Halloween killjoys have usually hailed from the religious right, where some fundamentalists see spiritual danger in make-believe witches and goblins. This year, though, most of them seemed to be on the "social justice" left, where a small army of zealots has been waging war on politically incorrect dress-up.
On many college campuses, administrators sent out emails and created Web pages and videos to educate students about the peril of insensitive costumes -- above all, ethnic ones that supposedly amount to "cultural appropriation" and are said to be demeaning to minorities. Samurais, geishas and ninjas are on the banned list, as are historical figures like Pocahontas or Pancho Villa. The Caitlyn Jenner costume, based on the former athlete's famous Vanity Fair cover photo, is apparently offensive as well, ostensibly because it uses the struggle of transgender people as a source of humor.
As it happens, Caitlyn Jenner didn't find the Caitlyn Jenner costume offensive. But, says Jewish Daily Forward feminist blogger Chanel Dubofsky, "she doesn't speak for the trans community." Dubofsky was also appalled that Walmart offers many options to "dress up as another culture" -- such as a (gorgeous) dress and mask representing the Day of the Dead, the famous Mexican holiday. Such costumes, she asserts, are exploitative and rooted in "white supremacy."
Can ethnic costumes be demeaning? Sure. Dress-up that exaggerates ethnic or racial features for comic effect, be it blackface or a hooknosed Arab, is understandably seen as tacky and racist. But the notion that costumes based on other cultures are demeaning is absurdly hypersensitive. The slogan "A culture is not a costume," used by student activists and channeled by Dubofsky, is a meaningless cliche: Wearing a kimono or a Mexican outfit for Halloween does not reduce the culture to the costume, any more than dressing up as a firefighter or a nurse reduces the profession to the uniform.
As for the "white supremacy" charge, it's just as easy to find ethnic costumes "appropriating" white cultures -- German, Russian, Italian, Spanish-as Asian or South American ones. And what about cowboy outfits that appropriate the culture of the American West? (Of course, if the social justice activists complained about those, it would probably be because they celebrate the white man's conquest of the land.)
Ironically, the "social justice warriors" claiming to champion minorities demeaned by cultural appropriation often seem to appropriate the right to speak on those minorities' behalf. Last week, a high school in Ontario, Canada, forbade a student to wear a "culturally offensive" mariachi band costume though he is from Colombia, where mariachi music is part of the culture.
And earlier this year, activists picketed the Boston Museum of Fine Arts because of an exhibit that allowed visitors to try on a kimono. None of the protesters were actually Japanese-American, but some Japanese-Americans did organize a counterprotest. They felt that the exhibit was a tribute to their culture, not an insult. Indeed, one could argue that the war on "cultural appropriation" undermines the progressive goal of multiculturalism.
This crusade also shows how petty, censorious, and repressive today's "social justice" movement has become. It is obsessed with causes that have nothing to with improving people's lives or combating actual injustice or discrimination, and everything to do with preserving cultlike ideological purity. It promotes social antagonism and threatens free expression.
Just say no to the new authoritarians. Come next Halloween, I'm dressing up as Caitlyn Jenner in a sombrero.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.