Monday, January 20, 2003

Multiculturalism under fire

Both progressives and centrists need to understand what the increasing attacks on multiculturalism from ostensibly mainstream conservatives are really all about: namely, the return of white nationalism.

These attacks are coming from all sectors of the conservative attack machine -- from the religious right, from the extremist right, and from mainstream liberal-hating conservatives who gleefully join in without considering the broader ramifications of these attacks.

A classic example of this is this report by William Lind of the Free Congress Foundation, "A Short History of Cultural Conservatism." The FCF, as it happens, is neatly positioned at the meeting-point of these three sectors of the right -- it enjoys credibility among both the religious and the far right, and its leader, Paul Weyrich, has been a major player of the mainstream right for over a generation now.

An excerpt:

Over the last several years, the Center for Cultural Conservatism devoted itself to researching the history and hidden agenda of our culture’s enemies. We quickly realized that the somewhat inchoate ramblings of the 1960s New Left had crystallized into a full-blown ideology, the ideology generally known as "multiculturalism" or "Political Correctness." In a new essay series on Political Correctness, we laid out its nature and historical origins, discovering that it is nothing less than Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms, largely through the work of the so-called "Frankfurt School," the Institute for Social Research established at Frankfurt University in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 and removed to New York City in 1933. To the essay series we subsequently added a video documentary history of the Frankfurt School, "Political Correctness: The Dirty Little Secret."

Lind's history, of course, is utter balderdash. Multiculturalism has its origins in anthropology, and is in many ways the brainchild of Franz Boas, the "father of American anthropology." See, by way of example, this essay by Kenan Malik, "Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference," which discusses the centrality of Boas' precepts to the development of multiculturalism in the 20th century.

Boas, as it happens, was a man after my own heart; he made his reputation with his forty-year study of the Kwakiutl Indians of northern Vancouver Island (where the waters are thick with Orcinus orca). That was also where he developed his concepts of cultural relativism. As this entry from Infoplease neatly sums up:

Boas greatly influenced American anthropology, particularly in his development of the theoretical framework known as cultural relativism, which argued against the evolutionary scale leading from savagery to Culture, laid out by his 19th-century predecessors. He believed that cultures (plural) are too complex to be evaluated according to the broad theorizing characteristic of evolutionary “laws” of developing culture (singular). Instead, Boas sought to understand the development of societies through their particular histories. He established the “four-field approach” through his concern with human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture, each of which has become a sub-field in the wider discipline of anthropology in the United States. Boas reexamined the premises of physical anthropology and was a pioneer in the application of statistical methods to biometric study. Boas was an early critic of the use of race as an explanation for difference in the natural and social sciences, emphasizing instead the importance of environment in the evaluation of individual capabilities, and made important contributions to stratigraphic archaeology in Mexico. As a student of Native American languages, Boas emphasized the importance of linguistic analysis from internal linguistic structure, and pointed out that language was a fundamental aspect of culture. His insistence on rigorous methodology served to establish the scientific value of his contributions, and his methods and conclusions are still widely influential.

Put simply, Boas insisted on applying a genuine scientific method to the study of culture, as opposed to the hodgepodge of pseudo-scientific "sociology" that held sway at the turn of the century and well into this one. These included such bogus sciences as phrenology and eugenics, both of which were clearly unscientific methods for supporting the principles of white supremacy.

It is among our more convenient memory lapses as a nation that we Americans forget that white supremacism was indeed at one time the dominant worldview held by most U.S. citizens. The widespread belief that white people were the consummate creation of nature, and that they were destined to bring the world civilization and light, went essentially unquestioned. And it was supported by popular literature and these self-proclaimed “scientists” who used the questionable methodology of the day to lend an academic veneer to longstanding racial prejudices.

Among the most popular of the time were Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who boasted credentials from Harvard and Yale universities respectively. They approached the matter of race ostensibly from anthropological and biological perspectives, but in fact largely did little more than clothe white supremacism in pseudo-scientific language. Wrote Grant, in his 1916 tome The Passing of the Great Race:

“We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control, and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all ‘distinctions of race, creed, or color,’ the type of native American of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo.”

And as Stoddard would later write in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy -- a 1922 work complete with admiring introduction from Grant -- the real threat was not blacks in the South, but Asians: “There is no immediate danger of the world being swamped by black blood. But there is a very imminent danger that the white stocks may be swamped by Asiatic blood.”

Both of the men’s books were national bestsellers that underwent multiple printings. And their core arguments -- which became entwined with deeply cherished beliefs about the nature of race -- became the heart of the battle to exclude Japanese immigrants in the 1920s, and to justify Jim Crow laws in the South well into the 1950s.

Boas' multiculturalism, then, was specifically a reaction against white supremacism. And there is little doubt that this philosophy became the dominant American worldview in the last half of the past century. It is also deeply interwoven with mainstream liberalism in America, and its institutional ascendance is an indication of how broad and powerful those beliefs have become.

Obviously, there are some limits to multiculturalism, limits that Boas himself might readily concede. But its critics rarely propose an alternative; and when they do, it is almost always a form of white supremacism clothed in code words, as is Lind's: Cultural conservatism is the belief that there is a necessary, unbreakable, and causal relationship between traditional Western, Judeo-Christian values, definitions of right and wrong, ways of thinking and ways of living -- the parameters of Western culture -- and the secular success of Western societies: their prosperity, their liberties, and the opportunities they offer their citizens to lead fulfilling, rewarding lives.

What this view blithely ignores is the extent to which the "secular success" of Western culture has depended not upon such high-minded ideals as integrity and decency but rather upon their polar opposites: deceit, treachery, thuggery and lethal brute force. (Certainly Franz Boas, who had lifelong contacts with Native Americans, was acutely aware of this history.) The success of Western culture is not any proof of its superiority.

This does not make me (or anyone else) who holds these views innately anti-American. Hardly. In fact, I think the fact that we live in a society where such views can not only be spoken but openly explored is a sign of our greatness, and I have always been glad to consider myself a patriot who would die defending the country from a genuine threat -- specifically because I believe in that greatness. Indeed, I firmly believe that truly understanding America's problems means taking the blinders off about our own history, which by necessity shapes our obligations to the present and future.

Not that the likes of William Lind would entertain such views for a moment. It's worth remembering that Lind has become a controversial figure in recent weeks, after an essay of his defending the Confederacy was circulated in a newsletter by the would-be chair of the California Republican Party, William Back. Lind's essay argued that "history might have taken a better turn" if the South had won the Civil War, and likewise contends "The real damage to race relations in the south came not from slavery, but from Reconstruction, which would not have occurred if the South had won."

Moreover, as this SPLC report makes clear, Lind has aligned himself on multiple occasions with far-right extremists, including Holocaust deniers. There should be little doubt that he is an unapologetic voice for white nationalism.

His attacks on multiculturalism are of a piece with this. See, for instance, this essay:

Is Multiculturalism a Threat to the National Security of the United States?

YES: A fragmented culture subverts national identity, purpose and the will to fight enemies.

Lind repeats his ahistorical rant about multiculturalism's origins, and adds this:

The basic message of "multiculturalism" is that all cultures are equally good and beneficent - except Western culture, which is violent and oppressive. That message is, of course, a lie. In reality, Western culture is one of only two cultures that has been successful over time in terms of the quality of life it provided to its adherents (the other success is Chinese culture). To see real violence and oppression, one need only look at the life of non-Muslims in Islamic majority countries. The purpose of multiculturalism is to disarm the West psychologically, to make it impossible for Western men even to consider fighting in defense of the Western, Judeo-Christian way of life; to do so, as the multiculturalists preach, is to become "another Adolf Hitler" (who was, ironically, no fan of Judeo-Christian culture himself.)

Lind is hardly the only voice attacking multiculturalism out there, however. Rush Limbaugh's radio program regularly features similarly ahistorical attacks on the concept. The Washington Post's Michael Kellylikewise is fond of "exposing" the sins of multicultural principles. Fox News talking heads use the word as a sneer. Even libertarians at the Ayn Rand Institute label multiculturalism "the new racism" [thereby qualifying for an entry in "Newspeak of the Week"].

Nearly all of these attacks are built upon the kind of smear campaign that has all too often typified conservatives' attacks on bedrock liberal principles for the better part of a century. For years, of course, this smear was embodied in the word "Commie" (note that Lind specifically tries to make multiculturalism out to be Marxist in origin). Now that the label doesn't really work any more, they've come up with a new variation on the same theme: "anti-American."

These remarks do not come to argue, but to silence. Their intent is not to advance the debate by considering points on their merits, but by smearing those who raise them as "anti-American," a characterization no freedom-loving citizen wants. In a post-9/11 environment where such labels have been associated with "providing aid and comfort to the enemy" and "fifth column" accusations, these arguments have a growing danger behind them.

I recently criticized one of these attacks on multiculturalism, a blog essay by Brian O'Connell titled "From Multiculturalism to Anti-Americanism in Six Easy Steps." Going through it, you'll see that it fits the mold: No real critique of the actual contents of multiculturalism, just reflexive caricatures of its various postures, some of which could have been inspired (or written) by William Lind: "As is implied by Step No. 1, "We Cannot Judge Other Cultures", we are perfectly free to judge our own culture, Western culture, and that of its most visible agent, the US. And we're not just free to do so, indeed, we're obligated to do so. Like the first step, this is axiomatic. And when we do analyze Western and US culture, what a magnificent host of pathologies we find: racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, capitalism, corporatism, consumerism, and the chronic trashing of the environment."

Brian has offered a defense, which says in part:

My post merely draws a connection between the practice of multiculturalism and resulting anti-Americanism. I advocated no action. The only action I would suggest is speech: pointing out what's wrong with that view and that way of thinking. And that's all I did.

This is, of course, simply disingenuous. The attacks on multiculturalism are part of a cohesive line of argument that is beginning to emerge from the right. Its basic syllogism is this: Liberalism equals multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is anti-American. Anti-Americanism gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Thus, liberal attacks on the Bush regime's war effort support the enemy.

Considering the already-vicious character of this line of reasoning, one wonders how long will it be before we hear the next logical step of this syllogism: Namely, that those who support the enemy are equal to enemy combatants.

Again, these contentions aren't meant to argue -- they mean to silence the opposition. Their only purpose is to squelch dissent. And its speakers are in clear violation of the the Orcinus Principium: "Americans who accuse their fellow citizens of sympathizing with the enemy merely for dissenting from the nation's war aims are objectively anti-democratic."

Brian further responds:

As is groaningly familiar now, many on the left equate criticizing critical speech with stifling dissent. As if the First Amendment envisions only a single iteration of criticism; as if free speech means that you can say anything you want, as long as it’s not about what other people are saying. It’s not so. War on Dissent. Please. Dissent is not a church and I am not being sacreligous by saying that a certain group of dissenters are in error.

No one minds a serious critique of the errors of multiculturalism. But O'Connell's polemic was anything but -- rife with mischaracterizations of the actual tenets, as well as the history of, multiculturalism, and built around a thesis that is clear in its intent: to prove that the very nature of multiculturalism is anti-American. He wasn't pointing out an error; he was painting liberals as unpatriotic sympathizers with the enemy. Especially when delivered in the context of a critique of the antiwar movement, the effect is clearly part of a worrisome trend in the national debate.

Finally, I think it's important to point out that not only is there no evidence -- beyond its obviously questioning and skeptical stance -- that multiculturalism is innately anti-American, it must be remembered that it is in fact innately American, a product of old bedrock democratic principles like egalitarianism. (Certainly this is part of how Boas envisioned it as well.) But then, democracy itself seems not to be much valued by those on the right these days.

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