral parts of a given culture (by sheer accident of history), those memes do not eternally “belong” to ANY given culture.  To illustrate this point, we might harken back to the pantheon of Roman gods: Jupiter, Venus, Neptune, Minerva, Hercules, Vesta, Mars, Mercury, Pluto, Juno, Diana, Nike, Bacchus, Vulcan, Ceres, Harmony, and Saturn.  Who are these deities?  Lo and behold, they are the Italic version of Hellenic gods: Zeus, Aphrodite, Poseidon, Athena, Heracles, Hestia, Ares, Hermes, Hades, Hera, Artemis, Victoria, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Demeter, Concordia, and Kronos (respectively).  Heavens to Mergatroid; the Romans poached the entirety of Mount Olympus!

As it turns out, this is USUALLY how deities are established.  Even the Hebrew “Yahweh” seems to have been appropriated from the antecedent godhead of the “Shasu” (an Amorite clan that hailed from Ephraim).  Shall we begrudge the world’s Jews for filching the Abrahamic deity from their Canaanite forebears?  Perhaps not, as there are no Shasu left to file charges.  But that’s neither here nor there; for virtually ALL deities are derivative.

Whoever one might be, most of the elements of one’s own culture are the (tentative) culmination of a very, very long sequence of Cul-Ap.  This makes contempt for Cul-Ap a form of (inadvertent) masochism.  Want to find someone guilty of Cul-Ap?  Look no further than a mirror.  Regardless of who you might be, you are likely (unwittingly) engaged in myriad instances of Cul-Ap every day.

We are more prone to a bout of Cul-Ap neurasthenia when we fail to come to terms with the fact that a cultural inheritance is, indeed, an INHERITANCE (or, more accurately, a concatenation of various inheritances…most of which are probably not even recognized as such).  Are we to deny everyone else the right to do with OUR cultural elements what we have already done ourselves with others before us?  Virtually ANYTHING we now fancy to be “ours” was, at some point, someone else’s.

As we’ve seen, the point can be illustrated by something as trivial as what people opt to do with their hair–be it corn-rows or dread-locks.  We might even explore this matter further.  Let’s look at French braids and Bantu knots.  French braids were not originally French, they were Numidian.  And they were used by the Chinese before that…and by the Greeks even before THAT.  Bantu knots were Zulu knots before they were Bantu.  And they Nubian before that…and Egyptian even before THAT.  It is plain to see, then, that nobody OWNS the hair-style.

This is how we can account for the fact that few are in a snit about the “Dutch braid”, an adaptation of the “French braid”…which was an adaptation of the (Algerian) Berber braid…which, as mentioned, was an adaptation of an ancient Numidian stylization.  This is why the French don’t even call French braids “French braids”; they–more accurately–call them “African braids”.  (For similar reasons, they don’t call french toast “french toast” because it actually isn’t French.)  To repeat: EVEN THAT is not accurate–as the African braiding style was ALSO used by the medieval Chinese and by the ancient Greeks.  In any case, the Ancient Egyptians were braiding their hair long before anyone else.  (Women braiding their hair was evidently an issue in Palestine during the 1st century, as Paul’s first letter to Timothy admonishes them against it.)

So are we to then suppose that the Dutch are guilty of Cul-Ap?  From where?  How far back shall we go?  Should the Greeks be in an uproar about hairstyles in the Netherlands?  How about the Chinese?  Where, exactly, are the lines to be drawn?  In virtually every case, the very people Cul-Ap-phobes proclaim are the victims were guilty of the indiscretion themselves.  With all the serious problems in the world today, who is and isn’t donning this or that hair-style should be the least of our concerns.

We all exist as a locus of memes from different places.  As individuals, we customize our memetic repertoire as an expression of PERSONAL identity.  The result is a motley assortment of cultural elements, some of which are from cultures other than our own.  Manifesting the elements of different cultures in one’s own behavior is the hallmark of multi-culturalism.  It is also how any given culture formed in the first place.  The genealogy of cultural elements is testament to on-going co-optation; a process that shall hopefully continue indefinitely.

By suggesting that someone is “stealing” something from another culture, one sets oneself up to explain how the designated source-culture conjured the idea out of thin air.  Unless one is referring to the Sumerians (or the Indus Valley or the Yellow River Valley civilizations), whatever one is fixated on likely came from somewhere else…which, according to Cul-Ap, makes all mankind a swarming throng of memetic thieves.

The ubiquity of meme-appropriation is also illustrated by the ramification of iconography around the world.  The cooptation of icons has occurred throughout human history.  Let’s look at a few well-known examples of Cul-Ap as it pertains to semiotic transmigration (that is: memetic transference with respect to symbols).

Christianity fancies itself to be a movement rooted in unstinting forbearance.  In an odd twist of irony, though, after being adopted by the Roman imperium, its iconography underwent a queer inversion.  The transmogrified (Nicene) religion took as its emblem a Roman torture device.  Preceding the use of a crucifix to symbolize the Faith, the movement had already espoused a series of appropriated symbols:

The initial following of Jesus of Nazareth (known as “the Way”) was based on universal compassion; and used a FISH as its insignia.  In Koine Greek, the symbol came to be called the I-Chi-Th-Y-S, an acronym for “Iesous Kristos Theou [h]Yios Soter” [Jesus, anointed son of god, savior] (a.k.a. the “icthys”).  In place of a fish, the movement eventually adopted the pagan “Vesica-Pisces”.  Most of the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth were fishermen.  Consequently, he characterized his ministry as fishing for followers–as attested in the first chapter of the original Gospel: Mark.  The fish seems to have been appropriated from antecedent iconography, much of which had to do with the Roman worship of Venus…who was, in turn, based on the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.  The leitmotif was also likely influenced by the pagan goddess, Atargatis (often associated with fish)…whose origins were in the Middle East.  It is yet another irony that–after all this–Christianity would become an obdurately patriarchal institution.

Pursuant to Emperor Constantine’s purported conversion, the Chi-Rho (the first two letters of the Greek term, “Kristos”) was used as an emblem of the newly-minted Roman religion.  Only when Nicene “Christianity” (based largely on the tenets diametrically opposed to the original movement) became the prevailing version of the creed–during the reign of Emperor Theodoseus–did the cult adopt the crucifix as its insignia.  And it is quite likely that THAT was inspired by the Egyptian Ankh. {12}  Christian iconography was a veritable orgy of appropriation.

Examples of appropriated iconography are seemingly endless.  The staff of Hermes (a dagger enwrapped by a helix of one or two snakes, sometimes topped by a pair of wings) originated in Mesopotamia during the 4th millennium B.C.  It eventually served as the icon of the Sumerian demi-god, Nin-gish-zida: messenger of the Earth-mother.  It was then “appropriated” by the ancient Egyptians (ref. the Djed pillar at the Dendera temple).

During Classical Antiquity, it was used by the ancient Greeks as the “kerukeion”–an icon for the deity associated with healing, Asklepios (which incorporated the serpent known as “Python”).  It was thus often known as the “Rod of Aesclepius” in Greco-Roman lore. Meanwhile, the shaft was used in India as the “mudra” for Mauryan king “Ashoka the Great”.

The staff eventually made an appearance in the Torah as well; in the form of a protective brass pole for the Israelites–thus serving as a talisman meant to ward off the lethal bites from serpents that Yahweh had sent to punish them (Numbers 21:4-9).

In the Book of Exodus, Moses presents the Israelites with a depiction of a snake coiled around a staff.  He does this in order to protect them from, well, snakes; as serpents generally symbolized evil in Abrahamic lore.  This icon (the“caduceus”) was meant to serve as a prophylactic against poison—both actual and theological.  It was none other than the herald used by Hera’s messenger, Iris in Greek mythology; and associated with the aforementioned god of medicine, Asklepios.

It is telling that a Judaic prophet opted for pagan iconography when seeking an antidote to (literal and spiritual) venom.  But as it turns out, such appropriation was not uncommon in Abrahamic lore; as much that was eventually considered Hebraic had been appropriated from Hellenic sources. {31}

In another twist of irony, the icon was scornfully referenced later in the Hebrew Bible–by the reformist king, Hezekiah–as the “Nehushtan” (that is: as something to be rebuked).

The staff then came to be dubbed the “caduceus” by the Romans; and would subsequently be associated with Mercury in medieval astronomy. It is now used to symbolize medicine–presumably with Hermes in mind.  Shall we inform most of the medical associations around the world that they are guilty of appropriating culture from the Sumerians?  Well, it’s not a problem, as the Sumerians don’t exist anymore.  So who cares, right?  Neither do the ancient Egyptians.  But wait.  What about the Greeks and Indians?  Do they have a case to make?  If so, the American Cancer Society better rethink its logo.

The ways in which we, as a community, characterize things (that is: how we happen to think of things CULTURALLY) is a function of a concatenation of salient semiotic factors—factors that are perpetually in flux, and determined by a variety of social forces.  Semiotics plays a significant role in collective (read: tribal) identities.

The relationship between a collective identity and semiotic exigencies is highly complex; as each is—ultimately—a historical accident.  The “catch” is that everyone likes to think that their iconography is unique to them.  We all want to take ownership of our own signature semiotic repertoire.  So we see novelty even when things are derivative.  We do so…lest we be forced to concede that what we hallow is merely an accident of history; and could have easily been otherwise had circumstances been different.

Once something has been sanctified, such a concession becomes untenable.

So when assaying how a given group identifies with a certain set of memes at any given time, it is necessary to take into account the social psychology underlying nascent memetic resonance. {29}  Amidst all this, we are faced with a choice.  We can quibble over who “owns” which cultural gem; or we can all feast at a communal table.

What of the phoenix?  The “feng-huang” in medieval Chinese art inspired its use in medieval Persian art (as the “simurgh”).  This posed no problem–a fact that becomes especially apparent once we consider versions of the icon predated BOTH cultures (as the “gandaberunda” in Hindu art).  We in the Occident now know this leitmotif from its Greco-Roman incarnation: a bird rising from the smoldering ashes.

And what of the double-headed eagle?  It has been used as an insignia for regimes in Austro-Hungary, Albania, Serbia, and Russia, as well as for the Holy Roman Empire; yet it originated with the Hittites of Anatolia…and was later “appropriated” by the Byzantines (as the “Palaiologos”), then by the Seljuk Turks.  Shall it now be deemed off-limits to anyone but eastern Europeans and Turks?  Shall we now suppose that those who use the insignia are guilty of ripping off the Hittites?  The Germans adopted it as the “reichsadler” in the 19th century.  In doing so, was there something iniquitous afoot in Saxony?

The so-called “Star of David” [Hebrew: “megan David”] offers another case-study in appropriated symbols.  The symbol seems to have originated in ancient Canaanite iconography.  It was eventually adopted by Kabbalists for use on “segulot” (talismanic protective amulets) during the Dark Ages.  Kabbalists originally referred to it as the Seal of Solomon–which appeared in two versions (as either a pentagram or a hexagram).  

It is oft-forgotten, though, that the original emblem of Judaism was the Aryeh Yehuda [lion of Judah].  During Classical Antiquity, and into the Middle Ages, the predominant symbol of the Mosaic Faith was actually the menorah–as attested by the Babylonian Talmud, which never mentions a star.  When Roman Emperor Domitian erected the triumphal “Arch of Titus” to commemorate the Roman victory over the Jews in 70 A.D., the latter were associated not with a star, but with the menorah. The menorah was still the go-to symbol in the 5th and 6th centuries A.D.—as demonstrated by the Jewish Catacombs of Rome and Venosa. (For more on this, see my essay on “The Land Of Purple”.)

Assuming King David even existed, were he to have seen this star, he surely would not have associated it with either himself, with his people, or with the Abrahamic deity.  Consequently, it stands to reason that this was NOT what Solomon would have used for his royal seal.  A lion symbolized his creed, not the Canaanite hexagram. And for the next two thousand years, its emblem would be a menorah.

Only around the 11th or 12th century A.D. did those involved in the Mosaic tradition start incorporating the fabled hexagram into their iconography–a convention that was mostly limited to the Kabbalist tradition.  The star was thereafter used as an insignia for Masoretic texts (as attested by the Leningrad codex).  Through the Renaissance, the familiar symbol was alternately known by Jews as the “Shield of David” or “Seal of Solomon”. Yet it was hardly exclusive to Judaism. During the Crusades, the same star was used by the (vehemently anti-Semitic) Knights Templar!  (Cul-Ap, it turns out, is not without ironies.)

It was not until the 19th century that Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement (i.e. the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe) adopted the star as an insignia for Judaic identity.  And only in the advent of the modern Zionist movement (in the late 19th century) did it come to be associated primarily with Judaism.

In the ancient world, the hexagram served as a sacred symbol in Phoenician, Assyrian, Roman, Armenian, Ethiopian, Bactrian, Indian, and Tibetan iconography.  Each version used what was a catchy and straight-forward design: two triangles (one inverted) super-imposed upon one another.

The Semitic origins of the hexagram star will likely forever remain unclear.  Why did some of the early Semitic peoples adopt it?  One possibility is that it was the pagan symbol for “Kewan” / “Kaiwan”, the Canaanite star-god rebuked in the Book of Amos (5:26).  This moniker was–mistakenly–rendered “Re[m]phan” / “Raiphan” in Koine Greek when the Septuagint was composed in the 2nd century B.C.  (“Kewan” was probably a Semitic adaptation of the Assyrian “Kayawanu”; as in the reference found in Acts 7:43.)

Considering how iconography usually works, we should not be surprised to find that this particular star is not unique to Judaism–as Albanians and Palestinians (that is: Muslims in the Balkans and in the Levant) have been using it as an emblem for centuries.  In fact, prior to the 20th century, it was just as much an Islamic symbol as it was a Jewish one.  The hexagram was on the Moroccan flag until 1915, when it was altered to a pentagram.  The star also has mathematical significance: the fractal hexagram (a pair of superimposed triangles, one inverted) is referred to as the Koch snowflake.

But wait.  There’s more.  The symbol was also used in the Far East!  Practitioners of Shinto in Japan have been using the hexagram star (as the “Kagome” crest) since the 5th century B.C.  And it was often used on Hindu mandalas EVEN BEFORE THAT.  Indeed, the “Shatkona” antedates ALL THE OTHER versions of the hexagram.  The two triangles–one pointing up, the other down–represent “Om” and “Hreem” in Vedic lore; or, alternately, Shakti (representing Vedic “prakriti”) and Shiv[a] (representing Vedic “purusha”) in Hindu lore.  So, gee-wiz.  Who’s symbol is it?

The Anahata insignia

As it turns out, Jews of the modern age are the LAST people on Earth to have adopted this familiar symbol…which is now associated with the modern nation-State of “Israel”.  Shall we cry “cultural appropriation” against the world’s Jewish people each time we see them using this “star of David”?  According to the logic of Cul-Ap: YES.  But we don’t.  Why not?  Because doing so would be ridiculous.  Like anyone else, Jews have a right to adopt things from other cultures.  The symbol was not ORIGINALLY theirs; yet they now use it as their own nevertheless.  And that’s perfectly fine. {25}

The hexagram as used in medieval Islamic iconography

The iconography that is familiar to us NOW is often the result of a long line of Cul-Ap.  Granted, many instances of the hexagram around the world (Indian, Persian, Illyrian, Armenian, Byzantine, Moroccan, Malay, Balinese, Japanese, etc.) emerged independently, not from Cul-Ap; but the point remains: It is the height of conceit for anyone who adopted the meme later in the timeline to claim exclusive ownership.  It is important to recognize that what we now call the “Star of David” originally had a very different semiotic existence—be it the Shatkona yantra in Hinduism; or the Kagome crest in the Shinto tradition; or any of the other occurrences of the symbol over the millennia.  And when we see the hexagram’s use in Judaism (since its appearance in the 11th century), we should note that that was a later development; and that the Anahata mandala existed long before.

In an ironic confluence of iconography, ancient manuscripts of the “Bardo Thodol” (a.k.a. the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) feature a mandala with a hexagram circumscribing a swastika–something that was often done in the Vajra-yana tradition.  (Navajo art also sometimes used this combination.)  Such a seemingly discordant concurrence is an illustration that those two symbols have a history that is vastly different from the connotations with which people in the Occident have come to be familiar.  It is a reminder that to expect cultures to exist in silos is a quixotic venture.  And it is further confirmation that pan-cultural integration is nothing new; and nothing to fear.

Note the swastikas located at each of the six points of the Vajra-vahari mandala

Another Abrahamic example drives the point home.  Dar al-Islam implicitly pays heed to its pagan roots by retaining the crescent moon as its icon-of-choice–a hold-over from pre-Islamic Arabia, where it symbolized the moon-god, Hubal.  Naturally, Mohammedan lore was designed to elide this fact.  For it is de rigueur for virtually ALL iconography to obfuscate its own genealogy.  Indeed, failing to do so risks revealing the fact that–whatever it might be–the meme is merely a social construct (which is to say: it is an accident of history).

As it happened, the crescent moon and star combination was ALSO used in Sassanian iconography, and continued to be used by the first Mohammedans.  It’s no surprise, then, that such iconography was eventually adopted as a key element in Islamic iconography.  Muslims may wish to elide this fact; but ALL memes have genealogies that don’t necessarily accord with the stories we like to tell ourselves (especially when it comes to memes that we fancy to be OUR OWN). Consequently, each iteration in the genealogy of an icon deems itself to be sui generis (i.e. NOT derivative).  When it comes to sacred symbols, this is done to claim authenticity, and thereby assert legitimacy.

So it goes with Christianity vis a vis the crucifix; so it goes with Judaism vis a vis the Star of David; and so it goes with Islam vis a vis the crescent moon.

In sum: A cultural element is not always what we fancy it to be.  Rushing to judgement about who can and cannot partake in it, then, invariably proceeds from a host of spurious assumptions.  It’s like the Scot who insists that tartan (a.k.a. plaid) is exclusively Gaelic, failing to realize the patterned fabric was used on continental Europe–and even in ancient China–long before it made it to Alba.  (It did not appear in Scotland until the 16th century…hundreds of years after William Wallace fought for independence.)

When it comes to symbols, the tendency for things to not be as they now seem is most blatantly demonstrated by the Hindu / Jain–and then Buddhist–swastika.  This is a tragic tale of mal-appropriated iconography.  The sacred symbol has been sullied by its appropriation by the Nazi party after it had already been in use for THOUSANDS of years. {13}  But how in heaven’s name did THAT happen?  Lo and behold: By a series of memetic appropriation.

The symbol-in-question was actually used in Greek iconography since c. 900 B.C. as the tetra-gamma dion [four-gamma shape].  And it was used on Scythian coins going back to Classical Antiquity.

In Vedic Sanskrit, “swasthi” means good fortune, blessed-ness, peace, prosperity, and/or well-being (roughly comparable to “eudaimonia” in Greek).  Meanwhile, “laksh[a]” means progression toward a goal; which seems to have served as the etymological basis for the suffix, “-ka” (as well as for the goddess, “Lakshmi”).  Ergo “swastika”.

The symbol’s history in Europe is columnious.  Germanic occultists like Guido von List and Adolf Josef Lanz von Liebenfels sometimes made use of the Teutonic “hakenkreuz” [hooked cross]; the latter for his virulently anti-Semitic, hyper-nationalistic “New Templars Order”.  The Thule Society also made use of the symbol for its own nefarious purposes.  The basis of this iconography was–ostensibly–ancient Nordic mythology.  (The symbol, signifying some kind of preternatural power, seems to have been associated with Thor’s hammer.)  In the advent of the first World War, the German Freikorps got the idea to use the swastika from Teutonic shrines that made use of the symbol (as some medieval Germanic churches tended to do).  They were also likely aware of the Templars’ use of it as an emblem of the Teutonic legacy.  They most likely did NOT have Hinduism, Jainism, or Buddhism in mind.  Considering symbol’s association with militant “völkisch” Supremacy, it was only natural that the brown-shirts opted to adopt the symbol soon thereafter.  Lo and behold: Nazi leadership had connections to the Thule Society.

It is worth bearing in mind that, so far as the Nazis were concerned, the symbol was the “haken-kreuz” [hooked cross]; not the “swastika”.

It might be noted that some Native American tribes ALSO made use of the swastika (e.g. the Navajo; with the whirling log); though they likely did not appropriate it from anyone else.  The symbol was even used as the insignia for the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division until 1939 (as a homage to Native Americans).  Once the symbol became inextricably associated with Nazism, the U.S. military felt obliged to refrain from using it anymore.

Tragically, the association with Nazism has stuck; and along with it the odious stigmatization.  Regardless, the swastika STILL IS what it has been for THOUSANDS of years.  The world’s Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists needn’t let the fact that an Austrian psychopath appropriated their symbol in the 1920’s deter them from continuing to make use of it.

Most would agree that the Nazis’ hijacking of the swastika was the most vulgar case of Cul-Ap in modern history.  Nevertheless, if we were to enumerate a hundred of the most execrable things the Third Reich did, hijacking a Hindu / Jain symbol would probably not make the list.  In other words, even when it comes to the most egregious case of Cul-Ap, it is STILL not an issue that needs to be addressed in terms of “cultural appropriation”.  What the Nazis did with the swastika is more accurately characterized as a vulgar semiotic swindle.  (Note that even the NAME of the symbol is Vedic.)  It is due to a failure to understand how meme-appropriation works that many still primarily associate this hallowed symbol with Nazism.

A celebrity gossip magazine in India featuring Swastika

Alas.  As with embellishments to folklore (be it the urban legends or ancient myths), stigmatization has a ratcheting effect: Once a stigma is sufficiently ingrained in the collective consciousness, it is difficult to revert back to the original semiotic instantiation.  This is why it’s still okay to name a girl “Swastika” in India, but such a choice would be uncouth in the West.  An athletic company has permanently stigmatized the female name “Nike”; and an automobile company has permanently stigmatized the female name “Portia” (based on the homophonic Bohemian family-name, “Porsche”).  Mass-inculcation is rarely reversible, especially when the stigmatization is poignant.  But if we are to hew to the strained logic of Cul-Ap-phobia, should we not demand that “Nike” (Greek) and “Portia” (Roman) be returned to their rightful homeland?

It makes sense to take measures to curb such memetic hijinks.  But this does not require one to demonize Cul-Ap per se.  Even the most opprobrious cases of Cul-Ap do not warrant the kind of anti-Cul-Ap hysteria found in some p.c. circles.

Sacred symbols sometimes even come to be treated as casual accessories–as anyone knows who has donned a fleur-de-lis (originally the French symbol for the divine right of kings).  So, yes: The Boy Scouts of America are guilty of ripping off the Holy Roman Empire.  Shall we be incensed by this?

What of the Apple command symbol?  Appropriated from the Swedes.  The dollar sign?  Appropriated from the Portuguese.  The glyph for female?  The Alchemical symbol for antimony.  And on and on.  Cul-Ap is all over the place.  It ALWAYS HAS BEEN.  The swastika is perhaps the most poignant–if tragic–example; the (Judaic) Star of David, the (Christian) cross, and (Islamic) crescent moon being the most un-acknowledged.  Even so, this is how iconography usually works.  The Maori of New Zealand understand this–which is probably why they don’t complain that one of their tribal marks is now used as the symbol for “biohazard”.

And what about architecture?  During the Renaissance, certain elements of Europe’s gothic architecture–specifically, the signature pointed arch–was heavily influenced by Islamic structural design.  Shall we consider this an instance of the Occident appropriating a meme from the Orient?  Is Alhambra in Grenada a tribute or a desecration?  But wait.  As it turns out, the pointed arch that is so often associated with Islamic architecture was itself appropriated from antecedent Sassanian (Persian) architecture…which had actually been pioneered by the ancient Assyrians in THEIR architecture during the Bronze Age.  Meanwhile, the Byzantines made use of this distinct structural feature long before Mohammed of Mecca’s fabled ministry–as attested by the Karamagara bridge in Cappadocia c. 500.  Shall we consider this a case of serial memetic theft?

That’s not all.  The signature “horseshoe arch” typically associated with Islamic Andalusia was, in fact, an appropriation of a Visigothic design.  Are we to suppose, then, that the Andalusians indebted to the Goths?  And what of the Turks’ adoption of Baroque (spec. Rococo) motifs?   Memetic transference brought THAT aesthetic from Italy to France to Spain…and even to Russia.  It was a spree of Cul-Ap from Anatolia to Iberia…and all the way up to Saint Petersburg.

There are myriad examples of this in architecture.  The medieval European structures known as “cloisters” were based on the “peristyles” of ancient Rome: private gardens surrounded by colonnades.  The Romans had adapted this structural feature from ancient Greece…which, in turn, may have had antecedents in ancient Persia.  We might note that the word “paradise” derives–via Latin and Greek–from the Old Persian (Avestan) term for a walled-in garden: “paridayda” / “fairi-daeza”…which also yielded the Arabic term, “firdaus”.  Are Christian monasteries–and the Koran, for that matter–to be prosecuted for illicit Cul-Ap?  Is Cambridge University guilty of appropriating an architectural motif from Iran?  Merely posing such questions is absurd.

So where is the outcry?  As it turns out, Cul-Ap-phobes are only concerned about Cul-Ap when it suits them; glossing over all the other instances that populate their own world.  There are countless examples of such selectivity.  How often do we hear complaints about Halloween being a tacky re-branding of Hallow-mas (a.k.a. “All Hallows Tide”; “All Hallows Eve”)?  Never.  Yet, as it so happens, the origins of this occasion lay in the Gaelic “Samhain”, commemorating the end of the harvest season.  Medieval Christians appropriated the (pagan) Celtic idea, and refashioned it as “All Saints / Martyrs Day”.  The carved pumpkin (now known as the “jack o’lantern”) was appropriated from traditions found in the Cornish version of the occasion, Kalan Gwav (a.k.a. “Allan-tide”)…which was a variation on the Brythonic (Welsh) “Calan Gaeaf”.  Yet Cul-Ap-phobes are not up in arms that a Gaelic holiday has been turned into a mawkish commercial enterprise by the rest of the world.  Why not?

“But it’s okay, as the Irish were not an oppressed minority” is an objection that could only be uttered by those unfamiliar with the earliest era of the American colonies.  The Irish were routinely marginalized in America, yet they do not have an aneurism every time non-Irish revelers don a shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Just as with Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day has been “appropriated” from hallowed Gaelic folk-traditions by the rest of the Occident.  Is the entire Western world denigrating the Irish by celebrating these holidays in such a care-free manner?  According to the contorted logic of Cul-Ap-phobia, Americans must be somehow desecrating an entire people’s heritage by engaging in daffy activities on such festive occasions.  (Is this bigotry via conviviality?)  No sane person–least of all the Irish–makes such a contention.

As already mentioned, “Christmas” is the end of a long line of cultural appropriation centered around the winter solstice.  Yet its pagan origins are elided by those who now claim the auspicious occasion as uniquely their own.  The same goes for Easter.  Indeed, celebrations of the vernal equinox go back to the 2nd millennium B.C. with the Babylonian / Assyrian festival, “Akitu[m]”.  Another of the oldest versions of this was the Persian (Zoroastrian) “Nowruz”.  “Zag-muk” [beginning of the year] was a Babylonian festival in December that lasted about 12 days.  It celebrated the triumph of the godhead, Marduk over the forces of Chaos, symbolized by Tiamat.  (Yes: It was originally the twelve days of Zagmuk.) Meanwhile, the most important festival for the Etruscans was the “Ambarvalia” in May; and was dedicated to the mother goddess, Dia. In Christendom, the holiday was based on the Roman festivals of “Floralia” (alternately: “Cerealia”, a revamped version of “Ambarvalia”).

As mentioned, the ROMAN winter solstice celebration included several leitmotifs that were later adopted by Christ-mas-tide revelers…replete with decking the halls with wreathes of evergreen. Unsurprisingly, Christians also adopted pagan practices for their spring equinox celebration (that of their Messiah’s re-birth).

Throughout ancient times, there were various celebrations of re-birth during spring-tide. In the Hindu Kush, Sindhis celebrate “Chetri Chandra” at springtide. In Ireland, the Gaelic “Beltane” was clebrated throughout the Middle Ages.  Yet how many times do we hear Hindus or Druids complaining that Christians are using predominantly pagan rituals in their celebration of their savior-god’s revitalization?  This is, of course, precisely the point: The fact that bunnies, Easter-egg hunts, and tasty chocolate candies have come to be associated with Pauline soteriology reminds us that memes usually have highly idiosyncratic genealogies.

Never mind Christmas and Easter.  Roman Catholicism ITSELF is based almost entirely on pagan traditions.  “Ash Wednesday” was a repurposing of the Norse “Day of Odin”, where Vikings placed ash on their foreheads to ward off bad fortune.  “Lent” has roots in Assyrian tradition, with the forty-day fast dedicated to Damuzid (a.k.a. “Tammuz”).  Even Valentine’s Day (ostensibly a tribute to Valentinus of Terni) has pagan roots.  The Roman Catholics–under the direction of Pope Gelasius–appropriated that auspicious occasion from the Roman feast of Lupercalia–a celebration of fecundity (read: female fertility).  As it turns out, EVEN THAT had been appropriated from another culture: the ancient Arcadian festival of Lykaia.

As is often the case, there is appropriation going as far back as our timeline can take us.  When it comes to memes, what is now autochthonous was at one point exogenous.  Cul-Ap-phobes fail to recognize this.  So what they aim to do is terminate the very process that brought the culture-in-question to where it now is.  It’s like trying to protect butterflies by prohibiting the formation of cocoons.  To spurn those who CONTINUE the very process that brought one’s own culture to where it is today, then, is the height of hypocrisy.  For it is to undermine that which one is aiming to protect.

Judaic traditions illustrate the point as well.  Would we be right assail the world’s Jewish people for appropriating the Persian (Mithraic) festivals of “Jashn-i Mehr” (a.k.a. “Mehr-i Gan”) and/or “Fravashi” (a.k.a. “Fravard-i Gan”) in their observance of Purim?  The Judaic occasion was ostensibly based on the commemoration of the apocryphal Persian queen, Esther; but its origins lay elsewhere.

And shall we take umbrage with Beth Israel for having based “Yom Teruah” (a.k.a. “Rosh Ha-Shanah”; meaning head of the year) on the Assyrian festival of “Akitu[m]” (a.k.a. “Resh Shattim”, also meaning head of the year)?

The Day of Ashura was rendered the Tenth [Day] of [the month of] Tishri (alt. “Yom Ashura”), which came to be known as “Yom Kippur” in Judaic tradition.  (“Ashura” means “tenth” in Aramaic.)  Incidentally, the Day of Ashura was also the inspiration of the Muslim “Laylat al-Qadr” [Night of Power], as well as for the Shiite mourning of Hussein ibn Ali at Karbala during the month of Muharram.  The earliest Mohammedans fasted during the Day of Ashura, an Arabian tradition that predated Islam. {14}  Shall we begrudge Jews and Muslims for cribbing this holiday from pagan antecedents?

The answers to these questions are, of course all “no”.  It makes perfect sense that such adaptations happened within Judaism.  After all, Judaic lore was codified in Babylon during the Exilic Period.  Consequently, it is no surprise that those forming the new creed opted to simply adapt the existing traditions to their own Faith.

But wait.  There’s more.  Shall we begrudge Jews for riffing off of the Egyptian harvest festival dedicated to Min when establishing the holiday of “Chag ha-Asif” (a.k.a. “Sukkot”)?  The occasion was ostensibly based on the Mishnah (as well as passages from the Books of Nehemiah and Zechariah); yet it was really just another case of appropriated lore.  Even one of the most sacred Judaic practices, circumcision, was adopted from the Egyptians (which Canaanites started practicing during the Amarna period).

“But that was a really long time ago,” comes the objection.  Granted.  But how, then, shall we proceed?  Does memetic provenance have a sunset clause?  Is it the case that if the appropriation occurred a while ago, then we are permitted to let it slide?  To qualify for exemption, where shall the cut-off be?  The problem is: Whatever threshold one might propose, it will invariably be arbitrary.  The ad hoc rational for the indictment reveals the highly-selective nature of Cul-Ap demonization.

Shall we suppose, then, that illicit Cul-Ap has a statute of limitations?  How far back do we need to go before Cul-Ap is deemed to have been copacetic?  Is it to be sanctioned retroactively…or was it okay all along?  If Cul-Ap was wrong last weekend, how was it not wrong a few millennia ago?

What of Islam?  The myriad traditions involved in the “Hajj” (Muslim pilgrimage) were ALL appropriated from antecedent pagan rituals–including ablutions, animal sacrifice, and the circumambulation of the Meccan cube (“kaaba”).  Throwing stones at an edifice that represents evil forces (for the expiation of sins)?  Appropriated.  Drinking from the Zamzam well (for spiritual purification)?  Appropriated.  Kissing a black stone (to garner blessings)?  Appropriated.  Running between the Safa and Marwah hills?  Yep, that was appropriated too.  If we were to treat Cul-Ap as a transgression against the source culture, we’d be forced to contend that pre-Islamic Bedouins were the “victims” of rampant Cul-Ap.  Even the tradition of fasting for a lunar month (Ramadan) was appropriated from the extant tradition of the Nabataeans, in commemoration of the moon-god, Hubal.  In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an element of Islamic practice that was NOT lifted from antecedent (pagan) practices. {14}

Another example of a religion co-opting elements from antecedent tradition is Theravada Buddhism’s adoption of Hindu lore–replete with Ganesh, Hanuman, and the legend of Rama. {19}  As it turns out, virtually every Faith–especially those of the Abrahamic tradition–arrived at its present form as a result of Cul-Ap galore.  A creed is invariably a bespoke agglomeration of pre-existent memes.  Any given religion is the culmination of a meandering process of ad hoc co-optation–a process that few votaries care to acknowledge.  For in consecrating a memeplex, one is inclined to fancy it to be sui generis.  (It doesn’t make sense to sanctify something that one admits is derivative.)

The lesson here is simple: Leveling charges of illicit Cul-Ap requires absolutely no knowledge of the culture in question.  Even worse, doing so typically betrays an ignorance of the cultural element being cited; and a general ignorance of how culture usually develops.  The faux sophistication of the Cul-Ap crusader is revealed by the fact that one does not really need to know anything about any of the world’s cultures in order to level the indictment.

In proscribing Cul-Ap, we are not only obliged to specify the purported source-culture (that is; to designate the alleged victim), we are–by the same logic–obliged to specify the ULTIMATE source-culture of the meme-in-question.  Doing so would, of course, be a quixotic task; but, more importantly, it is an un-necessary one.  For in appropriating an exogenous cultural element, we are merely continuing a process that got that element–insofar as it can be discretely defined–to the current (purported) source-culture in the first place.  

What is the optimal time-frame for exclusive rights to a given element of a given culture?  When the license for meme-usage has an expiration date, who determines who gets the license, and for how long?  In demanding everyone stop making use of the designated source-culture’s memes (because Cul-Ap is inherently bad), we are decrying a process that brought things to where they are now.  For, as it turns out, the designated source-culture (whichever one it happens to be, depending where we draw the line in history) was ITSELF guilty of Cul-Ap.

Memes are transferable across both epochs and cultures.  As Kwame Anthony Appiah once noted: the “putative owners” of cultural elements may well have been the “previous appropriators” of those elements.  He could gone so far to say: There ancestors USUALLY WERE earlier appropriators.  After all: That’s how culture works.

To reiterate: Grousing about Cul-Ap is usually a sign that someone does not know much about the history of the culture being cited…or, for that matter, very much about how culture-in-general normally works.  In the campaign to paint Cul-Ap as something uncouth, we are admonished to disregard the fact that every culture is a unique conglomeration of material, which was almost entirely culled from other cultures.

At the risk of flogging a steed that is already deceased, it is worth pursuing this line of inquiry in other contexts.  Let’s look at literature.

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