The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding

On Toleration

by Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 126 pp., $16.50

We Are All Multiculturalists Now

by Nathan Glazer
Harvard University Press, 179 pp., $19.95

Have you noticed that “culture”—the word—has been getting a heavy work-out recently? Anthropologists, of course, have used it zealously for over a century; though the term’s active life in literature and politics began long before that. But some current ways in which the concept of culture has been put to use would have surprised even mid-century readers; especially the idea that everything from anorexia to zydeco is illuminated by being displayed as the product of some group’s culture. It’s got to the point that when you hear the word “culture,” you reach for your dictionary.

Culture’s main competitor in its kudzu-like progression is “diversity,” a favorite now of corporate and educational CEOs, politicians, and pundits. And “cultural diversity” brings the two together. Is it not, indeed, one of the most pious of the pieties of our age that the United States is a society of enormous cultural diversity? And isn’t Nathan Glazer right to say, in his new book We Are All Multiculturalists Now, that “multiculturalism is just the latest in [a] sequence of terms describing how American society, particularly American education, should respond to its diversity”?

Well, yes, and yes, of course. American diversity is easily granted and so is the need of a response to that diversity. But what isn’t so clear is that it is our cultural diversity that deserves attention.

Let’s begin with a place where the idea of somebody’s culture really does explain something. When Jews from the shtetl and Italians from the villaggio arrived at Ellis Island, they brought with them a rich mixture we call culture. That is, they brought a language and stories and songs and sayings; they transplanted a religion with specific rituals, beliefs, and traditions, a cuisine of a certain hearty peasant quality and distinctive modes of dress; and they came with particular ideas about family life. It was often reasonable for their new neighbors to ask what these first-generation immigrants were doing, and why; and a sensible answer would frequently have been, “It’s an Italian thing, a Jewish thing,” or, simply, “It’s their culture.”

It is striking how much of this form of difference has disappeared. Nearly a decade ago the Harvard sociologist Mary Waters argued persuasively in Ethnic Options that the rich immigrant gumbo had become thin gruel. There are still seders and nuptial masses, still gefilte fish and spaghetti, but how much does an Italian name tell you, these days, about church attendance, or knowledge of Italian, or tastes in food or spouses? Even Jews, whose status as a small non-Christian group in an overwhelmingly Christian society might have been expected to keep their “difference” in focus, are getting harder to identify as a cultural group. (At the seder I go to every Passover, nearly half of those in attendance are gentiles.)

One way—the old way—of describing what has happened would be to say that the families that arrived during the turn-of-the-century …

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Letters

The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding’ March 5, 1998