A Leg-Up for Oliver North

Richard Rorty

  • 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.

The movement called ‘multiculturalism’ in the US began to go sour soon after it was invented. It started out as one more attempt to get white middle-class males to behave better to the people they enjoy shoving around: black and brown people, women, poor people, recent immigrants, homosexuals. It hoped to encourage these groups to take pride in themselves, rather than accepting the derogatory descriptions which the white males had invented. By now, however, it has turned into an attempt to get jobs and grants for psychobabbling busybodies. Bernstein is right to call this movement a ‘universe of ambitious good intentions which has wandered off the highroad of respect for difference and plunged into a foggy chasm of dogmatic assertions, wishful thinking, and pseudoscientific pronouncements about race and sex’.

The movement began in colleges and universities, as an attempt to make room for courses and programmes in African-American Studies, Hispanic Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and the like. This attempt succeeded, and the results have been very fruitful. On the campuses, particularly those where such programmes exist, there is less humiliation of blacks and browns, less condescension to women, and more safety for homosexuals, than anywhere else in US society. And these programmes are often staffed by some of the liveliest, most interesting, most devoted and hardest-working teachers.

A debilitating mistake was made, however, when academics began to campaign for making courses which would ‘sensitise students to cultural differences’ compulsory for all undergraduates. There is a big difference between offering a tempting smorgasbord of courses which will help students to grasp what the strong have been doing to the weak, and telling them that they have to take such courses. It is the difference between gently suggesting, as universities always have, that attitudes acquired at home may need supplementation or correction, and telling undergraduates that they are sick and need treatment. It is one thing to treat undergraduates as fellow citizens who might be persuaded to think and act differently from their parents. It is quite another to insinuate that they have been psychologically damaged. Where proposals to make sensitivity-training compulsory have gone through, they have boomeranged. The students have quickly come to despise the ‘compulsory chapel requirement’, and to distrust the courses that fulfil it.

Several cuts beneath the people who teach such courses in colleges and universities, there are the Lumpenintellektuellen who work as ‘diversity facilitators’, employed by firms which offer ‘applied behavioural science’. Such firms will send teams of facilitators to your factory, or your government agency, or your hospital. There they give seminars which purport to explain to your staff the differences between nice cultures – the cultures of the oppressed, scorned and misunderstood – and the rather nasty culture of the people being sensitised. These facilitators, as Bernstein points out, rarely know anything much about these so-called ‘cultures’, and have to fall back on a few trite formulae. Their main job is to exploit their audience’s vague sense of guilt. The principal result of the seminars they offer is resentment at having been talked down to by people who claim moral superiority. Diversity facilitation, Bernstein rightly says, adds ‘yet another coating of mandatory sanctimony to a society that already has trouble talking about things frankly and honestly’.

Frank and honest talk about the divisions in American society would concentrate on disparities of power rather than differences in culture. It would tell stories about how the Wasps have shoved the non-Wasps around, how the men have shoved the women around, how the whites enslaved the blacks and how the straights beat up the gays. (Bernstein’s book is flawed by the odd claim that ‘homosexuals ... are one of the most affluent and politically powerful groups in American society.’ Tell that to the soldiers and sailors who are still, despite all that their Commander-in-Chief can do, being discharged from military service for being gay or lesbian. Tell it to the homosexual waitresses, janitors, plumbers, secretaries and day labourers.) It would emphasise, for example, the fact that property-tax-based public schools ensure that the life-chances of children in black cities will continue to be vastly inferior to those of children in white suburbs. But multiculturalism is obsessed not with the suffering, but with the ‘identity’, of the groups that have been shoved around. Starting from the admirable idea that black children should learn about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. Du Bois, it ends up with the dubious recommendation that a black child should be brought up in a special culture, one peculiar to blacks. Starting from the thought that white children also should know about heroic African-Americans, it ends up with the self-fulfilling prediction that they will remain separated from their black contemporaries not just by money and life-chances but by a ‘difference of culture’.

As Alan Ryan has pointed out, the people who wave the banners of multiculturalism typically pride themselves on their Post-Modernism, but revert to old-fashioned essentialism when they start describing the incommensurable identities of members of diverse cultures. Bernstein seems right to explain this contradiction by the fact that

while multiculturalism is in some instances what it sounds like it should be, a fuller realisation of American pluralism, it is for the most part a code word for something else that ... is not multi, cultural or even an ism. It is a code word for a poltical ambition, a yearning for more power, combined with a genuine, earnest, zealous, self-righteous craving for social improvement.

The social improvement craved is, God knows, needed. The power sought is fully deserved. But it is a big mistake for leftist American intellectuals to insist that America should be ‘not a melting-pot, but a salad’.

The American melting-pot worked well, albeit slowly and painfully, for the Irish, the Jews, the Poles and the Italians. It is currently working pretty well for the recent waves of immigrants from Asia. It never worked at all for the descendants of the black slaves, and never very well for brown-skinned people from Mexico and the Caribbean. As soon as the children and grandchildren of the immigrants from Europe made it into the middle class they began to romanticise and cherish their forbears’ ‘cultures’. The churches and synagogues those forbears built are still there, and help keep America desirably pluralist. But the simple, straightforward, vicious, terrifying racism which still ensures that most blacks and browns have to struggle desperately, and often hopelessly, for jobs, status and security is not a result of failure to ‘recognise cultural diversity’. As in the rest of the world, it is a way of ensuring that the descendants of those presently in power will always, automatically, have an advantage because of their easily recognisable, desirable, colour. Racism, here as elsewhere, increases as soon as jobs and opportunities decrease, and lessens as they increase. If racism ever ends in the US, it will be as a result of enduring affluence.

In the meantime, it can only be mitigated by appealing, as Martin Luther King did, to the whites’ sense of justice to their fellow Americans. Teaching both black and white children what African-American men and women have done for their country makes such an appeal. Teaching them that the two groups have separate cultural identities does no good at all. Whatever pride such teaching may inspire in black children is offset by the suggestion that their culture is not that of their white schoolmates: that they have no share in the mythic America imagined by the Founders and by Emerson and Whitman, the America partially realised by Lincoln and by King.

That mythic America is a great country, and the insecure and divided actual America is a pretty good one. Racist, sexist and homophobic as the US is, it is also a two-hundred-year-old functioning democracy – one that has overcome divisions and mitigated inequalities in the past, and may still have the capacity to do so. But, by proclaiming the myth a fraud, multiculturalism cuts the ground from under its own feet, quickly devolving into anti-Americanism, into the idea that ‘the dominant culture’ of America, that of the Wasps, is so inherently oppressive that it would be better for its victims to turn their backs on the country, rather than claiming a share in its history and its future.

Bernstein tells some instructive stories about the snottiness of diversity facilitators, the smug ignorance of sensitivity trainers, the anti-Americanism of many publicists for multiculturalism, and the damage done to innocent people who got in the way of angry multiculturalists. But there is more to the book than such anecdotes: there are persuasive accounts of the reasons these horrors have come to pass. It is hard to know how typical the stupidities it recounts are; only statistics could help here. Bernstein has few statistics, so although his book convinced me that multiculturalism is a trend to view with alarm, I am not sure what degree of alarm is appropriate.

I am certain, however, that Bernstein is the victim of his own rhetoric when he writes that ‘ideological multiculturalism’ has brought about ‘a great inversion in American intellectual life’, so that

whereas before the oppressive force came from the political right, and had to do with a particular view of patriotism, standards and traditional values, the threat of intellectual tyranny now comes from the left, and it now has to do with collective guilt, an overweening moralism, and multiculturalism. The danger to such things as free speech and genuine diversity of opinion is no longer due to conservatism; it is due to the triumph of a modish, leftist, moralistic, liberalism.

Nothing in Bernstein’s book justifies that last, utterly misleading sentence. All he shows is that there are more shallow-pated, resentful multiculturalists around than one might have thought, and that they have managed to get control of a primary school system here and a university English department there.

The well-organised, well-financed and very energetic religious Right is a hundred times more threatening to free speech and genuine diversity of opinion than all the multiculturalists put together. This Right has made clever and effective use of the widespread suspicion of multiculturalism. A large portion of the American middle class has been brought to believe that the universities are under the control of a ‘political correctness’ police. This belief has made it possible for the racists, the sexists and the homophobes to dismiss criticism by sneering: ‘Gosh. You mean my political correctness indoctrination isn’t advanced enough?’ (Oliver North, made famous by his lies to Congress, seems likely to win election to the US Senate in my own state of Virginia. When black and white liberals protested the display of the Confederate flag on a public building, Colonel North defended it by saying that the protests had come from ‘politically correct’ people.)

Bernstein’s book – moderate though it is – is bound to be seized on by allies of the religious Right like William Bennett. Bennett and his fellow conservative intellectuals would like to persuade us that Allan Bloom was right in suggesting that the universities are under the control of a ‘Nietzscheanised left’, and that the life of the mind in America survives only in conservative think-tanks. There is, to be sure, such a Left; though it has managed to achieve a lot of good, it is remarkably short-sighted, and sometimes pretty silly. Still, its members total perhaps 10 per cent of university teachers of the humanities and social sciences, and perhaps 2 per cent of all university teachers.

The Right has been astonishingly successful in impugning the integrity of the entire system of higher education by pointing to the frivolity and self-righteousness of this 2 per cent. The conservatives have some good talking points, but their exaggerations and lies are shameless. It is quite true that if you are a recent PhD in the humanities or social sciences, your chances of a teaching job are very good if you are a black female, and pretty bad if you are a white male. But such preferential hiring has, on balance, been a good thing for our universities. Those black females – few of whom were seen on university campuses during the first two hundred years of US history – include some of our leading intellectuals. It is quite true that occasionally an undergraduate finds herself in a course devoted to leftist political indoctrination, but she can always drop that course – and many do. (There are also, needless to say, courses which consist largely of rightist political indoctrination.) It is also true that the farthest-out 2 per cent continue to write in a barely intelligible jargon. But compared to the ravings of the fundamentalist preachers about God’s hatred for gays and lesbians, such prattle is merely quaint.

There is, indeed, a battle for America’s future going on – but it is not the one Bernstein tells us about. Rather, it is the struggle for the mind of an electorate which is largely co-extensive with the white, suburban middle class – a middle class terrified by the downsizing of American firms caused by the globalisation of the labour market (see Edward Luttwak’s devastatingly accurate account of the effect of this in the LRB, 7 April; the US may be the first of the industrialised democracies to confirm Luttwak’s dismal predictions). Some members of that middle class still think of urban black teenagers as fellow Americans who need help. These people hope that Clinton may (despite the sniggering scorn of the media – the same media that made Carter a one-term President) eventually be able to get his programme through Congress, and thus begin to heal the deepest divisions within the country. Others want to impose ever more draconian prison sentences on black children who see no way to survive except to get guns and sell drugs. These people long for North’s victory in November, and they may some day elect him President. The debate about multiculturalism is a sideshow. Bernstein’s insistence that it is central is a gift to North’s speechwriters.