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Kimball – The New Criterion Multiculturalism and the Challenges to Conservatism

Roger
Kimball
The New Criterion

Multiculturalism and the Challenges to Conservatism
Speech to The Philadelphia Society
April 28, 2007

Roger Kimball is Co-editor of The New
Criterion
and publisher of Encounter Books,
author of several books including, The Rape of the Masters: How Political
Correctness Sabotages Art


It
is a pleasure to join you in the city of brotherly love to discuss “challenges
to conservatism.” I am confident that quite a lot of brotherly love would need
to be expended to arrive at a universally agreeable answer to the quandaries
before us. I know plenty of people—including some very smart ones—who will
tell you that “globalization” is the one of the biggest threats that
conservatism now faces. I know others, some equally percipient, who maintain
that globalization is mankind’s, and therefore a fortiori conservatism’s, biggest hope.

Fortunately,
I do not have to adjudicate that conflict, though were I asked I would be
tempted to say that they might both be right, since what looks like a challenge
seen from one point of view can appear as a tonic opportunity from another. In
that sense, I suspect, “globalization” is a lot like its primary engine,
capitalism, and can be seen as the friend or foe or conservatism depending on
what features you choose to stress.

In
any event, I have been asked to say a few words about “multiculturalism,”
one of those vertiginous concepts— “postmodern” is another—that expand
to fill the emptiness of the heads urging its advantages. While it would be
hazardous to venture a definition of
multiculturalism, it is clear that the word, like the actions undertaken in its
name, are deeply implicated in what Lionel Trilling, in the 1960s, called “the
adversary culture of the intellectuals.” It is a diminishing characteristic of
modern culture, Trilling wrote, to believe that “the primary function of art
and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture . . .
and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and
judgment.”

What
Trilling described was a phenomenon that had its roots as far back as
Romanticism and the Enlightenment. But in its more recent manifestations what
had begun as a reaction to authoritarianism had devolved into a suspicion of all
authority, moral and intellectual as well as political. Trilling spoke in this
context of a growing “disenchantment of our
culture with culture itself ” and a “bitter line of hostility to
civilization.” Multiculturalism is one of those anti-cultural cultural
manifestations that Trilling dissected.

Trilling
was writing in the early 1960s—in other words at very
moment when when the forces of a new radicalism were poised to sweep like
a tsunami through North America and Western Europe, transforming not only our
educational institutions but also the moral fabric of our entire society. Those
interested in charting the course of this cultural fever will
have noticed the prominent place that “multiculturalism” in this
lexicon of disenchantment. Moreover, the multicultural agenda has provided
common cause and something of a common vocabulary for an array of disciplines
and intellectual initiatives that are otherwise distinguished by quite different
interests.

Still,
partly because it has degenerated into something of a slogan, the term
“multiculturalism” is apt to give rise to all manner of misunderstanding. It
may be well, then, to begin by distinguishing between the adjective multicultural
and the epithet multiculturalism.
There is, first of all, the social fact that America, has always been
a multicultural and multieth≠nic society. Indeed, it is our country’s
singular political achievement to have forged a society in which vast religious,
ethnic, and racial differences are subordinated to the higher unity of national
identity. Hence the traditional defining image of America as a “melting
pot.”

The
problem comes when this conciliatory vision of a multicultural society gives way
to the ideology of multicul≠turalism. Here the politics of ethnic and racial
redress is allowed to trump the sustaining unity. It has happened before. In the
early years of the 20th-century, a wave of ethnic militancy swept the country.
Theodore Roosevelt was right to warn at the time that “The one absolutely
certain way of bringing this nation to ruin . . . would be to permit it to
become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

It
is happening again now as the ideology of multicul≠turalism sweeps our schools
and universities and infiltrates cultural life generally. We have all become
familiar with the kinds of foolishness that the demand for multiculturalism and
political correctness have brought to our schools and college campuses, the
workplace and government agencies.

A
quick and incomplete summary includes the denuncia≠tion of Western civilization
as inextricably racist, sexist, elitist, and patriarchal; it includes, too, the
ideology of victimhood, which systematically subordinates educational goals to
various exercises in political grievance mongering.

The
multicultural imperative also stands behind efforts by school and college
administrators to enforce speech codes and substitute self-esteem for academic
achievement—of attempting, as G. K. Chesterton put it in another context, to
change the test rather than pass the test. The recent fiasco involving those
unfortunate Duke University lacrosse players provides a suite of examples, as,
in another way, does the recent government-back study in Britain showing that
more and more teachers there are avoiding subjects—the Holocaust, for
example—that they believe might offend Muslim students.

At
the center of the multiculturalist ethos is the contention that all cultures are
equally valuable and, therefore, that preferring one culture, intellectual
heritage, or moral and social order to another is to be guilty of ethnocentrism
and racism. But are all cultures equally valuable? All may have certain laudable
attributes. But some have contributed vastly more to knowledge, politics, and
culture than others. William Henry summed up this unpalatable truth vividly when
he observed that it is “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon
as to put a bone in your nose.”

The
thoughtless egalitarianism that lies behind the multiculturalist imperative
helps to explain the current academic obsession with the notion of
“difference” and the widespread insistence that the differences that
separate us—pre-eminently, differences of race, class, sexuality, and ethnic
heritage—must be given priority over our common humanity.

This
celebration of “difference” may sound like a prescription for tolerance and
genuine pluralism. But in fact it has fostered an Orwellian situation in which
“diversity” really means strict intellectual conformity, and “tolerance”
is reserved exclusively for those who subscribe to one’s own perspective.
Deviation from the multiculturalist orthodoxy on any number of issues is
punished by social ostracism, mandatory “consciousness-raising” classes, or
even suspension or expulsion.

Like
most modern tyrannies, the dictatorship of the politically correct freely uses
and abuses the rhetoric of virtue in its effort to enforce conformity and
silence dissent. This is part of what makes it so seductive. How gratifying to
know that one is automatically on the side of Virtue! Those of you who are
students of the French Revolution will remember some of the atrocities carried
out in the name of what Robespierre called “virtue and its emanation,
terror.” The union of moralism and radicalism, while hardly a novel marriage,
is particularly destructive in institutions dedicated to intellectual inquiry
and artistic exploration. Not only does it foster an atmosphere of intimidation
and encourage conformity, but it also attacks the very basis for the free
exchange of ideas.

The
aim is not to enlighten or persuade but rather to intimidate and pre-empt
criticism. This of course is something that our new academic mandarins refuse to
acknowledge. But the truth is that what we are facing today is nothing less than
the destruction of the fundamental premises that underlie our conception both of
liberal education and of a liberal democratic polity. Respect for rationality
and the rights of the individual; a commitment to the ideals of disinterested
criticism and color-blind justice; advancement according to merit, not according
to sex, race, or ethnic origin: these quintessentially Western ideas are
bedrocks of our political as well as our educational system. And they are
precisely the ideas that are now under attack by bien
pensants
academics intoxicated by the coercive possibilities of
untethered virtue.

Just how bad have things become? Alas, it
is virtually impossible to overstate the case. Richard Delgado, a law professor
and proponent of the influential Critical Legal Studies movement, neatly
epitomized one aspect of the current orthodoxy when he insisted that “racism
and enlightenment are the same thing” and went on to argue that the concept of
merit is “a prominent example” of “the kind of racism evident in facially [sic]
neutral laws.” Another law professor, the radical feminist
Catharine MacKinnon, summed up a different aspect of the current situation when
she declared that feminism’s “critique of the objective standpoint as male
is a critique of science as a specifically male approach to knowledge. With it
we,” she wrote, “we reject male criteria for verification.”

Of
course, the assault is not undertaken solely by law professors. Michael Harris,
a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, put it this
way: “when you see the word ëqualifications’ used, remember that this is
the new code word for whites.” Sandra Harding, author of The
Science Question in Feminism,
blithely described Isaac Newton’s Principia
as a “rape manual.” The Afrocentrist Hunter Adams assured his
readers that “early African writings indicate a possible understanding of
quantum physics and gravitational theory.” Jonathan Culler, a professor of
literature at Cornell and a follower of the French deconstructionist Jacques
Derrida, solemnly wrote that “since no reading can escape correction, all
readings are misread≠ings.” In parts of Illinois parents and teachers are
instructed on “ten quick ways to analyze children’s books for racism and
sexism.”

The
important point to understand about these examples—and they could easily be
multiplied tenfold—is not how extravagant but, on the contrary, how common
they are. Such vertiginous nonsense—ranging over disciplines as various as
literature, law, history, and the social sciences— now constitutes a large
proportion of what is taught in schools and pursued as “scholarship” in the
academy.

The
crucial thing to understand is that, notwithstanding the emancipationist
rhetoric that accompanies the term, “multiculturalism” is not about
recognizing genuine cultural diversity or encouraging pluralism. It is about
undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and
in society at large.

And
it is in this sense that multiculturalism provides a convenient umbrella for the
smorgasbord of radical ideologies now regnant in the academy and elsewhere. The
one thing that your literary deconstructionist, your Lacanian feminist, your
post-structuralist Marxist, your New Historicist, your post-colonialist
theorist, and your devotee of what goes under the name of “cultural studies”
can agree on is that the Western humanistic tradition is a repository of ideas
that are naÔve, repressive, or both.

At
the center of the multicultural imperative is the assumption that all cultural
life is to be explained in political terms, preeminently in terms of gender,
race, class, and ethnic origin. In other words, categories of thought that have
their home in the social sciences are imported into the arts and humanities and
granted the status of golden explanatory keys. In good Marxist fashion, culture
is denied autonomy and is reduced to being a coefficient of something else: of
class relations, sexual oppression, racial exploitation, etc. Questions of
artistic quality are systematically replaced with tests for political orthodoxy,
even as the whole realm of aesthetic experience is “demythologized” as an
insidious bourgeois fiction designed to consolidate the cultural hegemony of the
ruling class.

In
the end, these efforts to transform culture into a species of power politics
rest on a more general repudiation. They rest on the contention that nothing is
meaningful or valuable in itself, that
all cultural phenomena are—really, finally
—coefficients of a political
power struggle. This is the fundamental message of writers like Michel
Foucault, whose inability to distinguish between truth and power has been
greeted as a sort of divine revelation.

The
important thing to note is note how odd but how prevalent this idea is. Indeed,
it is one way of articulating the core supposition—what we might call the
guiding non≠belief—that has animated the left-wing assault on culture and
standards. It is a powerful solvent. Indeed, at bottom it is a version of
nihilism and a license for sophistry. For if there is no such thing as intrinsic
merit, then no judgment of quality can
be anything more than a veiled political commendation or a statement of personal
partisanship. Without the idea of intrinsic moral, intellectual, and artistic
value, criticism and scholarship degenerate into a species of propaganda, and
morality becomes little more than a cynical calculus aimed at increasing
personal advantage.

Also
implicit in the politicizing mandate of multicul≠turalism is an attack on the
idea of a common culture, the idea that, despite our many differences, we hold
in common an intellectual, artistic, and moral legacy, descending largely from
the Greeks and the Bible, supplemented and modified over the centuries by
innumerable contributions from diverse hands and peoples. It is this legacy that
has given us our science, our political institutions, and the monuments of
artistic and cultural achievement that define us as a civilization. Indeed, it
is this legacy, insofar as we live up to it, that preserves us from chaos and
barbarism. And it is precisely this legacy that the multiculturalist wishes to
dispense with. Either the multiculturalist claims that the Western tradition is
merely one heritage among many —and therefore that it deserves no special
allegiance inside the classroom or out of it—or he denies the achievements of
the West altogether.

Corresponding to the attack on the idea of
a common culture is the multiculturalist’s rejection of the idea of a common
humanity. The multiculturalist rejects the idea that our identity as human
beings transcends our membership in a particular class, race, or sex. On the
contrary, for multicul≠turalists what is important is not what binds us
together but what separates us. And what separates us—be it gender, ethnicity,
class, or race—is used as a totem to confer the coveted status of victimhood
upon certain approved groups.

In
order to appreciate what is at stake in the debate over multiculturalism,
consider the phenomenon of Afrocentrism, one of the more extreme but also most
influential manifesta≠tions of the multicultural ethos. The basic supposition
of the movement for Afrocentrism is that Western culture is a bastardization of
African, and especially Egyptian, culture, which in a highly innovative piece of
ethnography is said to have been predominantly black. Consequently, black
Americans—often referred to as “diasporan African people”—are enjoined
to discard the “the preponderant Eurocentric myths of universalism,
objectivity, and classical traditions” in order to reclaim their proper
intellectual, cultural, and spiritual legacy by returning to African sources.
What might be left of culture after dispensing with the “myths” of
“universalism, objectivity, and classical traditions”—in other words, with
rationality, science, and history —is never really discussed because the truly
radical nature of the enterprise is seldom brought to light.

One
hears the call for Afrocentrism on many campuses, but—what is even more
disturbing —it has so far been most successful
influencing the curriculum in high schools around the country.

In
Portland, Oregon, for example, a version of the Afrocentric curriculum informed
by a document called the African-American
Baseline Essays
has already been adopted. Similar documents are
planned for other “geocultural” groups. The Portland curriculum, which has
come to serve as a national model for curricular transformation, is being
adopted at schools in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Washington,
D.C. and many other cities. In New York, a task force presided over by
Thomas Sobol, former State Education Commissioner, recommended sweeping changes
in the teaching of history in New York schools in order to accommodate ethnic
pressure groups and to root out what Commissioner
Sobol called the “hidden assumptions of white supremacy” in the
textbooks currently used.

And
what is taught? Like much about Afrocentrism, it is beyond satire and would
indeed be funny if it were not proposed in
earnest. In the African -American
Baseline Essays
students learn about the great “African-Jewish”
scientist and philosopher Maimonides. Old Testament history is conveniently
rewritten to portray the ancient Hebrews as guests,
not slaves, of the Egyptian pharaohs. It is suggested that the
“so-called Pythagorean theorem” was discov≠ered—like just about
everything else—by the ancient Egyptians. There is even a section on ancient
“Egyptian Metallurgy and Electrical Engineering.” Ninth graders are to
immerse themselves in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics, cleansing rituals,
and numerology. Students are taught that Greek philosophy was plagiarized from
black African Egypt. Plato and Aristotle, it turns out, are figures of derision
for Afrocentrists. How is it that black Africans accomplished so much? Simple:
skin color. According to one spokesman for this new species of racist claptrap,
“Black superiority in the areas of mental development” is “related to the
possession of a high level of melanin.”

Afrocentrism
is only one of many forces in the academy today demanding that historical truth
be sacrificed in the name of “diversity.” Examples of historical revisionism
undertaken in the name of redressing real or imagined grievances are rife. Thus,
for instance, former Governor George Pataki of New York not so long ago signed a
bill into law stipulating that henceforth high school students must be taught
not only about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s (in itself a reasonable
enough stipulation) but also that the famine was “the result of a deliberate
campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to
survive” and hence that it bears comparison with Nazi genocide. In fact, as
Mary E. Daly, a professor of Modern Irish History at University College, Dublin,
noted, “every famine alert appears to have enlisted assistance from both
government sources and private charities.” But of course to acknowledge that
would be to acknowledge that facts and historical evidence trump ideology,
something that multiculturalists, with their notion that reality is “socially
≠constructed,” cannot afford to do.

There
is something grimly ironic about the spectacle of our new multiculturalists
using ethnocentrism as a stick with which to beat the West. After all, both the
idea and the critique of ethnocentrism are quintessentially Western. There has
never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own; nor
has any tradition been more committed to self-criticism than the Western
tradition: the figure of Socrates endlessly inviting self-scrutiny and rational
explanation is a definitive image of the Western spirit.

Moreover,
“Western” science is not exclusively Western: it is science plain and
simple—yes, it is “universal” science— which, though invented and
developed in the West, is as true for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley as it
is for the denizens of New York. That is why, outside the precincts of the
humanities departments of Western universities, there is a mad dash to acquire
Western science and technology. The deepest foolishness of multiculturalism
shows itself in the puerile attacks it mounts on the cogency of scientific
rationality, epitomized poignantly by the Afrocentrist who flips on his word
processor in order to write books decrying the parochial nature of Western
science and extolling the virtues of the “African way.”

Indeed,
for all its failings—and its failings, like the failings of every culture, are
manifold—Western culture has also been the the cradle of political and social
liberty. The abolition of slavery, the political emancipation of women, the
extension of personal liberty and human rights: these are quintessentially
Western European ideas, not Asian, not African, not Muslim.

Despite
the racist character of Afrocentrism, it pleases advocates of multiculturalism
to present it and other forms of multiculturalism as prime examples of freedom,
diversity, and tolerance. Proponents say that Afrocentrism gives black students
a sense of their roots and enhances their self-esteem. But in fact, as Frederick
Douglass observed long ago, “No one idea has given rise to more oppression and
persecution toward colored people of this country than that which makes Africa,
not America, their home.”

In
this context, it is worth noting the irony that we have lately been assured that
the “end of history” is nigh and that a Western-style liberalism is on the
verge of establishing itself the world over and that peace and amity were
breaking out everywhere.

As
the events of 9/11 dramatically reminded us, that attractive version of the end
of history is a groundless fantasy. Instead, we are now witnessing what some
have called the retribalization of the world: a violent turn against Western
liberalism and its tradition of rationality, respect for individual rights, and
recognition of a common good that transcends the accidents of ethnic and racial
identity. Given this situation, it is all the more imperative that we educate
ourselves in the Western tradition, that we remind ourselves of the virtues of
our society and its democratic institutions. Such education is the staunchest
bulwark against the forces of disintegration we are facing.

The
multiculturalists expatiate on the repressive, inequitable nature of American
society. It is instructive to note, however, that people all over the world
continue to flock here. They do so not because they believe the United States is
perfect, but because they believe that the Western democratic institutions that
govern this society will allow them greater freedom, economic opportunity, and
personal dignity than they are likely to find anywhere else in the world. The
multiculturalists notwithstanding, the choice facing us today is not between a
“repressive” Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between
culture and barbarism. Civilization is not a gift, it is an achievement—a
fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from
besiegers inside and out. These are facts that do not easily penetrate the cozy
and coddled purlieus of the academy. But they are part of the permanent
challenge that any civilization worthy of the name must face.

Behind
the campaign for multiculturalism is the large question of the proper content of
a liberal-arts education and, finally, the question of the kind of society in
which we wish to live. One way to approach that question is return to the word
“diversity,” the great mantra of multiculturalists.

Let
me begin with with what to many of you may seem like an outrageous question: Is
diversity a good thing? One needs only to ask the question to realize that it is
a nonsensical question. For diversity, like fire, is neither good nor bad in
itself. It all depends on the context. If diversity is sometimes a good thing,
unanimity is also sometimes desirable. It all depends. Partisans of diversity
make an elementary logical mistake. The mistake is to confuse the proposition
that variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various. The fact
that the latter is true does nothing to underwrite the former. The good is
indeed gloriously various and diverse. That does not mean that every expression
of diversity is good. The fact that Jack loves Jill does not, alas, entail that
Jill loves Jack.

But
this logical error is motivated by political animus. Every school and college
campus today loudly trumpets its “commitment to diversity.” But a closer
look shows that what that really means is a slavish commitment to a left-wing
social and moral agenda on issues from feminism to the curriculum to
homosexuality. “Diversity,” in short, is a stick with which radicals beat
pusillanimous liberals and confused conservatives.

It
is also worth noting that diversity can mean many things. It can
mean genuine intellectual variety. But it can also be little more
than a synonym for affirmative action— another great Orwellian phrase that
employs the rhetoric of fairness but really means “discrimination on the basis
of race, sex, or some other approved badge of victimhood.”

The
multiculturalists have been strident in their praise of diversity. I will end by
exercising my own right of diversity and asking you to consider the alternative
advantages of commonality—or, to call it by an older name, prejudice.

What
are the advantages of prejudice? At least since John Stuart Mill, we have been
encouraged to associate prejudice with ignorance and bigotry. How many teachers,
in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges, regard it their first duty
to relieve their students of “prejudice.” But prejudice does not have to
mean bigotry or ignorance. It can also mean the repository of moral, social, and
intellectual wisdom represented by custom, habit, and tradition.

This
was something that Edmund Burke, for example, saw clearly. “Prejudice,”
Burke wrote, “renders a man’s virtue his habit. . . . Through just
prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” In seeking to relieve
students of “prejudice,” many teachers also seek to relieve them of those
unspoken commitments that families and churches have painstakingly sought to
instill. That indeed is one reason parents are right to be suspicious of
teachers who promise to “emancipate” their students  
from prejudice. What that often means in practice is emancipating them
from the moral and religious precepts they have been brought up on. It is a form
social engineering brought into the classroom and carried out by the same
wretched people who think that “it takes a village” to educate our children.

Let
us grant that there is such a thing as stultifying homogeneity. That is not at
issue. There is also such a thing as groundless diversity, and that, I believe,
poses a much more serious threat to our schools and our society today. In order
to be meaningful, diversity must rest on a common moral, social, and
intellectual culture. Without that common ground, diversity rapidly degenerates
into mere tribalism. Dialogue requires not only diversity but also devotion to
shared principles. Multiculturalism threatens to rob us of those shared
principles and substitute a spurious enlighten≠ment for real educational
reform.

Our
colleges and universities have been preaching the creed of multiculturalism for
the last few decades. Politicians, pundits, and the so-called cultural elite
have assiduously absorbed the catechism, which they accept less as an argument
about the way the world should be as an affirmation of the essential virtue of
their own feelings. We are now beginning to reap the fruit of that liberal
experiment with multiculturalism. The chief existential symptom is moral
paralysis, expressed, for example, in the inability to discriminate effectively
between good and evil.

And
this brings me back to the subject of “challenges to conservatism.” In the
end, perhaps the most pressing challenge to conservatism is the failure of
liberalism. That only sounds paradoxical. Russell Kirk once said that he was
conservative because he was a
liberal. Of course, the liberalism Kirk had in mind was not the rancid leftism
that today congregates under and betrays the name of liberalism but rather the
robust classical liberalism espoused, for example, by Edmund Burke—liberalism,
so to say, endowed with red corpuscles.

Multiculturalism
is not so much an expression of liberalism as a symptom of a characteristic
disease or antinomy of liberalism. The antinomy is this: liberalism implies
openness to other points of view, even (it would seem) those points of view
whose success would destroy liberalism. Extending tolerance to those points of
view is a prescription for suicide. But intolerance betrays the fundamental
premise of liberalism, namely, openness.

The
escape from that antinomy lies in understanding that “tolerance” and
“openness” must be limited by positive values if they are not to be vacuous.
American democracy, for example, affords its citizens great latitude, but great
latitude is not synonymous with the proposition that “anything goes.” Our
society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values—the rule
of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, the
separation of church and state. Or think of the robust liberalism expressed by
Sir Charles Napier, the British commander in India in the early 19th century.
Told that immolating widows on the funeral pyre of their husband was a cherished
local custom, Napier said, Fine. And it is our custom to hang people who do
this. Go ahead and build your funeral pyre: my chaps will be there to build a
gallows alongside it.

The point is
that the “openness” that liberal society rightly cherishes is not a vacuous openness to all points of view: it is
not “value neutral.” It need not, indeed it cannot, say Yes to all comers,
to the Islamofascist who after all has his point of view, just as much as the
soccer mom, who has hers. Western democratic society is rooted in a particular
vision of what Aristotle called “the good for man.” The question is: Do we,
as a society, still have confidence in the animating values of the vision? Do we
possess the requisite will to defend them? Or was FranÁois Revel right when he
said that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself
because another power is trying to destroy it”? The jury is still out on those
questions. How they are answered will determine the future not only of Western
universities but also of that astonishing spiritual-political experiment that is
Western democratic liberalism.

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