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…

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