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The Disuniting of America:
Reflections on a Multicultural Society

by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Norton, 160 pages, $14.95

The vicious riots that took place last spring in the South-Central section of Los Angeles may be taken as a tragic reminder of the need for all Americans continually to evaluate the unique character of ethnic relations in this country. Such relations clearly remain fragile and, indeed, represent possibly the greatest challenge to the health and vigor of the American polity. As Ross Perot commented shortly after the riots, “We’ve just split the melting pot.… As a country we will lose if we let the melting pot break again and again and again.” It is with this enduring problem in mind that one might turn hopefully to Arthur Schlesinger’s latest book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, a short, discursive tract that sets out to examine the unique nature, some current criticism, and the future preservation of what the author calls, among other things, American culture.

In writing this book, Schlesinger has put himself at the center of a highly volatile debate over education and ethnic relations in America. Moreover, as conservatives are all too well aware, this debate is one that is not infrequently marked by varying forms of intimidation and coercion—sometimes violent—with unfortunate consequences for those who find themselves on the wrong side. Schlesinger publicly entered this fray last year when, as the most prominent liberal member of a New York State committee for curriculum development (the Sobol Committee), he steadfastly refused to endorse the committee’s recommended multicultural curriculum for primary and secondary education. At that time, he was attacked for his criticism of the state’s curriculum in particular, and the attacks continued as long as he was inclined to speak out in general against what he saw as a corrosive force in contemporary American education. It took a good deal of courage, then, for Schlesinger to step up his opposition to multiculturalism by publishing The Disuniting of America; and those who stand opposed with him may rightly commend his stand against the multiculturalist orthodoxy. At the same time, however, they will want to keep several things in mind as they consider, along with Schlesinger’s critique of multiculturalism, his concurrent analysis of the American polity.

The Disuniting of America begins and ends with thoughts about the fundamentals of the critique of multiculturalism: considerations of what is uniquely excellent about American culture, how it came to be, why it has come under attack, and why and how we should preserve it. Although one might think these questions the heart of the matter, for Schlesinger they seem to be peripheral. Between the beginning and the end he spends a great deal of time summarizing and attacking various forms of “therapeutic” history, particularly the movement known as Afrocentrism. These middle chapters, offering up many gems as they do, for the most part merely express a historian’s disappointment at the dilution of his profession by charlatans and shoddy scholarship. Moreover, they add little of importance beyond, for example, Dinesh D’Souza’s account of this phenomenon in his Illiberal Education.

What Schlesinger calls American culture refers to America’s unique, “brilliant solution for the inherent fragility of a multiethnic society: the creation of a brand new national identity, carried forward by individuals who in forsaking old loyalties and joining to make new lives, melted away ethnic differences.” The idea of such a common culture, of a melting pot, has been promoted by many great figures throughout the country’s history and Schlesinger invokes such men—including Emerson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, and, yes, Herman Melville—frequently during the course of his book. Each provides a slightly different account of the same phenomenon. More important, though, is the question of how ethnic differences were “melted away” in America. What, in other words, is it in the American regime that has uniquely facilitated this extraordinary process?

Citing Tocqueville and others, Schlesinger attributes this ability to form “one from many” to the democratic process, “the exercise of political rights and civic responsibilities bestowed on ‘new immigrants’ by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” By exercising such rights, he says, these immigrants were “indoctrinated … in the fundamentals of the American creed.” They were, in other words, through steady participation in civic life, habituated to think of themselves as Americans.

This account, however, is far from adequate in explaining the rise of a stable American culture. For as Schlesinger himself reminds us over and over, in earlier days of relative unity significant portions of the population were not permitted to exercise the very political rights and civic responsibilities that in his own theory serve to “indoctrinate” immigrants in the fundamentals of American culture. On the other hand, the rise of multiculturalism seems to have occurred pari passu with the realization of universal access to the ballot box.

If Schlesinger cannot adequately account for the unique nature of a unifying American identity, he is almost equally incapable of getting at the causes of the present multicultural assault on this identity. He attributes the rise of Afrocentrism, for instance, to a wholly “natural” desire on the part of black Americans “to invoke supposed past glories to compensate for real past and present injustices. Because their exclusion has been more tragic and terrible than that of white immigrants, their quest for self-affirmation is more intense and passionate.” While this certainly explains something of the current problem, it does not explain why black Americans’ “quest for self-affirmation” must be Afrocentric. Why cannot such a quest be carried out in assimilationist terms, in terms consistent with the tradition of the West and with honor for the majestic founding of this country? In fact, from what we read elsewhere in Schlesinger’s book, it clearly can.

Martin Luther King did pretty well with Thoreau, Ghandi, … Reinhold Niebuhr [and Jefferson and Lincoln].… The record hardly shows that “Eurocentric” education had such a terribly damaging effect on the psyche of great black Americans.

Although The Disuniting of America explicitly provides the reader with neither a sufficiently profound description of what is uniquely virtuous about American culture nor a satisfactory analysis of the nature of the threat posed by “the cult of ethnicity,” taken with other of the author’s writings on this subject, the book does explain something. Arthur Schlesinger is the kind of historian commonly known as a cultural relativist. Nor is this a label Schlesinger shuns. Indeed, as he made clear in an otherwise muddled commencement address delivered at Brown University in 1989, he is an unabashed relativist. In that speech, he insisted, among other things, that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as set forth in the Declaration of Independence is merely a “value,” one “of those values [that] seem to us … self-evident,” to be sure, but a value all the same. Moreover, in concluding The Disuniting of America, Schlesinger draws on that Brown speech:

For our values are not matters of whim and happenstance. History has given them to us. They are anchored in our national experience, in our great national documents, in our national heroes, in our folkways, traditions, and standards. People with a different history will have differing values. But we believe that our own are better for us. They work for us; and for that reason we live and die by them.

We are committed. The problem is that while claiming to remain optimistic, Schlesinger has spent the previous hundred-thirty pages giving us good reason to doubt that we remain collectively committed. Along the way, he has also cooly dispensed with the best reason for maintaining allegiance to our regime.

The main problem with The Disuniting of America, then, concerns its author’s pervasive use of the concept of an “American culture.” Schlesinger is unable to see that American is not a culture, not in the conventional relativized sense of promoting “rootedness-in-the-soil.” Schlesinger is unable to see this because, as a historicist, he believes that everything is a culture. Thankfully, our Founding Fathers were not quite so naive. No matter how much Schlesinger would like to deny the obvious, Jefferson did not speak of values, he spoke of self-evident truths that apply to “all men” and, as Lincoln (another of Schlesinger’s relativists!) argued, these truths are what have kept the American polity unified and vigorous:

I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time [emphasis added].

Only if the possibility of such universal truths is understood and believed is it possible for us to transcend the friend/enemy distinction that is at the core of multiculturalism.

The real question to explore in reference to the disuniting of America concerns what happens when a significant portion of a society (assisted, as it happens, by intellectuals like Schlesinger) comes radically to doubt the truth of its founding principles. Schlesinger, however, busies himself in effect by declaring that nature’s God is dead and then bemoaning the consequences of his declaration. He is limited in his capacity both to diagnose and to treat the current malaise because he is unable to confront the real meaning of a passage that he himself has written in this book:

People live by their myths, and some may argue that the facts can be justifiably embroidered if embroiderment serves a higher good, such as the nurture of a nation or the elevation of a race. It may seem more important to maintain a beneficial fiction than to keep history pure—especially when there is no such thing as pure history anyway. This may have been what Plato had in mind when he proposed the idea of a noble lie in The Republic.

All this is not to suggest that people in South-Central Los Angeles lapsed into barbarism because they had not read enough Jefferson or had consciously rejected the principles of the Declaration. Multiculturalism, as a doctrine, is much more a product of Mr. Quayle’s “cultural elite,” and particularly those members of the elite making their living in the university. Nevertheless, what goes on in the university is not without consequence; no one who has observed the way in which the most esoteric Continental philosophy has thoroughly infected American popular life can doubt that. Schlesinger does not dispute this in his book. In fact, the documentation of the unhappy influence of such people—for instance, the attempts to establish primary and secondary multicultural curricula—is one of the book’s successes. Overall, however, it fails because Schlesinger refuses to understand the true relationship among democracy, relativism, political correctness, and multiculturalism, and is consequently unable to see why in the end America is unusually susceptible to that threatening condition called the “cult of ethnicity.”

Peter L. Welsh is a Program Assistant at the John M. Olin Foundation in New York City.