How exhausted is the genre of #hottake outrage at allegedly transgressive white-people activity? This exhausted: Last week, The New Republic wrapped an entire piece around the impropriety of Reason throwing a party for Lionel Shriver featuring paper dolls of the author and various cultural costumes.
The headline, subhed, and opening sentence of this Josephine Livingstone article should not be read without first swallowing your coffee:
Does the Right Really Think a Sombrero is just a "Straw Hat"?
At a recent party for the libertarian magazine "Reason," guests were given a paper doll of Lionel Shriver to dress up in outfits from different cultures.
If the right believes that cultural appropriation is not offensive, why are they making paper dolls that ridicule other cultures?
It's kind of hard to know where to begin. Is Reason or Lionel Shriver a stand-in for "the right"? In Shriver's own words, "my views…qualify as left-wing or right-wing only on the basis of 'eeny meeny miny moe'"—a description very familiar to libertarians (and to the writers for this magazine). Is it really a puzzle to understand why someone who rejects the notion of cultural appropriation would cheerfully engage in symbolic cultural appropriation as a way of making that particular point? And are those scare-quotes around our name? (Drink!)
There is no joy in this attempted shaming exercise, just an overwhelming atmosphere of fatigue:
There's a difference between sharing in another culture and making use of it in a condescending way. The paper outfits, which are in some cases strongly marked ethnically, reduce identity down to costuming. The figures are headless. The illustration is lighthearted, but this gesture of reduction—of complex peoples and histories to empty and headless outfits, interchangeable and undifferentiated—makes the joke feel clumsy and shallow. A culture is not something that you can shrug on and off like a jacket. People are not dresses. People are not hats.
Thankfully, Shriver herself shows up at the end of the article, injecting some spirit into the final paragraph:
As for the paper doll illustration, Shriver told the New Republic: "I thought it was utterly charming—inventive, playful, and funny. The event on Monday night was a hoot, and it was a relief for me to find that there are other people out there who still have a sense of humor, do not want to impose their version of righteousness on others, and have some feeling for a 'free country' as something more palpable than an empty slogan. The term 'libertarian' has been much tarnished by association with some rather strange people, but these folks were sensible and sane (if by the end a little tipsy)."
For those actually interested in the complex cultural significance of the sombrero, I highly recommend a Southern Foodways Alliance piece by Gustavo Arellano of "Ask a Mexican" fame, titled "Sombreros Over The South." Here's a taste:
In los Estados Unidos, Americans have warped them into something quite different. Here, sombreros are exclusively happy hats: permission for the wearer to transform into a one-person party. Fans of Mexico's soccer team flaunt them during international matches. Costume stores can barely keep them in stock during Halloween or Cinco de Mayo. Late-night hosts wear sombreros for comedy sketches, tipping their you-know-what to the buffoonery to come.
Here's the funny thing, though: Stateside, I rarely see a Mexican wear one. Outside of folkloric dance performances, soccer stadiums, or mariachi shows, we favor tejanas (Stetsons) for everyday wear. We give the sombrero the respect it deserves. It's headgear for a certain place and time—like revolutions, for instance, or to serenade a señorita in the moonlight.
Arellano, as fate would have it, is author of a 2012 Reason cover story, adapted from his book of the same title, called "Taco USA: How Mexican food became more American than apple pie." It's a master class in exploring and celebrating how cultures collide, mix, and mutate into glorious new creations of their own. "Food is a natural conduit of change, evolution, and innovation," he writes. "Wishing for a foodstuff to remain static, uncorrupted by outside influence—especially in these United States—is as ludicrous an idea as barring new immigrants from entering the country. Yet for more than a century, both sides of the political spectrum have fought to keep Mexican food in a ghetto."
If the accompanying whimsical cover art looks similar to the allegedly offensive Shriver dolls, that's no accident—both were designed by Reason's current art director, Joanna Andreasson, herself a hopelessly bastardized mix of influences and cultures. (She's a Swede raised in Ireland who lives in Brooklyn and likes taxidermied squirrels, for starters.) The thing uniting these various mutts who participate unhesitatingly in the glorious flotsam of global culture is that, quite unlike their critics, they're having fun.
Speaking of which, we had a bit of fun at The New Republic's expense on last week's episode of The Fifth Column. There is a semi-regular segment there called "Some Idiot Wrote This," and though the candidate was obvious, Michael Moynihan's dramatic reading and finely splattered bile is worth your attention. Starts at around the 1:24 mark: