Multicultural Chic, or Pay No Attention to the Capitalist Behind the Curtain
Thanks to everyone, especially the Yeager Scholars Program, for the opportunity to speak here. Tonight I'd like to oppose, not the proponents of multiculturalism who, as far as I can tell are well-intentioned, but the intellectual and social bases of multiculturalism. I'd like to make several points and illustrate them without, hopefully, talking like that guy on the Federal Express commercials. I will argue that multiculturalism doesn't make much logical sense, that as a chic social phenomenon it is far removed from the cultures it talks about, and that the real enemy of non-white, non-European culture is our present economic system. The man behind the curtain who caused the problems we are experiencing today is not the white male, but the capitalist.
1. The need for multiculturalism as a consequence of demographic shift in this country is historically untrue.
There is an idea afoot that multiculturalism is a new thing, that owing to certain recent demographic shifts we are impelled to accept multiculturalism as a concept coincident with this shift. The argument goes something like this: right now, the Black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific, and Native American groups represent 25% of Americans. However, by 2056, the so-called average American will trace his or her roots to almost anywhere other than Western Europe. Hence, owing to this new, rapid shift in our population, we need to welcome and tolerate people of colors other than white, and accept multiculturalism's positions because they are founded on sound demographics.
Sounds good, except this is a claim made in the absence of any historical understanding of the cultural shifts in America owing to migration. While we may be witnessing a profound migration of Hispanics (most of whom, by the way, would never call themselves Hispanics, but rather Guatemalans, Mexicans, or Peruvians), this is the third wave in an ongoing cycle of immigrant migration.
Peculiar to the first two migrations, the one that originated this country and the one following the Civil War was a decidedly whitish cast to who counted as Americans.
Alongside these halcyon and inaccurate sentiments other voices were not so sanguine about our happy, brotherly existence:
Clearly, from the outset, the Republic has heard voices proclaiming that we are either all brothers and should remain so, or that we are threatened at every turn by foreigners who must not be allowed to sully the purity of our Americanism.
Nor does it take a degree in history to be aware of the fierce differences that arose between immigrant populations following the second wave of immigration: the discrimination against the Irish, the Italians, and the open conflicts that erupted in the northeastern United States between these two, and among other national groups. Then, too, were calls for assimilation into something called the American culture; then, too, were calls for maintaining the integrity of the individual transplanted cultures. It is perhaps most interesting to note that the conflicts then were between groups that are now lumped together as "white European." They certainly would have resisted such a broad and inaccurate designation, and certainly saw themselves as distinct, even though they shared the same skin color.
During both the first and second waves of immigration, one voice was clear, that of the resident population criticizing the newcomers as somehow morally inferior: unwashed, uneducated, and culturally subversive. The message was that these immigrant groups were morally inferior to the then-resident population.
And yet, despite everyone's recognizing that such a position is indefensible, we find the same attitude recapitulated in multiculturalism's response to white culture. Like racists who lump all people of a certain skin color into a single group, like both well-meaning people and harsh critics who lump wildly diverse people into a single so-called culture (the term Asian, for example), multicultural proponents will have us believe that there is something known as "white" culture, or that "white males" constitute an identifiable group. If a white person claims that it was probably black teenagers who broke into his or her house because you know how those black kids are, he or she would probably be branded some form of racist. But when the multiculturalist speak of white culture, they assume they are using a descriptive term with a generally agreed on referent. The lunatic fringe of the multicultural movement goes further and claims that all white culture originated in Africa, and that whites have spent the last 2500 years suppressing the knowledge of this "fact." The history of this country is the history of one group making invidious distinctions between itself and another group. Knowing this, why do multiculturalists persist in perpetuating the error?
Following Martin E. Spencer, we can identify three groups, or three voices that have always been with us. First is American nationalism, which argues that "we" Americans should, when we're not trying to keep them out of the country, compel newly arrived immigrants to adopt our cultural practices and thereby become more fully American. Clearly this is the brush with which multiculturalism tars what it calls white males. While it is undoubtedly true that some white people hold this view, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, racist to argue that, owing to the color of one's skin, one can assume a person holds a certain view. The second group are the minority nationalists, of which multiculturalism partakes. This argument claims that there are distinct cultural elements, determined by skin color, that have no common bond that would link them into a larger whole (Spencer 562). Further, a moral inequality exists between the superior people of color and the inferior whites, which, as I have noted, simply reverses the roles we have experienced in our racist national past. Third is a group called cosmopolitan liberalism, in which "the American identity is established by an affiliation with the democratic political values of a state that is based on the consent of the governed, the rule of law, human rights, and free association." (Spencer 562) These values, not those of cultural identity, should properly link us together as Americans. I would like to ally myself with the third position in opposition both to the American nationalists, and to the multiculturalists.
2. The idea that culture can somehow be tied to one's race and thereby justified is not only wrong, but counter-productive
The term "multiculturalism" implies that the source of our identity stems largely from the culture of which we are a part. It implies that suppressing that culture is tantamount to suppressing our individual identity, which is unjust. Hence, it would be useful to identify our "culture" to determine if we are being treated unjustly.
Let's list some sources of cultures, of which we are all a part (although individually we may partake differently in these cultures, or belong to different cultural groups that are themselves parallel):
You're a West Virginian, you're an American, you're Jewish, you're a Marshall grad, you're from Billy Ray Cyrus' home town: all these elements of your identity could be said to originate in a culture. But when asked about your cultural background, that is, what are you, what are you to answer? The answer is that a human being's identity is the consequence of many cultures, not a single one, cultures that are not necessarily concentric, such as those of state and nation, but they cris-cross one another, inextricably interwoven, conflated and rife with bloomin', buzzin' confusion. On an individual level, to identify a single culture as the source of identity, which can then be contrasted with another, as multiculturalism suggests we do, is well-nigh impossible.
This background observation clarifies what is really at issue for many of the proponents of multiculturalism, the politics of race and ethnicity, couched in the language of culture. The argument is really that America has long been the preserve of white power, a power that through acts of overt legislation and subtle discrimination have stifled the voices of people of other colors and ethnic backgrounds. Without a doubt this injustice toward non-whites is demonstrably true throughout American history, but in what sense is it a cultural issue?
It's a cultural issue because multiculturalists claim that race and/or ethnicity produces a distinctive form of culture. Take the blues: here's a form of musical expression created by disenfranchised blacks. Is the blues a "black thing?" That is, to really play the blues do you have to be black? Can a white boy, and a Brit to boot, such as Eric Clapton, really play the blues? Many would argue no, he can't: that while Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and others may have their white imitators, only blacks can play the blues. The blues, only one example among many, indicate the inextricable link between race and culture.
I'd like to suggest that, for all its appeal, this is a poisonous argument, yet one that is at the heart of the concept of multiculturalism: race produces culture. Dominant and subordinate races engage in political and social struggles for supremacy which the subordinate races invariably lose. Multiculturalism's task is to level the playing field, so to speak, to give these other cultural voices the opportunity to be heard, and to rediscover them when they have been buried by the dominant, racially fostered historical trends of the past.
The problem with this argument is that blacks, for example, by identifying themselves by the color of their skin, have bought into the so-called white argument, which they will surely lose, for economic, rather than cultural reasons. We might first want to ask, is there a white race? Or a black race?
Traditionally, the three races have been identified by colors: black, white, yellow, or African, European, Asian. Just to pick one at random, we can ask, are Asians a race? Let's enumerate their physical characteristics: yellow skin, wide, flat cheekbones, epicanthic folds (webs at the corner of the eyes), straight black hair, sparse body hair, and shovel-shaped incisors. Of course, these characteristics don't obtain in Manilla, Tehran, or Irkutsk--all cities in Asia. Epicanthic folds are also present in the Khoisan (bushmen) in southern Africa. So-called "Asian" incisors are also characteristic of Swedes. As we know, straight black hair is present lots of places. Given world enough and time, we could similarly enumerate the characteristics of the so-called black race, and demonstrate that they share characteristics with Norwegians, Armenians, and Australians. And we all know about Hitler's claims about the white, Aryan race and it's physical characteristics. Allowing oneself to be defined by skin color is to buy into what Hegel called the master-slave relationship.
Biologically, we are all the same species, in that we can interbreed. However, race accounts for only 6% of biological differences among people. "Race" as a concept didn't exist until the the invention of oceangoing transport in the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance, 25 miles a day was tops for a person to travel. Yet with the advent of ocean-going vessels, Europeans encountered enormous groups of people who, to the naked eye, appeared to be much different from themselves. How to account for their difference? By inventing the concept of race (Shreeve 58). Race is like the spuriously element phlogiston, invented by early scientists to explain the change in weight in oxidized materials. Without the knowledge of oxidation, they had to assume that the change in weight was the result of a substance disappearing from the oxidized material, so they invented phylogiston. We have to explain why some people have yellow skin and some people have black skin, hence we invent the concept of race. It's not too much of a stretch to then identify cultural characteristics with race: as we all know, Asians are polite, self-effacing, and shy. Tell that to the residents of Pearl Harbor. Or the victims of the Khmer Rouge. And, as we all know, there's something about the color of their skin that inspires black men to play basketball. The assumption of the existence of race and its tie to culture not only inspires racism, it robs people of their individuality by claiming that certain individual social and cultural qualities are not freely chosen, but determined by one's race. Hence, the specious but powerful arguments that justified the American enslavement of blacks, or the so-called Aryan race and their genocide of the Jews.
Biologically speaking, American Black's genetic material is on average 20-30% European or American Indian (Shreeve 58). Taking skin color as the definition of one's race is simply taking the most visible and overt physical quality: why not take epicanthic folds, or cheekbones (although if we do take cheekbones I must admit Claudia Shiffer does seem to be of a race all her own)? Are we today—black, white, or yellow—like the white racists of the past, going to use skin color to define our identity, and hence our culture?
Fully half of physical anthropologists claim that race doesn't exist (Shreeve 60). While forensic scientists can distinguish people geographically, that doesn't imply that there are three races. Are we going to turn our backs on the scientific evidence to further a political agenda? Regardless of our position on multiculturalism, once we accept the notion that distinct races exist, and that these races determine our cultural identity, the possibility for understanding and reconciliation is lost. Rather than citizens of a nation, or of a world, we would remain fundamentally divided among ourselves by biological conditions which we could not overcome. So let's be clear: assuming the existence of race, and tying race to culture is a huge mistake for us all.
3. The slogan of multiculturalism, "celebrate diversity," suggests that toleration is a virtue that should be universally endorsed. That is a false and dangerous idea.
Let's turn next to the slogan of the multicultural movement: "Celebrate Diversity!" This vague and Pollyannish liberal invocation has much to recommend it, in that it suggests that toleration for others should be endorsed. The sentiment is clearly laudable, but "celebrate diversity" makes about as much sense as scotch-swilling, cigarette-sucking Nancy Reagan telling us to "just say no to drugs." What's wrong with celebrating diversity is that it implies that we should regard toleration as a virtue to be universally applied. Not only is it wrong to be always tolerant of others' culture, it is dangerous for our collective health and the possibility for human justice. It's a claim that originated in a type of cultural relativism that does no one any good.
The argument is that we should celebrate diversity because for too long we have been intolerant of others, just because their cultural practices are different from ours. We've had these cultural differences in our face owing to a demographic fact, the increasing presences of non-whites and non-Europeans in our American demographic mix. As Americans, we are in no position to judge others' culture in other countries and hence, when their culture then begins appearing in our traditionally white culture, we have no more right to judge them right or wrong than they have to judge our culture right or wrong. This increase in cultural diversity may have caught some of us unaware. Hence we need to work extra special hard to be tolerant.
This sounds like a sweet and agreeable argument. No one wants to be accused of being intolerant. Different societies have different moral codes. With respect to cultural matters, right and wrong are merely matters of opinion, and opinions vary from culture to culture.
Is this true? Consider the implications of encouraging toleration because the judgments we make of others are only expressions of opinion. First, we could no longer say that the practices of other cultures, whether within our national boundaries or without, are wrong. Families in certain parts of India pour gasoline on unmarried daughters and set them afire because they cannot produce a good dowry. In Brazil, a man, following the murder of his wife, could legally claim justification because her behavior was an affront to his honor. It is the practice of certain tribal societies to perform clitoridectomies, that is, to remove the clitoris of women, depriving them of sexual pleasure that apparently threatens their men psychologically. Aren't other cultures wonderful?
Obviously, other cultures, and our own genocide-committing, slave-holding culture, engage in horrifying practices that institutionalize ongoing violations of human beings' rights. If we endorse toleration as a universal principle, by what means are we to determine what is a right or wrong cultural practice, in our society or in another society? According to the assumptions behind multiculturalism, we cannot.
Second, if there are no right and wrong cultural practices, but only ones to be celebrated, then our own society's practices are right solely on the basis that they are practiced. By universalizing the principle of toleration, we are arguing that the Nigerians, for example, should celebrate the diversity and difference of our culture just as we celebrate the diversity and difference of theirs. Consider that today we have over one million of our citizens in prisons, more than any other country outside Russia, with politicians clamoring to build more jails. Consider that of those million prisoners, fully half of them are there for so-called drug offences. At the same time, your tax dollars go to support the growing of a demonstrably addictive, deadly substance, and to promote the selling of it in other countries, particularly China, despite the evidence that it reduces its users first to a state of life-long dependence, and finally to a slow, painful death. The substance is, of course, tobacco. Simultaneously, your tax dollars are going to imprison people who have either sold or ingested marijuana. To date, there have been more deaths attributable to cheerleading than marijuana smoking. If the culturally relativist principle of toleration is correct, then the Nigerians should recognize that the American practice of jailing people who smoke marijuana is not unjust, but simply "different," a practice to be celebrated.
Third, if there are no right and wrong cultural practices, then the entire idea of moral progress is called into doubt. If there are no right or wrong cultural practices, but only different ones, then we cannot claim that current injustices should be eliminated and replaced by just practices. Nor could we judge past practices as good or bad, since historical injustices, like cultural ones, cannot be evaluated, but simply marked as "different."
The plain truth is that certain types of diversity should be endorsed, and certain types should be condemned. Diversity, per se, is not worthy of celebration. What is worthy of celebration is, for example, the principle of equal treatment under the law. This principle is one among many that we will find among the world's cultures, yet it is plainly superior to any other competing legal principle. To say that something is worthwhile simply because it is different is a dangerous form of wrong-headedness.
4. Looked at socially, multiculturalism did not originate within the so-called non-white cultures, but within a specific educational and economic class that itself cannot be identified as a specfic culture.
To understand multiculturalism better, we would do well to look toward its origins. Where did the program for multiculturalism come from? East L.A.? Calle Ocho in Miami? The Mormon farms of Utah? Obviously not. Multiculturalism had its origin among the educated. Educators, educational bureaucrats, sociologists, and others originated this term, and its pervasiveness, in corporations and throughout the educational system, is an index of its success. "Diversity training" is a watchword among corporate types, and in education, the war on the canon in the interest of "diversity," and the sad casualties of that war, at Stanford, Yale, Penn, and other places has been well publicized. How are we to account for multiculturalism, not as the logical mess that it is, but as a social phenomenon? That is, not what is multiculturalism, but how did it get here? The answer is contained in the first part of my title: multicultural chic.
Twenty five years ago, along with granny dresses, flowered shirts, an illegal, imperialistic war on the other side of the globe, and a war on its young people on this side of the globe, along with the sweet smell of reefer in the air, was an American literary phenomenon known as New Journalism. The New Journalists, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote among them, didn't just report the news, they participated in it. And the undisputed king of the New Journalists was Tom Wolfe, whose best-seller The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test traced the progress of Ken Kesey and his acid-soaked group of Merry Pranksters, and whose later The Right Stuff was the Apollo 13 of its day. But my favorite of all of his books is two bound essays, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. One outlines the relationship between uptown wealthy New York liberals and the Black Panther Party, and the other the San Francisco Office of Economic Opportunity and its attempts to serve its customers. These were among the first essays to describe what is now known as multiculturalism. No one then, and perhaps now (other than myself) would call them multicultural documents, but I would. The reason is this: they describe how an educated, liberal elite, full to bursting with good will toward people of other cultures, and equally saturated with ignorance and misinformation, become totally bamboozled by the people they, in their liberal innocence, want to help.
Radical Chic, for example, tells of a new column in Vogue magazine entitled "Soul Food."
This unintentionally funny introduction is followed by a recipe for "Sweet Potato Pone." You can imagine the early Seventies dinners on the upper West Side featuring sweet potato pone, exemplifying the society matrons' stern solidarity with the Black Panthers in their quest for revolution that would instantly end the matron's life of privilege.
My favorite section, however, occurs in Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers:
In these two essays Tom Wolfe traced a French historical phenomeonon, nostalgie de la boue, or nostalgia for the mud, and its incarnation in New York and California. Wealth, education, and comfort, allied with a liberal sensibility, creates in some the desire to help the less fortunate. However, this liberal sensibility is also fraught with profound ignorance of the actual economic and social conditions of those in need. The payoff, though, does not come from the satisfaction accruing from helping others, but from the elevated social status one achieves in one's own group through the act of allying oneself with a romantically different group outside one's own social and cultural class. In the situations Tom Wolfe describes, it's chic to be allied with radical blacks. Today, it's chic to be allied with members of other cultures who wear colorful costumes, cook exotic food, and who can be safely viewed from the rose-colored windows of one's own book-lined study.
Multicultural chic differs from radical chic. The proponents of radical chic were well-intentioned wealthy whites attempting to link themselves with people of color to raise their status among their white social group. Multicultural chic, however, is not a phenomeon of white skin color, but a phenomeon of economic class and education. The people in support of multiculturalism may be black, white, Jewish, Hindu, Canadian, American, but what they all share is a profound distance from the cultures they argue for. For if anything separates one group from another in this country, it's not culture, but economics and education. The proponents of multiculturalism, regardless of their origins, are one in their possession of either advanced degrees or a bureaucratic sensibility. Multiculturalism is an argument couched in the language of helping, but is all about advancing a political program that will benefit those making the argument. Like those of the radical chic in the seventies who sought to improve their standing within their own group by helping others, the proponents of multiculturalism find themselves rising in the company, so to speak, whether that be an actual company or an educational institution, through acquiring power, or money, or both.
5. The emphasis on multiculturalism in corporations and educational institutions has shifted our gaze away from what is the real enemy of non-white, non-European culture, our present economic system.
My point here is that diversity training or diversity officers aren't an evil in themselves, or that they have unsavory motives. Far from it. The push for multiculturalism originates in the best of motives, although, as I say, the consequences fall generally in favor of the advocates of multiculturalism, not their clients. But the consequences of this push are a horrendous waste of time and energy. If proponents of multicultualism see evidence of injustice everywhere among the underclass, and a history in this country of poor treatment of Blacks and Asians and Amerindians, they are absolutely correct. But addressing this situation by celebrating diversity simply muddies the waters even further, and prevents us from seeing the real enemy, the real cause of injustice in this country. The real enemy not only of the multiculturalist's constituency, but of anyone in this country denied equal opportunity, is not the white culture, whatever that is. Instead, it is the economic system and those who control it.
During this two-decade-long chat about multiculturalism, the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich occurred under the benign, crinkly, smiling eyes of the Acting President, Ronald Reagan. During this chat about multiculturalism the defense establishment in this country raked in absurd sums of your tax dollars to fund Star Wars, a gargantuan welfare program for multinational coorporations named after a children's movie. During all this chat about multiculturalism, the laws governing savings and loans assocations were relaxed, ultimately providing a few bankers with wealth that might make even Deon Sanders pause, while socking the rest of us with a tax bill that amounted to something like two thousand dollars for every man woman and child in the country. During all this chat about multiculturalism, we have acquired the greatest and most punishing national debt of any nation in the history of the world. What, I ask you, is the threat to the underclass, the other-cultured, the disenfranchised? It ain't culture, it's economics. However, liberal, educated people, those responsible for putting multiculturalism into the national discussion, have ignored the true enemy, the economic system and its representatives, in favor of one that permits them to distinguish themselves from the other by virtue of skin color: the white male culture. Distinguish oneself from others on the basis of skin color. Hmmm. That has a familiar and unhealthy ring to it.
Republicans and Democrats alike allow the wealthy clients of lobbyists to gorge themselves at the public trough while programs for education and the arts are cut, and cut again. Specious, self-serving arguments against Aid to Families with Dependent Children are launched—now there's a group with a powerful political lobby. We now hear medical care to the elderly is due for a slashing. The Congress actually raises the Defence Department budget this year, giving them more than they even asked for, this with no clear military threat on the world's horizon. The call is for more police, more punishment, more restrictions on political liberties, while we have the third worst child vaccination record in the hemisphere, just above Haiti and Bolivia.
As educators, as bureaucrats, as citizens, what ought to be our concern for those of other cultures in our midst? Spending our days trying to raise their self-esteem? Donning masks so we can role play? Eating some sweet potato pone so we can partake of the spirtual sacrament of poverty? Quibble, not about excellence in our leaders and educators, but about their skin color and national and ethnic background? Nonsense. An ongoing concern for the opportunity to make it ought to be our concern, starting with electing representatives who cease being the hired agents of multinational coorporations, and instead become protectors of our public welfare, everyone's welfare. Lessening the shameful economic distances between the upper and lower classes will do more for our so-called diverse cultures than speech codes, campus diversity police, international food days, canon quotas, and syllabi assembled with a calculator that does racial and gender computations. While we spend our time celebrating diversity, the man behind the curtain is lessening the opportunities of the less fortunate by increasing the opportunity for even more wealth by the already rich.
James Carville, the so-called genius behind Bill Clinton's campaign, once said "It's the economy, stupid." And while I wouldn't want to call anyone differently intellectually abled, that is, stupid, I think we would do well to remind ourselves that we should as Americans emphasize what brings us together—the rule of law, equality of opportunity, the right to free association, and governance by consent—not what divides us among ourselves. We need to recognize that the real enemy in this country cannot be recognized by the color of his skin or the continent from which his ancestors originated, but by his economic practices, ones that devalue us as citizens by widening the economic gulf that separates us one from the other. Through the power of our votes and the volume of our voices we have to say, as one, no more to the shameful economic inequalities from which we suffer, that enough is enough. Thank you.
Shreeve, James. "Terms of Estrangement." Discover Magazine. November 1993: 57-63.
Spencer, Martin E. "Multiculturalism, 'Political Correctness,' and the Politics of Identity." Sociological Forum 9 (1994): 547-567.
Wolfe, Tom. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.