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What Lies Behind the Multicultural Approach to History

I. In early 1981, after twelve years of producing radio documentaries and cultural criticism at Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, I was hired as Program Director to implement affirmative action and “multicultural” programming policy. In my innocence, I interpreted that mandate as the legacy of the heroic civil rights movement: we were to present an integrated history of women, minorities, and labor as part of a comprehensive long-term project of education and research in the political, economic, and social history of these groups, locally, nationally, and where possible, globally. Simultaneously, in my own work at the radio station I continued producing materials about institutional censorship, the transmission of history in museums and popular media, and the decoding of antidemocratic propaganda.

Pacifica and I were on a collision course. After eighteen months, I was fired. Significantly, my removal prevented the confrontation between science and myth that I was preparing for the Fall Fund Drive. And when I returned to the air in the late 1980s-1990s, tracing the contested definitions of fascism from the 1930s on, I was banished again, this time permanently after ten years of attempting to rescue the libertarian heritage of science and what I thought was the progress advanced by meritocracy and the marketplace of ideas. In terms of programming, such a mad scientist approach challenged what had been a post-60s commitment by Pacifica to policies that were simultaneously replicated on college campuses: Insurgent 1960s social movements had demanded that the contributions and travails of women and minorities be included in the humanities curriculum; moreover that (domineering) white male faculty were unwilling or constitutionally unable to integrate women’s history, etc. into a new synthesis. Therefore, separate women’s studies and ethnic studies departments were institutionalized, staffed primarily by women and minority faculty in the spirit of rooted (as opposed to rootless) cosmopolitanism. The separation was legitimated by the counter-Enlightenment social theory derived from Herder and German Romanticism: Only members of the cultural nation (defined in the language of blood and soil) were privy to the “consciousness” or “spirit” of their Volk; linguistic discourses were unique and incommensurable. Meddling outsiders (the rootless cosmopolitans) could not get into the heads of the in-group and should not impose their universalist values, goals, and ethics upon “the Other.” And since American women and minorities were now defined as collectivities, as corporatist entities that had been “colonized,” it was the mission of these new departments to “struggle” against white male “hegemony” and the death-dealing “whiteness” enforced by Amerika. “Liberal” historians were advised to broaden their horizons with “cultural anthropology,” replacing the outmoded and repressive “scientific history” with “cultural history.” It is the broad acceptance of the role of anti-imperialist activist scholar throughout the humanities that has led to what many libertarians and conservatives now decry as a recent left-wing takeover and the absence of intellectual diversity. Their periodization is incorrect, as it does not recognize the ongoing centuries-old elite offensive against modernity, that is, fully realized democratic participation.

This essay, written after I had studied the shaping of the humanities curriculum by progressives since the Civil War, but especially after the first world war, attempts to explain the politics that led to my disillusion with Pacifica and finally to distancing from the populist-progressive hostile reading of the Enlightenment. By denying the universalist claims of scientific method, the campus “Left” has little in common with the libertarian ideals that radical scholars often claim to advance. 

II. Through the advocacy of “multiculturalism” as a weapon against elite hegemony, interdisciplinary scholars in history and literature discredit the tools upon which historians have depended since the mid-nineteenth century, specifically archival research and the critical evaluation of sources in the interest of a relatively objective reconstruction of the past. Leopold von Ranke is dead, having been supplanted by classroom activists opposing the “essentially imperialist, racist, and patriarchal historical project” of this country”; such (essentialist) labeling cannot be sustained with empirical evidence; not surprisingly, scientific method is under assault by cultural historians of science. This campaign by scholar-activists was not a post-1960s novelty, as some critics aver. Social psychologists and sociologists allied with the 1930s Popular Front against fascism, before, during, and after WWII, transformed the democratic Enlightenments, analyzing Enlightenment ideology as protofascist, and misrepresenting their own vision of the paternalistic organic society as “genuine liberalism”. I call this group the “corporatist liberals.” In their hands, “scientific history” morphed into “cultural history”; the Jeffersonian “melting-pot” (as publicized in Israel Zangwill’s play of 1908) was reinterpreted as forced assimilation to the materialist culture of a bourgeois liberal WASP elite; and the conception of the free-standing, self-managing, often dissenting American citizen dissolved into the individual-in-society, molded by “cultural” context, and possessing group (ethnic or racial) identity, hence bearing “group facts” that were incomprehensible to other “races” or “ethnicities.” The corporatist liberals (led by Talcott Parsons and his circle at Harvard) fostered postwar definitions of fascism and nazism that looked retrospectively at “the puritan” (including the moral mother expanding her empire) as not only a dangerous American type (the narcissistic, hot-headed and cold-hearted imperialist), but “romantic puritans” were precursors to Hitler (reconstructed as a hyper-capitalist) and his genocidal policies: it was a straight line from New England antinomians to today’s right-wing militias. 

Scientists and mathematicians (e.g. Gross and Levitt) have protested the postmodernist misunderstanding of science, while other historians (e.g. Windschuttle) are dismayed by “the killing of history” by the post-60s generation, but have not identified the possibly controlling sub-text of cultural histories explaining the rise of fascism/nazism: Fascism, abetted by science and technology in the hands of the upstart middle-class, the culturalists argue, demonstrates the failure of “mass politics,” i.e. democracy. Writing on behalf of the American Historical Association in 1939, Carolyn Ware advised that the cultural historian should not “rest upon the prescription of the scientific historians to let the facts speak and to be guided wherever the material may lead.” A particularist definition of tolerance was central to corporatist liberalism between the wars. Progressive social psychologists disseminating national programs of “civilian morale” in 1940-41 posited group diversity and advised the inclusion of minorities in government planning processes: Working toward common goals, while utilizing the special qualities of different corporatist entities (races and ethnicities), would serve social harmony. Such “tolerance” removed the threat of “rupture” by excluding the intellectual engagement of diverse belief systems with each other, a “moderate” strategy advanced by the Tory historian David Hume in the mid-eighteenth century as he contemplated unbalanced extremists: repressive Catholics and fanatical puritans, the latter seduced by the Old Testament and its “eastern poetic” or “eastern prophetic style”: Crusading puritans were all-too-given to the dictates of individual conscience, primary source research [reading the Tindal Bible], and unbounded curiosity; while Catholic censorship was similarly disruptive as it created martyrs. Hume’s middle way, the promotion of rooted cosmopolitanism, is usually associated with the völkisch thinker J.G. von Herder, and persists today as multiculturalism/ethnopluralism. Following the tenets of romantic nationalism, all members of the same “ethnic” or “racial” group share inherited group character and economic interests-- a corporatist formulation that compels dissenting individuals to submit to “the community” as defined by its natural leader(s).

But there is also a Left critique of cultural nationalism, asserting the socially constructed character of ethnicity, seen as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Other antiracist critics, following Elias and Foucault, attribute nationalism and genocide to the Enlightenment or “modernity”: “Bourgeois liberals” fortified by science and panopticons, they say, emerged to assume the command posts of culture, and in the “civilizing process” ruptured the bonds of traditional communities, erasing folk knowledges and proclaiming all non-adherents to their middle-class notions of technological rationality as “deviant.” Moreover, while complaining that nationalism mystifies class antagonisms, “postcolonialists” in literary theory and American Studies have collapsed the analytic category of “class” into “race”; “whiteness studies” confer a corporatist unity upon all white people or “the [imperialist] West.” While apparently rejecting “imagined communities,” these scholars deploy a communitarian discourse, embracing cultural pluralism, now corrected and updated as “dynamically emerging group identit[ies].” In practice, progressive cultural historians and literary scholars support identity politics.

The liberal component of the corporatist liberal ideology, then, consists in the tolerance of “diverse” groups with their unassailable “points of view.” The hyphenated Americans co-exist under the rubric of American nationality, as long as each group eschews the triumphalism Hume and his admirers ascribed to moralizing puritans or Catholics. Functionalist comparisons of Hebraic puritans with nazis served the objective of social “equilibrium” by removing the rationalist presence from the ethnopluralist “mosaic” or “symphony.” The multiculturalists were necessarily antisemitic, insofar as Jews, like radical puritans, interpreted “We the People” as an entity that resisted irrationalist methods of social control in their search for “a more perfect union.” This is a key point, for the social scientists and philosophers I am criticizing were irrationalists, rewriting American history to serve the higher goal of social cohesion in a pluralist society. Specifically, they reinterpreted the rationalist legacies of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to create continuity with the activist New Deal state; similarly potential bomb-throwers were integrated through relegating scientific method to a bounded sphere of influence distant from, and lower than, the humanities, or, in cultural studies of science, going so far as to relativize scientific facts themselves as produced solely by institutional context in order to maintain a power elite..

The efforts of the corporatist liberals resulted in the erasure or marginalizing of some key figures in American history, who, notwithstanding diverse political goals, all shared the same, now often proscribed, “Hebraic” i.e. libertarian opinions and empiricist methods of analysis: That society was a collection of individuals; that the liberal state protected the human rights of every individual by guaranteeing equality before the law, equal treatment, and opportunity; that public education of high quality was indispensable for the attainment of popular sovereignty and the informed conscience; that the marketplace of ideas must not be bounded; and that American nationality consisted in the ongoing emancipation of individuals from illegitimate authority through appeals to reason. Such emancipation was unthinkable without scientific method (empiricism), institutional transparency and accountability, and ethical universalism. I have described the fundamentals of the liberal state before it was revised by corporatists harkening back to Ferdinand Toennies’s distinctions between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: Reiterating the agrarian alternative to industrial capitalism, corporatists claimed that a network of small towns, independent producers, and stable hierarchies would defeat the anomie, nihilism, miscegenation, decadence, and class warfare induced by modern science and technology, speedy urban life, giant corporations and Jewish money: the same primitivism, along with its demonology, has characterized the academic Left and “community” radio and television in general. Defending the moral economy of pre-capitalist societies against the intruding free market, the corporatist liberals have necessarily marginalized some of the most eloquent American advocates of the libertarian ideal. Their motives and achievements have been denigrated either as causes of avoidable and catastrophic civil conflict (Anne Hutchinson, Charles Sumner), or as conniving elitists, arrayed against “the People” (Walter Lippmann, Ralph J. Bunche). Is it an accident that Melville’s character Captain Ahab was switched from a Sumner-like radical liberal to an “anticipation” of Hitler and Stalin at precisely the same moment that “scientific history” was switched to “cultural history?”

In sum, corporatist liberals rejected an eighteenth-century conception of the liberal nation based, not on hyphenated Americanism--a congeries of rehabilitated “Others” and their repentant ex-persecutors-- but upon a shared project: the cooperative search for truth and amelioration. And individuality was a quality assigned to discrete individuals endowed with human rights—individuals who were not simply collapsed into nations, classes, genders, races, or ethnicities. Such an enlightened quest did not repudiate the past, thus alienating ex-slaves and immigrants from their cherished ancestors, but rather furthered understanding of the choices that shaped prior institutions and beliefs, without idealization of leaders or the led. By substituting cultural (i.e. irrationalist) interpretations of history for empirical studies of the political and economic conditions (including their contending ideologies) that facilitated the rise and maintenance of fascist dictatorships, ethnopluralist progressives switched the Enlightenment and undermined an appropriately critical and functioning democratic polity.


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