Is Multiculturalism an Oxymoron? On Martin Puchner’s “Culture”

Robert N. Watson in LA Review of Books:

IN VERMONT, 25 years ago, I walked past a business whose sign read, “Amalgamated Culture Works.” My first thought was, “No, it doesn’t.”

Martin Puchner thinks it does—and explains why in his wonderful new book. Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-pop deploys the histories of a vast range of times and places to convince our culture-warring world that amalgamation can work very well. The “us” of the subtitle signals Puchner’s intention: in an era of atomizing identity politics, deployed by both the radical left and right, he wants readers to recognize the many historical instances when cross-cultural transmission has been—and still can be—beneficial, rather than larcenous or contaminating.

A twofold thesis unifies the book. One is that the leftist ban on “cultural appropriation” entails a misunderstanding of the way cultures can appreciate (in both senses) when they meet, rather than merely collide. This seems true: if I think your dinner order looks excellent, and therefore decide to order the same menu item, that is very different from sticking my fork into your plate and gobbling a chunk of your entrée. Puchner’s other thesis is that the conservative aversion to immigration and multiculturalism whitewashes the wonderfully multicolored patchwork of human history. He shows that those who reach across cultures can be heroic rather than invasive, arrogant, or exploitative.

The “story” part of the subtitle matters almost as much as the “us” part. Puchner vividly recounts many times when the importation of a foreign story has positively transformed a culture.

More here.