Monday, October 25, 2010

Multiculturalism: An Idea Promoting Unity or Divison?

[I take my train of thought here from remarks made by talk radio host Dennis Prager while I was driving in my car earlier today]

The idea known as "multiculturalism" has been very trendy for quite some time now. But, really, what the heck is this? What does it really mean? For a long time, there has been something about it--about what seem to be its social implications as it is usually promoted--that rubs me the wrong way.

It's not as though the United States has to be introduced to the idea that it is possible for a variety of people from a diverse array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds to live and work together in relative peace and harmony. There is no place on the planet as diverse and as relatively peaceful as the United States. It is one of our greatest identifying qualities that makes the U.S. special and unique. Just about everywhere else, significant differences of culture and ethnicity placed in close regular contact results in major strife and even violence.

There was a moment when this was made especially evident to me. It was while riding the Staten Island Ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island (at the time I was living on Staten Island and rode the ferry regularly to get to Manhattan). I surveyed the people around me on the ferry one day and I became suddenly amazed at how extraordinarily diverse the people on just that one, single ferry, truly were. That one ferry-load of people was a veritable United Nations of cultures. I'm not just talking about two or three. I'm talking probably a dozen, at least, different ethnic heritages were present on that one boat. People from seemingly every continent and every corner of the world. I'll bet there were easily 12--probably more--native languages spoken among the few hundred or so people. I was awestruck for a moment and thought to myself, nowhere but here--in the United States--could such an incredibly wide spectrum of people be together peacefully in one place and not only this, but that it might be a normal, everyday occurrence, so much so that no one particularly notices.

Sure, there are places in the world where different peoples live in proximity and intermingle regularly. But the sheer magnitude of the number of different heritages and the breadth of their diversity that is found frequently in American cities is unique to the United States. Nobody holds a candle to us on this front. We are human history's greatest living example of the peaceful coexistence of a vast multiplicity and diversity of cultures.

In light of this fact, what on earth is all this hubbub in the last 20 or so years of so-called "multiculturalism"?

I suspect that the term, "multiculturalism," is not meant merely to express positive sentiments about the peaceful and respectful coexistence of peoples of many cultures. If this were all it meant, it would be somewhat redundant; it would simply be a synonym for, "The United States of America." (And yes, I know that our history is not devoid of serious social clashes among us. But taking everything in our history into account we are still far, far more advanced on this than anywhere else).

So what, in the American context (the most diverse place on earth), is meant by this relatively new term, this supposedly new emphasis? What is implied in this term that is new or different from simply how America, on the whole, has been since our earliest days? What explains the perceived need for its use?

In the past, when people from other cultures settled in the United States, they desired to become American. They still had ties and maintained certain practices and customs from the places of their heritage. But, after making it here, they did not desire to remain associated above all else with the places from which they had come. Primarily, they wanted to be associated with being, simply, American. Living as and being an American was primary. Yes, secondarily, they were still Irish, or Italian, or German, or Vietnamese, or Korean, etc. Those things were not gone. They were still important. But they were no longer the most important thing about who they were. They were Americans first, and then (significantly, importantly, yet secondarily) Italian, Irish, etc.Would such people--our great-grandparents--be called multicultural by today's promoters of this idea?

I don't think they would. And here is the problem. Why not? "Multiculturalism" in today's lingo seems to imply that one ought to maintain your ethnic and cultural heritage as your primary identity and allegiance (especially if your heritage is from somewhere other than Western Europe). Your primary, personal, interior, psychological identity and highest value, in this view, is decidedly not placed upon American culture or being American. Rather, multiculturalism encourages a disregard for America as a singularly unique and special culture in its own right and puts in its place an allegiance to a (oftentimes, I suspect, more fantasy than real) largely imaginary bond to an overly romanticized notion of one's cultural heritage.

Why is this bad? Ironically, it creates division rather than unity. The older approach did not disregard the special and unique value of many aspects of one's own cultural heritage (though at times people were probably too quick to distance themselves from all of the particularly singular aspects of their cultural heritage). But, their continued identity as being a part of a unique heritage which is Italian, German, Cambodian, etc., was placed in second place to becoming and embracing life as an American. In other words, they were still Italian, but, willingly transformed by the unique set of values which are the foundational values of America. It seems to me that "multiculturalism" no longer even cares to recognize that there is such a thing as an American culture and values in itself. Rather, it seems to want us to maintain divisions among ourselves along ethnic-cultural lines to such an extent that there could be no other option but to live in a kind of lowest-common-denominator equality in separate enclaves. If there is no overarching culture which unites us together, how can the great melting pot which is America still be a single pot, with all the flavors coming together in harmony? The direction of multiculturalism's thrust does not envision different cultures coming together making one single, unified community (i.e. America, as based on founding American values). Rather, it seems to envision lots of small pots each with their own ingredients, never mingling together as one.

So, that's my issue (one, anyways) with so-called multiculturalism. I'm all for the ideal of many diverse cultures living together in peace and harmony and mutual respect, mutually benefiting from each other's rich cultural treasures. But if we are to do this in the context of the United States of America, it ought to be done in such a way that we truly come together under the big tent of shared values that are specifically American values. To the extent that multiculturalism does not support this (and may in fact even be hostile to this), I am of the opinion that rather than being a good thing, it is (as it is actually promoted) a cancer, instilling a potentially lethal sickness into our nation. This is a sickness that divides and pulls us apart in the name of "diversity."

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