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Multiculturalism as Problem ?

". . . man is indebted to man." 

– Robert Green Ingersoll, quoted by Lewis Lapham in

Pretensions to Empire:  Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration

              When some years ago first its prototype began, then Essaying Differences,  I had in mind the many others of the world where neighboring peoples had traditional hatreds for each other.  I saw the U. S. as alternative to rutted imaginations elsewhere.   The U.S. and its schools, I thought, posed ways for others out of their historical ruts.

              I could indulge such fancy as I took for granted the good of multiculturalism in American society and its schools.  Just as the founders of rock'n'roll had for fifty years proven the dynamisms of cultural borrowings – so many genres informing each other – so, I supposed, had our schools been mixing more awareness and respect for all our cultures:  Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Gay, feminist, whatever.  I imagined these virtues throughout our corporate, institutional life.

              Wrong.  When I returned from my eleven years in Hungary and neighboring countries of eastern and central Europe, I saw how American schools showed none of the borrowings and quotings of those who had infused our blues, Dixieland, jazz, barbershop, big band, gospel, country, folk, and Broadway show tunes.  True, multiculturalism was in our schools, but instead of serving interconnections, at every level it fed only niche interests further withdrawing into their own specialist departments, all quite normally isolated from each other, as their parallel departments across corporate academe.  Some called it silo culture – all set apart in tubes, like office workers in their cubicles.  Instead of connections, all hummed away in service to those at the top – our administrative rich insulated for their bonuses, benefit packages, retirement options, and golden parachutes.

              An American academic has now written a book against the multiculturalism by which he sees his fellow academics having been lulling their students and themselves:  The Trouble with Diversity:  How we Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

              Walter Benn Michaels in this book deprecates our multicultural specializations, because all of them build upon one continual set of mutual self-congratulations.  Dedicated as these diversity niches are to all being entitled to, set in, and respected for each's respective comfort zone, everyone thus learns to ignore "others," which also fuels our ever-growing anathema to seeing, let alone discussing, the ever-widening chasms of class and economic inequalities now taking over America.

              The bane of our current diversity studies – the siren song of multiculturalism – according to Michaels, is that it accedes to an ethics which excuses and blinds all to the exploitations and inequalities debasing our public life.  The rich get richer – much richer – and multiculturalism excuses this, as if "the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people elook down' on you."  Multiculturalism, he says, aims to make everybody, especially the minimum wage, part-timer, and working poor settle for their niches, while the consumer delivery machinery of corporate America profits by sugar-coating everybody deeper into their entitlement conceits.  Thus feminism has sunk to an imagination so beyond economic reality that its exponents can treat as equals the corporate woman with her grievances while earning more than $1,000,000 per year and the Wal-Mart woman barely making $10,000.  Both, according to current women's studies criteria, reach their apparently similar glass ceilings and thus reduce to the same narrative for modern feminists.

              Michaels wants to enlarge such imaginations to account also for the actual economic situations people inhabit – apart from the feel-good pabulum vested in our multicultural diversity specialists.  He could have written a similar book attacking similar tunnel vision enthusiasts, this other book focusing not on economic and class myopias but on our parallel reluctance against seeing the damages our culture routinely and massively inflicts on our environment.  He could have written still another book on how this same, self-congratulatory culture of ours prevents us from seeing the extents of hatreds we brew around the world, where for (again) their own short-term profits our leaders have us subsidizing, arming, and propping up the worst dictatorships in the world.

              Michaels admits, in a concluding chapter about himself and his own economic interests, that he, too, is a sinecured academic.  But he doesn't need a chapter to admit this.  It shows in his writing:  not once in the book does he refer specifically to any individual in his classrooms or in his life.  He comes close, twice.  First, he describes a talk he gave at Harvard University, where he acknowledged the unique economics of those in his audience (he polled them).  The upshot of this information:  that what SAT scores measure is not so much the intelligence of those taking these standardized tests, as the family income all otherwise take for granted.  Second, he mentions some person (or persons, it's not clear) who lifts his own household income from the $175,000 attributable to him to $250,000 thus totally his household's.

              The Trouble with Diversity may lack specific people in Michaels' own classrooms and life, but it does have an abundance of cultural citations.  Throughout it are:

The Turner Diaries
Thomas Watson's The Jeffersonian
Tom Wolfe's
I Am Charlotte Simmons
Sinclair Lewis' 1935  It Can't Happen Here
Cornel West     Rush Limbaugh     Samuel P. Huntington
Art Spiegelman's Maus      Philip Roth's
The Plot Against America
Thomas Dixon's 1905 The Clansman      D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X     David Mamet & Steve Olney on Leo Frank
Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead     David Duke on Ted Koppel's
U.S. government reports     U.S. newspaper articles     U.S. newspaper op ed pieces
Oprah Winfrey     Lionel Trilling     Jonathan Safran Foer     Michael Chabon
Toni Morrison's Beloved     Charles Chestnutt's
The Marrow of Tradition

              Michaels may deserve some credit for his quoting widely, except that his references come almost exclusively from literary sources.  They show him limited, a specialist – the professor of English he is.  And specialists, in corporate academe or other parts of institutional life, reveal themselves by such restricted range.  They reveal themselves, too, by the "professional" impersonality all learn, along with the flow chart skills, vertical logic (never digressive or horizontal), and other aspects of niche, modular organization (all these ideally fit to the heavy, expensive, video-unit-linked corporate textbooks and standardized tests also taking over corporate academe).

Walter Benn Michaels would betray himself and his career as a specialist would he attempt wider reference, would he risk citations and examples from among the non-literary yet otherwise living parts of our culture.  Specialization in the world of books precludes that.  All specializations work the same way, inflict the same damages.  Robert McNamara could no more breathe the living air of Vietnam when as U.S. secretary of defense he waged war there than could Donald Rumsfeld sense the actual cultures of Iraq when he a generation later was making war there.  Corporate minds may be bright and brilliant, but none admit living people, let alone how actual humanity always comes in heavily-styled forms of food, clothing, transport, landscape architecture, and buildings and their interiors.  Only once in The Trouble with Diversity does Walter Benn Michaels note anything as to his students and their culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  This comes when he says they all self-consciously exhibit pride in what they see as their cultural differences, all owing, they think, to biology and skin color.  But Michaels sees these imagined differences as fanciful.  His students deceive themselves imagining their diversity as, "speaking the same language, wearing the same clothes, reading the same books, they all seem to me to belong to the same culture."

              In the epigraph heading this Proprietor's Column I have quoted Robert Green Ingersoll's aphorism, "man is indebted to man."  Lewis Lapham put this quintet of words as part of more from Ingersoll that he used in his own new book this recent month, Pretensions to Empire:  Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration.  Ingersoll, back in the era of Mark Twain and the robber barons, like Twain excoriated those who used religious pieties to cover their thievery and recklessness.  Lapham similarly turns on today's Bush and his crowd for their exploitation of America's religious right.  He often quotes Bush's frequent references to God, as if the aim for God's purposes may let one ignore those actual living souls Ingersoll termed "man."

              Walter Benn Michaels may not be primarily indebted to God, as some saints may be, as Bush feigns to be.  But his writing shows him not indebted, either, to living people.  The Trouble with Diversity shows him indebted to logic – to the display of confidence, serenity, and aplomb which his happily-admitted careerism and wealth entail.

              For his views, however, I like Michaels – and Lapham, Ingersoll, and Twain.  But more than good book stuff, I like the mix of the human.  Or, I should say, I like the human when it does not subordinate to abstraction.  To me all abstractions begin to smell (at best) of paper, a lessening, whether from those on our pious right, or those of our nice lefties in their academic specializations.

              When years ago I began Essaying Differences, I imagined it for others, not us good Americans.  We, after all, had rock'n'roll – sufficient evidence for me then of what I imagined as our interactive, shuffling, and re-shuffling cultures.  I was wrong.  Cultures may sometimes serve us well.  They may also blind and inoculate us.  I had no idea back then that American cultures might be swallowed-up, Body Snatchered, by our juggernaut of corporate, institutional interests.  I thank Walter Benn Michaels for how he says this juggernaut blinds us to our growing class chasms and economic inequalities.  It blinds us, too, as he does not say, to the damages our sprawl, consumerism, and military culture inflicts on all the world.  And it reduces us, as he shows by his own fealty to his bookish comfort zone, to our own reduced zones where we, too, lose the abilities to see how indebted we are to others, how much "man is indebted to man."

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