Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Arthur M. Schlesinger had a distinguished career as a historian, but he capped it very badly, with one of the worst history books of all time -- a commercial sell-out to a capitalist with an agenda. (Although he just died yesterday, his productive career ended years ago.) Here's what I wrote back in 1996, in Z Magazine:

In 1991, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the distinguished historian and advisor to Democratic presidents, published a little book called The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. The book was originally published by Whittle Communications, the people who put commercial TV into American classrooms through the Channel One Program, and who have been trying to privatize and corporatize public education through the Edison Project. I'll discuss it as standing for a prominent current in recent thought, of which it is a notable example.

Schlesinger sees himself as a lonely Horatio, defending the body politic against a rising "cult of ethnicity" that threatens to destroy the United States. Unless the "cult of ethnicity" is conquered, he fears, "we invite the fragmentation of the national community into a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos, tribes." Given the tendency of "tribes" to hate each other, the "mixing of peoples" going on now in our shrinking world is "a major problem for the century that lies darkly ahead." His proposed solution is, in essence, that everyone who is here now must assimilate into the dominant, anglophone European settler culture, and give up any claims of separate identity or efforts to maintain distinctive culture.

To be sure, Schlesinger is careful to decry racism and exclusionism by the majority. Recent immigrants and Blacks (he refuses to say "African American") should want to become assimilated into a unified American culture, but those who already consider themselves the "owners" of that culture must accept new members of the club. But these are passing acknowledgments. Schlesinger sees the threat to American unity, not in white racism and ethnocentrism, but in claims and demands being made by representatives of disadvantaged groups, particularly Blacks and Hispanics.

Oddly, Schelsinger does not anywhere define the "cult of ethnicity," though he uses the phrase repeatedly. Ethnicity is, after all, a real phenomenon. How are we to distinguish cultists from legitimate students of ethnicity or proponents of ethnic pride? He identifies the "height of the ethnic rage" as 1974, when "Congress passed the Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act -- a statute that, by applying the ethnic ideology to all Americans, compromised the historic right of Americans to decide their ethnic identities for themselves. The act ignored those millions of Americans -- surely a majority -- who refused identification with any particular ethnic group."

So, while this dire phenomenon peaked in 1974, and the republic has survived since, the danger is apparently still with us and greater than ever. "[T]oday it threatens to become a counterrevolution against the original theory of America as 'one people,' a common culture, a single nation.'"

The problem with all this, from my point of view, is that the "original theory of America as 'one people', a common culture" was never anything but a myth. The framers of the constitution, and the early panegyrists to the "new race" of Americans, saw the new race as encompassing only people of Western European origin. The immigrants who came to the new nation with the goal of leaving their old national identities behind, and being assimilated as Americans, were English, French and Dutch. They had no intention of assimilating with Black slaves or the remnants of the Indians.

Later, as waves of immigrants came from Ireland, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, Schlesinger recognizes full well that most of them did not intend to leave their identities behind. They entered ethnic enclaves where they clung to their language and cultural distinctiveness, with schools often featuring instruction in their native languages. Ultimately, many of their children and granchildren did leave the enclave and become assimilated, but others did not. Irish-, Italian-, Chinese-, and Polish-American neighborhoods exist to this day in U.S. cities, where not only newcomers but also third and fourth generation descendants of immigrants cling fiercely to their ethnic identities.

Black Americans, of course, whether or not they wanted to assimilate, have not been permitted to do so. Schlesinger finds something artificial and ludicrous in North American Blacks identifying with Africa. But this is not a new creation of the cult of ethnicity, as Schlesinger would have it. Black Americans have always had an emotional identification with Africa. A newspaper called the Afro-American has been published in Baltimore for more than a century. Marcus Garvey's movement in the 1920s drew thousands of Black American demonstrators into the streets in cities throughout the U.S. in celebration of African identity.

There is a very credible body of opinion allied with the anthropologist Melville Herskovits that finds important original African influences in African-American culture today. In any event, the true degree of connection between African-American and African culture is largely irrelevant to the problems Schlesinger addresses. No-one can plausibly deny the existence of one or more Black American sub-cultures, whatever their origin or similarity to African cultures. And the emotional attachment of many Black people to Africa, regardless of whether it reflects a true cultural affinity, is understandable. People are within their rights in having such feelings.

By the way, I must take this opportunity to point out that the Hispanic people of the Southwest are not immigrants. They never crossed the border -- the border crossed them when the United States seized what is now Arizona, New Mexico and California from Mexico in a war of conquest. Through a more complicated chain of events, Texas also became part of the U.S. by conquest, after being part of Mexico. So many illegal immigrants from Mexico are just visiting their family members. To Chicanos, it is the Anglos who are "illegal".

But Schlesinger's fears of the "disuniting of America" don't really center on the existence of distinctive ethnic subcultures. He does not complain about the insularity of the Hasidim or the Amish, the bigotry and exclusionism of Bensonhurst and South Boston, or the arrogance of Anglo-Saxons. Rather, his concerns focus on certain demands being put forward by African-Americans and Latinos.

He complains at length about proponents of "Afro-centric" history. Quite rightly, in my view, he suggests that people who insist on the empirically unsupportable claim that the origins of Western civilization are to be found in sub-Saharan Africa are showing evidence of having colonized minds. There is no reason why African cultures have to be the source of Hellenic civilization in order for them to be worthy of respect and study in their own right.

But Schlesinger is really attacking a straw man (straw person?). The proponents of this version of Afro-centrism are a small fringe group. The debate over Euro-centrism in the curriculum focuses on whether non-European history and culture are to be ignored or included, not on whether Africa was the womb of Europe. New York City College's Leonard Jeffries, on whom Schlesinger expends many pages of vitriol, is widely regarded as a racist and a nut by proponents of multiculturalism of all races and ethnicities.

Schlesinger does offer a disclaimer: "Cultural pluralism is not the issue. Nor is the teaching of Afro-American or African history the issue; of course these are legitimate subjects." But in fact these are issues. The public school and college curricula do give short shrift to non-European cultures. Furthermore, traditional and current curricula present a distorted and romanticized view of European and Euro-American history, including a sanitized view or total evasion of Southern slavery, the genocide of the original inhabitants of North America, the oppression of women, U.S. imperialism, and many other subjects. These are the important current debates about the curriculum, not the ideas of Leonard Jeffries.

It is true, as Schelsinger lays out, that some advocates of curricular reform see the presentation of positive versions of the history of oppressed groups as conducive to children's self-esteem. Schlesinger asserts, on no particular grounds, that this is false, but again I think he misses the point.

I conducted a special study of the public schools in Fitchburg, Massachusetts a few years ago, and I do know that Latino, Southeast Asian and African-American students in that city, where Latin American, Southeast Asian and African-American history and literature were not taught, deeply resented the absence in the curriculum of what they saw as their history.

Whatever this may or may not mean for their self-esteem, it certainly affects their feeling of alienation from their school. Ironically, perhaps, it also discourages some of them from learning European and European-American history. The Latino students I spoke with would be more comfortable learning the language and history of their new country if they did not feel that their own heritage was devalued in the process.

On this subject, Schlesinger himself writes bad history. Remember the "Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act" which I mentioned earlier? It doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to Schlesinger's caricature.

The Act authorizes grants and contracts for educational institutions to develop curricula relating to the history and culture of particular ethnic groups and their contribution to the American heritage. That is all it does. There is nowhere in the statute the slightest indication of "applying the ethnic ideology [whatever that is!] to all Americans, compromising the historic right of Americans to decide their ethnic identies for themselves," as Schlesinger puts it.

Nor does the Act ignore "those millions of Americans - surely a majority - who refused identification with any particular ethnic group." The Act does not enumerate ethnic groups, say who does or does not belong to one, or otherwise label or categorize anyone. The Act does not preclude anyone from applying to develop a curriculum in Anglo-American history or culture. As for Schlesinger's claim that the majority of Americans refuse identification with any particuar ethnic group, he should be embarassed. To Schlesinger, apparently, culture is something that other people have. "Americans", presumably, lack culture or ethnicity.

After all the ink wasted in demolishing Leonard Jeffries, this is his true agenda. He wants to promote his own idealized version of American history, one that will serve his political ends. He writes:

"Above all, history can give a sense of national identity. We don't have to believe that our values are absolutely better than the next fellow's or the next country's, but we have no doubt that they are better for us, reared as we are - and are worth living for and dying by." But more than that, he lets it escape that Western culture is, after all, superior to all others. "Whatever the particular crimes of Europe, that continent is also the source - the unique source - of those liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom that constitute our most precious legacy and to which most of the world today aspires."

He invokes the case of Salman Rushdie: "What the West saw as an intolerable attack on individual freedom the Middle East saw as a proper punishment for an evildoer who had violated the mores of his group." The other cultures of the world, he tells us, are "collectivist ... in which loyalty to the group overrides personal goals .... There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism and fanaticism .... Certainly the European overlords did little enough to prepare Africa for self-government. But democracy would find it hard in any case to put down roots in a tribalist and patrimonial culture that, long before the West invaded Africa, had sacralized the personal authority of chieftans and ordained the submission of the rest."

It is news to me that democracy cannot take root in a culture that sacralizes the personal authority of chieftans and ordains the submission of the rest. I was taught in school (evidently incorrectly) that until only a few hundred years ago -- and till this century in some countries -- Europe was ruled by kings who claimed divine authority, sanctioned by a church that burned dissenters alive. I have also learned of many instances of "despotism, superstition, tribalism and fanaticism" in Europe in this century. Perhaps Schlesinger has forgotten about Naziism. And isn't Bosnia in Europe?

As for Rushdie and the Moslems, Schlesinger offers a sweeping indictment of diverse nations and cultures stretching from Morrocco halfway around the world, based on a single stereotype. The fatwah issued by the late Ayatollah Kohmeini against Salman Rushdie is viewed with horror and outrage by people throughout the Moslem world. But Schlesinger apparently feels he is under no obligation to learn anything about the diverse and complex Islamic world in order to write about it.

In fact, contrary to Schlesinger's fears, there is no "human instinct" of tribal hatred. Humans do not have instincts, beyond such elementary ones as sucking and grasping. Human have culture. They learn to hate and fear each other, or else they learn to accept and value each other.

As a sociologist, I have had the privilege of studying, and personally experiencing, many cultures other than my own. From the point of view of other cultures, American culture is pathological in its individualism. What Schlesinger excoriates as "collectivism" is, to many others, a value given to community and mutual responsibility which is sadly lacking in our own culture. The ideas that we should care for one another and be willing to sacrifice for the good of the community are not ones to which we ought to feel superior.

It is particularly strange and contradictory that Schlesinger holds up tolerance for diversity as one of the supposedly superior values of Western civilization, since it is precisely the main point of his book that we should not be tolerant of diversity. I must add that the United States has hardly lived up to this particular ideal with any consistency, nor for that matter Schlesinger's other great ideal of democracy, nor are they held in common by Americans today. Where do Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and David Duke find their followers? Among immigrants, Blacks, Native Americans?

An honest American history curriculum would hardly serve to unite Americans, who would see their own ancestors enslaved, nearly exterminated, lynched, impoverished, or perhaps living lives of luxury and ease off the unremitting labor and deaths of millions. This seems not to have occurred to Schlesinger.

The creeds of individual freedom, democracy and diversity indeed have unifying power. They inspire me, though I would temper them with equal recognition of community and responsibility. But they are just that: creeds, not historical reality. Furthermore, these creeds demand that we do precisely what Schlesinger rejects: to value equally and to understand respectfully the diversity of the world's cultures, and to celebrate a diversity of cultures within our own nation. There is no single American culture, no single American ethnic identity, and there never has been one. To long for vanished days when, as Schlesinger claims, we were "one people", is to wish to fall back into a dream.

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