Commentary Magazine


Intellectuals & Ethnics

To the Editor:

It is clearly churlish of me to find fault with Peter Berger’s gracious review of my book, Why Can’t They Be Like Us? [Books in Review, July], but then, Mr. Berger notes very accurately that I am Irish, and the Irish constitute an ethnic group that is widely believed, if indeed without statistical documentation, to enjoy arguing. And there is no better place in the United States to argue than in the Letters columns of COMMENTARY.

My arguments with Mr. Berger are twofold:

1) He thinks my chapter on “Intellectuals as an Ethnic Group” is tongue-in-cheek and should not be included in a “serious” book, but, in truth, that chapter is no less serious—and no more serious—than the rest of the book. Peter Berger himself suggests in a later paragraph that there are other collectivities besides nationality group in which a man can form “primordial” ties which, of course, is the important and very serious point of the chapter on intellectuals.

I was tempted to accuse Mr. Berger of taking a very square position (by which I mean a non-Irish position), that one cannot at the same time be dead serious and have tongue in cheek, but, as the author of “The Bluing of America,” Mr. Berger must surely be aware that the humorous spoof is sometimes the most serious form of argumentation.

2) Mr. Berger is quite correct when he says that it is possible that certain American groups, like the blacks, might choose separation. However, I feel that Mr. Berger, like most other elite social commentators, does not distinguish between pluralism and separatism. The research evidence gathered by Angus Campbell and Howard Shuman at the University of Michigan in 1968 seems to demonstrate conclusively that the overwhelming majority of blacks are opting for pluralism and not separatism; that is to say, for the right to maintain their own distinctive cultural heritage as part of a larger American society. More recently, in the American Journal of Sociology, Paul Metzger has argued the same case on a more theoretical level, contending quite persuasively that most liberals and most social scientists have confused integration with assimilation.

But there is a distinction between integration and assimilation and between pluralism and separatism. American society in theory has endorsed pluralism and integration without assimilation, but in fact, all the pressures of both elite social theory and official social practice have been toward assimilation. An exception has now been made for the blacks. The Poles and the Germans before them were not allowed to maintain a distinctive pluralistic culture. Blacks are now being encouraged to develop their own distinctive heritage, but in both cases mainstream America persists in defining distinctiveness as separatism and in identifying integration with assimilation. Diversity, the argument seems to run, is bad and it really ought not to be tolerated except for certain groups to whom society has done intolerable injustice. But diversity is bad for everyone else because it means separatism and separatism means conflict. In fact, separatism may or may not mean conflict, but diversity does not mean separatism. It didn’t for the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, or the Italians and it doesn’t for the blacks either, though it may be a long time before elite America is able to grasp this truth.

Andrew M. Greeley
Director, Center for the Study of Pluralism
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

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