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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, for virtually no one objects to the idea in its weaker tolerance-for-diversity forms, which, like the more robust versions, draw on antiracist and antisexist sentiments that are deeply rooted in the culture. Indeed, the determination of most critics to make clear that they are not against tolerance for diversity has no doubt reinforced acceptance of generic multiculturalism, which can always be given an acceptably benign interpretation.

David Hollinger's Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism belongs to a second wave of commentary that began to appear in the midnineties. It reflects the determination just mentioned--to preempt charges of prejudice and cultural insensitivity--for one of Hollinger's objections to multiculturalism is that it does not adequately comprehend the full richness of American diversity.

His book outlines a position intended to preserve the positive elements of multiculturalism while moving beyond its "increasingly apparent" limitations. This "postethnic perspective" is not put forward as "an all-purpose formula for solving policy problems," but simply as "a distinctive frame within which issues in education and politics can be debated." It constitutes, however, a searching critique of multiculturalism, which takes on special significance because of Hollinger's sympathy for the goals of this "prodigious movement," and because of his stature as one of the nation's leading intellectual historians.

Hollinger strongly supports cultural diversity and therefore endorses multiculturalism to the extent that it genuinely enhances respect for, and nurturing of, that quality in American life. More particularly, he approves the way the movement has established the legitimacy of descent-based communities (i.e., racial and ethnic groups) as bearers of cultural diversity sufficiently important to be accorded recognition in public policy. The latter point is related to his belief that the displacement of "species" by "ethnos"--that is, melting-pot assimilationism by multiculturalist diversity--is to be understood within the context of a larger epistemological shift that he finds congenial. The larger shift involves a movement away from thinking in universalistic terms to a more lively awareness of historicity, the "recognition that many of the ideas and values once taken to be universal are specific to certain cultures."

Hollinger's principal reservations about multiculturalism have to do with what we can call its "essentializing" of race. He does not use that term, but it comes to mind in connection with his criticism of the five descent-based communities around which multiculturalism has structured itself: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Euro Americans.

Although he approves of affirmative action, the political policy that gave rise to this "ethno-racial pentagon," Hollinger finds the pentagon itself increasingly unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. By making race the trump category and reducing ethnicity to comparative insignificance, it has fueled a pervasive racialization of thought and policy, the most deplorable distortion of which is the now almost conventional identification of race with culture. Insofar as multiculturalism encourages this tendency, it actually constricts real cultural diversity and threatens to become an avatar of old-fashioned biological racism, which--though discredited for more than half a century--is clearly the theoretical source of the assumptions associated with the ethno-racial pentagon.

Hollinger also lays considerable weight on the fact that the regnant schema cannot accommodate an increasing population of "mixed race" persons, who are unlikely to tolerate for long being classified by some variant of the odious "one-drop rule." Finally, he is troubled by the unwillingness of many multiculturalists to credit the reality of American nationality and the importance of the social and political values built into it.

The author's prescription for moving beyond multiculturalism is not set forth in programmatic fashion; rather, it is embedded in his broader analysis and critique. He is, however, quite insistent on the need to distinguish sharply between race and culture, and he cautions against increasingly generalized resort to racial terminology. In this connection, he urges calling the groups that make up the pentagon "ethno-racial blocs" (a cumbersome mouthful) rather than "races," because the former expression implies a more "contingent and instrumental" way of classifying people, which is the direction antiracists should "want to be heading."

Hollinger would like to see a greater emphasis on "cosmopolitanism," by which he means a capacity to savor cultural diversity without undue attachment to any one of the elements comprising the diversity. Such an emphasis, he believes, would enlarge the range of cultural choice for individuals and thereby promote a "diversification of diversity." Cosmopolitanism is, indeed, the key element in Hollinger's postethnic vision, which, as he describes it, "prefers voluntary to prescribed affiliations, appreciates multiple identities, pushes for communities of wide scope, recognizes the constructed character of ethno-racial groups, and accepts the formation of new groups as part of the normal life of a democractic society."

Despite his commitment to historicist particularism, Hollinger rejects the view that human-rights talk is no longer tenable. (Even Richard Rorty, he notes, "has come around to insisting that full recognition of the historically particular character of our discourses should not be taken as a license for abandoning a traditional human rights commitment.") Moreover, he affirms the existence of an American national community and espouses a "civic" nationalism based not on descent, but on a shared commitment to democratic ideals and practices. He is even brave enough to reply to multiculturalist parody of this kind of Americanism with a parody of his own that is daringly incorrect politically. And in a brief but arresting passage, he suggests that the tradition of church-state separation might be applicable to state action in respect to ethno-racial blocs:

In this . . . view, ethno-racial cultures ought to look after themselves much the way religious cultures have been expected to do. Both are sustained by voluntary affiliations. The products of both are to be welcomed as contributions to the richness of the nation's cultural life and thus as part of the environment for its politics. But both partake more of the private than the public sphere, and neither is to be the beneficiary of outright public subsidies. In the meantime, programs for affirmative action can continue to occupy the political space that was theirs alone before culture began to take over the ethno-racial pentagon.

Also of special interest to readers of this journal is Hollinger's citing of religion as a model for the relatively free entry and exit--individual affiliation and disaffiliation from the group--that postethnicity envisions across the board.

No summary could do justice to the subtlety of Hollinger's formulations, but even these remarks may suggest the scope and boldness of his postethnic vision. His book is, to my mind, quite persuasive in its critique; and postethnicity is an appealing next step beyond multiculturalism. There are, however, three points I would like to see addressed if Hollinger decides to develop more systematically the position he has outlined for us here.

First, the role of women's studies and gender theory in multiculturalism and the postethnic future needs fuller consideration. Second, it seems to me that Hollinger's enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism has skewed his tracing of that concept's historical interaction with cultural pluralism and assimilationism. Moreover, one may ask whether cosmopolitanism can fulfill Hollinger's hopes for it as a key element in postethnicity, since it is doubtful that an outlook hitherto confined to a sophisticated few can serve as the basis for a large national society's cultural policy.

Finally, there is the question of affirmative action. Hollinger endorses it as a way of overcoming "racism," which he regards as real, although "race" is not. But that would seem to ground the policy in a paradox; and affirmative action is the root cause of the pervasive racialization of thought that Hollinger deplores, while attributing it to the ethno-racial pentagon, which is but an artifact of affirmative action.

Here, it might be said, Hollinger's book is provocative by implication only. But that is not its overall character. This brief volume contains the most probing exploration of multiculturalism that has appeared to date, and it succeeds brilliantly in sketching new directions for the future.

Philip Gleason is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including most recently Contending with Moderity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press).

Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal

November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 34


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