Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of "The Disuniting of America" (1992) -- Further note for a book cited in the discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

Whose History Is Bunk?, By FRANK KERMODE, New York Times (1992)

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National communities with culturally diverse populations can always
expect trouble, and at present they are getting it. In Eastern Europe an empire
collapses, and ancient ethnic animosities come into the open. In the West,
minorities are angry and vocal. There is a new and rancorous divisiveness [JB emphasis].
Even in the United States, where it was invented, the melting pot is out of fashion.

By comparison with a potentially explosive global situation the
current American debate, subsumed under the label "political
correctness," may seem trivial. And it is true that the often witless
linguistic quibbling associated with it can make it sound academic
in the worst sense. Perhaps that is why I hear nonacademic friends
dismiss the whole phenomenon as largely a fad of foolish and
petulant academics.

They may be mistaken. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, who
knows the world as well as the universities, is sure that current
academic arguments have urgent implications for society at large,
that debates about what is taught, and in what academic dialect, are,
in the end, debates about what it is to be an American. For example,
the self­-ghettoizing of black history or women's history presages a
more general social fragmentation, and endangers the precious ideal
of political unity in ethnic diversity.

"The Disuniting of America" is a sane and temperate book. Mr.
Schlesinger admits the shameful errors of the past; even his own
field was long dominated by the unconscious prejudices of white
males. He attaches very great importance to historically, as distinct
from politically, correct history, and thinks it is at present under
threat less from his own kind than from prejudiced ethnic historians.

The universities, he believes, can handle their problem, but the
situation in the public schools is disturbing. He specifically deplores
the Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act, passed by Congress in
1974, which, "by applying the ethnic ideology to all Americans,
compromised the historic right of Americans to decide their ethnic
identities for themselves." In the schools as elsewhere he wants to
do justice to ethnic claims, but without sacrificing the idea of an
Americanness that can be shared. The remedy, he feels, may lie in
improved intellectual hygiene. Honest history cannot regard the
European origins of American culture and Constitution as
poisonous, nor will it condone the provocative ethnic mythmaking
with which some seek to supplant it. Mr. Schlesinger is unusually
severe on what he regards as tendentious pseudo­learning, such as
Afrocentric history. And he finds inconsistency in those who profess
to despise Western civilization yet claim their ancestors as its
dispossessed originators.

In the present climate he will make few converts, and his rare bursts
of indignation may prove inflammatory: "If some Kleagle of the Ku
Klux Klan wanted to devise an educational curriculum for the
specific purpose of handicapping and disabling black Americans, he
would not be likely to come up with anything more diabolically
effective than Afrocentrism." He simply cannot believe that black
English and the trashing of Eurocentric democratic ideals and
European-­derived culture can be the right ways to satisfy just ethnic
aspirations. The right way, for everybody, is to broaden the
American cultural base without destroying it. Admittedly, Mr.
Schlesinger concedes, the burden of compromise will fall on the
minorities, who need to accept a historical culture that they now
profess to abhor. But unless they can accept it, he says, the republic
is "in serious trouble."

Mr. Schlesinger's position and his tone, more urbane than the tones
of the dissenters, are shared by many moderates. Brigitte Berger, in
an impressive paper on the present unease of the academy,
contained in Partisan Review's special issue "The Changing Culture
of the University," touches on a central question. She claims that
"there is a wide gulf between the sociological proposition that
knowledge is culturally based and the claim that all knowledge
reflects politics (be this now the politics of class, race, age or

That claim, now very familiar, implies, among other things, that it is
futile to discuss ideas or works of art except in terms of their
political orientations. It is a claim hard to reconcile with what Ms.
Berger, a professor of sociology at Boston University, calls the true
business of universities: not the raising of ethnic self-­esteem but the
free exercise of "cognitive rationality."

Can the requirement of free speech be regarded as Eurocentric and
self-­serving? Should there be restrictive speech codes? Stanley Fish,
a professor of English and of law at Duke University, writing in
"Debating P.C." (a volume of articles edited by Paul Berman),
reasonably concludes that the First Amendment cannot confer
absolute freedom --­­ "freedom of expression would be a primary
value only if it didn't matter what was said." For words do things;
so, Mr. Fish declares, it is right to ban the use of certain expressions
likely to do things that cause trouble. "The risk of not attending to
hate speech is greater than the risk [ of ] regulating it." This, alas, is
an argument as old as censorship. Another essay by Mr. Fish, in the
collection entitled "The Politics of Liberal Education," edited by
Darryl J. Gless and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, decides that the
ethnic diversification of the curriculum is so manifest a good that
academics should pursue it with energy (though presumably
watching their mouths as they do so). Here authoritarian restrictions
on free speech and unargued surrender to militancy go cozily

That the suppression of certain kinds of language has the effect
desired is surely doubtful. Forbidden language may be dangerously
attractive simply because it is forbidden. Older speech codes banned
from civilized society the street language of sex, but this inhibition
does not seem to have improved sexual behavior or the status of
women. And when "political correctness" restrictions are extended
to absurdity, the imposition of speech codes might be thought
useless as well as tyrannous.

So, too, might the assertion, made by some of the multiculturalists,
that philosophy nowadays has shown that truth is only a product of
the persuasive force with which you make your point. Voices were
raised against this fashionable defense of lying at the conference
that was the basis for the Partisan Review special issue. Perhaps the
multiculturalists' argument needn't be a worry if it is merely a matter
of academic game playing, of debates about courses and canons. But
if, as Mr. Schlesinger believes, such a view increases the threat to
the republic, it could be dangerous as well as detestable.

What, briefly, is the multiculturalist case? Richard Petty, a
researcher in linguistics at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and
Patricia Williams, an associate professor of law and women's studies
at the University of Wisconsin, offer a brief account of it in
"Debating P.C." Until recently higher education was provided
largely for students who were American­-born, white, male,
Christian. The curriculum reflected this white male hegemony. Now
there is an attempt to cater to a more heterogeneous population. But
this attempt has met with "a virulent backlash." And the advent of
multiculturalism has not prevented "eminent scholars" from
continuing to justify slavery, Czarist pogroms, colonial subjugation
and the oppression of women. (These "eminent scholars" are not
named in the indictment.) Meanwhile others freely "spout racist,
sexist and homophobic epithets completely unchallenged."

The language of this weak and intemperate article would be better
for some correctness of a more old­fashioned sort; it mimics the
most slovenly forms of current political discourse ("if . . . we could
ever get to the point where we can honestly speak of having
achieved a level playing­field in the marketplace of ideas," etc.).
How can babble of this kind prevail against the quieter, more
reasonable language of Mr. Schlesinger, or of Diane Ravitch?

Her essay (in "Debating P.C.") is called "Multiculturalism: E
Pluribus Plures." It echoes Mr. Schlesinger: ethnic diversity must
coexist with the adapted Europeanism that is the real foundation of
American culture. Discussing recent claims that "white" knowledge
was stolen from black Africans, Ms. Ravitch, currently an Assistant
Secretary of Education of the United States, wonders how you can
lose knowledge by sharing it, and how it can be thought sensible to
divide instruction so that black teachers impart black knowledge
only to black students, and white to white; or to allow the language
in which knowledge and experience are transmitted to be enfeebled
by absurd euphemisms. Replying, Molefi Kete Asante, the chairman
of the African­American Studies department at Temple University,
declares that Ms. Ravitch's restricted multiculturalism is merely a
mask for "hegemonic" Eurocentricity. There is, he says, no such
thing as mainstream American culture. And Ms. Ravitch is wrong to
deny the influence of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation
of upstate New York on the Constitution. And so on, with rancor
substituting for argument. Compromise begins to look impossible.

The Gless­-Herrnstein collection, with its noisy crowd of
antihomophobes, antiracists and antiwhites, tends to confirm that
gloomy conclusion. One of the more original advocates of change is
Richard A. Lanham, a professor of English at the University of
California, Los Angeles, who comes up with an engaging post-McLuhanite
argument: the computer has radically changed our
attitudes to text, escorted us into new freedoms and made available
vast new teaching opportunities. And the book, that obstacle to
freedom and diversity, shall be no more. Mr. Lanham takes the
Italian Futurists as a precedent for his attack on the book, without
noting that it has long survived them; and although he wrote his
piece in pixeled letters on a screen, I read it in a book. This is worth
mentioning because it illustrates an error of enthusiasm committed
many times in these exchanges: to neglect fact and continuity
because fiction and change look more exciting.

Finally: is the republic in danger? Nations are nearly always loose
confederations, and when they fall apart they often do so into ethnic
groups. Yet there was a time, not so long ago, when the American
minorities, however conscious of discrimination and other wrongs,
still wanted to be American. The prospect of a kind of internal
ethnic migration is disquieting.

There is further cause for disquiet in the flaunting of real or
simulated hatreds, and in an apparent unwillingness to pay the old
price of freedom, which is to use it rationally. One can only hope
that Mr. Schlesinger is right to think the academy can contain its
problems, and that the person in the street is right to believe they are
merely academic.

Americans have been proud of their past(s) as well as confident of
their future. The contestants here would do well to recall a saying of
Emerson's: "The past has baked your loaf, and in the strengths of its
bread you would break up the oven." Emerson, unfortunately, is a
dead white male, and some think the past he refers to is a hegemonic
lie. But others believe that to pay disinterested attention to the past
is a prerequisite of both cognitive rationality and national solidarity.
And they are right.

Frank Kermode's most recent book is "The Uses of Error."

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Norton. 160 pp. $14.95.
Heather MacDonald, June 1, 1992, Commentary
Originally published by Whittle Direct Books and now reissued with an expanded foreword, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society is an uncompromising look at the fraud of multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. 

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Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s eminence as a historian—he currently holds the Albert Schweitzer chair in the humanities at the City University of New York—has not protected him, or his book, from the usual smears. Ishmael Reed, a novelist who teaches English at Berkeley, has denounced Schlesinger as a “follower of David Duke,” and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard, has caricatured Schlesinger’s arguments as a “demand [for] cultural white-face.”
While predictable, the hostile response to The Disuniting of Americais nevertheless particularly discouraging, for it is difficult to imagine a book expressing greater compassion for the racial frustrations which Schlesinger sees as fueling Afrocentrism, or greater candor about the past injustices of American society and historiography. If such a book—as frank about America’s failings as about those of multiculturalism—is dismissed as neo-Nazi propaganda, then good-faith discussion has been all but foreclosed.
Schlesinger’s thesis is that the current cult of ethnicity imperils the very basis of the American experiment. Although multiculturalists may think they own the patent on “diversity,” Schlesinger shows that diversity has been America’s trademark since inception. Our unique admixture of peoples has prompted both native-born and foreign observers to ask: what can hold so variegated a nation together? From the 18th to the 20th century the answer has remained constant: the “American Creed.” As Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944, Americans hold in common “the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals” of any country in the West: the ideals of equality and the inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity. It is adherence to those ideals, not one’s race, original nationality, or ethnicity, that makes one an American. [JB emphasis]

Today, says Schlesinger, the American identity is in jeopardy as multiculturalism and Afrocentrism elevate racial and ethnic over national affiliation. At the end of this road, he warns, lie Yugoslavia and other contemporary battlegrounds of racial and ethnic separatism. While the analogy may seem a touch overwrought, there can be no question that multiculturalists are playing with weapons that can wreak havoc on our already inadequate schools, our social structure, and economy.
Separatist ideas of history are among those weapons. To be sure, today’s multiculturalists and Afro-centrists are hardly the first to revise history. During previous waves of American ethnic consciousness, Schlesinger points out, underdog groups similarly fabricated their own “compensatory” versions of history—what the historian John V. Kelleher calls the “there’s-always-an-Irishman-at-the-bottom-of-it-doing-the-real-work approach to American history.” The crucial difference, however, is that those earlier movements never sought to impose their ethnocentric mythologies on the public-school curriculum.
By contrast, Afrocentrists, who place Africa at the source of the world’s cultural and scientific achievements, view the teaching of history in the schools as a tool for group empowerment and for the advancement of group self-esteem. Such “therapeutic” uses of history undermine what Schlesinger sees as the true purpose of historical study: “the recognition of complexity and the search for knowledge.” Moreover, as Diane Ravitch, now an Assistant Secretary of Education, has warned, “Once ethnic pride and self-esteem become the criterion for teaching history, certain things cannot be taught” in the schools. Proscribed subjects include (in Schlesinger’s formulation) “the tyrannous authority [of African emperors], the ferocity of their wars, the tribal massacres, the squalid lot of the common people, . . . [and] the complicity with the Atlantic slave trade.”
As for what is being taught, the twin pillars of Afrocentrism are the claims that the West stole its culture from Egypt, and that Egypt was black. Schlesinger debunks both these fallacies, and disproves as well the relationship between ethnocentric education and self-esteem or academic achievement. Self-esteem, he notes, originates not in racial pride but in personal achievement and family encouragement, while the presence or absence of ethnic role models in the curriculum has no known correlation with academic success.
The connection between Afro-centric education and American black identity is even more tenuous, Schlesinger boldly argues. Since the early 19th century, most black leaders have repudiated the notion that they are Africans first, Americans second. The current cult of “self-Africanization,” among a people who no longer have an authentic relation to Africa, Schlesinger dismisses as “play-acting.” Most damning of all, he concludes, Afrocentric pedagogy works against the very goals it claims to be pursuing, since nothing could be more cunningly designed to retard the social and economic progress of black children than the new form of segregation represented by black-only public schools, the deemphasis of logic in favor of emotive forms of expression, and the encouragement of “black” English.

In defense of their policies, multiculturalists routinely cite the sins of the European “canon” against which they are rebelling, an allegedly monolithic, exclusive, and intellectually repressive structure which, in the words of a leading Afrocentrist, is “killing [black] children, killing their minds.” Western culture as a whole, they add, is the world’s leading source of racism, imperialism, sexism, and all-around nastiness. Yet as Schlesinger points out, the Western canon—a fluid, immensely complex cultural inheritance that contains voices of rage and protest as well as voices of celebration and devotion—is precisely what has inspired the great black political theorists and philosophers, not to mention innumerable critics of the West both white and black.
What sets Europe apart from the rest of the world is not oppressiveness—its sins have been more than matched by Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—but rather the fact that Western oppression has “produced [its] own antidote”:
Whatever the particular crimes of Europe, that continent is also the source—the unique source—of those liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and cultural freedom that constitute our most precious legacy and to which most of the world today aspires. These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern ideas, except by adoption.
And though Schlesinger can be severe about the West’s failure to live up to its ideals, including the treatment of blacks and other minorities, he is scathing on the relative merits of other cultures compared with ours:
There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism. In this regard the Afrocentrists are especially absurd. The West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of those “sun people” who sustained slavery until Western imperialism abolished it (and, it is reported, sustain it to this day in Mauritania and the Sudan), who still keep women in subjection and cut off their clitorises, who carry out racial persecutions not only against Indians and other Asians but against fellow Africans from the wrong tribes, who show themselves either incapable of operating a democracy or ideologically hostile to the democratic idea, and who in their tyrannies and massacre, their Idi Amins and Boukassas, have stamped with utmost brutality on human rights.

The eloquence and erudition of The Disuniting of America make its hostile reception all the more disturbing. Reading this book, one is torn between admiration for its arguments and the sad conviction that they are utterly futile. To warn against the dissolution of our common national ideals and our common culture holds little threat for people who claim, however speciously, that they never shared those ideals and were never part of that culture.
One of the most pernicious effects of multiculturalism has been to destroy the linguistic ground necessary to debate it. For such a debate would have to invoke terms like “we” and “commonality.” Yet multiculturalists, aided by the sophisticated deconstructive efforts of literary theorists like Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, reject any such appeal to an American “we” as an act of imperialist violence. The only language that remains is that of an increasingly narrow “us” versus an increasingly alien “them.” This is the language of civil war.

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