Multiculturalism and Its Discontents

by Bruce S. Thornton

The New Individualist

This copyrighted article first appeared in the July 2005 issue of The New Individualist [], and is reprinted by permission.

England’s multicultural delusions were literally exploded this past summer when British citizens, children of Islamic immigrants, turned out to be the murderers whose bombs killed more than fifty Londoners. Yet no one should be surprised that young men enjoying a political freedom and prosperity rare in the lands of their parents’ birth should turn so violently against the culture that provides these goods. Having accepted the questionable ideals of multiculturalism, British policy for years has nurtured and even financially subsidized a separatist identity politics predicated on the crimes, guilt, and cultural inferiority of the West.

For that in fact is what multiculturalism is really about — not respecting or celebrating cultural diversity, but indicting Western civilization for its imperial, colonial, racist, and sexist sins. Abetted by Western intellectuals who, like Susan Sontag, consider the white race the “cancer of history,” multiculturalism idealizes non-Western cultures and ignores their various crimes and dysfunctions, while it relentlessly attacks the West as a predatory, soulless, exploitative, war-mongering villain responsible for all the world’s ills.

Worse still, the identity politics at the heart of multiculturalism — the notion that membership in a group shapes the individual in terms of non-negotiable differences from other groups — directly contradicts the core assumption of our liberal democracy. Our form of government is predicated on the principle of individual, inalienable rights that each of us possess no matter what group or sect we belong to. Those rights trump the accidents of race or religion or any other group characteristic. But multiculturalism confines the individual in the prison of his race or culture—the latter often simplistically defined in terms of clichés and stereotypes — and then demands rights and considerations for that group, a special treatment usually based on the assumption that the group has been victimized in the past and so deserves some form of reparations.

This multiculturalist melodrama is, of course, a distortion of the facts of history. No civilization has conferred as much freedom and prosperity on such large numbers of ordinary people as has the West, which is why millions of non-Westerners risk their lives to reach Europe and the United States. And that is where multiculturalism has had its most pernicious effects — immigration. Though we in America have not yet suffered consequences as dramatic as those experienced by Europeans, we too have bought into the multicultural delusions and compromised the old immigrant model that for decades worked so well.

That model was based on assimilation. Having voted with his feet for the superiority of America, the immigrant was required to become American, to learn the language, history, political principles, and civic customs that identified an American as American. The immigrant, of course, was free not to assimilate, but in that case, he and his children would not be able to take full advantage of all the economic and political opportunities open to those who did become American.

For a native Californian like me, these issues of immigration and assimilation are not questions of abstract philosophy or think-tank speculation. I was born and raised and still live in immigration’s ground zero—the San Joaquin Valley of California. Long before white intellectuals hungry for noble-savage authenticity discovered the exotic “other,” we in the rural Valley were living the “diversity” so many academics and pundits tout from their upscale neighborhoods. Around our ranch, maybe two out of ten people were white, and nine out of ten were poor. Yet “white” and “non-white” do not even begin to communicate the complex diversity we lived with.

Back then most of our neighbors were Mexicans, but there were also sizable numbers of black people, most of them from the South. There were also Chinese, Japanese, Sikhs, Punjabis, and Filipinos. The people a university admissions officer would call “white” were diverse to a degree to make that adjective meaningless: Italians (like my maternal grandparents), Portuguese from the Azores, Basques, Armenians, Volga Germans, Swedes, and Dust Bowl migrants from the South, like my father, who came to California from Texas on a freight train during the Depression. The crudely defined “cultures” that multiculturalists trade in are meaningless abstractions compared to this intricate variety.

Most of these immigrants were proud about their origins, as evidenced by fraternal organizations, religious guilds, holiday celebrations, festivals, recipes, native costumes, and scores of other ways of honoring their homelands. Yet most realized and acknowledged a fundamental truth: that whatever affection they had for their old homes, those cultures had in some significant way failed them. And so they had made a difficult, costly choice: to leave their homes and find a new one, to leave their old identities and become Americans.

How they negotiated the conflicts and trade-offs between their new and old identities was up to them, and that negotiation was one of the most important functions of those organizations and clubs and festivals. True to the American creed of individual freedom, each immigrant had to make his own choice about how much of the old country to keep and pass on to his children, and how much of the new to embrace. Some kept their native tongues; others (most, eventually) lost them. Some, like my wife’s grandfather, a Volga German, never even became citizens. But over time, most became Americans, the vestiges of their old cultures enriching the American identity but never supplanting its fundamental values and ideals.

The critical point, however, is that the negotiation and the choice, the decision about how much to keep and how much to lose, were the business of individuals. The public culture of schools and government was American, its language was English, and the price of full participation in this country was the acceptance of those core American values. Those who didn’t want to make that sacrifice of the old ways were free to return to their old countries.

The choice was hard, at times even brutal, but back then people understood that to have an unum from such various pluribus, there had to be a unifying common culture of political values and ideals that in the public square trumped any others. That meant that if some custom, value, or belief of the old country conflicted with those core values, then that old way had to be modified or discarded. The immigrant had to adjust, not the larger culture, and no one demanded the reverse: that the majority culture modify its values to accommodate the immigrant. There was simply too great a variety of immigrant cultures to do this without balkanizing American culture.

In the old assimilationist model, transmitting that common culture — its history and heroes, its values and ideals—was the job of the public schools. There it was that the immigrant learned how to be what he or his parents had freely chosen to become — an American. And that process involved learning English and recognizing that it was the tongue of American public life. Was the process difficult? Of course. Racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice all at times made the work of becoming American brutally hard. But over time, the process worked.

But something has happened in the last forty years to compromise this process. The ideology of multiculturalism colonized the schools and popular culture, and its message is precisely the wrong one for those trying to forge a common national identity out of a multitude of cultures. The immigrant “other” (excluding, of course, Europeans) now is a privileged victim who is entitled to public acknowledgement of his victim status and obeisance to the superiority of his native culture, equally a victim of Western historical malfeasance.

Now immigrants are taught to embrace a sense of entitlement and grievance that leads to demands that the public culture of schools and government acknowledge those sins and atone for them. The effect is to divide, not unify, to pit group against group as each tries to out-victim the other. School curricula now degenerate into ethnic cheerleading and feel-good symbolism. The essence of being an American is now reduced to a flabby “tolerance” that in fact masks a profound intolerance and anti-Americanism, for the groups multiculturalism celebrates are all defined in terms of their victimization by a sinful America.

The result is the bizarre spectacle we see every day, one that would not be tolerated in non-Western countries for five seconds — people who have risked life and limb to come to America, some illegally, publicly chastising this country and asserting the superiority of their native lands. The dysfunctional aspects of their cultures that led them to abandon them in the first place are ignored in multi-cult’s cultural relativism and boutique “diversity.” Meanwhile, the average American is mystified and angered at this ingratitude and hypocrisy, not to mention the denigration of his country and its history, yet if he expresses his dissatisfaction the liberal elite, few of whom are on the front lines of immigration, chastise him as “racist” or “xenophobic” or “nativist.”

One can already see in California the future of this fragmentation — increasing inter-ethnic conflict, as equally celebrated cultural values collide in the public square, and more and more ignorance about what constitutes America and its political ideals and values. Meanwhile the vacuum left by the abandonment of that common fund of ideals and history is being filled by a crass popular culture and consumerism, which increasingly constitute the common ground of being American. I’m not sure a sound national identity can be based on a shared appreciation of fast food and vulgar rap.

Worse still, the war against Islamic terrorism is compromised because talking about a culture’s dysfunctions is taboo in a public discourse dominated by multicultural ideology, particularly when aggressive lobbying organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations aggressively punish anybody who dares to suggest that some cultures endorse oppressive and intolerant values. We see the effects of this mindset every day in our airports, where octogenarians and children are wanded just so an Islamic or Arabic immigrant doesn’t get his feelings hurt because his wonderful culture has been besmirched.

Immigration can work, and has worked in this country. But in order for it to work, the schools and government must commit to teaching and reinforcing the common culture that immigrants must learn and accept to be Americans, leaving it up to individual immigrants themselves to preserve and transmit the ways of the old country, and making it clear that any of those ways that contradict core American values must be changed or abandoned. For the brutal reality always remains: if the price of becoming American is too great, then don’t come here.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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