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-by Philip Gleason

What Do You Mean, We?

Postethinic America: Beyond Multiculturalism

By David Hollinger


210 pp.; $22

How, some half-dozen years after it burst on the scene, multiculturalism has clearly passed its zenith and begun its descent toward domesticated acceptance and stodgy curricular institutionalization. Naturally, any such statement must immediately be qualified, for, as John Higham pointed out when it was still on its ascending arc, multiculturalism is not only a "buzzword" and a "crusade," but also "a gigantic mystification." The first and third of those labels still apply, but the crusading aura has definitely faded.

Its buzzword quality helped to make it mystifying, for if multiculturalism was vague to start with, overuse made it hopelessly multivalent. There are, indeed, almost as many interpretations of multiculturalism as there are people who employ the term. The strongest versions, often heavily overlaid with some species of postmodernism, deny to the United States a collective national identity, claiming that "America" is nothing but the barren if not depraved political container within which the race--and gender--defined groups that are the authentic agents of culture have historically been oppressed. Weak multiculturalism, by contrast, is indistinguishable from the "tolerance for diversity" traditionally associated with cultural pluralism and the more relaxed versions of melting-pot assimilationism.

Strong multiculturalism, which is far too extreme to win general acceptance, broke through to general visibility with the controversy that greeted New York's "Curriculum of Inclusion" in 1989. Its excesses prompted intense criticism from persons like Arthur Schlesinger and C. Vann Woodward, who could not credibly be dismissed as reactionaries. As a conspicuous element in "political correctness," multiculturalism was thrown further on the defensive by the tidal wave of ridicule that rolled over p.c. in 1990-91. But the protean nature of the phenomenon helped it weather those storms, ...

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