Identity is a dream that is pathetically absurd. You dream of being yourself when you have nothing better to do. You dream of yourself and gaining recognition when you have lost all singularity. Today we no longer fight for sovereignty or for glory, but for identity. Sovereignty was a mastery; identity is merely a reference. Sovereignty was adventurous; identity is linked to security (and also to the systems of verification which identify you). Identity is this obsession with appropriation of the liberated being, but a being liberated in sterile conditions, no longer knowing what he is. It is a label of existence without qualities. Now, all energies–the energies of minorities and entire peoples, the energies of individualisms–are concentrated today on that derisory affirmation, that prideless assertion: I am! I exist! I’m called so-and-so, I’m European! A hopeless affirmation, in fact, since when you need to prove the obvious, it is by no means obvious.
Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange (Verso, 2001)
In the late eighties, the right decided that it would take on liberalism at its most vulnerable and exposed front: multiculturalism. The most cogent right critique of multiculturalism was mounted by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1987), one of the better-written polemics of the last twenty years. Bloom’s unscrupulous followers, like Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Sykes, and John Leo carried on his fight to delegitimize identity politics as being against the American grain. The peak of the first phase of the culture wars was reached in the first few years of the nineties, as the end of the Soviet Union made it imperative for the right to strike against renewed legitimacy of liberal ideas for a reordering of domestic priorities. At first, liberals were taken aback by the ferocity of the attack on something they considered so obviously wholesome, but by the mid-nineties liberals in academia had mounted a counter-offensive to put the culture wars to rest–at least to their own satisfaction. They wrote books proving to like-minded colleagues that the left presence on campus was exaggerated, that the traditional canon was taught nearly as rigorously as before, and that the oft-cited instances of censorship were blown out of proportion. All that was and is true, but did the word get out to the masses? The typical response of liberals to the controversies raised by the culture wars today is: What culture wars? Wasn’t the whole controversy laid to bed in the mid-nineties? And their unspoken sentiment is, Didn’t we come out the clear winners, exposing the right’s phony claims? Even on its own terms, this response is inadequate: liberals did not in fact deal with much of the substance of the right’s critique. A lot of the right’s mockery of identity politics has seeped deep into the popular imagination, where it lies dormant but exploitable at the slightest instigation of the fascist propaganda machinery.
But there is a more important intellectual gap. Over the last thirty years, liberalism, or shall we say neoliberalism, increasingly distinguished itself from the right primarily by its support for a kind of watered-down, nonthreatening multiculturalism, since it has succumbed to the right’s economic convictions, except for marginal differences. So when we critique multiculturalism, we are addressing the distinguishing substance of American liberalism itself. Here we see holes in the wall so gaping that fascism can stride right through–as indeed it has. Even among those who consider themselves leftists and not liberals, many have accepted unquestioningly the vacuous affirmations of multiculturalism, without really asking if this commitment involves sacrificing the radical alternative to capitalism.
Bloom’s screed was profoundly conservative. He nostalgically evoked traditional values, denigrating philosophical systems smacking of relativism or hedonism (which in his mind were alien to American culture, being European contraband sneaked in by hippie academics who force-fed the thrilling but lethal dose of Nietzsche and Heidegger and other deformed European minds to unsuspecting all-American kids). There was much in Bloom’s thought that was easily subject to exploitation by his successors to lay the cultural foundations for the kind of fascism we see today. His followers were less careful to maintain any sense of objectivity in describing the true state of affairs on the American campus (hardly bastions of leftism, as the right culture warriors would have it) and in the American economy, where the historical victims remain as marginalized as ever.
Nevertheless, isn’t it curious that there really is no retrospective look at identity politics by liberals today, especially at a time when the most reactionary cultural forces seem to have gained the upper hand? If fascism is catching on so speedily in the land, surely liberalism’s main cultural plank ought to be subject to review? We don’t need to agree with Bloom and his followers’ ideology to realize that multiculturalism as it has been practiced in America over the last few decades is seriously limited in its capacity as a cultural framework compatible with revolutionary struggle. The church of multiculturalism, among liberals, has become infallible: none dare question the catechism, except at the cost of excommunication. The icons of identity politics are beyond the pale of criticism.
Identity politics sounds good on the surface, but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny as a useful cultural practice. It can be argued that in the sixties there was need for historically oppressed groups to realize that there was nothing inherently inferior about them that relegated them to second-class status compared to the privileged white male. But thirty years later this valid assertion has become emptied of meaning, since it is not backed up and broadened by a range of ideas to give it content beyond the silly, self-referential declaration of identity. Today, it is the brainless cult of self-esteem which reigns supreme (even if it has to be accomplished via medication), at the cost of intellectual claims for recognition.
The therapy fad bears uncanny resemblance to the lexicon of popular elitism described by Umberto Eco as one of the characteristics of ur-fascism: everyone has something worth being proud of, even if it is only one’s identity. SNL’s Stuart Smalley was a pretty reliable precursor to the full-blown conformist fascist personality. How many times can a minority woman get up to address a crowd, and begin with the brainless talisman of gender or racial or religious pride?: I am a woman, I am Black (or Hispanic, Asian, Muslim), I am a mother, I am a wife, I am a daughter, and I am proud to be who I am. How often can this happen without sliding into farce? How about reciting some actual, intellectual accomplishment? In this cornucopia of easily accessible self-worth, pride itself is the end. It floats as abstraction, until it is seized by fascist forces. If you can be proud enough to be black, why not proud enough to be white? Or citizen of the greatest empire in the history of the world? Sooner or later this must happen, and the minority will be crushed in its vain aspiration, even at the level of its insipid claim.
Here are some areas of concern for liberals to think about, as they blindly uphold the reigning ideology even in this time of fascist conformity:
1. Multiculturalism abridges speech in ways that set the grounds for the ultimate abolition of freedom of speech.
True, the right’s culture warriors exaggerated the actual range and impact of speech codes, sensitivity training, and thought crimes, but freedom of speech has eroded to a large extent because of the limitations liberals have placed on it. (Liberals’ claims to abridgement of speech were countered by more vigorous, more successful claims by the right: Cheney, Bennett et al.) The idea was that a “hostile environment” not be created for those–minorities, women–unused to working, studying, and competing in already stressful conditions. (Then why not work to abolish a “hostile environment” for students of Christian leaning who may not like evolutionist “indoctrination”? Why not establish choice in the matter, which only means reverting to pre-modern truth claims?) Certain words, jokes, innuendoes, suggestions, recriminations, simply cannot be uttered in polite society anymore.
In the course of expediency, liberals forgot that freedom of speech applies with greatest force to speech that we most abhor; it’s easy to offer protection to speech that does not offend. Pushed underground, unpopular ideas might assume a momentum of their own, unseen, unscrutinized, but deadly and shockingly relevant when they do make an appearance. The best remedy for reactionism is to let it be exposed to the light of day, and trust in the ordinary person’s intelligence to make the distinction between truth and falsehood. This presumes that the media or the academy will be balanced enough to present both sides of the argument, rather than weigh the discussion toward the desired outcome. But leaving that aside, the fact that fascist ideology has so quickly caught on with so many in the last few years means that legitimate frustrations were being pushed underground. It simply was not possible to articulate certain things in certain ways, and that’s always bad. Misguided or not, these repressed ideas, which had gone underground for at least twenty years, are making a vicious comeback. No ideas are worth suppressing. Liberals chose not to assert an absolutist position on speech in the eighties and nineties; now we are collectively paying the price for this betrayal.
2. Multiculturalism creates the fa?ade of liberal cultural evolution when in fact it only covers up for its progressive degeneration.
It is great that MTV (without explicit political commentary) now offers endlessly repeated (and simulated) tableaus of multiculturalist acceptance: thoroughly hard-working Muslim- and Arab-Americans seen in colorful New York and Los Angeles settings, headscarf-wearing and beard-sporting but imbued with the American creed spoken in impeccable accents, grounded in such trustworthy locales as Ivy League schools or volunteer situations at the local hospital. Hey, these wholesome people could be any one of us, identifiable with and undifferentiated from the equally yearning, dreaming young white persons in movies like Orange County! In this framework, dysfunction is only momentary: given enough communal (and always respectful) attention, it can be brought under control, efficiently managed.
But what if MTV were to present young Arab-Americans who criticized American capitalism, the American dream itself, or something equally untouchable, instead of the fresh-faced pledges appealing: Please, treat us with dignity, because we’re really like the rest of you? Actually, that sentiment is true for nearly all of the aspirants to the House of Multiculturalism. They only want to gain some acceptance into the club by not having contradictory opinions about the basic principles of social and economic organization.
But even this level of acceptance is only superficial. Among the younger generation, multiculturalism is supposed to have made such deep inroads that racism is a thing of the past: young white Americans have no hang-ups interacting with blacks or Hispanics or Asians. Does this tolerance extend to diversity of views, or does it only hold as far as young Americans having no difficulty accepting the other as long as he looks and acts and talks and works like anybody else? A majority of Americans today do not have a problem with detention camps for Arabs and Muslims, in the event of a crisis (and we haven’t seen the final crisis yet, where fear will be so generalized and unlocatable that absolutely everyone will be under suspicion).
So just how far has multiculturalism gone in overcoming the deepest fears of the other? Has it even worked on the superficial level? Or has it, in some perverse way, had the opposite of its desired effect? How hard is it really for the state to set off rampant fears of the contaminating, inferior, barbaric other, given the slightest pretext? The state may not always want to mobilize such fears, because it may not be necessary or it may be counterproductive to its ultimate ends, but those reservoirs of fear are still there after decades of cultural effort. The paradox of multiculturalism is that it wants us to look beyond the surface by dismissing surface differences; but it suggests that beneath the surface we’re all the same, and it only talks about the surface. This is a philosophy conducive to totalitarian exploitation.
Liberals today need to ask the question: What legitimate questions about identity as unassailable politics were pushed underground over the last couple of decades to the extent that they’ve now become converted (distorted and perverted) into fascist expression? What has been the net result of decades of ethnic clubs and cultural awareness campaigns on American campuses?
3. Multiculturalism offers the false promise of a “security” that is vulnerable to reactionary exploitation.
Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were hardly careful when they painted pornography with the broadest of brushes as violence against women. MacKinnon was on one extreme end, but a range of feminist and minority writers took the promise of security through alteration of language and thought patterns seriously, working to institutionalize and bureaucratize it. It is true that language influences attitudes and actions, so that a man who lets misogynist speech patterns enter his consciousness may be suspected of treating women poorly. But simply shifting the language register is not a solution; it may even serve as deception that real change has occurred, when in fact change may only be on the outside, breeding resentment inside. For women (or minorities) to be treated fairly, the whole system of capitalist production must be changed. Everything else is superficial treatment, at best cosmetically pleasing, at worst festering at the core.
From MacKinnon to Naomi Wolf is a continuum, in each case the mission being compromised by a linguistic short-cut around the materialist causes of gender inequality. Multiculturalism cannibalizes its own icons, as MacKinnon’s puritanical censoriousness leads to a Katie Roiphe, a liberal who questions the very idea of date rape, not to mention insidious right-wingers like Christina Hoff Sommers who seek to reestablish a licentiousness that sounds liberating in contrast to Dworkin’s stricture that all sex is rape. Feminism before the third wave didn’t want women to self-segregate: the desire was for equality with men on universally shared terms. But now that postmodernism has discredited “universality,” every limited and local practice can be justified as morally equivalent to the broadest global traditions.
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, in Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (Farrar Straus, 2000), carry the multiculturalist logic to its dead-end conclusion: everything is feminist, from Courtney Love to the Spice Girls (if the Spice Girls are feminist, then Bush is surely presidential material). Nothing is excluded from feminism; this is the natural result of not having any boundaries, any categories of judgment and taste. Elitism turned on its head has made Generation X feminism so inclusive as to be utterly contentless. A critical evaluation of Maya Angelou or Buchi Emecheta, not to mention Toni Morrison, is impossible because of the fact of their being minority women. The more the badges of oppression worn by the artist, the greater the claim to authenticity.
This is not to blame MacKinnon and Dworkin for Bush and Ashcroft, but aren’t the fascists promising ultimate security to Americans: a bubble of artificial happiness, where all contamination is rooted out, where the sources of pollution are clearly identified, censored, and expelled, so that we may live and breathe and work in peace? The American campus of the eighties was the early prototype for this escalating promise of total cleanliness: students at, say, Yale could subsist in an enclosure of comfort where nothing untoward, unpleasant, or unexpected would ever occur during their tenure there, even as the blighted town of New Haven itself seethed with seen and unseen violence, segregation and selection, homicide and suicide. No American student kills herself without reason and motivation on an elite campus; every life is meaningful to the fullest extent possible, at least in retrospect. Meaningless death occurs only outside the borders of the fully secured, placated, Disneyfied campus. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do for the country as a whole now?
In that sense, there is deep cultural continuity (whether for the moment it assumes a soft-fascist liberal Clintonian form or hard-fascist Bushian form) in this particular strategy of pacification of idealism. When adventure (risk, surprise, spontaneity) in many of its expected forms is proscribed or seen only as an illusion, it assumes a more vicious (militaristic) outlet in the end. Liberals, rather than changing the economic conditions leading to subjection of women and minorities (a project they gave up on a long time ago), sought to attack some forms of speech, limiting it at times and abolishing it at others. Not economic reorganization but speech performance became the center of attention. (Jack Nicholson minus the offensive verbal tics is as good as it gets.)
4. Multiculturalism offers the distracting ruse of collectivist cultural belonging available on demand, rather than the ethic of individualist realization brought about by revolutionary change in economic structure.
Not class and economics, but race and gender have taken precedence as markers of authentic liberalism. You can be an economic conservative (having bought into the right’s castigation of liberalism during the eighties as tax-and-spend profligacy), but as long as you endorse the indisputable rules of multiculturalism, you are considered a liberal. No matter how retrograde your views on class and economics, no matter how cravenly you abandon the working class, you can always fall back on your multiculturalist credentials to legitimate your discourse as liberal.
Multiculturalism today is nothing but a default setting to draw yourself apart from conservatives (actually, even liberals no longer honestly believe in multiculturalism: this is the only raison d’etre left to them for political appeal, since they have given up on wealth and income redistribution). Liberals began to lose the white working class as soon as multiculturalism became ascendant, starting in the late sixties; this process accelerated in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. They haven’t coaxed much of the white working class back, and they won’t as long as multiculturalism remains a distraction from the working class’s economic concerns.
The deceptive idea behind multiculturalism was that it would level the playing field because equality of treatment would follow equality of perception. This hasn’t happened because it is a roundabout solution, liable to be sidelined ever more circuitously by a right that has perfected its counter-techniques, rather than a direct address of class and economic concerns. (Consider only the appropriation of Condoleezza Rice, Colin and Michael Powell, Alberto R. Gonzales, Miguel Estrada, and Elaine Chao for the most reactionary causes.) The white working class perceives liberals as validating a language of resentment and envy, rewriting the rules of earned reward that constitute the fabric of American belief. Change must be perceived to flow from founding principles, not grossly violate them. Liberals have stopped addressing this resentment for some time now, extending only ever broadening invitations to everyone to join the identity movement.
There is a latent working class majority, but this majority cannot be mobilized as long as liberals are distrusted. And the major cause of distrust remains multiculturalism. Even Michael Zweig, who brings up this source of alienation in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (ILR Press, 2000), fails to come to terms with it. We don’t have to agree with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and others who have spoken of the “balkanization” caused by multiculturalism, and its fatal erosion of communal spirit, since these critics are really talking about reconstructing an imperialist ideology; but without appeal to class as a relevant category, what consequence does liberalism have? How does liberalism propose to cut across the race, language, and gender barriers it has helped make concrete?
5. Multiculturalism is liberalism’s excuse for a pervasive mediocrity of spirit and intellect, instead of insistence on objective standards of intellectual superiority.
This remains perhaps the most persuasive component of the right’s early critique of multiculturalism. There is much fog and confusion here, but behind all of it is a valid judgment. We are not talking about testing and quantitative standards and accountability–all methods to undermine the idea of a universally available, good public education–but the real erosion in standards of thought and taste that makes liberalism only the reverse side of the stupidities on the right.
To pose this problem itself is to cross multiculturalism’s founding belief in the equivalency of expression, regardless of intellectual and aesthetic content. It is not what you write or how well you paint, but who you are that determines whether you gain acceptance as a writer or artist speaking for “your people.” When standards of judgment are thrown overboard in such fashion, is it too much to expect that Bush, who can be said to speak Ebonics for whites and to have made it to the presidency in an affirmative action program for the retarded sons of the patrician ruling class, will be the end result? Let’s just say that Bush is our “special” president, in need of on-the-job remedial training, which we have gracefully provided. There is nothing inherently disabling about Bush’s dyslexic, drunk, drugged-out background, is there? Judgmentalism here wouldn’t go too well with the self-presentation of a liberalism no longer talking about deficiencies of learning and education as real obstacles to getting ahead.
Why shouldn’t Bush be able to make these affirmations: I used to drink, but one day I quit cold turkey; I’ve never read a book in my life (not even at Yale), but I can listen to great advisers; I was arrested for drunk driving, but that was in my youth, and I’ve learned from my mistakes; I used to do hard drugs, but I don’t want to talk about it: that’s off-limits. None of these claims for refuge in his pure identity (as a white man of limited intellectual ability who’s overcome inherited burdens to work his way up to minimal social and political credibility) are assailable on their face by liberalism’s own current standards. Does multiculturalism say that if you’re a God-besotten recovering alcoholic you’re worth any less than a Berkeley professor of political science?
Should there be such a classification as bad speech and discourse that ought to be dismissed out of hand as not worth inclusion? No such standard exists for liberalism anymore. One person’s speech, no matter how badly riddled with incorrect structure and content, is as good as another’s. Bloom got it right about college students having a vastly exaggerated view of their own capacities, even as they refuse to pass judgment on any aesthetic or political matter. Mark Crispin Miller, instead of merely listing Bushisms to make fun of them as liberals were apt to do before him, wrote in The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder (Norton, 2001) of how the fact of his being “elected” (half the voters in the country did, after all, opt for him) suggests a dysfunctionality in the thought processes of the country itself. Bush reflects the deeper disorder of mediocrity of intellect that has taken hold over the last few decades.
Liberals continue to laugh at Bush as if he were an alien, springing from roots not indigenous to this country, instead of reconsidering their basic social philosophy that has made it possible for the media to take him seriously. True, there have been other dumb right-wing presidents: but nobody has come remotely close to this man’s stupidity. This is different by orders of magnitude. The right resorts to the cri de coeur of “dumbing down” to nostalgically seek a reestablishment of the old canon, to have students swallow the “classics” of Western thought uncritically. But disregarding that, there has been a dumbing down and degradation of discourse, as social critics like Paul Fussell, Russell Jacoby, Neil Postman and others have pointed out over the years. Liberals have yet to acknowledge their part in the erosion of intellect and the rationalization of mediocrity, as they promote a multiculturalism that has attended to identity as a value in and of itself rather than intellect compared and contextualized. There is much that is Orwellian about multiculturalism. Liberals gave us Bush.
Mediocrity is institutionalized in multiculturalism’s highest expression: the jargon-ridden, formulaic, repetitive, and mostly contentless academic regurgitations that constitute much of ethnic, gender, queer, and postcolonial studies. Thirty years ago the leading exponents of multiculturalism were encouraged to safely hide out in the humanities, particularly English, departments. The sixties street spirit became canalized into a comfortable professorial existence that does not threaten the system in any way (actually, those who lead academic multiculturalism today were for the most part not members of the sixties movements; they were bourgeois squares even then). Have you heard Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Homi Bhabha, Stephen Greenblatt, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Marjorie Garber or other multiculturalist academics speak out against dictatorship during the last year? Of course, even if they spoke out, none of us would comprehend what they were saying.
The right has been making fun of the incomprehensible prose of these academics for years now, but liberals have precious little to say about this lack of clarity. The density of prose covers up a bigger problem: the ideas are unoriginal, and have been so for years now. In the beginning, French theorists shed some light around, reaching into the dark, musty caves, from where frightening bats were liable to rush out; American academics turned off the roving flashlight, and took up exhibitionist positions under naked light bulbs shining only on themselves. These multiculturalist academics revel in the false comfort that the new America is racially tolerant. If camps were to be established tomorrow for large numbers of people, the multiculturalist academics wouldn’t have a word to say; their own bureaucratic lives would remain unaffected. The lament has often been that there are no more public intellectuals; one of the reasons is that multiculturalism leads to the kind of deadening of spirit that makes old-style public intellectuals inconceivable. Liberals have not seen the true face of Bush because they have lost all literary sensibility; their uninspiring, fiddling, technocratic language is incompatible with the stretch of imagination needed to perceive present reality.
6. Multiculturalism has deviated from the Western enlightenment spirit by setting up essentialist identities instead of holding up a universalist philosophy of liberation that appeals to all people.
The dream of the enlightenment was that there were universal principles of liberty and equality that would apply to people across the board, and that these principles could be deduced and made to work regardless of the components of your identity. In contrast, multiculturalism posits an essentialist division among people based on race, color, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, appearance, and so on. By definition, once this process is started, people will classify their identity in narrower and narrower terms, because as an identity category expands the only way to maintain distinction is to claim to belong to more circumscribed subsets, ad infinitum.
Liberalism has denied all along that it claims that only people of a particular identity can understand and speak for that experience: only blacks can write for and about blacks, for instance. But in practice, this is the unspoken rule. If someone dares to enter empathetically into another’s experience, the result may be acceptable but it can’t be as authentic as the experience of the one with certified membership in the identity club. Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Louise Erdrich may sit on the same panel, but there will be oceans of difference dividing them. These are all minority women who may be expected to share much common territory, but their pinpoint focus on increasingly subdivided cultural differentiations makes an across-the-board class articulation difficult.
Multiculturalism began as a means of bridging gaps in understanding; it has (predictably) ended up reinforcing them. At college, an Asian can invite a Hispanic to share in cultural celebrations, and there is the deception that something of intent and motivation is being shared and commonly evaluated; in fact, it is an evasion of exploring either differences or commonality. Multiculturalism celebrates superficial difference; it is racist, and essentialist in every dimension. It proposes blackness to contrast with whiteness; whiteness therefore gets more reinforced than ever before.
Carol Gilligan proposes the reductionist idea of women being more caring and nurturing and men being more abstract and rights-obsessed. This brand of difference feminism reinforces what earlier waves of feminism had set out to abolish: essentialist, incompatible, incontestable differences. Why not differentiate among people based, for instance, on artistic sensibility? That would be to set up standards that can be met, with hard work and concentration. But if you’re a man, what hope is there that you can become interdependent and care for the feelings of others, and if you’re a woman, what hope is there that you can be an abstract thinker concerned more with rights than feelings, since Gilligan says that that’s not really in your nature and experience? What does liberalism have to say when writers suggest, as they have in recent years, that there is an inherent propensity among males to rape? How do you overcome biological inheritance? By celebrating and legitimizing identity differences, liberalism takes us down the road to Herrnstein and Murray’s essentialist racial difference in The Bell Curve.
Liberals ought to dump the carcass of multiculturalism: it has sunk social democracy in this country, serving as it has as an outlet of feverish expression for self-identified victimized, weak, degraded peoples made unable to think beyond the essentialness of their condition. No doubt, the right has bandied about the term “victimization” to delegitimize the valid aspirations of the poor and oppressed to gain equality and freedom, so that’s not the argument here. But multiculturalism begins by celebrating weakness, marginality, and irrelevance, and rests on the unfounded leap of faith that somehow this insistent acknowledgment will allow the subject to transcend the forces that hold him back. Here, it’s Bloom’s betes noirs, like Nietzsche, who have much to say about the degraded spirit multiculturalism seeks to capitalize on. Virtuosity then finds expression in militaristic, violent, brutal, cruel ends, such as the U.S.’s current global nihilistic mission. The principle of non-offensiveness leads to the end of ideology, the end of politics, since socialism’s strategy of giving offense to the capitalist class is invalidated for being tasteless.
The right was wrong to criticize victimization as it did, since the victims identified by liberals are the real victims (not white people as the right would have it); but this turned into glorification of victimization for its own sake, because it lends instant cachet to the subject. For the last year, the entire country has been claiming victimhood. Whatever the right may say about not liking victimhood, it has claimed this already legitimated strategy to fight perpetual war and destroy the world. Imagine the irony of Americans, the richest people in the world, as victims of the Taliban and others like them, the poorest people on earth. The orgy of grief and shameless emotionalism of the last year reminds one of smaller precursors in multiculturalism’s philosophy that having suffered grief of some sort makes you already special in some way. At what point did the Take Back the Night rallies of the eighties and nineties degenerate into marginality for its own sake, larded with grief that knows no bounds, and self-obsession that rejects its transcendence? If you’re in that bubble, why would you want to come out of it? A lifetime of therapy can’t possibly rid you of the deepest scars that really separate you from all others, can it?
Emotionalism suggests inability to face the facts, to link cause and effect: Isn’t that what the nation has been encouraged to do over the last year? Multiculturalism presumes grief in one’s inherent condition. As Americans, we must now lament being Americans. This is presented as a matter of pride (as it applied to black pride and gay pride before), but a pride that brings grief along with it as its necessary corollary. Endless nursing of this grieving, hollowing pride is a condition not subject to recuperation (the whole pretense of the recovery movement, its founding principle, is that it implies the impossibility of recovery even as it claims recovery in theory–to recover out of counseling would put the movement out of business in short order). Grief is the most democratic of emotions. But to have a tragic sense of life involves belief in hierarchies, the will to moral judgment. Once that has been abolished, and there is no longer a fight for justice in the enlightenment sense, then the notion of human perfectibility degenerates into simulated false tragedies that we must construct to have some sense of ourselves as human. Good and evil both reside for ever–without a final war, without resolution–in the same self, in the very conditions of one’s existence: a perpetual battle with no beginning and end in sight, since transcendence is not a possibility. Too much emotion softens discourse. Multiculturalism hastened the end of hard, rational dialogue. The hardness had to come from somewhere, and fascism stepped in to fill the breach.
This critique is not meant to lay all the blame for fascism at liberalism’s doors, particularly the hallowed one labeled multiculturalism (so easy for anyone to enter). But liberals, having attached themselves so thoughtlessly and repetitiously to multiculturalism, need to explore their share of contribution to the collapse of intellect and rational discourse that has created such fertile ground for a second coming of 1930s-style fascism here and around the world. What started out as an adjunct to the larger struggle for economic justice in the late sixties became the whole enchilada, when the going got tough during the Nixon and Reagan “law and order” years: liberalism today is facile multiculturalism plus the earned income tax credit (and possibly prescription drug coverage). The fig leaf for American liberalism is what it mistakenly understands and presents as a radical review of Western patriarchal and imperialist practices under the coverage of multiculturalism. Remove that fig leaf, and it is a shameful nakedness.
Multiculturalism has always only wanted disenfranchised groups to share a piece of the pie; its aim has never been to change the taste and shape and size of the pie. The peak of the multiculturalist moment was Clinton as president, calling for a national initiative on race which led not to outlawing of racial profiling but a set of feel-good recommendations by his advisory board to get to know the other. That was the sign of things to come. Economically, liberals don’t even make the pretense of taking care of you anymore, but you can still have your social identity and be proud of it. The war on terror is a pure identity problem, an “us” versus “them” struggle. The only solution is to fight them with an indigenous cultural strategy (backed by militant force), since there is no way to rationally comprehend them or find common economic ground.
Multiculturalism implies that we should define difference in order to transcend it, but in practice it always stops at defining difference. The reported instances of censorship that D’Souza and others made much of may have been exaggerated, but liberals have contributed to the establishment of an all-pervasive atmosphere of feeling good rather than thinking hard as the dominant value. Censorship on the American campus (as in American life) is not in any single place or exchange. It is everywhere. We have watched what we have said for a long time now.
Multiculturalism is censorious of speech and anti-intellectual; it covers up for the economic failings of liberalism and offers a false promise of security exploitable for fascist purposes; it diverts attention from class to culture and fits comfortably into the bourgeois framework; and it values mediocrity over achievement and makes class struggle more difficult by setting up essentialist identity categories. These criticisms apply, of course, to the actual, realized form of multiculturalism in the United States, not some ideal practice of cultural diversity which may extend to informed ideological opposition, playful self-awareness, and a friendly dialogue of difference and contradiction taking place in a non-therapeutic, non-bureaucratic language of intellectual quality.
In the hands of American liberals, the sixties French ideal of radical difference has degenerated into yet another homogenous iteration of the bogus American dream, as subject as ever to the periodic cleansing it must undergo to reclaim purity of form. The fascists are succeeding so brilliantly now because throughout the nineties the right attacked multiculturalism so resonantly, while liberals remained complacent about their reigning cultural ideology. Multicultural liberalism is a dead-end, a false trail that has brought us to the abyss of fascism.
ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu