Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Why Did Fidel Castro, a Brutal Dictator, Attract So Much Western Support?
The death of Fidel Castro at the age of 90 marks the end of a long life filled with brutally inflicting a tyrannical regime upon the people of Cuba. People with AIDS were confined to sanitariums. Artists and writers were forced to join an official Union and told that their work must support the Castro regime. In 1965, Castro admitted to holding 20,000 political prisoners. Foreign observers said the number was twice as high. The Castro regime carried out thousands of political executions.
Fidel Castro eliminated the celebration of Christmas. There were no elections and only a state-controlled press. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans simply left, most of them for the United States. Soon, Castro imposed restrictions, making it almost impossible to leave the country. In April 1980, he opened the port of Mariel to any Cuban wishing to leave. More than 125,000 people — branded as “worms” and “scum” by Castro — took advantage of the “boatlift” before it ended in October of that year. By 1994, economic conditions were so bad that riots in Havana were followed by another exodus. Thousands fled from the country’s beaches on makeshift rafts.
Under Castro, Cubans lived mostly on black beans and rice. Once one of the richest countries in Latin America, under Castro, Cuba sank into decay and poverty. Castro himself lived in luxury. His former bodyguard, Juan Sanchez, reports the Castro lived on a private island, Cayo Pledra, and liked to travel aboard a large yacht with Soviet-built engines, the Asuarama II.
After taking power, he turned on those of his former comrades who naively thought his “revolution” would bring democracy, not tyranny. One of them, Huber Matos, a long- time democratic opponent of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, protested against Castro’s increasing closeness with Moscow. After a show trial, including a 7-hour tirade of denunciation by Castro. Matos was jailed for 20 years — 16 in solitary confinement, during which he was repeatedly tortured.
Another victim was the poet Armando Valladares, originally a supporter of the revolution who, as Castro’s anti-democratic policies emerged, refused to put an “I’m With Fidel” sign on his office desk. He was charged with “terrorism” and sentenced to 30 years. He served 8,000 days — 20 years — often confined to cells so small he could not lie down.
First, Valladares was sent to the huge complex on Isla de Pinos, where 100 lbs. of foodstuffs each day were allotted to feed 6,000 prisoners. Ironically, during the Batista regime, Fidel Castro had been held in the same prison. But Valladares points out:
“. . . he had been allowed visitors, national and international news, uncensored books, unlimited correspondence, a conjugal pavilion, and any food he wanted. He had never been mistreated.”
In his widely read book Against All Hope, Valladares quotes from a letter written by Castro on April 4, 1955:
“I get sun several hours every afternoon. . . . I’m taking two baths a day now. . . . I’m going to have dinner. . . . spaghetti and squid, Italian chocolates for dessert, then fresh-brewed coffee. . . . Don’t you envy me? . . . What would Karl Marx say about such revolutionaries?”
Under Castro, prison was quite different. Valladares and his fellow inmates suffered repeated beatings at the hands of the guards and were isolated for long stretches of time. Often, they were taken to punishment cells where they were held naked, unwashed and unable to escape the stench and disease produced by their own accumulating wastes. The food was the equivalent of a near-starvation diet. Less than a pound was allotted for every fifty prisoners each day — and this included almost no protein or vitamins.
The level of medical care in the prisons was reminiscent of the Nazi death camps. After repeated beatings, Valladares was suffering excruciating pain in his leg. He writes that:
“The military doctor was a Communist who tried to look like Lenin, wearing the same kind of goatee. . . . He wore the uniform of a doctor but was a sadist. When I asked for medical care, he looked through the peephole, stared at my leg, and told me he hoped it turned into a good case of gangrene, ‘so I can come in myself and cut it off.’”
While Fidel Castro imposed a totalitarian regime upon the people of Cuba he was, somehow, viewed in heroic terms by many Americans and others in the West, particularly intellectuals.
Author Norman Mailer, the pillar of many radical causes, declared:
“So Fidel Castro, I announce to the city of New York that you gave all of us who are alone in this country. . . . some sense that there were heroes in the world. . . . It was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata’s white horse. You were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War.”
Elizabeth Sutherland, book and arts editor of The Nation, wrote, “He (Castro) seems, first of all, utterly devoted to the welfare of his people — and his people are the poor, not the rich.” Author Jonathan Kozol declared, “Each of my two visits to Cuba was a pilgrimage and an adventure.” The writer Susan Sontag wrote that, “. . . it seems sometimes as if the whole country (Cuba) is high on some beneficial kind of speed, and has been for years.” Frank Mankiewicz, once an aide to Sen. George McGovern and later head of National Public Radio, visited Cuba with Kirby Jones and wrote a book lauding the revolution. He and Jones found Castro “one of the most charming and entertaining men either of us had ever met.”
Author France’s Fitzgerald, originally a sympathizer with the Cuban revolution, observed that:
“Many North American radicals who visited Cuba or live there have performed a kind of surgery on their critical faculties and reduced their conversation to a form of baby talk, in which everything is wonderful including the elevator that does not work and the rows of Soviet tanks on military parade that are in ‘the hands of the people.’”
When Castro visited New York in 1995 to address the U.N., Mort Zuckerman, owner of The New York Daily News, hosted a reception for him at his penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Time Magazine declared, “Fidel, Takes Manhattan!” Newsweek called Castro “The Hottest Ticket in Manhattan.”
The adoration of Castro by Western intellectuals was hardly unique. They also embraced Stalin. In 1954, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre returned from a visit to the Soviet Union and declared that Soviets did not travel, not because they were prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country. “The Soviet citizens,” he declared, “criticize their government much more, and more effectively, than we do. There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union.”
Even during Stalin’s purge trials, many Western intellectuals warmly embraced the brutal dictator. Playwright Lillian Hellman, for example, visited Moscow in October 1937 — at the height of the trials — and returned to sign an ad in the Communist publication New Masses that approved of them. She even supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland. Discussing Stalin’s powers, the British writers Beatrice and Sidney Webb wrote:
“He (Stalin) has not even the extensive power which the Congress of the U.S. has temporarily conferred on President Roosevelt or that which the American Constitution entrusts for four years to every successive President. . . . Stalin is not a dictator. . . . he is the duly elected representative of one of the Moscow constituencies of the Supreme Soviet. . . ” (The Truth About Soviet Russia, 1942).
The world’s reaction to Fidel Castro’s death gives little indication that a brutal dictator has died. Vladimir Putin called Castro “a wise and strong leader . . . . an inspiring example for all the world’s people’s.” Narendra Modi, Prime Minsters of India, called Castro “one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century.” Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, himself a brutal dictator, called Castro “a great leader.” Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to him as “a remarkable leader.”
It is important that the world recognize Fidel Castro’s real legacy. Yale historian Carlos Eire portrays that legacy in these terms:
“He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust. He sponsored terrorism wherever he could and allied himself with many of the worst dictators on Earth. He was responsible for so many thousands of executions and disappearances in Cuba that a precise number is hard to reckon. He brooked no dissent and built concentration camps and prisons at an unprecedented rate, filling them to capacity, incarcerating a higher percentage of his own people than most other modern dictators, including Stalin. . . . He persecuted gay people and tried to eradicate religion. He censored all means of expression and communication. . . . He created a two-tier health-care system, with inferior medical care for the majority of Cubans and superior care for himself and his oligarchy. . . .”
Why Fidel Castro attracted admirers in our own society is part of the larger question of why Stalin and Communism itself had appeal to men and women who seemed indifferent to Communism’s rejection of free speech, free elections, a free press, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and had contempt for the rights of minorities, racial, religious, ethnic and sexual. Now that Fidel Castro is dead, perhaps those who admired him will take a closer look at his legacy, one which the suffering Cuban people will, hopefully, overcome and move beyond to a better, freer, and more prosperous future.
By Opposing Charter Schools, the NAACP Would Harm the Black Students Whose Interest It Claims to Support
At its national convention in July, the NAACP approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charter schools. The Movement For Black Lives, a network of Black Lives Matter organizers, also passed resolutions criticizing charter schools and calling for a moratorium on their growth. The NAACP went so far as to liken the expansion of charters to “predatory lending practices” that put low-income communities at risk.
Charter schools provide parents with an opportunity for school choice and give inner city parents an opportunity to remove their children from poorly performing schools. Several studies by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students enrolled in charter schools in 41 of the nation’s urban regions learned significantly more than their traditional public school counterparts. According to one study, charter school students received the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning a year in reading. Educational gains for charter school students turned out to be significantly larger for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.
Although some charter schools have been poorly run, a performance advantage has been found to be particularly significant in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Washington, D.C., Memphis, and Newark. There is heavy demand for more charter schools among low-income black and Latino families who are often trapped in failing school districts.
Where charter schools are doing well, demand for admission is high. In New York City, charter schools enroll about 107,000 students, roughly 10 percent of the city’s total enrollment. But more than 44,000 students who sought admission for the current school year were turned away. In Harlem and the South Bronx there are now four applicants for every charter school seat.
The Black Alliance for Free Educational Options (BAEO) and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has launched a campaign to tell the story of why more than 700,000 African American families have chosen charter schools. More than 160 African American advocates and community leaders have urged the NAACP to reconsider and learn more about how charter schools are helping black families.
In a letter, they declare:
“A blanket moratorium on charter schools would limit black students’ access to some of the best schools in America and deny black parents the opportunity to make decisions about what’s best for their children. Instead of enforcing a moratorium, let’s work together to improve low-achieving public schools and expand those that are performing well.”
One of the letter’s signers was Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Oliver Brown, plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, and founding president and CEO of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research. Brown Henderson said:
“Over 60 years ago my father joined with numerous parents to stand with the NAACP and fight for African American students stuck in a separate, broken education system. Brown v. Board of Education created better public education options for African American students and made it the law of the land that neither skin color, socioeconomic status, nor geography should determine the quality of education a child receives.”
In opposing charter schools and real school choice, the NAACP is flying in the face of the views of black parents. There are now more than 6,600 charter schools across the nation, educating nearly three million children. Black students account for 17 percent of charter school enrollment nationally. The American Federation for Children national school choice survey, conducted in January 2016, found that 76 percent of African Americans support school choice. Polling by BAEO also found that the majority of black voters surveyed supported charter schools.
In September, more than 25,000 parents, students, and educators attended a rally in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park calling for an expansion of the city’s charter schools. Among the speakers was actor and hip-hop artist Common, who said, “I’m here to tell you that you participating and being a part of charter school success stories is your path to possibility.” In New York City, black charter school students were 60 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to earn a seat in one of the city’s specialized high schools.
The idea of choice in education, which includes a voucher system and charter schools, is attracting both liberal and conservative support. Opposition comes primarily from teacher unions. Last summer, speaking to the National Education Association, Hillary Clinton declared: “When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working and share it with schools across America.” For this statement, Clinton was booed by NEA members.
Editorially, The Washington Post declared:
“The reaction speaks volumes about labor’s uninformed and self-interested opposition to charter schools and contempt for what’s best for children. . . . Since the first charter school opened 25 years ago in Minnesota, support for the non-traditional schools has grown with nearly 3 million students in more than 6,700 charters in 42 states and the District. Demand is high with parents of school-age children — particularly those who have low incomes — overwhelmingly saying they favor the opening of more charter schools. . . . We urge the NAACP leadership to put the interests of African American children ahead of the interests of political allies who help finance the group’s activities. . . .”
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, who is black, says of the NAACP:
“The organization would rather deny black children good schools than risk losing money from teacher unions. The organization’s primary concern today is self-preservation and maintaining its own relevance, not meeting the 21st century needs of the black underclass.”
While some charter schools have had problems, as in Detroit, where charter schools are not outperforming the traditional school alternative, the real reason for opposition by teacher unions, the NEA, and the NAACP is that they threaten the union monopoly on education. Most charters are non-Union and their growth is at the expense of poorly performing union-run public schools.
The NAACP interest in opposing charter schools seems to have nothing to do with the well being of black students. According to the Labor Department, unions have given the NAACP and its affiliates at least $3 million since 2010. The two major national teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) gave the NAACP $265,000 last year, significantly increasing their contribution between 2010 and 2014.
Teacher unions have also been giving financial aid to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which influences groups such as the NAACP. According to the Labor Department, the AFT and NEA have given the CBC Foundation and CBC Institute $911,000 since 2010. Open Secrets campaign donation data shows that the AFT and NEA have given CBC members $253,000 and $206,000 respectively, this cycle.
It is ironic to see civil rights groups oppose charter schools even though black Americans are learning more at charters than at traditional public schools. In Boston, for example, students in charter middle schools outperform those in traditional public schools by two to three years worth of learning in math and about half that in reading. The Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-charter civil rights group, calls the NAACP resolution “inexplicable,” and urges the NAACP board to reject it.
Competition in education, which gives parents a right to choose where their children should be educated, is something all Americans should support. It is particularly important for low-income families in minority communities, who are often consigned to poorly performing schools. Conservatives have long embraced the idea of free choice in the form of a voucher system and of charter schools. Observing the success of such schools, many liberal voices, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have joined them. The NAACP should rethink its position if it hopes to remain relevant to the needs of the constituency it seeks to represent.
The Latest Target of Political Correctness on Campus: America’s “Melting Pot” Tradition
Strange things are happening in the name of political correctness at colleges and universities across the country.
California State University at Los Angeles (CSULA) has debuted segregated housing available to students who “identify as Black/African-Americans.” The Halisi Scholars Black Living Learning Community has opened approximately nine months after the CSULA Black Student Union issued a list of demands including “black student only” living space with a “full time resident director who can cater to the needs of black students.” Racially segregated housing can also be found at other universities, including University of California branches at Davis and Berkeley and the University of Connecticut.
A student at the University of Houston was punished for tweeting “All Lives Matter” after the shooting of five policemen in Dallas. The university’s student government sentenced the offending student to undergo mandatory diversity training. At Princeton, the word “man” is considered sexist. Employees were told to use gender-neutral terms such as “human beings.” At the University of Iowa, a clinical professor of pediatrics wrote to the athletic director expressing dismay over the ferocious facial expressions of Herky the Hawk. Herky is the mascot of the Hawkeyes, and was criticized for conveying an “invitation to act aggressively and even violence,” and lacking in “emotional diversity.” We could fill pages with similar examples.
Last year, University of California administrators released a document warning professors not to describe America as a “melting pot” because this unduly pressured minorities to “assimilate to the dominant culture.” This is an assault on the very important history of our country embracing men and women of every race, religion, and ethnic background, and making them into Americans.
When the melting pot philosophy was alive and well, our society succeeded dramatically. Immigrants from around the world entered an America that had self-confidence and believed in its own culture, history, and values and was determined to transmit them to the newcomers. And the immigrants wanted to become Americans. That, after all, is why they came.
Remembering the way American public schools served to bring children of immigrants into the mainstream, Fotine Z. Nicholas, who taught for 30 years in New York City Schools and wrote an education column for a Greek-American weekly, noted:
“I recall with nostalgia the way things used to be. At P.S. 82 in Manhattan, 90 percent of the students had European-born parents. Our teachers were mostly of Irish origin, and they tried hard to homogenize us. We might refer to ourselves as Czech, or Hungarian, or Greek, but we developed a sense of pride in being American. . . . There were two unifying factors, the attitude of our teachers and the English language. . . . After we started school, we spoke only English to our siblings, our classmates, and our friends. We studied and wrote in English, we played in English, we thought in English.”
America is indeed a nation of immigrants. Speaking in Philadelphia in 1776, Samuel Adams declared:
“Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course in this happy country as their last resort.”
Those who think that the idea of the “melting pot” is, somehow, demeaning to those who come to our country as immigrants fail to understand the reality of what has happened in America during the past centuries. In his now famous letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, George Washington wrote:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The man who coined the term “melting pot” was the British author Israel Zangwill. In a now famous passage, written in 1904, he wrote:
“America is God’s Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups and your fifty languages and histories and your fifty blood-hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to — these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas, Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and English, Jews and Russians, into the crucible with you all. God is making the American.”
America has been a nation much loved. Germans have loved Germany. Frenchmen have loved France. Swedes have loved Sweden. This, of course, is only natural. Yet, America is not simply another country. To think that it is — is to miss the point of our history. America has been beloved not only by Americans, but by men and women throughout the world who have yearned for freedom. By the millions they have come and found here the opportunities that existed in no other place.
America dreamed a bigger dream than any other nation in history. It was a dream of a free society in which a person’s race, religion, or ethnic origin would be completely beside the point. It was a dream of a common nationality in which the only price to be paid was a commitment to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote:
“We are the heirs of all time and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restore as to the old hearthstone in Eden. The seed is sown and the harvest must come.”
America has been a new thing in the world, not without problems and challenges, which afflict any human enterprise, and which persist today. Yet, it remains a beacon for men and women in search of freedom in every corner of the world. When the enforcers of political correctness seek to proscribe the “melting pot” from our history, we can only lament that those in charge of some of our colleges and universities understand so little of the American story. How will the new generation learn that story at universities like these? That should be a question that concerns us all.
“Cultural Appropriation”: A Growing Political Correctness Tactic to Silence Free Expression
In the name of something called “cultural appropriation,” a growing assault upon free expression is now under way as “political correctness” expands its horizons.
This attack takes many forms. After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single, “Unconditionally.” Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar accused a Caucasian woman who practiced belly-dancing of “white appropriation of Eastern dance.” Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetuated “cultural crimes” by imitating African-American rap styles. At Oberlin College, students protested a “piratization” of Japanese culture when sushi was served in the school dining hall.
In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was charged with cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife Camille in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for that very purpose. Still, Asian-American activists and their supporters surrounded the exhibit with signs like, “Try on the kimono: learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today.” Others attacked “Yellow-face@the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”
At an Australian writers festival in Brisbane in September, American author Lionel Shriver stirred much attention by criticizing as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work. Ms. Shriver, the author of 13 books, was especially critical of efforts to stop novelists from “cultural appropriation.” She deplored critics of authors like Clive Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book Little Bee.
Ms. Shriver noted that she had been criticized for using in The Mandibles the character of a black woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who is kept on a leash by her homeless white husband. And she defended her right to depict members of minority groups in any situation if it served her artistic purposes. “Otherwise, all I could write about would be smart-alecky 59-year-old 5-foot-2-inch white women from North Carolina,” she said.
Writing in The New York Times after the meeting in Australia, Ms. Shriver, criticized her fellow liberals for embracing cultural conformity:
“Do we really want every intellectual conversation to be scrupulously cleansed of any whiff of controversy? Will people be so worried about inadvertently giving offense, avoid those with different backgrounds altogether? Is that the kind of fiction we want — in which the novels of white writers all depict John Cheever’s homogeneous Connecticut suburbs of the 1950s, while the real world outside their covers becomes ever more diverse? . . . Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.”
Professor Susan Scafidi of the Fordham University Law School notes that:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission is the definition [of] cultural appropriation.”
Writing in The New York Review of Books, novelist Francine Prose asks:
“Should Harriet Beecher Stowe have been discouraged from including black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — a book that helped persuade the audience of the evils of slavery? Should Mark Twain have left Jim out of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that, more fully than any historical account, allows modern readers to begin to understand what it was like to live in a slave-owning society? Should someone have talked Kazuo Ishiguro out of writing The Remains of the Day, the beautiful novel whose protagonist — a white butler in England before World War II — presumably shares few surface similarities with his creator? Should immigrant writers and writers of color be restricted to portraying their own communities?”
Francine Prose asks questions which today’s cultural police seem never to have considered:
“What would modern art be like if the impressionists and later Van Gogh had not been so profoundly affected by Japanese woodblock prints or if Picasso and Braque had not been drawn to the beauty and sophistication of African Art? Should Roberto Bolano, a Chilean who lived mostly in Mexico, not have focused, in the third section of his novel 2666, on an African-American journalist, or set the novel’s final chapters in Europe during World War II? Don’t we want different cultures to enrich one another? Reading Chekov, we are amazed by his range, by his ability to see the world through the eyes of the rich and the poor, men and women, the old and the young, city dwellers and peasants. But had he caved to the pressures of identity politics and only described characters of his own gender and class, few of his six hundred or so stories would have been written.”
Another author, Cathy Young, provides this assessment:
“Welcome to the new war on culture. At one time such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th century minstrel shows, or ethnological expositions which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork, no matter how thoughtfully or artfully presented. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own critical experience, they’ve committed a creative sin.”
The protests being launched by the militant advocates of political correctness, in Young’s view, have a potential not only to chill creativity and artistic expression but are equally bad for diversity:
“This raises the troubling specter of cultural cleansing when we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding. What will be declared ‘problematic’ next? Picasso’s and Matisse’s works inspired by African art? Puccini’s ‘Orientalist’ operas, ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot?’ Should we rid our homes of Japanese prints? . . . Can Catholics claim appropriation when religious paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary are exhibited in a secular context, or when movies from ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Sister Act’ use nuns for entertainment? . . . Appropriation is not a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture. People have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated or reinvented from time immemorial. . . . Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences. America is the ultimate blended culture.”
Actor and playwright J. B. Alexander points out that:
“William Shakespeare never personally felt the sting of racism, yet he wrote the character of Othello. He was never subjected to anti-Semitism, yet he wrote the character of Shylock. Nor was he ever a female adolescent, yet he wrote the character of Juliet. And we are all the richer for it. Artists must be free to create characters that lie within the scope of their imaginations, not merely to replicate their own identities, because great art allows us to transcend those identities and recognize our common humanity.”
If the crusade against “cultural appropriation” continues, we may reach a point where only Jews can read the Bible, only Greeks can read Plato or Aristotle, and only Italians read Dante or Machiavelli. Where will it end? Can only those of British descent appreciate Shakespeare or those of Russian descent read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?
More than 100 years ago, the distinguished black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois understood that art and culture, whatever the source, are relevant to men and women of all backgrounds. He declared:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil.” *