Opinion

alex beam

‘Cultural appropriation’ — the bugbear du jour

A student wore a shirt that references the controversy over Amherst College’s Lord Jeff mascot.
Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times
A student wore a shirt that references the controversy over Amherst College’s Lord Jeff mascot.

As a young shaver, I used to read the Princeton Alumni Weekly, because my Dad went there. In basketball season, it was better than Sports Illustrated. Bill Bradley was tearing up the NCAA, with what might be called self-deprecating panache.

The red meat for alumni of my father’s generation (class of 1929) were articles about coeducation — they hated it! — and tales of consumer activist Ralph Nader, class of 1955. I’m pretty sure my father thought Nader was a Commie, or worse.

Fast forward half a century.

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I am my father.

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Will someone please explain to me what is transpiring at Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst, and the Claremont Colleges, to name just a handful of super-elite schools that have been disrupted by such burning issues as . . . Halloween costumes? It seems inconceivable, but at both Yale (my alma mater) and Claremont McKenna College, administrators’ necks are on the chopping block for insufficient zeal in quashing “cultural appropriation,” America’s bugbear du jour.

Cultural appropriation means that, unless you were born in Guadalajara, dressing up as the Frito Bandito is a very, very bad idea. What about dressing in drag? Isn’t that “gender appropriation”? Unless, of course, it’s a transgender statement – can’t condemn that! All hail Caitlyn Jenner!

To me, cultural appropriation means that Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” will never be performed again on a college campus in my lifetime. What a loss. I’m not sure I could name a work of equal subtlety and brilliance. Wait until the latter-day Dink Stovers discover what Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” is about. If G&S were a stock, this would be the time to sell.

A Yale eminento asked me recently, What did you do in college, Alex? He meant what cool secret society did I belong to, did I play a varsity sport, or did I write for the newspaper. An embarrassing silence ensued.

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In fact, I hung around the libraries and studied, because there was an excellent education laid out in front of me. So if Black Lives Matter chatterers came through the library chanting slogans and berating me for my skin color, as they recently did at Dartmouth — it wouldn’t have warmed me to their cause. Not then and not now.

At Amherst College, there is a group of students called the Amherst Uprising. (Talk about appropriation. I wonder how that name resonates with the descendants of the men and women killed in the Warsaw Uprising.) They want Amherst brass to apologize for “colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latin racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.”

Did I miss anything? I hope not. They also want to axe the college’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, one of those dead white men bound to end up in the ashcan of history sooner or later. Another Dead White Man Walking: Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton, and of the United States. A group called the Black Justice League wants his name taken off a building, and has demanded that a dining hall mural depicting Wilson be disappeared.

Where does this all end? The world is a funny place. Over the objections of alumni like my father, Princeton did admit women. One of them, Meg Whitman, ’77, donated a $30 million dorm not too long ago. I think he’d be OK with that.

My dad had a sense of humor, so he might not have minded that I twice voted for Ralph Nader for president. I think he’d prefer that the Woodrow Wilson mural remain where it is. We’ll see what happens.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.