“Don’t give us India,” Samuel Johnson once told Boswell, when the talk was about how widely mankind differed in its view of chastity and polygamy. Montesquieu, he said, the great pioneer of anthropology, was in many wavs a fellow of genius. But
whenever he wants to support a strange opinion, he quotes you the practice of Japan, or of some other distant country, of which he knows nothing. To support polygamy lie tells you of the island of Formosa . . .
“Giving us India” means offering an easy moral excuse, and Johnson was above all concerned that anthropology might be used to justify abandoning our moral certainties in favor of a facile relativism. He was no doubt aware, what is more, that you do not need to cite foreign and exotic lands—minorities at home will do—in which case he would find no shortage of relativists if he were alive today. We are always being given India or Japan nowadays, or gays or blacks or women. There is even a familiar barrage of polysyllables to characterize the mood, like multiculturalism, positive discrimination, subculture, Eurocentricity, and political correctness. Some of these causes may be justified, but the more confident claims of multiculturalism now need to be scanned, especially the notion that the world has some sort of moral duty to defend, even to promote, a variety of incompatible moral views in order to uphold the due rights of minorities, whether one’s own or others. In its latter-day form, which involves encouraging as well as accepting ethical diversity, it is a notion far odder than anything that Johnson or Boswell knew.
Multiculturalism offers itself as a defense of the outnumbered and oppressed: of subcultures which, rightly considered, have as good a right to exist as traditional culture itself. Traditional culture IS conceived of here as white, male, and dead, and it is above all the humanism of the Dead White European Male (DWEM) that the multiculturalist most commonly has in his sights. The case can be openly self-interested, as in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1979), a book by a New York Palestinian protesting against alleged Western contempt for the cultural traditions of Asia; or it can be made by whites against whites. To go back a century; it was a titillating implication of J.G. Eraser’s The Golden Bough, which began to appear in 1890, that Christian dogmas like Virgin Birth are the less plausible because they can be paralleled in other messianic cults—all of which, as an argument, struck a subtle blow against the Western religious tradition and its claim to uniqueness. Eraser loved to give us India, so to speak, which helps to explain why his big book was enormously influential in an era of advancing skepticism. It can be profoundly exciting, after all, to lose faith in one’s own gods and heroes. In a Spanish city in 1992, for example, an unknown artist decorated a large public wall with a painting meant to belittle the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America; it shows a crowd of brown Caribs laughing heartily at a medieval Spaniard, and one of them is announcing; “He says his name is Christopher Columbus and that he has discovered us.” The implication that you would have to be some sort of neo-imperialistic Eurocentrist to be impressed by what Columbus did in 1492 is perfectly plain; though it is more interesting, perhaps, to reflect that the paintwork was almost certainly made by whites rather than West Indians: by a modern J.G. Frazer, so to speak, rather than by an Edward Said. Multiculturalism can be a matter of idealism or a matter of self-interest. You do not even have to be a lesbian, it is rumored, in order to be pro-lesbian; you certainly do not have to be black in order to be pro-black. Montesquieu, after all, was neither Japanese nor Formosan.
The mood, predictably, has caused its own natural reaction. To take a moderate instance, and one that stops well short of the platform oratory of Mr. Pat Buchanan: the Prince of Wiles, speaking in Stratford-on-Avon, has recently protested against “a general flight from our great literary heritage,” evidently with Stratford’s most famous son in mind. “Shakespeare’s roots are ours, his language is ours, his culture ours,” said the prince, adding that “hanging on to our cultural roots is one way of preserving national identities.” He must have expected a storm, and he got several. Alan Sinfield, an academic critic, promptly accused him and other defenders of humanistic education of failing to think clearly about who “we” are. In traditional literary education, he complained,
the implicit reading position was MAN: he informed the text and the critic. Cultural differences were insignificant in comparison with Man. . . . If a lower-class person, woman, student, person of color, lesbian or gay man did not “respond ” to “the text,” we thought it was because they [sic] were reading partially, wrongly.
In other words, teaching Shakespeare has encouraged a lot of people to despise their own subcultures, even to abandon them, whereas the humanistic notion of a common nature is in fact a mirage: “our ‘humanity’ is not an essential condition toward which we may aspire, but what people have as a consequence of being socialized into human beings.” It is consequently wrong to induce minorities to feel inferior. No wonder, Sinfield went on, if Adrienne Rich is angry to be told that her lesbian poems are “universal,’ implying (as she has complained) “a denial, a kind of resistance, a refusal to read and hear what I’ve actually written, to acknowledge what I am.”
The multicultural model of intelligence is here laid bare; once again we are being given India. On the one hand there is culture—in the case of modern Western man, a culture of DWFAIs like Shakespeare; on the other hand, a set of subcultures like the nonwhite and the homosexual, fighting for equality of recognition after long centuries, it is alleged, of oppression, misprision, and neglect. The mood has even invaded ancient history. Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, for example, a book that has plainly told a lot of multiculturalists what they eagerly wanted to hear, attributes the rise of classical Greek civilization to extra-European, and above all African, sources; and its first volume, “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985” (1987), claims that credit for the Greek achievement has been misappropriated by Europeans since the 18th century by a sinister mixture of romantic enthusiasm, white racism—how, it was once thought, could Periclean Athens be indebted to blacks?—and low cunning; even though the ancients themselves, as Herodotus illustrates, knew perfectly well that their culture derived from outside Europe altogether, from Egypt to Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the film Dances with Wolves, based on a novel by Michael Blake, has inverted the Western formula familiar in Hollywood to show the white conquest of North America after the Civil War from a supposedly Red Indian point of view, its whites brutal and mean, apart from a hero and heroine who change loyalties, its Red Indians brutal and heroic. In both book and movie, white man speaks with forked tongue, and both make the echoing point that white culture has been traditionally overvalued, and that brutality toward others, at least if you have a white face, simply will not do. With the death of class war, the movement for subculture is here. The workers of the world may have missed their chance to unite, but lesbians of the world, and even Red Indians, still may.
There are several unnoticed contradictions in this ease. One is implicit in the view that moral principles are no more than the expression of a given community in a given age. But in that event, the moral ease for subcultures, too, could be no more than that. Sinfield even uses the supremely moral term “right”: Adrienne Rich was right, he argues, to be angry when friends praised her lesbian poems as universal in their appeal. But who, in this instance, is saying who is right? A pair of middle-aged whites, it must be answered, of some academic training, known as Sinfield and Rich. There can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that they have been socialized into believing what they believe, and indeed one could easily identify their sources, since they both employ a ghetto-rhetoric highly reminiscent of Anglo-America, France, and Germany in the 1960’s, when they were both young. Their pleas are couched in late 20th-century English, what is more, and their habits of life, one hardly needs to be told, are middle-class. Both seek to make a moral case for a homosexual subculture. But that case, whatever it amounts to, is not exempt from the moral constraints of their age and place, unless the mere claim to be liberated guarantees liberation itself. The dogma of self-fulfillment, after all, is no less a moral assertion than the dogma of submission to divine law.
A second contradiction follows from the first. If all judgments are socially conditioned and the worse for it, then so is the judgment that subcultures of race and sex deserve tolerance or approbation. Some intellectual fashions, it may be said, are intrinsically admirable, and the fashion for nonwhite cultures and sexual diversity may have something to be said for it: “Adrienne Rich is right to be angry . . . ” But if some causes are good as well as conditioned, like this one, then a view can be conditioned and also good; so it is not an objection to a view to say that it was conditioned: in which case teaching Shakespeare in traditional style in school may be no bad thing, and the Prince of Wales may after all have a point.
The truth of a judgment, in short, is independent of the factors that have caused it to be held, and one can believe a proposition on highly inadequate grounds, or none, which might vet be true. My own grounds for believing that the circumference of a circle is always more than three times its diameter, for example—an irrational number beginning 3.14159 and conventionally expressed by the Greek letter pi—are wholly inadequate, since as a non-mathematician I cannot even begin to understand how that figure was arrived at. Nonetheless it is so, and I am right to believe it. Credulity can be a good idea, in fact, and conditioning a blessing; and reverence before professional opinion is not always servile or silly. Why else would people consult doctors and lawyers, after all, pay for their advice and follow it? Or consult critics and reviewers, for that matter, before buying a book or a theater ticket? Critics, after all, are professionals too.
Sinfield tries to rubbish the judgment of professional critics by arguing that humanists, in their day, won the argument for Shakespeare by suppressing, or at best ignoring, subcultures of race and sex and by exploiting a potent rhetoric: “Because the literary-critical discourse was powerful, many learnt to use it well,” he writes in an apparent non sequitur. (Are there not powerful rhetorics which can only be acquired by a few?) But they only learnt it, he argues, at the expense of “abandoning subculture allegiances,” like being black or homosexual.
But that, on reflection, looks like an implausible picture of Western cultural assumptions. Sappho never quite lost her fame as a poet since the sixth century B.C.. when she lived and died, though so few of her poems survive outside fragments that it is hard to know whether she deserved it or not. That hardly points to a reliable prejudice, over the centuries, against the homosexual literary tradition. Or again, jazz is rightly extolled as an expression of the musical genius of the American black, and there was never a time when its origins were supposed to be anything else. Again, Milton’s Paradise Lost does not suggest that the early European reaction to Columbus was contemptuous of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean; on the contrary, Milton implies that the Caribs were gloriously innocent before Europeans came to corrupt them, much like Adam and Eve at the Fall:
Such of late
Columbus found the American so girt
With feathered cincture, naked else and wild
Among the trees on isles and woody shores.
The notion that the humanist tradition has consistently failed to value nonwhite and non-heterosexual culture, in the face of all that, looks hard to sustain.
We are all mongrels, as the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes has recently remarked, and the result of invasions. That is a rational view. But then the multiculturalist argument does not survive on its rational merits, hi fact, those merits are so meager that even those who put the case, whether on behalf of women, blacks, or members of sexual minorities, must surely have something else in mind. But if the rational merits of the multiculturalist ease do not amount to much, its motives may still be interesting. In fact, this could be one of those occasions when imputing motives might be the quickest way to the heart of that new mystery of our time: its sudden passion for minority culture.
One motive, I suggest, may arise from the odd fact that the sexual revolution and the fading of Western imperialism happened, coincidentally, at much the same time. Africa, or most of it, became independent in 1960-62; Vietnam, which some regarded as an instance of Ignited States imperialism, saw an American withdrawal 11 years later, in 1973. The moment of feminist and homosexual emancipation was sandwiched neatly between, in the late 1960’s. That helps to explain, if not to justify the familiar multiculturalist conjunction of skin-color and sexual orientation, as if the arguments for taking blacks and homosexuals seriously were much the same. In fact, the possibility of being for one and against the other is nowhere allowed for in Sinfield’s argument, which is all about Hurrah for Subcultures wherever and whatever they may be.
But the silences in the multiculturalist case show that there arc still subcultures which, even in that view, deserve no applause at all. The fatwa or sentence of death pronounced by the ayatollahs of Iran against Salman Rushdie for his novel Satanic Verses (1988), when it first appeared, is a case in point. Muslim militants in the West are a minority, after all, and an embattled minority, often (like the Indian Muslim minority in Britain) with marked racial characteristics, and armed with a cause. So, for that matter, is the National Front in France, which is another militant minority—a white one, in this instance—opposed to immigration and detesting the liberal, humanistic assumptions of the old parties in the French Republic as threatening a tribal integrity and way of life which is traditionally French. A subculture can be racist then, as well as antiracist. One can easily imagine a Sinfield-style argument, or a Rich-style argument, refurbished to support the Iranian ayatollahs or the National Front leader Jean-Marie Lc Pen: that the liberal rejection of racism represents “a denial, a kind of resistance, a refusal to read and hear” what they have actually written and said (to adapt Adrienne Rich’s remark) or to acknowledge what they are. That could be said by the National Front, after all, in all sincerity and in all accuracy. Humanistic education has traditionally taught Frenchmen, or tried to teach them, about the Rights of Man, notably the French revolutionary notion that all men are equal before the law. Sinfield will have none of that view.
Our humanity is not an essential condition toward which we may aspire, but what people have as a consequence of being socialized into human communities . . .
But if that is right, then the poor Muslim from north Africa seeking a new life in France is rightly to be branded as distinct in what he is, and distinct in the rights he can claim, which is the essence of the National Front or neofascist case against him: that members of other races and religions are not trivially different from Frenchmen but fundamentally so. The French National Front might handily adopt the rhetoric of multiculturalism, in that case, to block immigration and send the Arabs home.
It is an argument yet to be heard, but it may be heard at any moment. Arabs and Muslims, after all, because they were socialized into believing in Islam—taught it in youth, that is to say—and what is more, it might be argued, the democratic parties of the French Republic are antiracist because they too were once socialized into that view, having been taught the Rights of Man in school. There is a further, perilous step in the multiculturalists’ case to be considered. Humanism, too, is no doubt a minority view. Most human beings have never heard about human rights, it is plausible to suggest, in which ease liberal humanism is a subculture in the world at large; and in some parts of the world, such as Burma, China, and Iran, a much oppressed subculture. But in that case it would deserve the respect that Sinfield and Rich demand and yet seem unready to give. The case for Shakespeare courageously made in Stratford by the Prince of Wales looks better and better, in the sense that the case against it looks more and more confused. In fact, the moment for a new humanism may have arrived, and it will be the moment when it is seen to be what it is: a minority view, an oppressed view; in a word, a subculture of its own.
The multiculturalist confusion is not new, and its origins are worth a moment’s consideration. Those origins are often avowedly Marxist, which is to say early Victorian; and Marx’s famous claim that it is history that molds consciousness rather than the other way around lies at the heart of it. The British Marxist historian E.H. Carr, who died in 1982, exemplified the doctrine all his working life, and his book What Is History? (1961) is a classic statement of that view. The opening chapter, “The Historian and His Facts,” makes the implausible assumption that facts in their nature are certain and interpretations no more than personal, though the years Carr spent writing a history of the Bolshevik Party should have taught him that many of the facts of history are hotly contested, some interpretations wholly certain, and that it can be difficult, even impossible on occasion, to distinguish one from another. It is a question of fact, for example, whether Stalin believed in Hitler’s friendship when he signed an alliance with him in August 1939, and a much contested one; a matter of interpretation whether the pact that made Nazism and Communism allies was justified or not, and one nowadays hardly contested at all. Literary studies, too, are rich in such counter-instances. Homeric scholars, for example, differ as to whether the Iliad was written by one man or by more than one, which is a question of fact; not at all about whether it is a great poem, which is a question of value. The assumption that facts are distinguished by being agreed, then, and judgments of value by being contested, is simply nonsense.
Carr then shifts his argument from nonsense to contradiction. “We can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present,” he writes; nonetheless, he goes on, the function of the historian is to “master and understand” the past as “the key to the understanding of the present.” But if the past can only be understood through the eyes of the present, what is the implied contrast here? Presumably by understanding the past through the eyes of the past, which (it is perhaps implied) would be better eyes: at least that is the most natural sense to put on the word “only” here. So Carr seems to be implying that all historical understanding is misunderstanding, since the historian, he says, can never see with the eyes of the past; in which case he can only misunderstand. But if the historian can only misunderstand, how can he reasonably be asked to understand past or present at all? The multiculturalist ease is that we are all imprisoned, of necessity, in a social framework not of our own making. But if we are all imprisoned, then we should try to respect some historians, at least, who write out of the prison cell of their conditioning. Presumably Carr would concede that some historians sometimes get something right; presumably he believes that he himself, for instance, is sometimes getting it right. It is hardly possible even to imagine a subject where all the conclusions are wrong.
But how tight, in that ease, is the prison? It is a notable fact about ethnicity that not everybody, whether black, brown, or white, admits to being locked in, and that some want to see themselves free and others immured. Edward Said, for example, in Orientalism, thinks the West stereotypes the East and patronizes it, but as a Palestinian living in New York he writes with a confidence that suggests that he, at least, is getting it right. So not everybody is doing time in the prison of early conditioning. How, in that case, does one tell those who are inside from those who are not? It is here that the multiculturalist ease begins to look partisan. It is right for nonwhites to stereotype white views, apparently, as Said does, but wrong the other way around. It is right for nonwhite politicians to tell nonwhite voters to support nonwhite candidates, but wrong for white politicians to tell white voters to vote white. It is right to praise jazz as an expression of black culture, but wrong to praise Shakespeare as an expression of English culture. And so on.
There is a way out of the multiculturalist maze, however, and a black writer may be chosen to show us what it is. In a recent lecture, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright, novelist, and Nobel Prize winner, has justly derided the multiculturalist case. As a boy in colonial Nigeria, he has told, he read Sophocles in an English version to his lasting delight, and felt himself no more remote from the world of ancient Greece than an Etonian schoolboy would have felt. Which is right. What presumption is there, after all, that the Athens of the fifth century B.C. is more like 20th-century Europe than 20th-century West Africa? Or that, to speak generally, you have to be white to value white authors, or black to value black? The hidden racism of the multiculturalist ease has often been remarked. What it now needs, as refutation, is a sign like Soyinka’s that humanism is not a fantasy of Dead White European Males but a living faith that works.
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