the latest instalment in an occasional series of my pre-Internet era articles. This was my first article on immigration that was published in a mainstream newspaper.
America is in Danger of Losing its Soul
New York Newsday, May 12, 1991
For years now, liberals have supported the movement toward multiculturalism in American schools and society, seeing it as a natural extension of democratic freedoms. The unhappy truth, which even some liberals are beginning to understand, is that the cult of cultural diversity is profoundly inimical to freedom. It is not hard to see why.
The defining concept of multiculturalism is that our society is a collection of “equal” cultures, from which it follows that America’s dominant, Western culture is illegitimate and must be dismantled or drastically weakened. From these revolutionary axioms has emerged the despotism of “political correctness”: ever-growing repression of speech, coercive “sensitivity” programs, the massive assault on Western literature and thought, and the attack on individual rights in the name of group entitlements.
To its critics, multiculturalism is but the latest manifestation of the adversary culture, the handiwork of a clique of leftist professors and ethnic activists. But that is only part of the picture. It is time to face the fact that beneath its radical facade, multiculturalism is a mainstream phenomenon—a historically predictable result of the immigration trends that are transforming the U.S. into a multiracial society. The American people are only just beginning to grasp the awesome scale of these changes. Prior to the landmark immigration reforms of 1965, the U.S. had a white majority of about 89 percent and a black minority of 11 percent. The 1965 Immigration Act was expected to enhance America’s cosmopolitan mix of minorities, not to submerge the existing majority culture. Yet, at current rates of over a million immigrants per year—more than 90 percent of whom are Latin American and Asian—whites of European ancestry will be a minority in this country by the year 2050; in immigration-intensive states like New York and California, whites will be a minority in the next 20 years.
More than any other factor, it is this emerging multiracialism—notwithstanding the spirit, hard work and economic contributions of many recent immigrants—that is paving the way to multiculturalism. The cultural identity of white Americans is changing, almost unconsciously. As the country’s racial paradigm-shift makes our predominantly European heritage seem increasingly anachronistic in relation to our present, radically changed population, that heritage is delegitimized as a source of national identity and ideals. “Diversity”—with all its radicalizing potentialities in terms of group-think and derogation of the West—becomes the only way Americans can describe themselves, and the only way they can sanction their institutional arrangements.
At the same time, as the new groups continue to increase in numbers and power, they start to experience themselves as a culturally distinct rising force. That attitude, combined with the anxiety of functioning within a mainstream culture which does not fit them, and which itself is dwindling in numbers and legitimacy, creates a dangerous impetus toward ethnic chauvinism. In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The great power of Latin America is its culture. We don’t spend a dime trying to penetrate culturally, yet we’re changing the United States…. We’re changing the language, the food, the music, the way of being. We’re changing you into a Latin country.” A black studies professor tells Time magazine: “People of color have always been a majority in the world, and are now becoming a majority in America. The issue becomes, How do we begin to share power?”
It is not just the chauvinists who speak this way; even among ethnic spokesmen and writers of a non-radical bent, it is simply taken for granted that our changing demographics are leading to cultural revolution. William Wong writes in the Oakland Tribune: “If we are to get to the pluralist society, everyone will have to give something up, including the guardians of European-rooted cultures, to form a whole new society.” Novelist Bharati Mukherjee tells Bill Moyers: “What I like to think, Bill, is that you and I are both now without rules, because of the large influx of non-Europeans in the 70s and 80s, and more to come in the 90s…. We have to invent new American mythologies. Letting go of the old notions of what America was shouldn’t be seen as a loss.” Far from opposing these ideas, the white establishment supports them; at the prospect of demographic change being translated into a shift of political power, cultural elites such as college presidents capitulate in advance to the new cultural agenda.
To recognize that the fate of a culture has something to do with numbers—and therefore power—is not to endorse the leftist idea that Western culture is a mere system of “hegemony.” As Americans we believe in our cultural heritage, not just because it is “ours,” but because it is good. But our ability to preserve and transmit that common heritage depends on the continued existence of a majority population that believes in it. As people with widely different—even incompatible—cultural identities become a majority, the dominant culture inevitably changes or is replaced; when, for example, the majority of children in a school are Hispanic and Asian, it becomes less evident why they should go on learning the “Eurocentric” stories, traditions and heroes that formed the American character in previous generations. The curriculum is radically revised, and with it, America’s soul.
Yet even while ethnic spokesmen and educators speak of racial change leading ineluctably to cultural change, the conservative critics of multiculturalism continue to ignore the demographic dimension of the problem. As historian and Yale College dean Donald Kagan said in a speech to his students: “Happily, student bodies have grown vastly more diverse. Less happily, students are seeing themselves increasingly as parts of groups, distinct from other groups.” It does not seem to occur to Kagan that the group-think he regrets may actually be the result of the explosive racial diversification that he applauds. Conservative intellectuals seem to believe that over the next century scores of millions of Hispanics, Asians, Moslems and Africans can “melt” into the American character as easily as did the European immigrant groups in the early 20th century. But this historical analogy—repeated constantly in immigration debates—is fatally flawed.
First, the great southern and eastern European influx took place at a time when American society believed in its heritage and demanded cultural and linguistic assimilation as the price of admission; today, the U.S. has lost much of its unifying ethos and has largely abandoned the assimilationist ideology. Second, in the early 20th century there were mediating institutions—schools, churches, community organizations, the military—which did the actual work of assimilation; today, those institutions have lost their cultural authority, leaving both older and newer Americans adrift in the sea of a debased and meaningless pop culture. Third, the European immigrant groups, while ethnically distinct from the older Anglo-Americans, still shared with them an overall similarity of European heritage and race; by contrast, the great majority of today’s immigrants are Asian and Latin American. Finally and most importantly, the earlier immigration wave was cut back by Congress in 1921 and 1924, leaving the majority culture intact. While the restrictive national quotas passed in the 1920s are considered discriminatory today, there is no question that the resulting drop in immigration helped reduce ethnic tensions and greatly eased the assimilation of European-Americans through the mid-20th century. By contrast, there is no end in sight to the current, Third-World influx—which has assumed the character, not of a “wave,” but of a permanent, if peaceful, invasion.
In sum, the turn-of-the-century immigration, while it changed America in some significant ways, did not lead to a redefinition of the U.S. as a “multicultural” country; nor to the devaluing of the American and Western heritage; nor to the massive spread and official use of foreign languages; nor to the frightening ignorance and anomie of young Americans deprived of their civilizational inheritance in the name of “diversity”; nor to the expectation that America must give up its very identity to form a whole new society.
On the cutting edge of these changes is the University of California at Berkeley. Our first major university with multiracial, white-minority student body, Berkeley has become a tense no-man’s land of mutually exclusive “cultural” turfs.
What Berkeley is today, America will be tomorrow. Group rights and quotas, an endless battle over culture and race, and a growing bureaucratic power to mediate the conflict—this is the new, unfree America being born of uncontrolled immigration.
[end of article]