Peggy Noonan made a fool of herself this week. That’s not news.
She did so defending the memories of Confederate generals, using terrible history and worse moral reasoning. Again, pretty much dog-bites-man.
But she managed to do it in an interesting (though hardly original) way: trying to use a Yiddish expression and getting it completely wrong. She thus illustrated what seems to me the real issue underlying the overused phrase “cultural appropriation.”
The underlying story is simply that the Washington National Cathedral has decided to remove stained-glass images of Robert E. Lee and his co-conspirator Stonewall Jackson. I don’t have much to add to that argument other than to point out that Noonan strays from the truth when she claims that the outcome of the Civil War was “reconciliation,” without mentioning that the reconciliation between Northern and Southern whites was based on an agreement to impose an additional century of totalitarian subjugation on Southern blacks.
The botched cultural appropriation came in Noonan’s Tweet of protest:
A shonda. They were figures in the greatest, most killing moral struggle in US history. They didn’t tweet, they took to the field and died.
For now, let’s ignore the multiple moral confusions Noonan managed to pack into those 140 characters and concentrate on her linguistic confusion.
“Shonda” in Yiddish means, roughly, “shame.” Apparently Noonan was trying to say that the decision by the Cathedral chapter was shameful. Alternatively, she could have been trying to say that the decision was “a shame” (= a pity, too bad, regrettable). Or, since one consequence of shameful behavior is scandal, maybe she meant that removing the window was scandalous. In any of these cases, it’s not obvious what work the Yiddish word does there that an English word couldn’t do as well.
But “shonda” is a semi-familiar word in Yinglish not for the meanings which have good English equivalents, but in the phrase “a shonda fur de Goyim,” which means, roughly, “a shameful thing done by a Jew that will allow non-Jews to spread scandalous reports about Jews in general.” The underlying practical assumption is that de Goyim, or at least some of them, are always hostile to Jews and looking for scandal concerning them. The moral conclusion is that it is the duty of Jews to one another not to furnish material for such scandal; a Jew who cheats is damaging the entire tribe.
Applied to Jews in the U.S., that whole idea seemed a bit quaint until we had Presidential advisers tossing White Power gang-signs from the White House podium. But the notion that you owe it to people who share your identity not to bring shame on the group is a useful one, and the ability of Yiddish to express the whole analysis of negative reputational externalities in five short words illustrates the value of keeping Yiddish expressions alive even after it has virtually disappeared as an actual spoken language.
Which brings us to cultural appropriation. Making fun of Noonan, with her Irish surname, for using a Yiddish expression is just childish. At some point she might want to point out that (e.g.) the prevalence of racism and anti-Semitism among core Republican voters, and the tolerance (at least) of racism and anti-Semitism by Republican elected officials, is a shonda, allowing those of us who are not Republicans to defame Republicans in general, and that Trump, by keeping Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller on his staff, is committing a wrong against Republicanism. And if she chooses to say that using Yiddish because it can’t be said as well in English, why shouldn’t she? Irishpeople using Yiddish is as American as glatt-kosher Mongolian barbecue.
No, the evil Noonan illustrates is clumsy cultural appropriation. If you’re going to borrow from someone else’s culture, be respectful enough to understand what it is you’re borrowing and get it more or less right, not like a Cub Scout pack butchering random phrases from assorted Native American cultures in ersatz ceremonials. Noonan’s performance here was shamefully, even scandalously, incompetent. But – unless someone thinks it reflects badly on Irishpeople in general – it wasn’t a shonda.
From the comments: hilariously bad try at saying “Blue Lives Matter” in Irish Gaelic.