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5.0 out of 5 stars A Left-Liberal Case for Integration Over "Plural Monoculturalism", July 2, 2011
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This review is from: The Multicultural Mystique: The Liberal Case Against Diversity (Hardcover)
The idea that multiculturalism is a good thing is quite uncontroversial in today's world. Many colleges and universities (such as the one in which I teach) have a "multicultural requirement" meant to sensitize students to cultures other than dominant "white" culture. We learn in history books and social studies classes that immigrants have and continue desiring to maintain their own culture, and that attempts to integrate them into the "culture of power" is a form of oppression.

H.E. Baber questions all of this... and she is NOT a conservative! She is not jingoistic, anti-immigrant, or in any way arguing that "Western culture" is superior to every other culture. But here's what she is questioning: she questions whether, all things being equal, most immigrants actually prefer to stay with the culture they moved away from rather than integrate to the one dominant where they chose to move to, whether "live and let live" multiculturalism "essentializes" those of different ethnicities by imposing "scripts" about how "ethnics" should behave, and whether immigrants at very least should have the choice to integrate without well-meaning multiculturalists accusing them of inauthenticity, etc. She then makes a (unfortunately) brief case in support of an affirmative action meant to give immigrants (and historically oppressed groups) a type of equality of opportunity to integrate if they so choose.

In the first several chapters, Baber questions whether people generally like their cultures and whether the choice to retain their native culture rather than integrate MIGHT have more to do with the high costs of integration than actual love for the native culture. She discusses a trip to Kenya where, the more she talked with natives, the more she realized that none of them really loved Kenyan culture and all had a desire to move away from it. She discusses the many reasons why people might stay with their native cultures that have nothing to do with actual love for the culture: social pressure, high cost of learning a new language and customs, force, and other high costs of exit. In fact, multiculturalism, she notes, may make exit costs even higher because a nation ingrained in multiculturalism will look oddly upon those who want to assimilate (which we are told, people wouldn't do if they were self-loving). In this way, multiculturalism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we suggest that a key part of the self is the native culture one was born into, the more we discourage people who may not love their native culture from moving away from it.

In the middle section of the book, the talk turns to the costs of multiculturalism by way of the "scripts" that are imposed onto people from non-dominant cultures. The author is fond of saying that there is 'no free lunch" and, by this, she means that pushing multiculturalism often imposes "scripts" onto people of particular ethnicities about what their behavior should look like and how they should be. (And vice versa, if we pushed aggressive integration, we'd stigmatize those who may actually want to stay "traditional".) In a chapter subtitled "why Everyone Wants to Be an X," the author reminds us that virtually no one wants to be known as an "average," "stereotypical," or "representative of their race/class/gender" person. But often, that is exactly what we (inadvertently) do to members of ethnic groups (and, in the states, blacks): we expect the Indian student to have particularly insightful things to say about the book read in class by the Indian author; we expect black people to love black history month (rather than be disappointed, as I'd be, if my history were relegated to 30 days of the year); we do a double take when we see someone who looks Chinese who doesn't speak with a Chinese accent. (When I dated a black woman many years ago, she talked of the heartache that came when her black friends found that her favorite author was Charles Dickens.)

The last section of the book discusses the history of multiculturalism and why (my words, not the authors) the genetic fallacy is responsible for our leeriness toward the word "assimilation." First, multiculturalism largely got its start in the "anticolonial" 1960s. People were largely concerned with colonialism in the US and elsewhere, and took to a strategy where, rather than being dominated by the dominant cultural groups, minorities could just be left alone, their cultures respected rather than forcibly exterminated. It was largely aided by a self-esteem movement that taught people that feeling good about oneself was remaining "true to oneself" and that desiring to change oneself was often a sign of 'self hatred.' Add to this the fact that the US, as elsewhere, has a lengthy history of forced assimilation, nativism, race-based eugenics, and race-based social darwinism, which served to associate the very idea of assimilation with colonialism and forced subordination. This, of course, is an example of the genetic fallacy - the idea that since assimilation has historically been associated with eugenics, et al., that it must always be so associated.

The very brief last chapter highlights the author's vision of an affirmative action policy that would give minority groups the option - not force them - to integrate into the dominant culture. My concern with this approach is that, while I can see the author's argument, I wonder whether a policy like this "essentializes" these groups just as much as she says multiculturalism does, by giving everyone the idea that they need some artificial help to get jobs, educations, etc. (I also wonder whether policies like this are counterproductive for their risk of breeding resentment; as the author says, there is 'no free lunch').

All in all, this is a very timely book. Many countries in Europe are having difficulty steering the murky waters of multiculturalism, and my guess is that those tensions are just below the surface in the United states (even 10 years after 9/11). As a former public school teacher, I can attest to how much damage can be done when we develop different expectations for different people based on their ethnic histories, that we still expect them to cling to. And as a recent college instructor, I can attest to the buzz that the word "multiculturalism" has become, both for good and ill. (I recall trying to explain to a colleague that Brown v. Board was not about multiculturalism; the kids and their parents WANTED to integrate!) And since almost every tome against multiculturalism has been written by an "our culture is the greatest" conservative (with the exception of John McWhorter's books about 'black culture') this is a book that needed to be written.
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Initial post: Jul 28, 2011 10:51:07 PM PDT
Omer Belsky says:
Hi Kevin

Insightful review as usual. I'm wondering though if the point should be stressed that "Multiculturalism" is a term that can cover a multiplude of attitudes, some considerably more meritious than others; The notion that not all great art comes from Western artists, for example, is surely good; Also, the way of looking at history through the white man's eyes, so to speak, by, for example, starting the history of America in 1492, can be exposed as parochial. And is it really useful for Muslims, Hindis, Wiccans and Atheists to be constantly reminded that "America is a Judeo-Christian civilization"?


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