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The Mystique of Multiculturalism

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

Little more than a century ago, the Atlantic Monthly published a poem entitled “The Unguarded Gates” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of those authors whom a Tammany Hall wit was fond of dismissing as “name-parted-in-the-middle aristocrats”:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng—
Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,
Featureless figures from the Hoang-Ho,
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bring with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are these,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!

Nativism has hardly disappeared, and yet the gates are still unguarded. But the historian can only express astonishment at the alteration of national ethos, as diversity has ceased to be something to be feared and has become something to be celebrated. The ideal of heterogeneity has displaced homogeneity; almost no monoculturalists remain standing—at least on political platforms, if not in bar rooms. In the not-too-distant past, an historian of immigration remarked, ethnics were told to “melt or get off the pot.” This is no longer true, and some of its implications deserve criticism as well as reflection.

The decade of the 1950’s was probably the last in which the assumptions of monoculturalism could be asserted with confidence, in which the American Way of Life could breezily be used in the singular. In 1959, for example, the editor of George W. Pierson’s reconstruction of the ambience of a classic, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (1938), abbreviated the Yale historian’s material on the French visitors’ impressions of blacks, women and Indians; these were, the editor rationalized, “matters of lesser interest.” Such bowdlerization would now be unimaginable, and Tocqueville’s views on these particular groups is precisely what drives some readers to pick up De la democratic en Amérique. Or take Edmund Wilson’s last great book, Patriotic Gore (1962). His massive and melancholy interpretation of the literary and ideological impact of the Civil War does not even mention Frederick Douglass, whose thought is unconsidered even in somewhat later works by scholars who themselves became astute analysts of racism: George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War (1965) and Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War(1973).

Yet the former slave now occupies his own prominent place on the shelf in The Library of America (which was based on an idea by Edmund Wilson and brought to realization by Daniel Aaron). Now the subject of numerous studies in biography and in intellectual history, Douglass has even shoved aside the Hon. Stephen Douglas as the Middle Period counterweight to Lincoln, lest the American family album be dismissed as a white album. Such revisions of the past, which of course has rarely been stable, have accelerated, as scholars make stabs at new paradigms. Such changes have coincided with (but have hardly caused) the precipitous decline of American education, so that “as every schoolboy knows” is a phrase that has disappeared—and not only because it is gender-bound. But some pupils may now be more familiar with Rosa Parks’ ride than with Paul Revere’s, and with the March on Washington than with the errand into the wilderness.

The United States was once the land of the Pilgrims’ pride, the land where our fathers died. But Donna Shalala, who serves as secretary of Health and Human Services, has conceded: “My grandparents came from Lebanon. I don’t identify with the Pilgrims at a personal level.” At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the team nickname of “Minuteman” has recently been attacked as “too macho, white and violent—’If you’re a woman or a person of color, he really can’t represent you. ‘” Perhaps the patriotic icon could have been salvaged if hailed as an early anti-imperialist—or a successor could be substituted in the form of Disney’s anachronistic Pocahontas, a princess of peace who condemns the Eurocentrism of the Virginians (“You think the only people who are people/Are the people who look and think like you. /But if you walk the footsteps in a stranger/You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew”). The national past has become so unstable, and an earlier version of it so discredited, that a Jules FeifFer cartoon, drawn well before multiculturalism reached cruising speed, marks the vertiginous change. “When I went to school,” a burly hard-hat asserts, “I learned George Washington never told a lie, slaves were happy on the plantation, the men who opened the West were giants, and we won every war because God was on our side. But where my kid goes to school, he learns George Washington was a slave owner, slaves hated slavery, the men who opened the West committed genocide, and the wars we won were victories for U. S. imperialism. No wonder my kid’s not an American,” he concludes. “They’re teaching him some other country’s history.”

Any scholar who would now begin a book, as Perry Miller did in 1939, by assuming national homogeneity (“I have taken the liberty of treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence”), or who would in 1956 retrospectively announce as his “mission . . . expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States,” might find a promising academic career stalled at the outset. A scholarly organization like the American Studies Association now defines itself as one big tent, and those seeking positions of leadership within it make the concept of “diversity” integral to their campaign platforms. Were the term not in the dictionary, such office-seekers might be virtually mute; nor do their opponents ever seem to be against pluralism. A NEXIS scouring of major newspapers reveals that “multicultural” and its variations showed up in 40 articles in 1981, and in more than two thousand only eleven years later. In The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. , has warned against the divisiveness of much of what passes for the exaltation of roots. Yet even he claims to be a champion of multiculturalism and, without quite hailing fusion, has explained why he is troubled by fission. Schlesinger’s father had, by contrast, listed the “melting pot” as one of the nation’s ten most important contributions to civilization.


The more versions of identity, the merrier. For example, the mystique of multiculturalism has enabled a Chicana feminist writer to privilege her fellow homosexuals. Gloria Anzaldúa has exalted their status as “the supreme crossers of cultures . . . We come from all colors, all classes, all races, all time periods. Our role is to link people with each other—the Blacks with Jews with Indians with Asians with whites with extraterrestrials [sic].” Back on planet earth, however, little clarification has come from the state in defining who constitutes a minority. To advance a policy of affirmative action, the Department of Labor spearheaded federal recognition of the claims of four “affected” or “protected” “minorities” (other than women): African-Americans, Native Americans, “Orientals” and Spanish-surnamed Americans (now Hispanics). It’s “a strange mix,” sociologist Nathan Glazer observed early in the ascendancy of multiculturalism. The inclusion of the first two minorities was intelligible and defensible. Blacks had been “subjects of state discrimination,” and Indian tribes even constituted “a ward of the state”; both remain among the poorest racial and ethnic groups.

But dark-skinned immigrants from India are oddly classified as “Orientals,” and are included among the 20 different Asian-American groups, several of which were historically subjected to discrimination. Nevertheless, Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans in particular have hardly needed Department of Labor “protection”; they are the most upwardly mobile and the most economically successful of all ethnic minorities (perhaps including Jews). Even before affirmative action was instituted, their rates of college graduation exceeded the white population. For decades Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans have been moving in the fast lane, while others have had trouble finding the on-ramp, so that making these two groups the beneficiaries of affirmative action undercuts the economic rationale for such policies. Perhaps, Professor Glazer speculated, “the government came rushing in to include them in ‘affirmative action’ . . . under the vague notion that any race aside from the white must be the victim of discrimination.” According to the 1990 census, for example, adults in the highest-earning Asian-American groups (which also include Pakistanis, Indians, Burmese and Sri Lankans) averaged $25,198 per year.

Despite the skin-deep justification for including all Asian-Americans, what was until recently the “Spanish-surnamed” category may nevertheless be the weirdest of all. Puerto Rico was a prize of the military victory over Spain; and since 1917 its residents have been citizens, enjoying formal freedom to live anywhere in the United States. By accepting commonwealth status, they were exempted from federal taxation, which has not prevented Puerto Ricans from suffering from worse poverty than anyone else. Though a Bureau of the Census pamphlet about Hispanics of the Southwest is entitled The United States Came to Us, subjugation by conquest did not befall the ancestors of the overwhelming majority of Mexican-Americans, who are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. It is unclear why all other immigrants from Latin America, including the flourishing Cubans concentrated in south Florida, are privileged under affirmative action policies—regardless of their economic or educational status. Sephardic Jews did not count as “Spanish-surnamed” individuals—nor did Filipinos, many of whom have Spanish surnames too. Even newcomers from Spain itself are included as Hispanics, distinguishing them from Italian-surnamed or Greek-surnamed or Portuguese-surnamed immigrants (or the descendants of such immigrants). Bebe Rebozo, or a middle-class immigrant from Peru, benefits from affirmative action programs; so does a newly arrived Samoan. But an impoverished immigrant from Palermo does not. Asked about their race, most Chicanos tell the Bureau of the Census that they consider themselves white. They nevertheless merit protection, while Americans of Turkish or Arabic ancestry (even if their pigmentation is darker) cannot claim to be “non-whites.”

Nor can such policies be justified as an effort to redress an historic wrong. One out of 12 Americans is foreign-born. By the mid-1980’s, the large majority of legal immigrants became immediately eligible for benefits because of discrimination inflicted earlier in American history on others who happened to belong to their “racial” category. Glazer rightly wondered why “free immigrants who have come to this country voluntarily deserve the same protected treatment as the descendants of conquered people and slaves.” Specifying “affected” categories generates other anomalies too. Until recently the University of California included Filipinos (the second largest Asian-American group) but no other Asian-Americans in preferential admissions policies, whereas the City University of New York has included Italian-Americans. In 1979 Hasidic Jews asked the Small Business Administration to be designated a minority for purposes of affirmative action, a request that was rejected not because of social or economic deprivation but because of a possible collision with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment; they were deemed a religious group. The convolutions that politics, law, group definition and group assertion have been generating might well induce nostalgia for an earlier, simpler era. And indeed it once was simpler: in 1961, the application form for admission to the dental school at Emory was still offering candidates only three categories to choose from: Caucasian, Jew, Other.

Who is now entitled to brandish his or her ethnicity? That noun, in its current sense, is barely more than half a century old, thanks to sociologist Lloyd Warner’s “Yankee City” volumes. Yankees are even counted among the 106 entities (from Acadians and Afghans to Zoroastrians) in the indispensable and illuminating reference work, the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980). Yet the most important historical account written according to multiculturalist premises, Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror (1993), mentions the English, once esteemed as a rather decisive part of the national experiment, only in passing—mostly for oppressing the Irish. Anyone consulting the index sees the British linked only with “colonialism,” and may notice that even the greatest of dead white Anglo-Saxon males—Abraham Lincoln—gets only as many citations as Rodney King. Such an interpretation looks narrower than virtually any “Eurocentric” account that Professor Takaki’s book is designed to replace—to say nothing of recent, comprehensive histories of immigration, like Roger Daniels’ Coming to America (1990), that incorporates the experiences of Asians and blacks and Latin Americans too. Ethnicity of sorts can be claimed even by the intelligentsia itself, a group that has been associated with the ideal of cosmopolitanism. Sociologist Milton Gordon’s influential Assimilation in American Life(1964) observes how intellectuals “interact in such patterned ways as to form at least the elementary structure of a subsociety of their own.” They might constitute “a kind of incipient ethnic group.” The noun has taken on a kind of promiscuity, in which mystifications can readily multiply, and past definitions may not be a reliable guide. The situation is a little akin to what befell the grandmother of the former vice-mayor of New York City, Norman Steisel. He once informed the author that she had lived in a Brooklyn neighborhood so thickly Jewish that the only Gentiles ever encountered were of Italian ancestry. When blacks began moving in, Steisel’s grandmother therefore called them by the only name she knew for these strangers: Italyaner.


In privileging the permutations of ethnicity, the multiculturalist mystique has also the effect of diminishing the importance of region. From Frederick Jackson Turner to Constance Rourke to Walter Prescott Webb to Wilbur J. Cash, regional identity and variation have long been indispensable to the social and historical analysis that American Studies has sanctioned. Even John Hope Franklin, the most honored of all black academicians, has classified himself as a scholar of the South, and did not teach Afro-American history in the last three decades of his career. Thinking of himself as a regionalist, the author of The Militant South (1956) and other works has thus elucidated pride of place and not only pride of race. But only a decade or so after the sodbusting optimism that Broadway cowboys belted out in Oklahoma] (“We know we belong to the land/And the land we belong to is grand”), the hegemony of the regionalism that Turner made so salient was subjected to serious challenge. The publication of The Uprooted (1951) made Oscar Handlin the preeminent interpreter of immigration, for he pitted the saga of such movement against the centrality of the frontier and the West in Turner’s historiography. In literary studies Handlin’s counterpart has been Leslie Fiedler, whose Love and Death in the American Novel (1959) injected the racial dimension into the appreciation of canonical writers with such pungency that ,red-white-and-blue has inexorably become red-white-and-black. The emphasis in Fiedler’s magnum opus upon the exclusion of female characters from the depiction of biracial brotherhood showed remarkable prescience as well on the part of a critic who would become an honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe in Montana, a celebrant of The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), a sympathizer with Freaks (1978), and a writer of unjustly neglected fiction packed with blacks, Jews, and Indians.

The policy of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, which lists Handlin as its consulting editor, had been formulated before the advent of multiculturalism and still acknowledges the influence of region. There are separate essays on “Appalachians,” “Mormons” and “Southerners” (though not on “Westerners” or “Easterners” or “Okies”). Similarly, among the volumes in sociologist Peter Rose’s series on ethnic groups in comparative perspective is Lewis Killian’s White Southerners (1985). Other sociologists (like John Shelton Reed) and historians (like Sheldon Hackney and George B. Tindall) have noted parallels between white Southerners in particular and (other) minority and ethnic groups. That is why “ethnic Southerners”—a filiopietistic bunch that has been cohesive enough and embattled enough to try to smash the Union—may represent the knottiest test case for the contemporary politics of multiculturalism.

Consider one anomaly. “Redneck,” historian C. Vann Woodward has complained, is “the only opprobrious epithet for an ethnic minority still permitted in polite society.” When a Harvard undergraduate asserted ethnic or regional pride by flying the Rebel flag outside her window at Kirkland House in 1991, black students (and others) understandably found the flag highly objectionable, denouncing it as a symbol of slavery. But what if Brigit Kerrigan had played her own version of capture-the-flag by disclaiming any such implication? What if she had denied that the Stars and Bars necessarily had such an association (since General Lee himself had opposed slavery, and some blacks fought under the banner as well)? What if she had reminded her fellow students, the night they nearly drove Old Dixie down, of the hold that The Band’s 1969 song exercised on the national imagination, a song written by a Canadian, Robbie Robertson, whose mother was Mohawk and father was Jewish? Such complexities were not fully ventilated. Kerrigan’s own ancestral pride was not exactly endorsed because, at least at Harvard, some heritages are more worthy of celebration than others, and some totems are taboo.

Religion tends to be another blind spot. A standard “multicultural reader” in women’s history, Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois’s Unequal Sisters (1994), professes to serve as a corrective, to expand “knowledge across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and gender.” Yet religion, which undoubtedly dominated the lives of so many American women, is pointedly omitted from this litany. Fifteen per cent of all evangelical Christians, for example, are black, which means that such sects are doing a better job of satisfying current standards of “diversity” than many academic departments in the liberal arts. Religion, which has historically sanctioned practices that collide with contemporary feminism, therefore occupies an equivocal role in the multiculturalist mystique. The diversity that it exalts is simply presumed to pose no challenge to other enlightened and humane ideals, even though customs need not be progressive or worth preserving. Here one tradition associated with an Asian immigrant group contradicts legal norms. In Fresno, where about thirty thousand Hmong arrived over a decade ago, one of their customs has been designated by anthropologists “marriage by capture.” The label that has been used by local police and prosecutors differs; they call it rape.

Champions of multiculturalism profess to value a global vision as well as heightened sensitivity to international communication. But such appeals rarely get applied to so basic a curricular demand as the mastery of another tongue. Paradoxically, that academic requirement is imposed even less frequently than in the more homogenous past of, say, the Puritans. In the monoculturalist colonial era, Harvard College required four years study of Hebrew. At rival Yale, president Ezra Stiles dropped that requirement but continued to teach it himself as an elective. He stressed the practicality of Hebrew, since it would be the vernacular of heaven; and he hoped Yale graduates would be able to give a good account of themselves there. (This was a joke, his biographer Edmund Morgan suspects. Quite a card, that Ezra). However warranted the Yale Hebraicist’s celestial conjecture may prove to be, it is indisputable that we inhabit a polyglot planet. Monolingualism is not logically compatible with it, though a common tongue like English will continue to be needed to transcend the sorts of barriers facing say, a venerable health maintenance organization in the Boston area. When the Harvard Community Health Plan recently surveyed its members, the following language options besides English were available: Cantonese, French, Haitian Creole, Khmer, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Other.

Probably the most consequential foreign language press in the United States is now in Spanish, yet even Hispanics seem to be reproducing the linguistic pattern that earlier generations of immigrants exhibited. Without necessarily abandoning Spanish, more than half of the second generation has opted for English fluency. That is not entirely bad. While Spanish has been designated an official language in New Mexico, that state is unlikely to imitate Quebec, a fulcrum of vexing linguistic conflict that elsewhere in the world has triggered violent riots. Unlike the Québécois, Hispanics are spread around the country. (Since the 1970’s about 85 percent of the Mexican American population has been urban.) But even when ethnicity is geographically concentrated, American society is a great solvent, as though still bound by the Golden Spike that made the states united when the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point well over a century ago. A decade ago, when President François Mitterand convened the first summit conference of “countries having in common the use of French,” among the 41 entities represented was the commonwealth of Louisiana. As a political gesture, the participation of the Pelican State was utterly harmless. One of Mitterand’s predecessors nevertheless put into perspective an “identity politics” rooted in ancestry, which is rarely adequate to define (or to illumine) the range of anyone’s interests and hopes. When Mrs. John F. Kennedy met Charles De Gaulle, she confided: “My grandparents are French.” Not easily charmed, the French President assured the First Lady: “So are mine, Madame.” End of that line of conversation.


Yet politics inevitably tinctures any serious analysis of race and ethnicity in American life, and multiculturalism at least displays the virtue of political explicitness. Its advocates rarely profess to be members of the Non-Partisan League, and claim to voice the grievances of the excluded. At the 1987 convention of the American Historical Association, Richard Bernstein of The New ‘York Timesnoticed, “everybody seemed to be studying what was closest to themselves,” which hints at “the true nature of multiculturalism—it is not an interest in the other so much as an insistence that the other be interested in me.” The genuine sufferings of the past also tend to get inflated, and the litany of victimization expanded. The work of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison cannot of course be reduced to such considerations. Yet it is a telling instance of the impact of such a sensibility that Beloved (1987) is dedicated to “Sixty Million and More”—a statistic of unknown provenance and authority. But surely it is no coincidence that the number is exactly ten times the roughly estimated death toll in the Holocaust—the century’s standard of horror. Hanging on the page without context or complication, Morrison’s number cannot encompass the melancholy curiosity of the most haunted of her great predecessors, Richard Wright, who could not help wondering—when he was about to meet the natives of West Africa—which of their ancestors had sold his ancestors into slavery. Nor could Ralph Waldo Ellison’s praise of the text of Belovedobscure a certain distance from the exquisite sensibility that produced Invisible Man (1952). While that novel remains much admired, what now seems quaint is its creator’s identification of and with “an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.” Given the multiculturalist tendency to engage in comparative victimization, that tradition is weakening.

Equally quaint has been interest in variations in national character. When the thrust of American Studies had been holistic rather than pluralistic, its practitioners paid greater attention to how Americans differed from foreigners than to how Americans differed from one another. Of course explorations of the national character floundered on methodological and conceptual objections, and such scholarly efforts were often contaminated by biological determinism and genetic fixities (and fixations). Multiculturalism has recoiled from such blunders by defining “race” (like gender) as merely a construct, an invention that is culturally derived, a category that is social rather than innate. All disparities of power between whites and others, or between men and women, can then be ascribed entirely to Uncle Sam (and Mother Nature can be exonerated). Unlike scholars who once subscribed to a faith in American “exceptionalism” and in the beneficence of a redeemer nation, devotees of multiculturalism have had less need for a comparative framework (unless it can related to American imperialism). Unlike earlier generations of academicians, who needed—at least in principle—to demonstrate American uniqueness, multiculturalists have contributed little to comparative understanding—perhaps because it might only buttress national pride and reinforce patriotism. Its practitioners have been inclined to bang the drum slowly. An awareness of how some other parts of the world operates may complicate, if not enfeeble, an adversarial stance on native grounds, making unpersuasive the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s view of the United States as the Great Satan. One example comes from a conversation the author recently had in Bucharest with a local professor of American literature, who had expressed political criticism of the pre-1989 Ceauçescu dictatorship by translating Frederick Douglass’s autobiography into Romanian. Its readers may have become more struck by Communist economic mismanagement, since the meat rations Douglass recalled receiving in the slave quarters exceeded what Romanians themselves were allotted.

Relative prosperity, despite the ordeal of racism, is undoubtedly why the United States has lured immigrants from societies that are primarily black (like Jamaica, Trinidad and Haiti), and why the typical African-American, if contemplating relocation in Africa, would experience a dramatic decline in living standards. The five hundred million who live on the continent from below the Sahara and above South Africa produce as much as ten million Belgians and export as much as the five million who live in Hong Kong. No wonder then that even in the 1920’s, when Africa was under imperialist rule and American society was permeated by gross discrimination and virulent bigotry, Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association was more effective in therapeutic terms than in transplantation to “Zion”; the Black Star Lines fulfilled a symbolic role rather than a migratory function.

Nor does the multiculturalist mystique yet offer a satisfactory account of the status of the Jews, the most “extraterritorial” of peoples and in terms of historic oppression the longest-suffering. Yet in the United States they have tended to be objects not of contempt but of envy. The vices that their adversaries ascribed to them did not stimulate their degradation but rather served as rationales for their success. By transforming their neighborhoods into enterprise zones, Jews have fulfilled the American Dream, which is why they sometimes do not make the cut as a minority group. (They are prominent in Takaki’s book, the only white ethnic group other than the Irish to be featured.) In the well-known feminist and multicultural text, Ruiz and DuBois’s Unequal Sisters, Jews (as labor union members) appear only twice in the index. Though this volume of nearly 600 pages purports to advance a more inclusive synthesis of women’s history, the multiculturalist mystique tends to make Jews less visible than the historical narratives that it is supposed to have superseded. Their effect is to negate the trans-Atlantic legacy of the Jews, and to ignore a previous—if very distant—condition of servitude. What is erased is what befell them elsewhere, or earlier—indeed, as far back as ancient Egypt, when (as Tom Lehrer reminded his listeners) “even the Pharaohs/Had to import Hebrew braceros.”


The irony is that the dilemma of e pluribus unum that multiculturalism addresses was first resolved by an immigrant rabbi’s son, Horace M. Kallen. He was the first manchild in the promised land to give it a stamp that legitimated the ideal of diversity. One scandal of ethnic studies is that no scholarly (or even unscholarly) biography of Kallen has ever been published, though the influences that shaped him are evident enough—from the polyglot Silesia of his birth, to the Boston of his upbringing (in the wake of the Irish accession to urban power), to the Harvard where he was not alone in his inability to resist the spell of William James. It was Professor Barrett Wendell, with his exemplary Yankee pedigree, who stirred Kallen’s interest in his own ethnic origins, a concern that would draw him to Zionism and to an organ of Jewish cultural nascence, The Menorah Journal; the notion of Jewish culture that Kallen envisaged was termed “Hebraism.” A serious effort to theorize resistance to the ideal of assimilation was published early in 1915; the two-part article in the Nation,“Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” asserted that “men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be.” With only minor changes, the articles were woven into a volume dedicated to Professor Wendell, Culture and Democracy in the United States(1924). There the phrase “cultural pluralism” was first inscribed inside the covers of a book.

Positing an alternative to touchstones of Americanization like Israel Zangwill’s 1908 melodrama, The Melting-Pot, and Mary Antin’s 1912 autobiography, The Promised Land, Kallen wished for the uprooted to be implanted in the New World without jettisoning the traditions of the Old. His initial pronouncements as a cultural pluralist were therefore “radically anti-assimilationist,” the historian Philip Gleason has argued. Kallen envisioned “American nationality not as a distinctive something-in-itself but as a collocation of autonomous ethnic nationalities, each of which had its own spiritual enclave, all somehow coexisting harmoniously within the political entity called the United States,” But within a couple of generations, this formulation became softened, according to Professor Gleason, “a relaxed version of the classic melting pot ideal, which was precisely what Kallen meant to discredit and overthrow.” In championing the “melting pot” in DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974), for example, Justice William O. Douglas denied that this ideal had been “designed to homogenize people, making them uniform in consistency . . . It is a figure of speech that depicts the wide diversities tolerated by the First Amendment under one flag.” Mr. Zangwill, meet Mr. Kallen— whose theory almost achieved the status of conventional wisdom.

Which does not mean that “cultural pluralism” was valid or viable. In particular its determinism has made it vulnerable to objections bobbing easily to the surface amid a fluid and unsettled “association of citizens.” Identity is so rigid, Kallen believed, that Jews, for example, could not be Poles or Anglo-Saxons. But what if his “co-religionists” wanted to be? In fact America made it possible: one generation (say, the first) needed only to be assimilationist for the second generation to be assimilated for the third generation to pick a preferred grandfather. It’s a free country, and destiny need not be programmed at birth. Kallen erred. Not only names and spouses and religions and residences could be switched. Race could sometimes be blurred and altered too; even the color line can be crossed, as the anonymous narrator does in an anonymously published 1912 novel, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.Medical surgery makes it possible to change sex as well. Why then should ancestry be innate and durable, a matter only of descent but not at all of consent?

Consider the most famous of all genealogical exercises: Roofs (1976). Never mind for the moment its fraudulence, its pretense to be a work of history. Alex Haley got to pick his ancestors, air-brushing others out. Had he gone up his father’s family tree rather than his mother’s, as the novelist Ishmael Reed was savvy to note, the author of Roots “would have travelled twelve generations back to, not Gambia, but Ireland.” An authentic multiculturalism would be respectful of these twin inheritances—though the enduring pressures of racism have narrowed the choice of grandparents presented to, say, attorney Lani Guinier, actress Lisa Bonet, novelist Walter Mosley and the late historian Nathan I. Huggins (each of whom had a Jewish parent), or Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah (the son of an English mother). Kallen himself was a progressive in race relations. But he envisaged no instruments in his orchestra for Indians or Asian-Americans to play. “Cultural pluralism” neglected and excluded non-whites, nor did its theorist defy the common prejudice against blacks.

Earlier in the 20th century, Kallen sought to answer the question of how immigrants from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe— and their descendants—might be integrated into American society; and he insisted that they not be forcibly assimilated. Multiculturalism lacks a single spokesperson, but at the end of the century wonders how racial and “racial” minorities can be included without being forcibly assimilated. Cultural pluralism sought to validate the customs and values of what we would now call “white ethnics.” Multiculturalism tends to suspect them of being racists, or at least of having gained unfair advantages due to the privilege of skin color. They occupy a lesser place in the pantheon of minorities. Cultural pluralism was essentially celebratory. It admired the democratic opportunities that the United States seemed to provide and asked only that the newcomers be included without disparaging their talents and traditions. Multiculturalism also insists on rectifying the neglect and depreciation from which those with even darker skins have suffered. But its tone is different. It is bereft of the idealism and optimism that animated Kallen’s philosophy, and is far more conscious of the persistence of discrimination, victimization, and hypocrisy. The adversaries of cultural pluralism were the nativists and the proponents of a coercive “Americanization.” The targets of multiculturalism are those who practice what the critic Bell Hooks has called “the politics of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal exclusion.”

Both cultural pluralism and multiculturalism reject the primacy of any single group or cultural patrimony. But the former does not directly discredit, as the latter tends to do, the traditional sanction that American society has granted to individualism. Kallen’s proposition did not risk converting the citizenry into particular collectives, and was not vulnerable to the charge of Balkanization. Though he sought to legitimate a hyphenated identity, he did not traffic in the notion of group rights. He did not proclaim that filiopietism was desirable—merely that it is unavoidable, and therefore that it is a form of self-respect that the polity ought to respect. By later criteria, an appreciation for the particularity of non-whites, as well as those who were not male or heterosexual or outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, was (to put it mildly) often undeveloped. But the thrust of multiculturalism encourages the suspicion that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The sensibility that has replaced cultural pluralism tends to subvert the belief that particularity can be transcended, tends to discredit the faith in individual talent and in independence of mind. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far when, for example, Steven Spielberg felt compelled to ask Quincy Jones, who was set to co-produce the 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, whether a black or a female director should be hired for the film. Jones spoke for the ideal of cosmopolitanism—and for common sense—when he scoffed: “You didn’t have to come from Mars to do E. T. , did you?”


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