Sunday, September 24, 2006

Multiculturalism and its surrogate

Many years ago, when I was in publishing I had the privilege of working with the late Ruth Eisenstein, whose editorial standards, ones I could never fully meet, have been a beacon to me ever after.

Once, in one of our theoretical sessions, Ruth told me about her encounter in college with a French exchange student. This young women knew, or so it seemed, everything there was to know about France. Ruth resolved to do the same for Judaism.
She lived up to this goal a n d she knew a great deal about non-Jewish matters.

In the course of some forty years of college teaching in New York City I have had a number of outstanding Jewish students. Some were relatively uninterested in their heritage. Others very much so. But all of them made the effort required to comprehend what I was teaching about the European middle ages and ancient Egypt, my two principle subjects.

It is possible, therefore, to combine an attention to "roots" with a commitment to universal human culture.

Unfortunately, many in the roots category nowadays do not seem to be capable of this dual vision. They are cultural chauvinists. I suppose this myopia comes in many varieties, but I most encounter this approach nowadays with Hispanic persons. To be sure, many young people of Hispanic/Latino background are remarkably ignorant of their heritage. They are mesmerized by American popular culture.

Yet there is another type of person that I would term Hispanic exclusivists. They are constantly promoting the study of literature and culture of Hispanic origin, to the exclusion of everything else. Of course they believe that the United States must become bilingual. Some even subscribe to the irridentism of the myth of Astlan, the belief that our Southwest must yield to a reconquista.

Unfortunately, there are a number of negative traits in the Spanish heritage. These include the idea of limpieza de sangre, or racial purity. It is odd that this notion should have resurfaced in the idea of "la raza," which encompasses a number of racial strains, but so it is. Then there are the malign effects of the Spanish conquest, including a predilection for a strong man and a recurring tendency to protectionism, which holds the economies back.

In short as a player or players in the great orchestra of cultures, Hispanism has much to contribute. But as an all-encompassing set of beliefs--well, that is a caballo de otro color.

Such cultural chauvinism is found nowadays among a number of groups in America, not just Hispanics. What is important to recognize, however, is that such exclusivism is not a manifestation of true multiculturalism. In fact, it is the opposite. Genuine multiculturalism means a wish to learn about many cultures. Assigning a place of special privilege to any one culture does not exemplify this requirement. Moreover, such cultural exclusivism is contributing to the Balkanization of American culture.

I find it hard to believe that Al Gore committed the gaffe of defining "E pluribus unum" as "out of one, many." Whoever said it, though, that is a daunting prospect.


Post a Comment

<< Home