Met Gala, Chinese Prom Dresses and the Problem With Whining About ‘Cultural Appropriation’

It is belatedly dawning on some progressives that they may need to more than just #resist Donald Trump to win elections. What, asks the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, is the big idea that Democrats will carry into the 2020 election?

I doubt it will be “cultural appropriation.”

As I write that sentence, I’m already feeling the blowback brewing out there, probably a hangover from my time in the social justice barrel last week.

It all began simply enough. This year’s Met Gala had the theme “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” featuring the usual collection of beautiful people and celebrities, rather unusually dressed up in faux-Catholic costumes.

Katy Perry showed up with an impressive set of angel’s wings; Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill wore an outfit that would have done a priest in the Spanish Inquisition proud. In its write-up, the New Yorker noted that actor/director Jared Leto showed up dressed as “an eccentric Jesus, in a floor-length liturgical stole and a golden crown of thorns,” while actress Olivia Munn, best known in these parts as the former girlfriend of Aaron Rodgers, turned up in “a custom H & M dress complete with a Monty Python-esque chain-mail coif,” which made her “the only guest who went full Crusades.” Madonna was also there, wearing something similarly Catholic-ish.

Naturally, this set off one of those minor cultural skirmishes that have become a fixture in our time.

For the record, I wasn’t offended, but I did think the display was alternately kitschy, clever, tasteless, and confusing. I wasn’t alone. “When a living faith gets treated like a museum piece,” wrote Ross Douthat, “it’s hard for its adherents to know whether to treat the moment as an opportunity for outreach or for outrage.”

Further complicating the matter, the event was actually coordinated with the Catholic Church itself. “The church and the Catholic imagination— the theme of this exhibit—are all about three things: truth, goodness and beauty,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained. “That’s why we’re into things such as art, culture, music, literature, and, yes, even fashion.” Even, apparently, if that meant dressing up as the pope in a short sequined skirt.

Which reminded me of the kerfuffle about the Utah teenager who had worn a Chinese-style dress to her prom. When 18-year-old Keziah Daum posted her prom pictures on social media, they quickly went viral and not always in a good way. Within days, she found herself at the center of the debate over “cultural appropriation,” loosely defined as the “adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.”

A Twitter user named Jeremy Lam set off the orgy of indignation, tweeting out:

His tweet generated 20,000 responses, 42,000 retweets and was “liked” by 179,000 users. He followed up with another tweet denouncing the prom dress, suggesting that Daum’s decision to wear it was “parallel to colonial ideology.” This drew another 12,000 “likes.”

To her credit, Daum did not back down:

What’s interesting is that there appeared to be remarkably little outrage from the culture that was allegedly ‘appropriated.” Instead, a New York Times report found more bemusement than wokeness:

When the furor reached Asia, though, many seemed to be scratching their heads. Far from being critical of Ms. Daum, who is not Chinese, many people in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan proclaimed her choice of the traditional high-necked dress as a victory for Chinese culture…

If anything, the uproar surrounding Ms. Daum’s dress prompted many Chinese to reflect on examples of cultural appropriation in their own country. “So does that mean when we celebrate Christmas and Halloween it’s also cultural appropriation?” asked one WeChat user, Larissa.

Which brings us back to the Met Gala, where the pop star Rhianna wore “an ornate, beaded white Margiela corset dress with a matching jacket, clutch, and mitre.”

The outfit was quite fetching, especially the mitre. But it raised a question, which I naively asked the social media world, attaching the Rhianna-as-Pope picture:

I understand that there are certain forms of “appropriation”— like wearing blackface or using a religion’s sacred symbols for entertainment—that are just plain racism or sacrilege. But I thought we needed some clarification for the rules, lest they become invisible trip wires. And no, it is not self-evident what is permitted and what will incite the Twitter mobs. Who gets to decide when and how we can pay homage to another culture? Which groups deserve protection and which groups are fair game? Why is there outrage about burrito shops run by white women in Portland, but not New York pizza? Why is it OK to dress as a Catholic priest, but not wear a Chinese dress to prom? Is there a list anywhere and does anybody have it?

I received more than 1,400 responses to my tweet, some trying to clarify the rules, but quite a few explaining that I was a benighted moron and a bigot for asking the question. Of course, this was mild compared with the reaction that other heretics, like Jordan Peterson, generate. But it was still awfully revealing.

“I wish I had never seen this tweet bc tbh [sic] Charlie Sykes must be the 1st most ignorant person on earth,” wrote one. “Yes. Rule #1: Charlie Sykes doesn’t get to have an opinion on cultural appropriation,” wrote another. A tweet asking “Is this a ‘Jesus was white’ moment? This might come as a surprise but Catholicism is practiced by people around the world” generated more than 5,000 “likes.”

Others insisted that the church was immune from “cultural appropriation,” because it was an oppressor. One tweet that generated more than 5,000 “likes” argued that “the many hundreds of years of forced conversion justify yesterday’s display. It’s not like the Catholic Church is at the bottom of the totem pole in systems of power as it affects religion.” The consensus on progressive Twitter seemed to be that I had been thoroughly “owned,” by this comment.
Just in time comes this piece by Gerard Alexander, warning about the backlash to progressive smugness and intolerance.

“Liberals,” he wrote, “often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.”

Not only are cultural mores changing rapidly, but the left often demands that we also keep up with the latest twists and variations on social justice and victimization. “Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans,” Alexander wrote, “but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.”

Within just a few years, many liberals went from starting to talk about microaggressions to suggesting that it is racist even to question whether microaggressions are that important. “Gender identity disorder” was considered a form of mental illness until recently, but today anyone hesitant about transgender women using the ladies’ room is labeled a bigot. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent
wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a
burrito cart run by two non-Latino women.

Such advice has not always been well-received on the left, where the ritualistic performance art of the woke Twitter mob has become at least as much self-therapy as it has become a political weapon.

But if the left wants to actually defeat Trumpism, it will have to begin to persuade voters rather than simply bludgeoning them with smugness. A bit of common sense and civility could go a long way to changing hearts and minds, rather than alienating them. Even after 2016, though, it’s not clear that “progressives” understand that.

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