Challenges to Conservatism

Philadelphia Society, April 28, 2007

It is a pleasure to join you in the city of brotherly love to discuss “challenges to conservatism.” I am confident that quite a lot of brotherly love would need to be expended to arrive at a universally agreeable answer to the quandaries before us. I know plenty of people—including some very smart ones—who will tell you that “globalization” is the one of the biggest threats that conservatism now faces. I know others, some equally percipient, who maintain that globalization is mankind’s, and therefore a fortiori conservatism’s, biggest hope.

Fortunately, I do not have to adjudicate that conflict, though were I asked I would be tempted to say that they might both be right, since what looks like a challenge seen from one point of view can appear as a tonic opportunity from another. In that sense, I suspect, “globalization” is a lot like its primary engine, capitalism, and can be seen as the friend or foe of conservatism depending on what features you choose to stress.

In any event, I have been asked to say a few words about “multiculturalism,” one of those vertiginous concepts—”postmodern” is another—that expand to fill the emptiness of the heads urging its advantages. While it would be hazardous to venture a definition of multiculturalism, it is clear that the word, like the actions undertaken in its name, are deeply implicated in what Lionel Trilling called “the adversary culture of the intellectuals.” It is a diminishing characteristic of modern culture, Trilling wrote, to believe that “the primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture . . . and to permit him to stand beyond it in an autonomy of perception and judgment.”

What Trilling described was a phenomenon that had its roots as far back as Romanticism and the Enlightenment. But in its more recent manifestations what had begun as a reaction to authoritarianism had devolved into a suspicion of all authority, moral and intellectual as well as political. Trilling spoke in this context of a growing “disenchantment of our culture with culture itself and a “bitter line of hostility to civilization.” Multiculturalism is one of those anti-cultural cultural manifestations that Trilling dissected.

Trilling was writing in the early 1960s—in other words, at very moment when when the forces of a new radicalism were poised to sweep like a tsunami through North America and Western Europe, transforming not only our educational institutions but also the moral fabric of our entire society. Those interested in charting the course of this cultural fever will have noticed the prominent place that “multiculturalism” in this lexicon of disenchantment. Moreover, the multicultural agenda has provided common cause and something of a common vocabulary for an array of disciplines and intellectual initiatives that are otherwise distinguished by quite different interests.

Still, partly because it has degenerated into something of a slogan, the term “multiculturalism” is apt to give rise to all manner of misunderstanding. It may be well, then, to begin by distinguishing between the adjective multicultural and the epithet multiculturalism. There is, first of all, the social fact that America, has always been a multicultural and multieth­nic society. Indeed, it is our country’s singular political achievement to have forged a society in which vast religious, ethnic, and racial differences are subordinated to the higher unity of national identity. Hence the traditional defining image of America as a “melting pot.”

The problem comes when this conciliatory vision of a multicultural society gives way to the ideology of multicul­turalism. Here the politics of ethnic and racial redress is allowed to trump the sustaining unity. It has happened before. In the early years of the 20th-century, a wave of ethnic militancy swept the country. Theodore Roosevelt was right to warn at the time that “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin … would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” It is happening again now as the ideology of multicul­turalism sweeps our schools and universities and infiltrates cultural life generally. We have all become familiar with the kinds of foolishness that the demand for multiculturalism and political correctness have brought to our schools and college campuses, the workplace and government agencies.

A quick and incomplete summary includes the denuncia­tion of Western civilization as inextricably racist, sexist, elitist, and patriarchal; it includes, too, the ideology of victimhood, which systematically subordinates educational goals to various exercises in political grievance mongering. The multicultural imperative also stands behind efforts by school and college administrators to enforce speech codes and substitute self-esteem for academic achievement—of attempting, as G. K. Chesterton put it in another context, to change the test rather than pass the test. The recent fiasco involving those unfortunate Duke University lacrosse players provides a suite of examples, as, in another way, does the recent government-back study in Britain showing that more and more teachers there are avoiding subjects—the Holocaust, for example—that they believe might offend Muslim students.

At the center of the multiculturalist ethos is the contention that all cultures are equally valuable and, therefore, that preferring one culture, intellectual heritage, or moral and social order to another is to be guilty of ethnocentrism and racism. But are all cultures equally valuable? All may have certain laudable attributes. But some have contributed vastly more to knowledge, politics, and culture than others. William Henry summed up this unpalatable truth vividly when he observed that it is “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.”

The thoughtless egalitarianism that lies behind the multiculturalist imperative helps to explain the current academic obsession with the notion of “difference” and the widespread insistence that the differences that separate us—pre-eminently, differences of race, class, sexuality, and ethnic heritage—must be given priority over our common humanity.

This celebration of “difference” may sound like a prescription for tolerance and genuine pluralism. But in fact it has fostered an Orwellian situation in which “diversity” really means strict intellectual conformity, and “tolerance” is reserved exclusively for those who subscribe to one’s own perspective. Deviation from the multiculturalist orthodoxy on any number of issues is punished by social ostracism, mandatory “consciousness-raising” classes, or even suspension or expulsion.

Like most modern tyrannies, the dictatorship of the politically correct freely uses and abuses the rhetoric of virtue in its effort to enforce conformity and silence dissent. This is part of what makes it so seductive. How gratifying to know that one is automatically on the side of Virtue! Those of you who are students of the French Revolution will remember some of the atrocities carried out in the name of what Robspierre called “virtue and its emanation, terror.” The union of moralism and radicalism, while hardly a novel marriage, is particularly destructive in institutions dedicated to intellectual inquiry and artistic exploration. Not only does it foster an atmosphere of intimidation and encourage conformity, but it also attacks the very basis for the free exchange of ideas.

The aim is not to enlighten or persuade but rather to intimidate and pre-empt criticism. This of course is something that our new academic mandarins refuse to acknowledge. But the truth is that what we are facing today is nothing less than the destruction of the fundamental premises that underlie our conception both of liberal education and of a liberal democratic polity. Respect for rationality and the rights of the individual; a commitment to the ideals of disinterested criticism and color-blind justice; advancement according to merit, not according to sex, race, or ethnic origin: these quintessentially Western ideas are bedrocks of our political as well as our educational system. And they are precisely the ideas that are now under attack by bien pensants academics intoxicated by the coercive possibilities of untethered virtue.

Just how bad have things become? Alas, it is virtually impossible to overstate the case. Richard Delgado, a law professor and proponent of the influential Critical Legal Studies movement, neatly epitomized one aspect of the current orthodoxy when he insisted that “racism and enlightenment are the same thing” and went on to argue that the concept of merit is “a prominent example” of “the kind of racism evident in facially [sic] neutral laws.” Another law professor, the radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon, summed up a different aspect of the current situation when she declared that feminism’s “critique of the objective standpoint as male is a critique of science as a specifically male approach to knowledge. With it we,” she wrote, “we reject male criteria for verification.”

Of course, the assault is not undertaken solely by law professors. Michael Harris, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, put it this way: “when you see the word ‘qualifications’ used, remember that this is the new code word for whites.” Sandra Harding, author of The Science Question in Feminism, blithely described Isaac Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual.” The Afrocentrist Hunter Adams assured his readers that “early African writings indicate a possible understanding of quantum physics and gravitational theory.” Jonathan Culler, a professor of literature at Cornell and a follower of the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, solemnly wrote that “since no reading can escape correction, all readings are misread-ings.” In parts of Illinois parents and teachers are instructed on “ten quick ways to analyze children’s books for racism and sexism.”

The important point to understand about these ex­amples—and they could easily be multiplied tenfold—is not how extravagant but, on the contrary, how common they are. Such vertiginous nonsense—ranging over disciplines as various as literature, law, history, and the social sciences— now constitutes a large proportion of what is taught in schools and pursued as “scholarship” in the academy.

The crucial thing to understand is that, notwithstanding the emancipationist rhetoric that accompanies the term, “multiculturalism” is not about recognizing genuine cultural diversity or encouraging pluralism. It is about undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and in society at large.

And it is in this sense that multiculturalism provides a convenient umbrella for the smorgasbord of radical ideologies now regnant in the academy and elsewhere. The one thing that your literary deconstructionist, your Lacanian feminist, your post-structuralist Marxist, your New Historicist, your post-colonial theorist, and your devotee what goes under the name of “cultural studies,” not to mention your government bureaucrat, can agree on is that the Western humanistic tradition is a repository of ideas that are naive, repressive, or both.

At the center of the multicultural imperative is the assumption that all cultural life is to be explained in political terms, preeminently in terms of gender, race, class, and ethnic origin. In other words, categories of thought that have their home in the social sciences are imported into the arts and humanities and granted the status of golden explanatory keys. In good Marxist fashion, culture is denied autonomy and is reduced to being a coefficient of something else: of class relations, sexual oppression, racial exploitation, etc. Questions of artistic quality are systematically replaced with tests for political orthodoxy, even as the whole realm of aesthetic experience is “demythologized” as an insidious bourgeois fiction designed to consolidate the cultural hegemony of the ruling class.

In the end, these efforts to transform culture into a species of power politics rest on a more general repudiation. They rest on the contention that nothing is meaningful or valuable in itself, that all cultural phenomena are—really, finally—coefficients of a political power struggle. This is the fundamental message of writers like Michel Foucault, whose inability to distinguish between truth and power has been greeted as a sort of divine revelation.

The important thing to note is not how odd but how prevalent this idea is. Indeed, it is one way of articulating the core supposition—what we might call the guiding non-belief—that has animated the left-wing assault on culture and standards. It is a powerful solvent. Indeed, at bottom it is a version of nihilism and a license for sophistry. For if there is no such thing as intrinsic merit, then no judgment of quality can be anything more than a veiled political commendation or a statement of personal partisanship. Without the idea of intrinsic moral, intellectual, and artistic value, criticism and scholarship degenerate into a species of propaganda, and morality becomes little more than a cynical calculus aimed at increasing personal advantage.

Also implicit in the politicizing mandate of multicul-turalism is an attack on the idea of a common culture, the idea that, despite our many differences, we hold in common an intellectual, artistic, and moral legacy, descending largely from the Greeks and the Bible, supplemented and modified over the centuries by innumerable contributions from diverse hands and peoples. It is this legacy that has given us our science, our political institutions, and the monuments of artistic and cultural achievement that define us as a civilization. Indeed, it is this legacy, insofar as we live up to it, that preserves us from chaos and barbarism. And it is precisely this legacy that the multiculturalist wishes to dispense with. Either the multiculturalist claims that the Western tradition is merely one heritage among many —and therefore that it deserves no special allegiance inside the classroom or out of it—or he denies the achievements of the West altogether.

Corresponding to the attack on the idea of a common culture is the multiculturalist’s rejection of the idea of a common humanity. The multiculturalist rejects the idea that our identity as human beings transcends our membership in a particular class, race, or sex. On the contrary,/f6r multicul-turalists what is important is not what binds us together but what separates us. And what separates us—be it gender, ethnicity, class, or race—is used as a totem to confer the coveted status of victimhood upon certain approved groups.

The multiculturalists expatiate on the repressive, inequitable nature of American society. It is instructive to note, however, that people all over the world continue to flock here. They do so not because they believe the United States is perfect, but because they believe that the Western democratic institutions that govern this society will allow them greater freedom, economic opportunity, and personal dignity than they are likely to find anywhere else in the world. The multiculturalists notwithstanding, the choice facing us today is not between a “repressive” Western culture and a multicultural paradise, but between culture and barbarism. Civilization is not a gift, it is an achievement—a fragile achievement that needs constantly to be shored up and defended from besiegers inside and out. These are facts that do not easily penetrate the cozy and coddled purlieus of the academy. But they are part of the permanent challenge that any civilization worthy of the name must face.

Behind the campaign for multiculturalism is the large question of the proper content of a liberal-arts education and, finally, the question of the kind of society in which we wish to live. One way to approach that question is return to the word “diversity,” the great mantra of multiculturalists.

Let me begin with with what to many of you may seem like an outrageous question: Is diversity a good thing? One needs only to ask the question to realize that it is a nonsensical question. For diversity, like fire, is neither good nor bad in itself. It all depends on the context. If diversity is sometimes a good thing, unanimity is also sometimes desirable. It all depends. Partisans of diversity make an elementary logical mistake. The mistake is to confuse the proposition that variety is good with the proposition that goodness is various. The fact that the latter is true does nothing to underwrite the former. The good is indeed gloriously various and diverse. That does not mean that every expression of diversity is good. The fact that Jack loves Jill does not, alas, entail that Jill loves Jack.

But this logical error is motivated by political animus. Every school and college campus today loudly trumpets its “commitment to diversity.” But a closer look shows that what that really means is a slavish commitment to a left-wing social and moral agenda on issues from feminism to the curriculum to homosexuality. “Diversity,” in short, is a stick with which radicals beat pusillanimous liberals and confused conservatives.

It is also worth noting that diversity can mean many things. It can mean genuine intellectual variety. But it can also be little more than a synomyn for affirmative action— another great Orwellian phrase that employs the rhetoric of fairness but really means “discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or some other approved badge of victimhood.”

The multiculturalists have been strident in their praise of diversity. I will end by exercising my own right of diversity and asking you to consider the alternative advantages of commonality—or, to call it by an older name, prejudice.

What are the advantages of prejudice? At least since John Stuart Mill, we have been encouraged to associate prejudice with ignorance and bigotry. How many teachers, in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges, regard it their first duty to relieve their students of “prejudice.” But prejudice does not have to mean bigotry or ignorance. It can also mean the repository of moral, social, and intellectual wisdom represented by custom, habit, and tradition.

This was something that Edmund Burke, for example, saw clearly. “Prejudice, ” Burke wrote, “renders a man’s virtue his habit…. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” In seeking to relieve students of “prejudice,” many teachers also seek to relieve them of those unspoken commitments that families and churches have painstakingly sought to instill. That indeed is one reason parents are right to be suspicious of teachers who promise to “emancipate” their students from from prejudice. What that often means in practice is emancipating them from the moral and religious precepts they have been brought up on. It is a form social engineering brought into the classroom and carried out by the same wretched people who think that “it takes a village” to educate our children.

Let us grant that there is such a thing as stultifying homogeneity. That is not at issue. There is also such a thing as groundless diversity, and that, I believe, poses a much more serious threat to our schools and our society today. In order to be meaningful, diversity must rest on a common moral, social, and intellectual culture. Without that common ground, diversity rapidly degenerates into mere tribalism. Dialogue requires not only diversity but also devotion to shared principles. Multiculturalism threatens to rob us of those shared principles and substitute a spurious enlighten­ment for real educational reform.

Our colleges and universities have been preaching the creed of multiculturalism for the last few decades. Politicians, pundits, and the so-called cultural elite have assiduously absorbed the catechism, which they accept less as an argument about the way the world should be as an affirmation of the essential virtue of their own feelings. We are now beginning to reap the fruit of that liberal experiment with multiculturalism. The chief existential symptom is moral paralysis, expressed, for example, in the inability to discriminate effectively between good and evil.

And this brings me back to the subject of “challenges to conservatism.” In the end, perhaps the most pressing challenge to conservatism is the failure of liberalism. That only sounds paradoxical. Russell Kirk once said that he was conservative because he was a liberal. Of course, the liberalism Kirk had in mind was not the rancid leftism that today congregates under and betrays the name of liberalism but rather the robust classical liberalism espoused, for example, by Edmund Burke—liberalism, so to say, endowed with red corpuscles.

Multiculturalism is not so much an expression of liberalism as a symptom of a characteristic disease or antinomy of liberalism. The antinomy is this: liberalism implies openness to other points of view, even (it would seem) those points of view whose success would destroy liberalism. Extending tolerance to those points of view is a prescription for suicide. But intolerance betrays the fundamental premise of liberalism, namely, openness.

The escape from that antinomy lies in understanding that “tolerance” and “openness” must be limited by positive values if they are not to be vacuous. American democracy, for example, affords its citizens great latitude, but great latitude is not synonymous with the proposition that “anything goes.” Our society, like every society, is founded on particular positive values—the rule of law, for example, respect for the individual, religious freedom, the separation of church and state. Or think of the robust liberalism expressed by Sir Charles Napier, the British commander in India in the early 19th century. Told that immolating widows on the funeral pyre of their husband was a cherished local custom, Napier said, Fine. And it is our custom to hang people who do this. Go ahead and build your funeral pyre: my chaps will be there to build a gallows alongside it.

The point is that the “openness” that liberal society rightly cherishes is not a vacuous openness to all points of view: it is not “value neutral.” It need not, indeed it cannot, say Yes to all comers, to the Islamofascist who after all has his point of view, just as much as the soccer mom, who has hers. Western democratic society is rooted in a particular vision of what Aristotle called “the good for man.” The question is: Do we, as a society, still have confidence in the animating values of the vision? Do we possess the requisite will to defend them? Or was Francois Revel right when he said that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it”? The jury is still out on those questions. How they are answered will determine the future not only of Western universities but also of that astonishing spiritual-political experiment that is Western democratic liberalism.