X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
What's right and what's wrong with multiculturalism?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is David Hollinger. He is professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, most recently coeditor of the American Intellectual History and Post-Ethnic America beyond Multiculturalism. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Hollinger. I saw a show in the '50s at the Museum of Modern Art called The Family of Man, which really made it clear that we were one giant family of many different skin colors. How did we get from there to where we are today in the '90s?
DAVID HOLLINGER: I wish I could tell you exactly how that happened. It's a fascinating transition. We seem to have become impatient with what we now see as the false universalism of that era, and maybe it's a distinction between a false universalism and genuine universalism that we ought to make to begin with, when talking about The Family of Man and talking about what's happened to us since then. When I talk about a false universalism, I mean that during the '40s and '50s, during the era in which that wonderful exhibit The Family of Man was generated by the Museum of Modern Art, in 1955, and then became a great, best-selling book. During those days, people were very casual and uncritical when they talked about humankind, or mankind, as they said in those days, and they tended to confuse the local with the universal. For example, in the case of a lot of those photographs, in Steichen's Family of Man, many critics nowadays, when they go back and look at those photographs, they say, "Wait a minute! This is not the family of man. This is not humankind all over the world." What this is, is the distinctive sensibility of male liberal intellectuals in the United States in 1955. And this sensibility then has informed the selections of all these photographs, the decisions as to what kinds of activities the people gonna be doing, what kinds of emotions they're designed to evoke in the beholder. So a critic of the Family of Man would say, this is a false universalism because it diminishes the genuine diversity of humankind, it makes it look as though everybody is actually an awful lot alike, even though they have these different kinds of clothing, different kinds of superficial habits. Now, what's happened I think since then, through the '60s and '70s and '80s and down through the present, is that we've become more and more sensitive to this failing within our own cultural tradition. The failing, that is, of confusing the local with the universal, of claiming to speak on behalf of the whole species when actually we're talking about something much smaller than that. Now, the example that you give, The Family of Man, is a wonderful one to illustrate this change in our preoccupations. Some of the other ones that a lot of us are aware of and would remember, you know, there was that book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There was Carey McWilliams's great book of that period arguing for integration, called Brothers under the Skin. A lot of the UNESCO projects, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Nowadays, when critics go back to those things, they seem to be too narrow. They seem to have taken a rather narrow view of things and projected it out on the world. You might say, really, that what's happened between, say, 1950 and the middle of the '80s and going down into the 1990s, is that many people in our society have undergone a transition from what we might call species consciousness to ethnos consciousness. That we used to think in terms of the species, although now we see that it was not a sufficiently broad sense of the species, and now we think in terms of the ethnos, we think in terms of some more narrowly bounded community. We think in terms of an ethno-racial community, perhaps a religious community, a neighborhood, nationalism, as opposed to the kind of international movements that you had in those days. And part of this transition from the old universalism, the old species consciousness, to the new particularism, the new ethnos consciousness, is a recognition that the old style had a lot of problems with it. There was something fraudulent about it. What we've done though now is to sort of give up on the idea of universalism. We've thrown in the towel, you might say, and we're determined to just explore our own ethnos, to advance our own group, our own particularity, as far as we can, and the multiculturalist movement is the legacy of all of this, among other things. That is to say that the multiculturalist movement begins with a very sound insight that all this talk about humankind and all Americans being together and so on was fraudulent in many ways. It implied that all of humankind, or the whole society, was being talked about, when actually it was more likely to be the interests of certain specific empowered groups. So to get away from that, then, multiculturalism comes along and says, well, look, let's talk about all these different kinds of people, all these different cultures. So, it seems to me that multiculturalism can hardly be seen in terms of this large-scale transition from species to ethnos. And that presents a special challenge, then, in our own time, because, a lot of people I think are beginning to see some dead ends in the multiculturalist movement. There is a feeling that under this wholesome aegis of multiculturalism that we are limiting ourselves too much, that we are confining our imaginations, our sensibility, our educational programs, in too-narrow tracks and that, if only we could sort of dig ourselves out of the narrowness of some of these group-consciousness things that we have going on now, and restore some larger framework, restore some connection to people outside of our own groups. Wouldn't this be healthy? Wouldn't this be wholesome? .............. I think a lot of people are now of this point of view, are frustrated with what they see as an excessive particularism that has come about within the multiculturalist reaction to the old exaggerated universalism. This book that I call Post-Ethnic America, beyond Multiculturalism is to try to harvest the best of the multiculturalist movement, but at the same time to look for ways that we can expand our perimeters, beyond the groups that are now privileged in multiculturalist discourse. You might say it's an effort to consolidate the things that have been very healthy about it, but to identify some of the dead ends and move on to something else. The chief analytic device is the distinction between two rather different initiatives in favor of cultural diversity that you find within the multiculturalist movement, two different arguments for cultural diversity. One of these approaches to cultural diversity we can call "cosmopolitanism," and the other we can call "pluralism." Now, sometimes these two words are used interchangeably, almost as synonyms. But I think that's misleading. And when I make the distinction between the two, it seems to me that we can use the word "cosmopolitanism" to designate a striving to confront and recognize as much of the world of diversity as an individual or a society can confront. It's an effort to open up and actually confront diversity, to test each cultural heritage against others, and to robustly engage the world as extensively as possible. On the other hand, pluralism tends to privilege those groups that are well established at whatever time the ideal of pluralism invoked. Pluralism then tends to be a much more conservative sensibility than cosmopolitanism. Pluralism is more quick than is cosmopolitanism to see reasons for drawing sharp boundaries around groups, more inclined to assign each individual to one particular group, and urge that individual to identify closely with it, and to make his or her life within it. Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, is more suspicious of these inherited social boundaries. Cosmopolitanism is eager to supplement inherited communities with new communities, to provide individuals with opportunities to create multiple identities and multiple affiliations. So a cosmopolitan, then, would be more inclined to reach out to different kinds of things. A cosmopolitan would be suspicious of the boundaries of traditional religious and ethnic communities. So there's a kind of tension between the two, within multiculturalism! Because they're both in favor of diversity, both cosmopolitanism and pluralism say we need in the United States a lot of different cultures. But, pluralism is more likely to stress the autonomy and particularity of each of the cultures, to stress the enduring and separate character of each of these cultures. Whereas, cosmopolitanism is more likely to stress the dynamic and interactive nature of the cultures, the capacity of individuals who are primarily housed in one to receive stimulation from others, to contribute to others, and to move from one cultural group to another. This distinction between cosmopolitan and pluralist arguments for cultural diversity has become increasingly acute now that more and more people are acknowledging that it's a good thing to have a lot of different cultures in the United States. What that means is that the traditional alliance between pluralism and cosmopolitanism against old-fashioned nativists and conformists, that alliance is no longer as necessary. So the differences of opinion between cosmopolitans and pluralists, which were muted, subdued, beside the point, in 1945, in 1935, they're now out in the open because so many of the public spokesmen for the society have granted at least lip service to the basic multiculturalist idea, the idea, in other words, that the United States should be home to a great variety of different cultures, including those defined in ethno-racial terms. Now, that's actually a new situation! in the United States. I mean, you look back in the 1930s, I mean there you've got Father Coughlin on the radio, the nativist talk, I mean you've got a lot of very strong public discourse against minorities. You've got the 100% Americanist line coming throughout the 1920s and 1930s in many quarters. So, in those days, people who believed in cultural diversity were more on the defensive than they are today. Now, I don't mean to imply that today that aren't people who are opposed to cultural diversity. Of course they are. But it's really a sea change, compared to what it was like back say in 1924. This is when we have the Immigration Exclusion Act, when Congress cuts off massive immigration from Eastern Europe and Asia, and the idea being that we didn't want these different kinds of people in the society. And at that time, if you got up and talked about a pluralistic culture, and there were a few people who did, you were very much in the minority. The '20s is the great age of the Ku Klux Klan, the age of immigration exclusion, the age of conservative political ascendancy. But if you compare that with what the society has been like in its public discourse during the last twenty years, it really is very, very different. What this means is that we can refine the terms a little bit more. We don't have to be quite so defensive about it. We can be more progressive. We, who believe in cultural diversity, ought to be in a position to argue with ourselves a little bit more, work out some of the problems within a multiculturalist paradigm, so to speak, that in the past weren't worked out because everybody's energies had to go in the process of defending the basic idea against all these Anglo conformists.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is David Hollinger, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, coeditor of the American Intellectual History, and most recently author of Post-Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, which is what we're talking about. He also wrote numerous other works before this. Making the division pluralist and cosmopolitan, is it possible to see some of the dead ends that are in the multicultural movement as it's developed to this point?
DAVID HOLLINGER: Its pluralist wing has been ungenerous about the notion of an American national culture as a whole. The pluralistic tendency within the multicultural movement has become so suspicious of the idea of an American culture on the grounds of its traditional conformism, that, I don't think that they are as open as they should be to the idea of the critical elaboration of an American culture that would have room or a lot of diversity within it. And you find in a lot of the multiculturist debates a very severe line against the notion that there's some sort of American culture. Now, I don't think that the old-fashioned American culture presented in traditional education was enough. But one thing that we're in danger of losing, I think, in all of this, is a feeling that all of us as Americans are still somehow in it together. I thought about this a lot during the debates over national healthcare. I think if Americans as a whole would've had more of a feeling of social solidarity as a single community, would have had a stronger sense that we as Americans are All in it Together, it would have been easier to get through some program of national healthcare, as is already in place in all the other industrial societies of North Atlantic West. I think that Americans are too suspicious of one another. I think we can talk about the nation-state as being subject to three different pressures that are weakening the connection between a sense of national peoplehood and a state that is in the service of the people. The three that I have in mind, you can say that increasingly the business elite is international in its orientation, more and more of their employees and factories are in Taiwan and Singapore and the Dominican Republic, so this constituency very much needs the American state. They need the government, but they don't have very much need for the nation, for the whole population of the society hanging together as a group. And as a result, the increasing internationalization of the business community, their globalization, their involvement in multinational corporations, weakens their commitment to the nation, even though they continue using, to their own interest as best they can, the state. While that's going on, we have, under the aegis of multiculturalism, a kind of diasporic consciousness, a feeling that most people in the United States are actually primarily residents of a Diaspora, which is to say that they are somehow exiles from somewhere else. They're part of an Italian Diaspora, they're part of an African Diaspora, a Chinese Diaspora, and Philippine Diaspora. And according to this view, the United States is a sort of a useful canopy, but what people really, truly are, essentially are, are parts of these ethno-racial Diasporas that have their home somewhere else. Now, this also militates against the traditional nation-state, because people who are very committed to diasporic consciousness will look to the state for entitlements, perhaps, but they don't care that much about the nation. They don't have that strong a sense of solidarity with other kinds of people. This is sometimes called a variety of separatism. I think that that word can be used, though, most appropriately if we apply it also to these business groups. The critics of multiculturalism often complain about separatism within it, but I think that ArthurÝM. Schlesinger and the other people who have worried about the fragmenting of America should also be thinking about this first group I mentioned, the business elite. You can say that they are separatists of a kind, that they are separating themselves from the needs of the nation. So we've got these two constituencies then, the business elite under the impetus of the globalization of world capitalization, is increasingly international, caught up in multinational corporations, not much interested in the nation, but uses the state. Second, we've got the multiculturalists with their emphasis of diasporic consciousness, their commitment to sort of global communities that are ethno-racially defined, but they're not much interested in the American nation, certainly not in American national community, which they think of as too assimilationist and conservative. Okay, in the meantime, the American nation has not gone unattended. Because what you have is a lot of people who think of themselves of Middle Americans, evangelical Protestants, family-values advocates, followers of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. A whole cluster of different kinds of groups. These people have claimed America with a vengeance. They claim it almost as their ethnic group. Now. These people by and large don't have that much interest in the state, except perhaps as a means of enforcing personal morality. These people by and large don't support the classic social-democratic agenda of the New Deal and the Great Society, the social-democratic agenda that's consistent with the great welfare states of Western Europe. So, this third group, then, I'm saying, that for lack of a better term we can call the sort of Middle-America family-values contingent. These people are then claiming America, but are also weakening the state's capacity to act in the interests of all kinds of Americans. Now, these three constituencies are not the only players in the drama of the American nation-state, but they're all very prominent. There are a lot of arguments against diasporic consciousness. Many of the criticisms of multiculturalism include that. There are also a lot of criticisms of the business elite and their lack of loyalty to the nation. Robert ?Reich's works for example, James Fallows, have written about this very eloquently. I try to persuade multiculturalists that they don't have as much to fear from the American national community as they think, that they should take it away, you might say, from Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, or at least contest it a little bit more. And rather than fleeing from the idea of the American national community, that they should engage it more, try to claim it. And a difficulty with the diasporic consciousness that they cultivate, in many cases, is that it yields the field to the Limbaugh/Gingrich types. It abandons too much of the turf, that multiculturalists, advocates of cultural diversity, classic liberals, left-of-center people, should be claiming. The society would be a lot better off, including all members of all ethno-racial groups, if the state could be mobilized in the defense of poor people of all ethno-racial groups. And to try and get away from the ethno-racially defined entitlements. That we need a program which will protect all people, rather than withdrawing from the poor, which is I'm afraid the case with the direction of American politics at the present time. I try in this book to clarify the character of what I call "the ethno-racial pentagon" in our society. And by this I mean the increasing tendency to classify everyone in terms of one of five basic groups. We talk about people as being either Euro-American, or African-American, or Asian-American, or indigenous, or Hispanic or Latino. And, recalling an earlier concept in American ethno-racial discourse, the concept of the triple melting pot. Back in the '50s and '60s, Will ?Herberg and other sociologists and commentators on American life said, Look what's happened in the United States is basically that we now have Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and there was a lot of interaction within each of these groups. Well, we have a triple melting pot. Instead of one big melting pot, Protestants tend to melt with other Protestants, Jews with other Jews, Catholics with other Catholics. So you have, you know, various Irish and Italian getting together under the Catholic melting pot and so on. So those are the three categories. But now, it's not so much that we have a quadruple melting pot, but rather we have what I call an ethno-racial pentagon, it's like a five-sided structure in which everyone is assigned space. And indeed, you're again and again asked to classify yourself in terms of one of these basic categories. And it's usually one and only one. It's not really based on classical race theory, although you can see that the categories inherit some from traditional race theory. What it is really, is a ?reconscription in our own time of the crudest and most invidious of distinctions between groups. I mean it's white, black, yellow, brown, and red. These traditional crude, invidious distinctions between people have now resurfaced in this sort of respectable ethno-racial pentagon, and this is accepted even by people who don't believe that races exist and who are against all these invidious distinctions. Now. How did we get into this? Well, we got into it for a very wholesome reason, still eminently worth defending. We got into it because we needed statistics to protect people against discrimination. It was the anti-discrimination policy of the federal government that began collecting statistics in order that the voting-right acts could be enforced. You had to know where black people were, and where white people were, in order to trace the discrimination, to begin to put in place means to prevent discrimination. Now, this starts in the late '60s, but the crucial document is actually the management office's statistical directive #15, back in 1977, when various government bureaucrats sort of gave out the word. Well, we gotta start collecting information on the following five groups. Okay. But what happens of over time is that it gets too restrictive. People stand up and say, Wait a minute. My heritage is half African-American and half Japanese-American, and yet when I sign up for the census I've got to classify myself as one or the other. I don't like this. It's very clear that the people are affirming their mixed-race status are affirming themselves culturally. In other words, they are interested in getting recognition for their own cultural multiplicity, and they want the cultural diversity of the society to be recognized. And what they do then, they come up against a ethno-racial pentagon that was not designed for culture at all. The ethno-racial pentagon was designed as a way of dealing with political and economic problems in the society. It was designed as a way of dealing with discrimination. Now, these people who are affirming the need for many more categories in the census do not see themselves as undercutting a mechanism for ensuring entitlements. They don't see themselves as enemies of affirmative action. They're no trying to undercut anti-discrimination legislation. Rather, they're trying to affirm their culture. So it seems to me that what's happened, as the multiculturalist movement has used the ethno-racial pentagon as a means for advancing cultural diversity, what's happened is that we have begun to think of the ethno-racial pentagon in cultural terms. And it's not something that was designed for cultural purposes at all. Now, the more that we think about the ethno-racial pentagon in cultural terms, we bring into a truly tragic contradiction two very healthy impulses in our society. The one impulse is to protect people against discrimination. The other impulse is to give people a chance to affirm their own variety of cultures, within themselves as individuals, and within the society as a whole. These two drives, I'm saying, have been brought into contradiction by our tendency to think of the ethno-racial pentagon as a cultural device.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Hollinger. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought. Our guest was David Hollinger. He's a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, most recently author of Post-Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism, and it comes from Basic Books in 1995.