Thursday, May 12, 2005

Column on Multicultural Paradoxes

Paradoxes of Multiculturalism

Tibor R. Machan

My own university has recently experienced a minor upheaval because the
president refused to exceed to demands to build a multicultural center.
Some who wanted such a center have claimed, rather angrily, that this is a
denial of their unique identity, an insult to who they are. The last issue
of our student paper contained quite a few such outbursts, although there
were also several letters in support of the president?s stance.

The incident brought to mind for me a paper written by a very good
friend, though I don?t believe it was ever published, on the very idea of
multicultural educational efforts. After much investigation and
reflection, this friend concluded that a great deal of so called
multicultural education is actually not multicultural at all but rather
one-sided. Among the discoveries he made is that when people study
multiculturalism they are rarely presented with an in-depth view of
different cultures. Indeed, these cultures are hardly studied as
distinctive phenomena. Instead, it is the idea of multiculturalism?the
idea that there are many different cultures and they all deserve equal
respect from everyone?that?s promulgated.

But by adhering to this idea, one isn?t immersing oneself in different
cultures at all. This notion of cultural egalitarianism is something very
few members of the great varieties of cultures around the globe actually
believe, quite the contrary.

The notion that one?s own culture has nothing over others is mostly
anathema to most who live in societies that have traditions of fierce
loyalty to certain unique religions and practices. That, indeed, is the
natural stance to take?why else would these religions and practices be
embraced in the first place, if one believed they are no better than
others around the world?

In fact, if there is a society in which multiculturalism is embraced by a
most folks, at least to some significant measure, it is the United states
of America. And this has been so from its very beginning.

In 1798 a young man, J. M. Holley, wrote a letter to his brother
attesting to this multicultural character of the new country, noting that
?the diversity of dress, manners, & customs is greater in America, than in
any other country in the world, the reason of which, is very obvious. It
is considered as a country where people enjoy liberty and independence; of
course, persons from allmost every nation in the world, come here as to an
assylum from oppression; Each brings with him prejudices in favor of the
habits of his own countrymen....? (Quoted in ?Endpaper,? The New York
Times Book Review, November 5, 1995, p. 46).

In our time, when critics of the United States denigrate its allegedly
self-deluded exceptionalism?the idea that it has uniquely favorable
attributes as a human community?it could easily be replied that the
country?s hospitality to so many different cultures is indeed one of its
unique, albeit sometimes problematic, but mostly benevolent attributes. No
one is required to swear to much more when taking up US citizenship than
to embrace the country?s basic laws. (I recall when I became naturalized
as an American, back in 1961, in Washington, DC, we were required to swear
only to abide by the US Constitution and not to hold loyal to others in
conflict with it.) No one is put through some litmus test about specific
cultural features.

This, of course, annoys some folks a great deal. The likes of Pat
Buchanan, for example, are very concerned that too many people come to
this country who give not a hoot about its cultural attributes. And, yes,
I have to admit that I myself have never come to love baseball,
basketball, and football, or hot dogs and hamburgers. Instead, I, who
consider myself quite cosmopolitan, am still loyal to tennis and gulyas
soup and espresso coffee, not to mention various types of music and
painting and drama from the old continent from which I hail. No one has
treated me badly for this, not even for my other peculiarities, partly
attributable to my accidental cultural background, and from what I have
observed this is pretty much so with millions of other newcomers.

I think my college president was right. This country is already
multicultural to a vastly greater extent than are most others (except
perhaps for a few of the big cosmopolitan cities). So he can do better
with the funds of our university than make an empty gesture toward what
usually turns out to be a rather shallow so called multicultural
educational effort.

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