A Leg-Up for Oliver North
- Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future by Richard Bernstein
Knopf, 367 pp, $25.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 679 41156 9
In his new book, Richard Bernstein – one of the best reporters at the New York Times – offers some detailed descriptions, and some solid criticisms, of a serious nuisance. Unfortunately, he then tries to inflate this nuisance into a dangerous monster. He offers a lot of useful information about what one segment of the American Left has been doing recently, and his analyses are very acute. But, as his overblown subtitle indicates, he tries to give more importance to his subject than it has.
Vol. 16 No. 21 · 10 November 1994
I am grateful to Richard Rorty for his principled good sense on ‘multiculturalism’ (LRB, 20 October), but would nonetheless offer two reasons why cultivating a distinctive subculture is a worthwhile move for subordinated groups – as opposed, for instance, to seeking a ‘share in the mythic America imagined by the Founders’.
First, subculture is good for morale. Considered as a model for the good society, a gay disco lacks quite a lot, but for a gay man it is a place where he is in the majority, where his values and assumptions run. Of course, it is a fantasy world, as he knows all too well from the street aggression as he enters and leaves. But, by so much, it’s a space of sharing and reassurance. Second, subculture is where we may address, on terms that make sense to us, the problems that confront us. Gay cultural producers – from Jimmy Sommerville and Neil Tennant, through Thom Gunn, Neil Bartlett and Gay Sweatshop to gay academics – are helping us to think about how to handle the straightgeist (as Nicholson Baker called it in the LRB). And they are helping us to work on our own confusions, conflicts and griefs – matters of misogyny, bisexuality and sadomasochism; class, racial and inter-generational exploitation; HIV and Aids.
As Rorty says, subordination is located in ‘disparities of power rather than differences in culture’. However, subculture is not just where oppression is registered and resisted, it is where self-understandings – fraught, as they inevitably are, with the self-oppression that stigma produces – may be explored and re-formed.
Vol. 16 No. 22 · 24 November 1994
When a respected fitness expert starts patronising fast-food joints, observers take away the message that Big Macs can’t be bad for you or, worse, that watching your diet can’t matter very much. When a Richard Rorty, renowned as a sophisticated and scrupulous thinker, lapses into propagating trite, received ideas, the message is that those ideas must be OK, or that vigilance against complacent, doctrinaire thinking can’t be all that important. His appraisal of multiculturalism in the US (LRB, 20 October), though more balanced than typical discussions of the topic, is still badly skewed by the kind of unexamined assertions often found in such discussions.
Rorty minimises multiculturalism’s threat. He may be right – but his analysis fails to provide reliable support for that position, because it measures multiculturalism’s influence within overbroad contexts. Whatever danger it presents is not best assessed by looking at American culture overall, as in Rorty’s repeated contrasting of multiculturalists with the religious Right. If a threat exists, its primary impact lies in institutions of higher education (especially the few dozen top universities, which feed so many graduates into leadership positions in management, government, law and the press). These have a tremendous influence (if often an indirect one) on the ideas held by Americans, in particular those in positions of power.
Not only does Rorty write about the US as a whole, rather than the relevant sub-community: when he does focus on higher education, he dilutes the proportion of the ‘Nietzscheanised’ Left by measuring its membership across all universities, obscure as well as influential, and across all disciplines. Moreover, when he estimates that a mere 10 per cent of university teachers of the humanities and social sciences belong to such a Left, the implicit suggestion is that these are opposed by the other 90 per cent, when in fact the percentage of those actively opposing, rather than just quietly accepting or tolerating, the 10 per cent is vastly lower. Perhaps most important, Rorty offers only a static snapshot of the size of this Left, entirely neglecting the question of its growth trend. A 10 per cent that is doubling every five years is quite a different matter from a constant (or declining) 10 per cent. If even Richard Rorty can fall into such rhetorical ruts, then the prospects for a precise, open-minded, unregimented, honest discussion of group-focused social issues seem quite dim.