They're back, the multiculturalists that is.
For years they've been encamped in our universities, and now even our high schools. But with the election of Barack Obama, they're riding high. We'll be hearing a great deal about "reaching out" to other cultures and nations, as the age of Obama dawns. Maybe it's time to ask some serious questions about this term, multiculturalism.
The multiculturalists claim that theirs is a modern, common-sense point of view. "We must understand other cultures," they say. All right, it's hard to recall a time when educators didn't want us to understand other cultures, other nations, other peoples. The difference between traditional teaching of distant traditions and today's approach is that multiculturalism comes with baggage. Consider, for example, the key phrase, "We must understand other cultures." Wouldn't a true multiculturalist say, "We must understand other cultures, and they must understand us"? That's common sense, yet one searches in vain for any card-carrying multiculturalist who has ever put it that way. In fact, understanding American culture seems entirely absent from the multiculturalist songbook. We apparently have not been included in the honored list of cultures to be multi about.
Another question: What do multiculturalists mean by "understand"? Is that what they really mean? Or is "approve" what they're talking about? Multiculturalism has been notable in its lack of criticism of any culture other than our own - silent about the oppression of women in many Muslim countries, and not a word about the increasing Sovietization of the new Russia. The crackdowns in Venezuela are hardly unknown, but there is no roar of protest from "multiculturalists." The murder of gays in Iran goes without note. But a small scandal at an American prison in Iraq brings out the multicultural masses, ever sensitive about American infractions.
Question: If some multiculturalists really do believe in "understanding" other traditions, who provides the understanding? What we've seen on college campuses is a generation of multiculturalists who uncritically align themselves with the cultures they study. The most gaudy example, of course, is the Middle East Studies Association, which has often been more of an ad agency for Arab nations than a study group. The professorships of some of its members are bought and paid for by Mideast governments, leading one to wonder whether "understanding" is what they are about. It has become hardly a shock to see "cultural" studies departments become cheerleaders for the culture under examination.
One of the building blocks of multiculturalism is non-judgmentalism. All cultures, we are told, have their own validity. And, after all, who are we to question what someone else does? Why, that would be cultural imperialism. The anti-intellectualism and amorality of this position is simply breathtaking, yet it's a widely held notion. After the 9-11 attacks, the president of Mount Holyoke College, where young women are presumably educated, actually praised her students for being non-judgmental about the people who had just hijacked and murdered. And other college presidents chimed in, informing us that we didn't really comprehend the cultural factors driving the suicide bombers.
You know, if only we understood German frustration, we could deal with this man Hitler.
Non-judgmentalism violates one of the most fundamental concepts of civilization - that to be civilized means making choices, including cultural choices. The citizen is called upon to judge and evaluate all the time - in elections, in trials, in determining social policy. The basic American history text in Robert Hutchins's college at the University of Chicago was called "The People Shall Judge," not "The People Shall Be Non-judgmental." We not only have a right to judge, we have an obligation, and that obligation extends across cultures. We had an obligation to judge apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. We had an obligation to judge the Gulag in the Soviet Union. We have an obligation to denounce the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
But in the world of modern multiculturalism, those obligations have been translated into "acts of oppression." It's a kind of dumbing down, often perpetrated by people who hold a Ph.D. Multiculturalism has become an excuse machine, and often acts as a branch office of anti-Americanism.
In the 1940s, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Strange, but we had no difficulty accepting that there were universal values of human dignity. We had fought a world war over those values. Today, in the world of the multiculturalist, that acceptance is in grave jeopardy. What right do we have to spread equality under the law, democracy and basic freedoms? Why, those are just "cultural constructs." Why do we assume that other people actually want these strange ornaments like freedom of speech, or press, or worship? Who do we arrogantly think we are?
Surely we can understand other cultures without becoming the unintended servant of dictators and thugs. We can have multiculturalism, but without the baggage, packed neatly by apologists for brutality, that too often has been dragged along with it.