by Victor Davis Hanson
Multiculturalism is now the final arbiter of all liberal sensitivity. Let me explain.
Liberalism professes radical equality. More recently, it has extended that notion to cultures at large. Just as all of us are to be ensured parity here, so too those abroad are to be seen as our collective cultural equals.
But logical problems arise with such moral equivalence: Whereas it fiercely attacks any supposed enemies of tolerance at home, it oddly finds all that inconvenient when looking abroad.
Take the idea of diversity. This concept postulates that society is enriched by a mosaic of different religions, races, and ethnic groups — all rightly equal under the law, all somewhat “different” from one another.
Most nations of the world, however, are not very racially diverse. Many see religious or racial unity as a plus — not a drawback. And to the extent they are diverse, most tend to promote one caste over another. No Saudi wants a salad bowl of intermarriage with Christians and Jews. Few Koreans seem to want more Japanese-Korean or Cambodian-Korean citizens to enrich their culture. The Chinese do not wish to honor their few million Muslim brothers.
And if, for example, a white, brown, or black American were to emigrate to China he would never be completely accepted into Chinese society — even if he were to obtain full citizenship, given that being genuinely Chinese entails a particular Chinese appearance.
Should 12 million Smiths and Joneses cross the southern border into Mexico and obtain amnesty for their illegal entry, they would never be seen as fully “Mexican” citizens. Mexicans’ self-identification includes the racial concept of “La Raza,” in which looks likewise are integral to membership in the body politic — perhaps in the manner that Germany at one time defined Germanness as looking the part of the “Volk”.
In short, the most racially and ethnically diverse nation in the world is often self-condemnatory of its supposed shortcomings at home. And yet we are uninterested in applying similar harsh criteria abroad where the cherished concept of diversity either does not exist or is openly opposed.
Multiculturalism trumps all.
The suggestion that there are Vietnamese racists, Palestinian sexists, or Chinese bigots causes us to pause: Are we being unfairly judgmental or at least unnecessarily insensitive or too intrusive in the business of others? Yet if we were to call the Dutch, Germans, or British bigots — who are far more liberal in their treatment of women, gays, and minorities than their global counterparts — would we feel somehow less offensive? These offenders, after all, could be stereotyped as representatives of a white, Western and (formerly) Christian culture.
Our ideas about equality are similarly schizophrenic. Consider gender parity. Only in Europe, and some Westernized areas of the Asian world, do women achieve the same sort of legal and social equity that is taken for granted in the US. Yet in discussions of, say, the Arab Middle East we are mostly silent when it comes to a gender apartheid that is practiced throughout the Muslim world.
This gulf between the liberal zeal in which we insist on proper gender-neutral vocabulary at home, and the illiberal reluctance to criticize forced female circumcision and the coerced marriages of underage brides abroad is quite inexplicable. Worrying about getting our own house in order while being polite enough not to judge others is one thing; it’s quite another to magnify our own misdemeanors while downplaying the felonies of others.
Somehow this paradox only intensifies when we examine Israel and its neighbors. On the face of it, Israel is a liberal utopia: women enjoy complete equality. Gays do as well. There are a million Arab citizens of a supposedly Jewish state that vote in free elections that are rare elsewhere in the Middle East.
In Israel an Arab woman enjoys more rights, as they are defined under the law in the West, than she does in an Arab country, where, incidentally, being a resident Jewish woman would entail physical danger.
Racial diversity is apparent on the Israeli street. In contrast again, life in the West Bank or Gaza, by any liberal criteria, is at best 18th-century in comparison: women are often veiled, and routinely denied careers outside the home. Honor killings persist. Open and proud homosexuality can prove a death sentence. Christianity is celebrated mostly in enclaves. Apostasy from Islam is near suicidal. In other words, on matters of race, gender, or religious tolerance most of Israel’s enemies should earn condemnation from the Western Left, while Israel in turn should win praise.
Indeed, take the talking points of a Hamas leader and put them into the mouth of a blow-dried leisure-suited Christian preacher on Sunday morning TV, and he would be driven from the pulpit as a dangerous retrograde bigot and sexist.
The problem, of course, for Israel is that, under the doctrine of multiculturalism, its single sin of being Western trumps the many sins of its non-Western neighbors. And on the issues themselves, the hypocrisy is most evident: Cypriots were invaded and divided by Turks; their capital Nicosia remains partitioned. Tibet is occupied by the Chinese. Iraqis, Egyptians, and most of the Arab world ethnically cleansed Jews from their cities after the modern Mideast wars of the 1960s and 1970s. The Syrians used ‘disproportionate’ force in leveling the Arab town of Hama. Yet these facts are all ignored, given the self-described victims are now doing the victimizing.
What goes on here? Multiculturalism.
Over the last thirty years, multiculturalism — no foreign culture can be any worse than the West — has trumped almost every aspect of classical liberalism. Multiculturalism at once warps our sense of judgment abroad while preventing us from appreciating the uniquely tolerant nature of a multiracial United States at home.
In reductionist terms, what has transpired is something like the following: In reaction to undeniable racial prejudice and sexual discrimination in our past, white Christian heterosexual males of the West were seen almost exclusively as purveyors of privilege based on rank exploitation. Therefore to the degree that one distanced oneself from that profile — both in physical and cultural terms — one was deemed likewise to be freer from its pathologies and so exempt from Western criticism. For many privileged elites, loud advocacy of mulitculturalism squares the circle of still enjoying the good life that accrues from some 234 years of American freedom and capitalism, with being released of the supposed burdens of past American racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism — and all the other –isms that supposedly gave white males singular privilege.
Yet nowhere in this race/class/gender victimization narrative of the last decades was there any admission that such prejudices are the stuff of all humans. Middle Eastern Muslims imported as many slaves as did North Americans.
Religious and class discrimination in India or Saudi Arabia today trumps anything in America’s recent past. Japanese and Chinese prove extremely xenophobic, often in blatantly racial terms. Yet only in the West and the United States do the traditions of self-criticism work to suppress these unfortunate and innate human tribal passions.
Instead, by demonizing the proverbial white male and the culture he spawned, we granted an unearned exemption to his superficial antithesis: the more supposed distance from this stereotype, the more blanketing the pardon.
It works out like this: So-called people of color abroad have often piggybacked onto the domestic victimization narratives of American women, gays, minorities and non-Christians. This new foreign “other” then — even if it has suffered no oppression from the United States — enjoys proverbial victim status among many influential Americans. A young Barack Obama, of Kenyan and white parentage, can enjoy federal affirmative action, apparently on the theory that his appearance resembles those of African-Americans whose parents were once slaves and still suffer the wages of such original servitude and later discrimination. An illegal alien can cross the border from Oaxaca, and immediate qualify for consideration as a “Latino,” apparently on the logic that he resembles those who cite decades of racial prejudice. And of course, such consideration works to exempt the other from criticism of even the worst sexual, racial, and religious bigotry. A Rev, Wright cannot really be racist, despite deriding Jews, Italians and whites in general—given that his ancestors’ plight and his own appearance put him errantly on the victim side of the ledger.
What are the wages of this new tyranny of multiculturalism?
One, the double standard is untenable. Once we deify multiculturalism, all else becomes subordinate. There is no reason why feminists should object that Muslim immigrants arrange marriages or practice female circumcision inside the U.S. In sum, multiculturalism will eventually discredit liberal feminism and the entire idea of universal racial and religious tolerance.
Two, bigotry abroad will only grow, as others sense that the United States lacks the confidence in its own values to extend its self-critical principles abroad. Already, countries not only smile at the notion that a self-proclaimed liberal United States proves not so brave in its criticism overseas, but also believes, even if in condescending fashion, that non-Westerners enjoy some sort of high moral ground that shields them from moral audit.
Three, the contradictions lead to caricature. This was best evidenced last summer in Cairo when President Obama falsely claimed certain historical achievements on the part of Islam — from helping to foster the European Renaissance and Enlightenment to Muslim opposition to Christian inquisitions in Cordoba — all the while delineating Western shortcomings. The problem was not just that even President Obama’s compliant audience in Cairo did not believe all that, but they also earned certain delight with his strange eagerness to bend the truth on their behalf. Here at home, supporters did not care that their president had fabricated and distorted history; it was his intention to reach out to the other that mattered.
Multiculturalism is a good reminder that when standards are relative, there are no standards at all.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson