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The Culture Wars

At the same time, Bernstein is rather quick to take offense when he senses an affront to his own beliefs. He attacks, for example, the National Gallery’s exhibition Circa 1492, which displayed artifacts representative of the state of world culture in the year of Columbus’s voyage, on grounds that it “refused to make any judgment about the greater historical significance of the West, even though it was the West that was … demonstrating itself to be the most dynamic and Promethean of the world’s great civilizations.” This strikes me as applying the same sort of political test to art and history that Bernstein deplores when it is done in the name of multiculturalism. Still, one reason for writing a book on this subject is that opinion is unsettled, so other readers may find themselves in greater sympathy with Bernstein’s instincts than I did.

Bernstein is not just collecting stories, however. He has a thesis, which is that we are being threatened by “a growing multicultural bureaucracy”—of diversity trainers, college deans, organized feminists, experts on Afrocentric curricula, educational counselors, arts administrators, and what he calls “the academic club of the New Consciousness,” people who are peddling not a simple appreciation of diversity, but “a radical political ideology.” “Multiculturalism is a movement of the left,” he says, “emerging from the counterculture of the 1960s.” It demonizes white heterosexual men and condemns Western culture as racist, sexist, and imperialist, while claiming all manner of imaginary virtue for non-Western, non-patriarchal, and minority cultures. This ideology, Bernstein argues, represents the perversion of the principles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the same way that Robespierre represented the perversion of the principles of the Revolution of 1789.

I don’t think the counterculture had a thing to do with it, but I think Bernstein is right to regard multiculturalism as both an extension of and a reaction against the American liberation movements of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay liberation movement were about equity: they based their moral appeal on the principles of liberty and equality that democracies are committed to uphold—the right to vote, to have equal access to educational and economic opportunity, to live where one chooses, and so forth. Those equity movements have not been fully successful, particularly in the case of gay Americans; but, as Bernstein insists repeatedly, they have transformed American life.

Multiculturalism, though, is not about equity. It’s about culture. Its moral appeal is based on the feeling of many women and gay and non-white Americans that although legal barriers to equality may have been largely removed, cultural barriers remain. When, in the 1970s and 1980s, women and African Americans started showing up in professional settings like newsrooms and universities, they were entering environments that had been overwhelmingly white and male not for decades, or for generations, but forever. In many cases, I think it’s fair to say, they encountered an attitude that said, in effect, “We attach not the slightest racial or sexual significance to the ways we have of doing things, and we don’t see why you should either. Those ways work fine for us, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t work just as well for you. So you can check your race and gender at the door (or, if you prefer, across the quad at our brand-new race and gender studies centers, where we would not dream of disturbing you). Welcome to the club.”

But many people in these non-traditional groups felt that the old ways were racially and sexually self-serving—or, at a minimum, were oblivious of the interests and perspectives other people might have—and that they amounted to a subtle form of exclusion which antidiscrimination policies of the civil rights type could do very little to remedy. Some people came to believe, in fact, that it was precisely rights like “one man, one vote” and freedom of speech—rights that had been so crucial to progress in the equity era—that were blocking the path to true equality now, since they protected people whose views were discriminatory, and since women and members of racial minorities, though now at last significantly present, were still invariably outnumbered. The frustration—mixed, as Bernstein says, with anti-liberal ideologies inherited from earlier radicalisms—has fueled an assault on virtually everything in American culture associated with heterosexual white men as racist, sexist, and homophobic, and has led to the climate of aggravation that moved Bernstein to write this book.

I think it was inevitable that new groups entering the professional culture would ask, about the standards and the mores and the “great books” they found already in place there, “Why are these things good for us?” And I think that a culture that cannot answer this question reasonably and persuasively, or see that there are indeed other ways of doing things and other books to talk about, is not a culture entirely worth defending. But I agree with Bernstein that this questioning has been the excuse for the promulgation of a shallow, reflexive, self-righteous political orthodoxy.

I think he is correct in complaining that the multiculturalist call for “diversity” is often accompanied by rigid intolerance for diversity of opinion. I agree, as well, that efforts to suspend the principles of free speech and due process in the name of “politically correct” outcomes are destructive both to the people they victimize and to the people who pursue them. As a merely practical matter, the fish caught in the nets of “speech codes” are (like Penn’s water buffalo man) invariably absurdly small; and the notion that the first thing to do upon hearing an offensive remark is to run and report the matter to a dean does not exactly prepare students for life in an open society, in which deans and sensitivity trainers are not available to silence speakers we find obnoxious. What is more dangerous, though, is the abandonment of the principle of free expression itself, which is designed precisely to protect minority opinion, and which it is fatal to compromise simply because one temporarily has the upper hand politically. The censor always rings twice.

And I think, like Bernstein, that the multiculturalist categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation are deeply factitious as accounts of identity, and that the self-conception they teach to students when they are presented in this monolithic form is pernicious. They sponsor an interest-group politics that is fundamentally inimical to the notion of a commonweal; they repeat exactly the biologically determinist accounts of character they pretend, in their attacks on racism and sexism, to be supplanting; and they promote a medicinal view of culture, by which art and literature can be judged according to whether they are politically “good” or “bad” for you.

Bernstein doesn’t just want to criticize this militant brand of multiculturalism, though. He wants to persuade us that it has become, as he puts it, “the dominant ideology of the late twentieth century.” He thinks that multiculturalism is now the belief system of the baby-boomer “elite,” people who first soured on American values in the 1960s. He wants us to believe that our cultural life is now being run largely by doctrinaire multiculturalists and their bureaucratic facilitators and epigones, and that these people have succeeded in intimidating their critics and in chilling the expression of contradictory views.

This sort of claim is not only a matter of opinion. It requires evidence, and not just of isolated cases. Bernstein has certainly found cases of unjust treatment, of tendentiously politicized curricula, of herd thinking on multicultural issues, and there are undoubtedly many he hasn’t reported on. Even when his sense of what sort of behavior is objectionable seems inadequate, he is right to perceive, in the responses to that behavior, a pattern of prejudging.

One of his stories, for example, a more detailed version of which appeared earlier this year in these pages,1 concerns the disciplining of a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire, named J. Donald Silva, who was accused of sexual harassment for making bantering remarks with a sexual innuendo (none of which were intended or interpreted as advances) to female students. Two features of the case stand out. The first is the kangaroo nature of the proceedings: Silva was at first suspended by his dean without any investigation at all, and after he was reinstated, following a grievance proceeding, the prosecution of his case was turned over to the head of the school’s Affirmative Action Office, who named a panel consisting of people (including two students) she herself had trained. Silva was not permitted to have his own lawyer. This sort of “hearing,” conducted by members of the university community most interested in silencing those who are skeptical of or resistant to their goals, is a procedure Bernstein has found elsewhere, notably at Penn.

The second significant aspect of the UNH case involves the punishment meted out. This included “counseling sessions,” to be paid for by Silva, with “a licensed and certified counselor selected by the University.” The order dictating Silva’s initial suspension specified that these sessions be with a “psychotherapist.” Bernstein does not tell us what the sessions would have consisted of if Silva had agreed to attend them. But he is right to object to the notion that lapses of what is currently considered appropriate speech (Silva is in his late fifties) must be symptoms of some “condition” for which the invasive procedure of psychotherapy is appropriate. Some people are obnoxious. In a university or any other workplace, a certain degree of cultivated obnoxiousness can be a legitimate cause for intervention. But compelling people to expose their innermost feelings and beliefs to approved experts as a way of punishing them for their offensiveness, or of “treating” them so that they may become more acceptable members of the group, is a violation of their autonomy.

Still, Bernstein is doing more than compiling stories. He is claiming the existence of a systematic and widespread effort to silence dissent, and so he tries to show us not just that various professors and personnel managers and performance artists are spreading the multiculturalist virus, but that the media and some national cultural organizations are complicit in furthering their agenda. The purpose of all his reporting was, clearly, to provide this evidence; but I found Bernstein’s way with the facts a little troubling.

In 1993, The New York Times ran a front-page story under the headline: “Rare in Ivy League: Women Who Work As Full Professors.” The article surveys the professional situation of academic women nationally and in the Ivy League in particular, and it notes dissatisfaction with the promotion rate of women and reports some of the reasons people have suggested for it, including “subtle discrimination” and a kind of institutional hostility to women in formerly all-male academies. “The Times presented all of this as established truth rather than the debatable propositions that they are,” Bernstein charges, and he goes on to provide his own numbers to demonstrate that the overall employment figures for female professors are consistent with the rate at which women have been awarded doctorates since 1970. “Since it takes twenty years or so to rise up the academic ranks to be a full professor,” he argues, “the representation of women at that level does not seem, contrary to the Times report, to be due to obstacles to advancement.”

  1. 1

    Guilty If Charged,” The New York Review, January 13, 1994, pp. 11-13.

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