Commentary Magazine


Dictatorship of Virtue, by Richard Bernstein

The “M” Word

Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future.
by Richard Bernstein.
Knopf. 367 pp. $25.00.

Sometimes—mercifully—the kids are hard to fool. At our son’s graduation in May, several of his classmates briefed us on which departments of their well-regarded liberal-arts college were intellectually flaccid, politically correct, or beset by grade inflation, and which had clung to openness, balance, and rigor. They were matter-of-fact about the distinction, probably because they could not readily imagine—most likely had never experienced—an educational institution wholly devoted to high standards and free inquiry. They assumed that both sorts of academic departments would naturally exist on campus. But they were clear about the difference, and keenly aware that in some subjects an “A” signified serious accomplishment, while in others it served primarily to denote attendance or, at best, effort.

That vignette does not turn up in Richard Bernstein’s estimable look at educational (and other) abominations committed in the name of “multiculturalism”—a doctrine that preaches the inclusion of “underrepresented minorities” yet practices a rigid and exclusionary orthodoxy of its own. But plenty of other stories do. Their vividness and realism are major virtues of this book, which the veteran New York Times reporter based on an extended tour that carried him across the land from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Brookline, Massachusetts, to Boulder, Colorado, in search of multiculturalism in action.

Some of Bernstein’s tales are familiar (who, by now, has not heard of the “water-buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania?); others have been taken from the pages of sundry periodicals; the most illuminating of all are those freshly reported by Bernstein himself.

But this volume is more than a collection of appalling episodes. It develops a dual thesis: first, that a once-liberal impulse to welcome into the public culture more elements of the diverse American experience has merged with the forces of political correctness to create a powerful “dictatorship of virtue.” Second, that assimilation into the American mainstream has become a taboo notion; as the new “dictators” strive to suppress the mainstream in the institutions they control, our common culture has itself begun to wither.

Bernstein uses a term favored by scholars of the French Revolution—dérapage, a “skid” or “slide”—to describe what has happened over the past decade or so, as a movement “aimed supposedly at a greater inclusiveness . . . has somehow slipped from its moorings and turned into a new petrified opinion of the sort it was supposed to transcend.”

No guillotines have yet been erected in university quads and other public squares, but more than a few university faculty meetings have echoed with rhetoric reminiscent of Robespierre. Bernstein underscores the irony here, as values such as pluralism, diversity, openness, and inclusion are repeatedly invoked to justify actions that smack of authoritarianism, closed-mindedness, and uniformity. To take but one blatant example: even as today’s multiculturalists trumpet the merits of diversity, they loudly abhor the “Christian Right,” are eager to suppress speech they do not like, and deny the legitimacy of grievances by people who do not fit into categories bearing the politically-correct stamp.

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The dérapage of “multiculturalism” has borne it in troubling directions, four of which are deftly explored in Bernstein’s book.

First, we are losing the delicate balance implied in the motto, “E pluribus unum.” Instead, a novel conception of American society is gaining sway, one that stresses rival group interests, ineradicable group differences, and deep (if sometimes embellished) group-linked cultural identities. The “unum” is downplayed, even scorned, and what Americans have in common with one another is shrunk to a handful of political institutions manipulated by groups to gain advantage.

This is why, for example, the ethnic classifications used in the decennial census bear so much freight today: it is widely perceived that groups gain legitimacy—and, in time, political and economic resources—in proportion to their numbers. Thus, the uproar over the suggestion of a “multiracial” census category (which would clarify the status of the many Americans whose ancestry is truly mixed) has only partly to do with the fact that anything smelling of the “melting pot” is considered noxious. More to the point, racially-distinctive groups see themselves as losing clout if people who would have been counted (however spuriously) within their membership should opt instead for the new designation.

Second, a neosegregation has taken hold. This is visible everywhere, from the proliferation of racially-demarcated dorms and dining halls on campus to the vast superstructure of government-sanctioned affirmative-action schemes, set-asides, and preferences that are fast overwhelming the principles of color-blindness and individual merit. It is not surprising that a society which accents its differences rather than its similarities, and which confers power and status on the basis of group identity, will find itself erecting psychological and legal stockades around those groups.

Consider a recent (and seemingly unprecedented) legal maneuver by the Justice Department, which abruptly switched sides in an employment-discrimination case that it had won and asked the appellate court to overturn the verdict on the grounds that a worker’s race may, after all, be weighed in deciding whom to lay off. We appear to be heading for a kind of self-imposed apartheid that is bound to produce tribal resentments of a sort now visible from Bosnia to Rwanda to Azerbaijan. Under such fissiparous assault, the center cannot hold, particularly when government itself is turned into an agent of group preference.

Third, today’s schools and colleges are not just neglecting Western civilization; many of them have begun to impart falsehoods and distortions to our children and grandchildren. Bernstein is at his best in documenting both the incursions of multiculturalism into the curriculum and the enforcement of multiculturalist dogma on campus via discipline policies and speech codes. He also illuminates the political impact of such perversions of scholarship as a recent “study,” sponsored by the American Association of University Women, which has been shrewdly employed in a campaign to prove discrimination against girls in the public schools despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One predictable result, of course, has been heavy pressure for new federal, state, local, and private programs to rectify the alleged outrage.

Fourth, and most fundamentally, multiculturalism and its cousins have politicized the culture itself, erasing the distinction between our shared public culture (school, workplace, media), and our diverse private cultures (kin, church, clubhouse). Bilingual education is just one large instance of the penetration of our public policies by functions and obligations—in this case, preserving the native tongues and cultures of immigrant children—that were once the work of family, festival, and neighborhood. Society pays twice for this: retarding the assimilation of those children and their families, despite ample evidence that entry into the mainstream is precisely why they went to immense pains to reach our shores; and transferring countless small decisions (will the next bilingual-teaching “hire” be Spanish or Khmer?) into the arena of interest-group politics, logrolling, and litigation, often engaging the federal government.

Though the Left is frequently and legitimately blamed for the dérapage of contemporary multiculturalism in general, Bernstein notes how smoothly the multiculturalist mindset meshes on certain issues with nativism and older forms of racism. When it comes to immigration policy, for example, some “conservative . . . arguments share a striking common assumption with the arguments of the more strident multiculturalists: neither has much faith in the power of assimilation.” Each favors barriers of one sort or another.

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How justified is Bernstein’s gloom? One can hardly rebut his claim that multiculturalism has “won,” though its partisans are obliged to deny it: “Since theirs is an anti-establishment rebellion, a victory of virtue, they thrive by maintaining the fiction that they are nothing but small voices struggling to be heard.” In reality, however, they have gained effective control of nearly all our major cultural institutions. While tilting against “privilege,” they have succeeded in “privileging” their own world view to such an extent that “courage is now required to transgress the dictatorship of virtue.”

Bernstein does not hold out much hope for many such manifestations of courage. Still there is a possibility that, by growing ever more intrusive and unreasonable, the new “dictators” may yet weaken rather than strengthen their political acceptance. In fact, several of Bernstein’s anecdotes suggest that this may already be starting to happen.

Consider, for example, the aftermath of a 1989 decision by the Brookline, Massachusetts, high school to jettison its advanced-placement (AP) course in modern European history on the grounds that such a class was “incompatible with multiculturalism” and would give unfair advantage to the “privileged” youngsters (about 35) who took it each year.

Brookline, of course, is the prosperous Boston suburb that is home to Michael Dukakis. It is known for good schools. It is also one of the epicenters of political correctness, and its high-school curriculum, as Bernstein reports, has been multicultural in most respects since 1973.

Yet even in Brookline, it appears, a move to kill the most demanding and highest-status social-studies course in the high school was not lightly accepted. The decision naturally sat poorly with youngsters who wanted to take the class but could not. And it riled their parents. The ensuing battle raged for a year, until an obscure state law was found that requires a school to offer a course if at least 30 students and their parents petition for it. The energized adolescents organized a successful signature drive and in time the school committee yielded—though not without adding an irksome new twist: henceforth, any student who took both the 10th-grade European-history course and the AP course was required also to take a class providing a “non-European, non-American perspective” as a condition for graduation.

The tale thus ends in just a partial victory. Yet it affords a basis for modest hope. Although the parent-student resistance in Brookline was not so much philosophical as self-interested, it was also clear-eyed and persistent. Similarly clear-eyed, it seemed to me, were my son’s college classmates, disinclined as they were to let their own futures be shadowed by the goofier dispositions of the faculty. And so, too, are some of the recent immigrants profiled by Bernstein, keen that their children’s opportunities not be limited by elite notions of what is good for them.

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Though we might prefer a George Orwell or a Sidney Hook to lead us out of the multicultural morass, we could do worse than find platoons of self-interested young people and their exasperated parents. They will need to work the levers of power, using the money they pay in term bills and taxes and the votes they cast for school boards and legislatures. But they are already getting a boost from talk-show hosts, a handful of politicians who have caught on, the manufacturers of bumper stickers, and the much-maligned “religious Right,” which, unaccustomed as it may be to the role of protector of liberal values, turns out to be no trivial ally in the culture wars.

The young people I am imagining at the center of such an alliance may be self-absorbed, ill-schooled, and impulsive. But in just these qualities, as well as in their natural rebelliousness against authority and hostility to dogma, they might yet offer a counterweight to dictators, even those professing virtue.

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