[This book review appeared in the Mar/Apr 1995 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 35-7.]
Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future
By Richard Bernstein
Alfred A. Knopf, 1994
367 pages, $25,00, hardback
The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society
By Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
W. W. Norton & Company, 1992
160 pages, $14.95, hardback
Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey
In American universities today, an intensely human struggle is being waged that is not at all unlike that which occurred in the universities of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. The apostles of an alternative worldview, imbued with all the force of a self-righteous morality and angry fanaticism, insist that their view be imposed on all; and for this purpose they seek to impose a totalitarian-like consensus through a ubiquitous pattern of intolerance and control: the rewriting of textbooks, the restructuring of courses, the reeducation of those who act contrary to their dictates, and the ostracism of anyone who disagrees.
In Weimar Germany it was the Nazis and the Communists who sought totalitarian dominance. In the United States today, it is the alienated Left. I almost wrote “the proponents of multiculturalism,” but that is too limited and loses historical perspective. The Left in the United States has on three occasions shown its totalitarian propensity: in the early 1930s when many of its intellectuals saw their way clear, under cover of the Depression, openly to embrace Communism; in the late 1960s when radicals like Herbert Marcuse called for the suppression of an open marketplace of ideas on the ground that such freedom is in fact a form of “repressive tolerance”; and today when radical multiculturalists rule our intellectual elite with a combination of intense hostility and a myth of victimization. It is a mistake to see these three episodes as entirely separate; each has fed the next, and together they serve as windows into the very soul of the Left.
In each of the conflicts between an open society and a totalitarian movement going back as far as the French Revolution, there have been many stalwart individuals who have stood up courageously for an open society. Included among these have been the countless “conservatives” or “classical liberals” who have defended the main corpus of the society against the totalitarian assaults. Within the intellectual culture that has served as the source of the totalitarian impulse, however, such people have been though irrelevant—and treated as almost invisible—precisely because they support the mainstream culture that the movement so profoundly hates.
Much more effective—because it is more difficult to consign them to irrele- vancy—have been those who have shared in the animus against the mainstream but have come finally to see the horrors of the totalitarian impulse. It is those who champion the open society after having “heard the screams,” as Whittaker Chambers once did while visiting Moscow, who for the most part make the most effective opponents of totalitarianism. They are such people as John Dos Passos, J. B. Matthews, William Henry Chamberlin, Eliseo Vivas, Eugene Lyons, Max Eastman, James Burnham, Freda Utley, Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Irving Kristol, William S. Schlamm, Will Herberg, Louis Fischer, Philip Abbott Luce, and many others.
Somewhat distinguishable from these are the thinkers on the Left who have repudiated totalitarianism while believing in both social democracy and an open society. In this genre, Richard Bernstein, author of the first of the books being reviewed, cites “such giants as Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, and others.”
Both of the books being reviewed are by authors who belong to this latter category. Bernstein and Schlesinger each take pains to make it clear that they are not conservatives. Therein lies both the great strength of each book and its fundamental insufficiency. Bernstein’s and Schlesinger’s are among the more eloquent voices against the suffocating atmosphere of today’s multiculturalism. Within universities where what a conservative says is totally ignored, their voices will potentially be the most effective among the great majority of faculty, many of whom find the totalitarian impulse abhorrent but would never be willing to appear conservative.
The insufficiency—which is itself of vital importance—is that each author’s social democratic proclivities lead him to believe that the problem lies entirely in the excesses of those who would take multiculturalism too far and not in the fact of vast immigration. If the ideas were more moderate, they say, America could hold to an assimilationist model, bringing the new millions into a common culture of liberal democracy that would “shed ancient prejudices.”
This deserves serious consideration because it involves a fundamental and very dangerous error. It is true that most of the immigrants themselves come to this country wanting to share in the freedom we enjoy and the fruits that can be reaped from effort within it. This would point toward assimilation. But two truths fly in the face of it: First, historical experience provides virtually no example of a society that has successfully brought widely disparate together into a harmonious composite. Rather than “sweetness and light,” the probability is far greater that there will be intense divisions and animosities, with all the incurable horrors that those can entail. Second, it is important to note that the apostles of American balkanization would have no chance to carry out their hate-the-West agenda in the absence of vast immigration. That immigration is a sine qua non of their politics and ideology, since they count on it as the soil in which their alienation can flourish. Bernstein and Schlesinger are foolish to suppose that the radical Left will somehow evaporate and will no longer contend for dominance among the Third World masses that they are willing to see continue to come to this country. At best, what they propose is a desperate gamble, with America’s future at stake.
Before I conclude this review, though, let me point once again to the positive contribution that each book makes. I have said that each author is eloquent in his opposition to multiculturalist ideology. We need a more concrete grasp of each book’s merits than I have so far conveyed.
Schlesinger, for example, is splendid when he observes that a nation lives by the myths its people share, and accordingly opposes the attack that is being made on all American icons. Along the same lines, he sees that a common language is essential, and so opposes the bilingualism that fosters separatism. And here is his summary of multiculturalist ideology: “The cult of ethnicity exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization.”
Bernstein, a reporter for the New York Times who spent several years with Time magazine, is often equally insightful, but his book has an additional merit in that it gives factual detail about many of the specifics of the multiculturalist excesses. Without those specifics, the ideology is able to hide behind its protestations that “all we want is more diversity and tolerance.” The specifics show that these protestations are a camouflage, and that what really lies behind the movement is a thrust for power, combined with a thorough-going hatred for mainstream American life and for the West in general.
Among the many specifics told by Bernstein is the story of the recent fight at the University of Texas. There, Professor Alan Gribben, a specialist in Mark Twain, became the hero (or, as the Left prefers, the villain) of a bitter struggle over whether the 40% of freshmen students who had not tested out of freshman composition should be subjected to a course that, losing sight of all interest in teaching composition, was to have been a blatant indoctrination in anti-Western multiculturalism. Gribben had already made himself the subject of ostracism, meager pay raises, and hate mail because a couple of years earlier he had cast the lone vote against a proposed master’s program in “ethnic and Third World literatures.”
The proposal for the course called for having the students read the civil rights decisions of the United States Supreme Court, supplemented by a single book, Paula Rothenberg’s Racism and Sexism: An Integrated Study. Rothenberg herself wrote that “one assumption of this book is that racism and sexism pervade American culture.” It would seem natural enough, in any normal academic setting, that members of the faculty would suggest, as a bare minimum, opening the course to a variety of subjects, not just this one, and would also suggest that at least one additional supplemental readings book be used to present a contrasting viewpoint. But when Professor Gribben and others made these obvious suggestions, they were treated as virtual fascists for doing so. A philosophy professor, in an article, wrote of “the reactionary right” and “a well-orchestrated right-wing offensive.” To Gribben, this must have seemed awfully strange, since he had been, according to Bernstein, “a campus leftist during his graduate-student days at Berkeley.” It doesn’t take much dissent to be a pariah by the intolerant Left. Things eventually became so bad for Gribben that he left his beloved University of Texas and took a faculty position in Alabama.
Bernstein’s telling of such events gives flesh-and-bone to what otherwise might seem an abstraction. We need to know just what the totalitarianism involves, in human terms. Some hope springs from an account like the one about the University of Texas, since it shows us that, amid all of the intolerance and excess, there are scholars who, even though they may at one time themselves have made common cause with the radical Left, are willing to stand up for the values that best typify a university and an open society.