By 1989, the more elevated forms of American idealism, specifically those on the political left, were under serious threat both at home and abroad. Domestically, the agenda of the Sixties, in particular the programs promoting racial equality, were bogged down. The integration of schools and communities had slowed considerably, and the economic position of blacks showed no prospect of approaching that of whites. Internationally, the cause of disillusion was even more dramatic. The Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it the last, lingering hopes of a radically different and more inspiring society based on socialism.
Whenever something similar has happened in the past, that is, whenever reality has contradicted what idealistic Americans have desired, their facility for self-deception has emerged and brought them relief.[ 1 ] In this instance, it took the form of something called “multiculturalism.” A sociologist who later searched for the word in a database of major newspapers found no mention of it in 1988. Then it appeared 33 times in 1989, more than 100 times in 1990, over 600 times in 1991, and so on, increasing by about 300 each subsequent year.
With the invention of multiculturalism, liberals and radicals attempted to steady and strengthen their faltering cause. Up to this point, minority groups had carried a taint of the negative. Even if their misfortunes were not considered to be their own fault, many people nevertheless viewed them as substandard and therefore as needing to change and improve. Multiculturalism sought to abolish all presumption of inferiority. It proclaimed minority groups as totally positive, as the possessors of rare and precious qualities, which could benefit the rest of society. In what seemed an instant, the character of American idealism’s minority agenda changed, and it began to demand, not just compensation for past injuries, but reward for unique contributions.
According to this new perspective, the members of a minority group brought with them the special gifts and talents of their tradition. Formerly, it had been widely assumed that they would prosper by giving these up and adopting the ways of the majority. Now, multiculturalism proclaimed the very opposite: they should retain and cultivate their heritage. By doing so, they would become more valuable participants in the life and work of the larger society, and they would accordingly gain occupational advancement and win general appreciation.
Once minorities had learned to esteem themselves sufficiently and the majority had learned to value them correctly, their multifarious activities would produce an amazing burst of human accomplishment and achieve a marvelous fulfillment of human potential. It would be something like the realization of Emerson’s mass elite, or at least an enormous step in that direction. And it would all come about simply by adding to the remedial negative (“end prejudice and discrimination”) a transcendent positive (“celebrate diversity”). The latter slogan became the watchword of the multicultural movement, and it was repeated incessantly.
even less connection
with reality than
Marxist socialism had.
Advocates of affirmative action quickly adopted the new, inspiring rhetoric. They asserted that having more minorities on campus would benefit not merely the minorities themselves but the rest of the student body, who would profit from association with fellow students who had different experiences and ideas. Similar notions were repeated in the business world: because minorities were different, hiring more of them would bring new perspectives and more innovative solutions to the problems of work.
Far from supplanting the old complaints of grievance and postures of compassion, multiculturalism reinforced and supercharged them. Society now stood accused, not only of mistreating the weak, but also of discarding the valuable. Members of a minority group could continue to advance their cause as innocent victims, and in addition they could do so as the proudly indignant inheritors of unfairly disregarded strengths and virtues. The criteria for guilt expanded accordingly. The dominant majority could now be blamed, not just for exploiting or oppressing minorities, but merely for ignoring or (in multiculturalism’s terminology) “marginalizing” them.
As a result of all this encouragement, the multiplicity of the aggrieved parties as well as the virulence of their vicarious advocates increased. National Public Radio became the unofficial “Voice of Multiculturalism,” broadcasting an almost daily report “on the victimization of this or that minority group by the dominant straight white male European culture, or on the brave struggle of this or that ethnic sliver to maintain its identity in the face of Anglo supremacism.”
The expanding effort and agenda did not stop with the human species. An apparent increase in shark attacks on swimmers prompted an editorial in the New York Times, which may stand as a paradigm for multicultural advocacy. One need change only the details, which appear below in parentheses, and the general substance could be applied to any abused or neglected group:
1. Society is unjustifiably prejudiced against this minority. (“Cultural hysteria about sharks...induced by the movie Jaws.”)
2. The minority is not to blame for its apparent misbehavior. (The attacks are “not the result of malevolence or a taste for human blood on the shark’s part but instinctive feeding behavior and a case of mistaken prey...every shark attack is unusual.”)
3. Society has in fact mistreated this minority. (“50 million” sharks are “killed annually by fishermen.”)
4. The minority deserves assistance. (Shark “populations have plummeted globally...they desperately need protection.”)
5. Society has committed misdeeds of arrogance. (Humans are “routinely polluting and overfishing...the earth’s oceans.”)
6. In a more suitably humble state of mind, society could actually benefit from the minority. (“How much we have to learn about them [sharks] and their waters.”)
Persons of an actively idealistic temperament had reason to be well pleased with these new developments, which ushered in the 1990s and persisted through the decade. Not only had multiculturalism rejuvenated their cause in general, it also promised to solve two specific, persistent problems. Under its dispensation, there was no longer a danger that people on the bottom, in their rise up the social ladder, would come to resemble the loathsome creatures on the level above the bottom but below the middle class.[ 2 ] On the contrary, a principal tenet of multiculturalism was for members of minority groups, not to imitate the ways of those in higher social positions, but to retain their own characteristic behavior. This was part of their unique heritage, which would assist and accompany them in their upward mobility and which the rest of society would learn to understand and appreciate as a contribution to social diversity and enrichment.
Was there such
a thing as an
or an American
In addition, they would not fall prey to the temptations of individualistic ambition and abandon group ties and allegiances to join the competitive pursuits of American life. On the contrary, the essence of multiculturalism was for members of minorities to remain members of minorities, to retain their traditional feelings of solidarity, even as they rose in the world. This was, in fact, the old dream of America's most lofty idealism—individual self-development in a collective context (“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”)—suddenly appearing in a new and unexpected setting and configuration.
While the 1930s promised an egalitarian mass movement building a socialist society, the 1990s promised an egalitarian movement of minority groups building a multicultural society. Although enthusiasts failed to predict and proclaim a “new man” of multiculturalism (on the lines of the “new man” of socialism), it was only because such a term would have been unacceptably restrictive, implying the exclusion of women and limiting their paragon to a single form—a poor and inadequate representation of the future growth of multiculturalism in all its splendid variety.
— ♦ —
It seemed too good to be true. And that was just the problem. Multiculturalism has even less connection with reality than Marxist socialism had. To begin at the most basic level, in human as well as animal societies the individual who is different has always posed a difficulty and a threat. The outsider arouses instinctive suspicion and automatic hostility. He must first prove himself suitable and compatible before a group will accept him. From the new kid on the block to the new hire in the office, the onus of adaptation is on the newcomer. This is especially the case if he represents, not just an isolated oddity, but a group of similar deviants.
Cultural diversity in
the United States has
been decreasing rather
Multiculturalism has attempted to abolish this intrinsic and instinctive fear simply by asserting that the stranger, the alien, or “the other” (as it called him) poses no real threat of danger or disruption. On the contrary, when properly appreciated, he is capable of making positive contributions and bestowing real benefits. What about all the bitter and bloody strife that has gone on among clashing ethnicities and cultures for millennia? They were just wrong to reject “the other”; they should have welcomed him. Now America could set an example to the world by becoming a new model society in which different peoples retain their hereditary group identities, yet at the same time interact peacefully with each other for the enrichment of all.
Such a fanciful vision of utopia sprang from native roots and appealed to native illusions. It was concocted from American presumptions of abundant goodness and natural harmony. It won the support of idealism’s desperate believers, who enthusiastically embraced and automatically broadcast the tenets of their new faith. The United States was not, or at least should not be, a single culture with a unified set of values, they declared. To the extent that such a thing did exist, it was a pernicious and illegitimate creation, imposed by a dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male elite, and it should be rejected and dismantled as quickly as possible. A generation or so earlier, professors of American studies had been arguing over what made America great; now they were arguing over whether there was such a thing as an American identity or an American mainstream, or whether America should even be regarded as a single nation. Did something as accepted and commonplace as a national biographical dictionary make sense any longer, one historian asked.
To the proponents of multiculturalism, the idea of assimilation was anathema. They asserted that America had never been, and should never have tried to be, a melting pot. In its place, they substituted new metaphors, such as a mosaic, a salad, or a kaleidoscope, in which the separate components retained their distinct natures. They faulted the immigrants of the past for giving up their native cultures and condemned the public schools and other institutions of majority domination for pressuring them to do so. The future would be different, they proclaimed. From now on, immigrants would retain their native cultures, and new multicultural curricula in the public schools would assist them in doing so.
The steamroller of
World Is Flat...”
The fantasies just described are entirely divorced from any reality past or present. Throughout its history, America has indeed managed to cope with a great diversity of peoples, and it has done so, not by preserving their uniqueness, but by turning them into Americans. Through the 1990s and up to the present day, cultural diversity in the United States has been decreasing rather than increasing. Judging by any of the obvious and significant measurements of assimilation (such as intermarriage, acquisition of English, geographical diffusion, educational attainment, or occupational level), at the turn of the Twentieth Century the immigrants from Asia and Latin America have been and are being absorbed into the mainstream as rapidly, and probably more rapidly, than their predecessors from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe had been at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.
Especially among the young, the powerful solvent of American life still does its work with undeviating and unremitting thoroughness. “We’re not even Indians anymore,” remarked a girl at a school attended by Native Americans and dedicated to the promotion of their culture. An exasperated partisan of the left agreed, “She and her classmates dress and talk in the same pseudo-urban way that characterizes students of all races, from downtown Portland to suburban Baltimore.” A commentator on the opposite side of the political spectrum came to the same conclusion about the country’s various races and mixed races, immigrant and native alike: “What all these people have in common is that their dress, patois, and tastes are becoming homogeneous.”
The advocates of multiculturalism made a similar error in perceiving a trend toward greater diversity, not just in the United States, but over the entire globe. During the 1990s, it was almost a platitude to assert that, contrary to previous expectations, the world was becoming more complex and varied rather than more uniform, and to cite as proof the numerous conflicts that were breaking out everywhere. The conflicts were real enough, but their cause was the contraction of space rather than the growth of differences. In earlier ages, peoples with contrary ideas or customs could live at a distance and in ignorance of each other; today, new means of communication and the growing rate of commercial interaction have been forcing them to confront one another, often with disagreeable and at times explosive results.
They do not represent
a growth of diversity;
they are the opponents
of modernity with their
backs to the wall.
The steamroller of modernity, which was described so vividly and dramatically in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, has been proceeding on its way at accelerating speed, assisted by continual boosts from scientific innovation. The elite executives and technical experts of the various nations who conduct today’s globalized business tend to act and think in a similar manner, and the rank and file—at least certain elements of them—are not far behind. “The world is flat,” declared the title of a best-seller in 2005. It warned that the younger generation in places like India and China has been acquiring the standard knowledge skills and personality traits needed to function efficiently in the modern economy and now looks ready to rival the Americans at their own game.
Those unfortunate people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not accept the changes and rise to the challenges of modernity no longer have a place to hide. The new technology, with its ever more numerous and intrusive devices, has been carrying the lure and the threat of America to the most remote corners of the planet. Some persons and groups, especially religious fundamentalists both inside and outside the United States, have reacted by turning to political action and even to terrorism. They do not represent a growth of diversity; they are the opponents of modernity with their backs to the wall.
— ♦ —
When adamant reality contradicts cherished belief, people tend escape the dilemma by resorting to hypocrisy—saying one thing and doing another, obeying the letter of the law while transgressing its spirit. Multiculturalism has accordingly been able to remain highly popular only by becoming extremely superficial. In middle-class social settings, a person of obvious ethnic derivation often finds that he attracts favorable attention, even enthusiasm, but he quickly discovers that his interlocutors have no genuine affinity for his culture and very little knowledge of it; they are simply demonstrating that they “value diversity.” A well-meaning American might sample a foreign cuisine and learn a phrase or two in a foreign language, but he is not going to do much more than that.
The ethnics themselves have been behaving in a similar manner. In America, children of immigrants seldom accept their heritage as an unmodified totality. Instead, they select which of its elements they will keep and maintain. By the third generation, their heritage becomes tenuous indeed, especially if they have attained middle-class status. The fashion for multiculturalism has prompted them to nurture some vestiges of their fading traditions—a “symbolic ethnicity” cultivated for the sake of personal distinction and vanity, or a “narcissism of minor differences,” as it has been called.
a “symbolic ethnicity”
... or a “narcissism of
Even in the schools, which since the 1990s have viewed themselves as the proselytizing champions of multiculturalism, superficial treatment has become the practical rule. In addition to the initial difficulty of finding time for a new subject in the midst of the standard academic curriculum, there has been the persistent problem of deciding which minority cultures should be taught and how much of each. Shallow, innocuous instruction has been the natural consequence, featuring things such as food, costumes, and holidays from various countries. At the same time, the serious, difficult, and lengthy task of learning foreign languages has in fact declined.
One exception to this tendency toward the superficial was bilingualism, which represented a real attempt to promote genuine multiculturalism. The program obliged children from non-English-speaking homes to receive all instruction in their native language and learn to read and write it before making the transition to English. The rationale was that, having first gained confidence and pride in their own languages and cultures, students would then perform all the better in mastering English and other subjects presented in English.
The actual result was a failure to learn English, and after much acrimonious dispute, bilingualism was demoted from mandatory to optional in most schools. It only went on for as long as it did because its victims had been the children of poor, uneducated immigrants. Although many of the parents sensed the danger of this counterproductive curriculum and avoided it, large numbers were trapped and intimidated into accepting it, thanks to the efforts of middle-class multiculturalists and their middle-class ethnic allies, whose own children were never subjected to the ordeal.
Similar things were going on in the corporate world. As in academia, there was an initial rush to embrace multiculturalism. Throughout the 1990s, CEO’s and their top executives asserted again and again that a diverse workforce was a business necessity, that teams and departments containing only people of one background (specifically white middle-class men) could not adequately cope with the variety of global markets, and that employees from minority groups would bring special insight and creativity to their jobs. “Managing diversity” was the term used to designate this new priority, and it was accompanied by recruitment programs to hire more minorities, as well as by “diversity training” programs to increase the receptiveness of nonminority employees to the new developments.
Hypocrisy in this
instance is the
As has been the case with many a fad in management technique and business organization, the reality on the ground was rather different from the cloud of rhetoric descending from above. Aside from specific and limited circumstances, such as a black salesman dealing with products for black consumers, an employee’s minority background does not give him an edge over other employees in coping with difference and diversity. There is no evidence that a businessman of Puerto Rican origins, for example, would be better able to deal with Sri Lankans than would a businessman of Anglo-Saxon origins. On the contrary, the success of the Japanese in the global marketplace is testimony in favor of cultural uniformity—that is, the uniformity of the right culture.
Corporations have continued their efforts to hire and retain minority employees, but once on the job they are supposed to act like everyone else and demonstrate that combination of initiative, cooperation, and quick flexibility which is characteristic of the American worker at all levels. Although a manager might show a good deal of patience and even indulgence toward his minority recruits, his hope and expectation is that eventually they will adapt to the norms of the business organization. This would be assimilation, and while it may have been proceeding apace in real life, it is a far cry from the multicultural promise of tapping into the supposedly splendid qualities of cultural diversity.
That should not be surprising. In the practical world, affirmative action itself is a matter of superficial differences. The organizations that employ it want to create staffs that are diverse only in external appearance, that contain an acceptable number of obvious minorities who are otherwise very much like their colleagues. After President Clinton, an incessant mouthpiece of multiculturalism, chose a cabinet which he said would reflect the nation’s variety (“look like America,” in his words), it was pointed out that, whatever their differences in gender or ethnicity, its members were people with conventional establishment careers, mostly lawyers.
Given their vulnerability to accusations of indifference or outright prejudice, politicians on the right were quick to see the need for superficial diversity. President Bush, Jr., was especially active in finding women and persons of color who support his policies and placing them in highly visible positions. Opponents on the left were bitterly sarcastic about this “tokenism” and “hypocrisy,” but their grousing failed to arouse any serious protest or objection. Hypocrisy in this instance is the tribute that realism pays to idealism.