Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Monday, May 05, 2008

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.