Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aid Workers Kid Sex Shocker

An AP headline: "Report: Sex Abuse of Children by Aid Workers Widespread in War Zones."

If instead of aid workers it was the U.S. military, the New York Times would run this story on the front page through election day. Isn't molesting the children you're supposed to be helping worse than putting dog collars on the enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib? (Not that the latter is excusable.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

One of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory

Jonathan Gottschall recognizes that postmodern literary criticism is ailing, but I have doubts about his recommended course of treatment (Boston Globe, Ideas, 5/11/08). Making literary criticism “scientific” may yield some interesting studies. Mr. Gottschall however seems unaware of the most elemental wrong turn that critics took a few decades ago—that of “privileging” the critic over works of literature. The article’s subheading, for instance, claims that “Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition.” No, I would argue, not literary criticism, but literature helps us understand the human condition.

Gottschall mentions Roland Barthes’s notion of “the death of the author,” which attributes creative power to the reader of the text over that of its author. (The word “reader,”is disingenuous since the best reader in the mind of the critic is the critic himself.) Gottschall uses scientific methods to disprove Barthes’s thesis, but the exercise is unsatisfying to the vast majority of readers to whom it never made sense in the first place. Resolving internecine postmodern squabbles will not bring back the interest of the reading public.

Although Gottschall finds fault with Barthes, he still refers to him as “one of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory.” Elsewhere he refers to the “charismatic leaders” and “the great minds of literary studies.” My undergraduate professors, like the wonderful Peter Bien at Dartmouth, never saw themselves as “giants” of theory; their job was to communicate a love of great literature to their students. As long as the cult of the critic continues, literary criticism will continue, in Gottschall’s words, to “wander in continuous circles.”

Monday, May 05, 2008

Loafers on the Ground

James Carroll’s “The New Immorality of Iraq War” [sic] exhibits an ugly disdain for the U.S. military that is common on the John Kerry Left. He cannot imagine our soldiers rebuilding schools and medical clinics; to his kind they can only be heartless robots whose sole approach to any problem is violence. Thus he sputters with disbelief that President Bush would leave our troops in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was overthrown: “bringing order to a post-Saddam Iraq…was not a project for which the US war machine was remotely suited…The initiative should have passed from the Pentagon to a State Department-led program of stabilization and reconstruction, but instead a crudely violent military occupation was begun.”

Mr. Carroll concedes that we need boots on the ground—or rather Italian loafers on the ground. He doesn’t specify however exactly which unarmed social workers the State Department should have sent into Fallujah in 2003 without military support. Given Mr. Carroll’s globalist leanings, I’m surprised he didn’t nominate the United Nations for the job. Oh, wait, I forgot, the UN abandoned its corrupt Oil for Food program after a single car bomb made things too dangerous for diplomacy.

Celebrate University?

published in the Cambridge Chronicle 5/8/08

Criticizing multiculturalism is tricky business, so I better make it clear from the outset that I celebrate diversity as much as the next guy—especially if the next guy is from my 02138 zip code. I love Cambridge for its diversity--in my community of friends, on the street and in classrooms; in the 63 languages spoken (by the parents, one hopes) at Rindge and Latin; in restaurants operated by immigrants from Afghanistan, Turkey, Tierra del Fuego and Wyoming. When you grow accustomed to cultural diversity, it seems normal; as our Office of Tourism advertises, “Multi-Culture is a way of life.” Amen to that.

Restaurant choices may be a superficial form of diversity, but I believe it is profoundly important to raise our children in a multicultural society, that this is the surest way to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of a world where we judge not by skin color but by the content of character.

And yet at the same time the word “multiculturalism” elicits a knee-jerk negative response in me. I roll my eyes at the multiculturalist motto, “Celebrate Diversity.” I don’t think I am being inconsistent; rather it is multiculturalism that has many faces that hide behind the benign veil of respect and tolerance. I would like to comment on three versions of the multiculturalist credo.

Stage 1. “We should respect other cultures.”

Although I celebrate diversity, turning it into a bumper sticker transforms a celebration into an accusation. It assumes that people exist who don’t celebrate diversity—i.e., racists who need to be converted. The slogan announces its owner’s innocence by pointing to the guilt of America’s racist society. As Shelby Steele might say, it assuages white guilt.

Stage 2. “We should respect other cultures because all other cultures are equally valid.”

Here we enter the slippery slope of moral and cultural relativism. When faced with barbaric practices like honor killing, female genital mutilation and tossing widows on the funeral pyre, the multiculturalist can only respond, who are we to judge? My fourth-grader brought home a school hand-out on Cherokee creation myths, which explained helpfully: “Victims were beaten and burned, sometimes for several days, before they died… This practice seems horrifying today, but it made sense in terms of Cherokee beliefs.” Who are we to judge?

Stage 3.“We should respect other cultures because all other cultures are equally valid, except for the dominant white American culture, which is evil and empty.”

At its most malignant, multiculturalism becomes the opposite of tolerance and respect for all cultures; you end up with Jeremiah Wright. The inaptly named Tim Wise wrote about “the emptiness whites so often feel when confronted by multiculturalism and the connectedness of people of color to their various heritages.” (He is referring to that empty Dead White Male culture of Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution, Bach, James Joyce, and Thomas Edison.) Multicultural education therefore is compelled to “privilege” the history of anything non-Western, while it reduces American history to a narrative of slavery, imperialism and ecological destruction.

In sum, multiculturalism is like a Diet Kool-Aid and Johnnie Walker cocktail. The scotch might be worth celebrating--in moderation--but the adulteration by toxic liquid has rendered the mixture unpalatable.

The more fundamental question is whether even the good parts of multiculturalism have become redundant. If diversity doctors continue to hand out multicultural antibiotics after the patient is healed, the effects become destructive. Rather than leading us toward a post-racial society, it places a spotlight on race, encouraging us to judge by skin color.
It seems that our children are already leading the way to a post-racial society. Many Cambridge schoolchildren listen to the earnest efforts of diversity day organizers with the bemusement of my generation watching Reefer Madness. These attempts to expiate our racial sins are primarily for the adults in the room, living with the memory—or their parents’ stories--of segregated water coolers.

Unfortunately multiculturalism has become an industry—with career opportunities. To my knowledge no bureaucracy has ever voluntarily put itself out of business. Sadly, I expect that multiculturalism will continue to be a growth industry even as its reason for existing continues to decline.