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The Culture Wars

Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future

by Richard Bernstein
Knopf, 367 pp., $25.00

Richard Bernstein is a reporter for The New York Times, where he was, for four years, national cultural correspondent. In 1991, he went on leave from the paper in order to research and write this book. Dictatorship of Virtue is an analysis of the phenomenon known as “multiculturalism,” informed by a wide range of examples. Bernstein was a witness to some of the incidents he describes; when he was not, he conducted interviews with people involved, followed press accounts, and dug up collateral material. A large number of his stories concern, as one would expect, educational institutions; but he has found evidence of what he regards as multiculturalist thinking in workplaces, museums, government agencies, and the press as well. Very little in the book is presented merely anecdotally or—even in the case of stories already widely publicized—at second-hand, from some other journalist’s account. Almost everything bears the stamp of fresh and unusually detailed reporting.

At the same time, Bernstein is entirely forthright about his own views. He editorializes freely throughout, and he is quite frank about his opinion of multiculturalism. This can be described by saying that he compares it three times to Soviet totalitarianism, three times to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and four times to the Terror (to which, of course, his title is an allusion). He is quick to note, in each case, that multiculturalism is not on the same scale as these other atrocities. On the other hand, they are pretty much the only analogies he draws.

There is a very broad sense in which almost everyone today (or almost everyone likely to be a reader of Bernstein’s book) is some kind of a multiculturalist, and this includes Bernstein himself, who expresses his respect for cultural diversity and his support for programs like affirmative action. In this most inclusive sense, multiculturalism means something like the following: a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation should be noticed when the difference noticing it would make is a positive one, but it should not be noticed when the difference noticing it would make is negative.

Many people feel, for example, that it is a good thing for one of the justices on the United States Supreme Court (assuming he or she is qualified in every other respect) to be African American, on grounds that an African American is likely, for obvious historical reasons, to have a special perspective on constitutional issues, and it is important for that perspective to be represented on the Court. But if someone were to refer negatively to an opinion written by this justice as “an African-American perspective on the law,” most people would consider the remark offensive, since it would mean noticing race in a way that implies an accusation of bias—even though “bias” was, in a sense, exactly what that justice was expected to contribute to the Court’s deliberations.

It’s easy to see how distinctions of this sort can get people tied up in knots, and how quickly disputes over them can become sophistical, since one person’s idea of a positive recognition of difference (“It’s great to have a woman on the team!”) can be someone else’s idea of sexism. Many of the celebrated controversies in the vast journalistic literature on multiculturalism arose out of this kind of confusion. Eden Jacobowitz, the University of Pennsylvania student accused of racial harassment for calling a group of African- American women whose noise was disturbing him “water buffalo,” explained that the term was not racist because it was an approximate translation of a Hebrew word, beheymah (Jacobowitz was born in Israel), which he would have shouted just as readily if the students bothering him had been white. He regarded himself, in other words, as an equal-opportunity offender. The women he yelled at (understandably, I think) regarded him differently.

The water buffalo case would be much simpler, really, if Jacobowitz had said the term had a racial connotation and defended his right to use it anyway. For once it is clear that Jacobowitz is not a racist, the case falls immediately into the multicultural quicksand: since the women were African American, should Jacobowitz have thought twice about using an expression that might be construed as racially offensive? Or would that have meant noticing the women’s race “negatively,” by treating them differently from noise-makers who were not African American? Was it more insensitive to care about the race of the people annoying him or not to care about it? And if a remark is taken as racist, is it ipso facto a racist remark? There are no legally meaningful answers to hypotheticals of this kind; and although Jacobowitz was given a rather hard time about an incident that seems to have been blown absurdly out of proportion—an official of something called the Judicial Inquiry Office at Penn pressed him to settle the complaint by, among other things, presenting a “program for living in a diverse community environment”—the charges against him were ultimately dropped.

Universities seem to have a special talent for dealing with these disputes in the most ham-handed way imaginable. But you don’t have to be a student or a dean to feel bombarded by them. You only have to turn on the television. Was it legitimate for Clarence Thomas to “play the race card” after listening to Anita Hill’s testimony against him? Was Hill justified in feeling “sexually harassed” by the behavior she alleged? Is it inappropriate to raise the subject of race in a discussion of the O.J. Simpson case? Would the first Rodney King jury have let the officers off if King had been a white man? If Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio” photographs are objectionable, is it because they depict sexual acts, or because they depict homosexual acts, or because they depict sado-masochistic homosexual acts? Exactly how solicitous are we supposed to be about the self-esteem of sado-masochists?

These are possibly questions a society with a lot of other problems shouldn’t be quite so obsessed with. But we’re obsessed with them anyway, and the consequence is a nearly complete lack of consensus about what’s tolerant and fair and what’s fanatical and “politically correct”; about what’s legitimate criticism or distaste and what’s racist, sexist, or homophobic; about what’s an excellent pickup line and what’s grounds for a lawsuit. It’s not just that people don’t want to get hauled up before some disciplinary tribunal for what they thought was a perfectly innocent remark; it’s also that people honestly don’t want to give offense when none is intended (and also, I suppose, want to be sure that they have given offense when it is intended), and they would like to know just where reasonable people think the line ought to be drawn.

The credibility of a book about multiculturalism depends to a considerable extent, therefore, on the author’s instinct for distinguishing the innocuous from the objectionable—or, perhaps more often, the objectionable from the more objectionable. Readers not already confident of their own instincts in these matters need to feel that the writer sees the merits in the cases he discusses in roughly the way they would see them, and that he won’t excuse offensive behavior just because the response to that behavior is also offensive. I think my attitude toward multiculturalism’s claims to represent a cogent and useful educational and social philosophy is fairly skeptical, but I had a very hard time entering into Bernstein’s sense of some of the situations he describes.

Bernstein is generally interested in cases in which people seem to have overreacted to inadvertent, misunderstood, or trivial affronts to their self-esteem. But his idea of what constitutes overreaction is sometimes hard to credit because his idea of what constitutes an affront seems rather limited. He tells us, in his opening pages, about an editorial run by the Philadelphia Inquirer proposing to decrease the number of poor, specifically black children by offering welfare mothers added benefits if they agree to use a contraceptive called Norplant, which makes women infertile for five years. Bernstein regards this rather eugenicist and racially targeted proposition as “the normal expression of opinion,” and he cannot understand why both black and white reporters became extremely upset about it,and why the paper decided to run an apology.

Elsewhere, he discusses the case of a teacher of legal studies, named Murray Dolfman, at the University of Pennsylvania, who asked his class which amendment to the Constitution deals with the matter of involuntary servitude, and, when no one answered, remarked that if anyone should know, the black students should. “He then,” according to the school’s report on the matter, “asked the black students in the class, individually and seriatim, if they could recite the 13th amendment. When none could do so, Mr. Dolfman asked one black student to stand and read the amendment out loud. Mr. Dolfman then expressed surprise that while he, as a Jew and a ‘former slave,’ celebrated Passover, the black students, whom he likewise called ‘former slaves,’ or ‘ex-slaves,’ did not celebrate the passage of the 13th amendment.”

Bernstein regards this as something that “could certainly be seen as a lapse of judgment,” mitigated by the fact that Dolfman “had, as it were, made common cause with the black students” by identifying himself as a “former slave” as well. But the whole episode seems grotesque. You ought not to call on individual students, chosen by the color of their skin, to recite a text they have already told you they cannot even identify. And it is obviously entirely disingenuous to express surprise at the fact that black Americans do not “celebrate” the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which does not, after all, say a word about race, and which did not exactly lead African Americans to the land of milk and honey). To look at a group of young black Americans and see “ex-slaves” is similarly simple-minded. Involuntary servitude is not part of the family history of every black person in America; these students are, in any event, entitled to adopt whatever intellectual and moral relation to their various pasts they choose. The remark about Passover could easily have been taken to mean, “You people don’t even know your own history.”

The reaction to the Inquirer editorial does not seem to me, even on Bernstein’s account, to have been inappropriate. Among other things, the paper decided to require that editorials on controversial topics be approved in the future by the entire thirteen-member editorial board. Bernstein complains that this gives “veto power to the board’s three black members.” True enough. It also gives veto power to any one of the board’s ten non-black members. In Dolfman’s case, the response by some members of the university community was plainly excessive, with other professors calling for him to be disciplined even before an investigation could be completed, and with a one-semester suspension and “sensitivity and racial awareness sessions” being ordered. But I find it easier than Bernstein does to understand why people became so upset.

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