Commentary Magazine


The Disuniting of America, by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Toward Yugoslavia?

The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.
by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
Norton. 160 pp. $14.95.

Originally published by Whittle Direct Books and now reissued with an expanded foreword, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society is an uncompromising look at the fraud of multiculturalism and Afrocentrism. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s eminence as a historian—he currently holds the Albert Schweitzer chair in the humanities at the City University of New York—has not protected him, or his book, from the usual smears. Ishmael Reed, a novelist who teaches English at Berkeley, has denounced Schlesinger as a “follower of David Duke,” and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor of English and Afro-American studies at Harvard, has caricatured Schlesinger’s arguments as a “demand [for] cultural white-face.”

While predictable, the hostile response to The Disuniting of America is nevertheless particularly discouraging, for it is difficult to imagine a book expressing greater compassion for the racial frustrations which Schlesinger sees as fueling Afrocentrism, or greater candor about the past injustices of American society and historiography. If such a book—as frank about America’s failings as about those of multiculturalism—is dismissed as neo-Nazi propaganda, then good-faith discussion has been all but foreclosed.

Schlesinger’s thesis is that the current cult of ethnicity imperils the very basis of the American experiment. Although multiculturalists may think they own the patent on “diversity,” Schlesinger shows that diversity has been America’s trademark since inception. Our unique admixture of peoples has prompted both native-born and foreign observers to ask: what can hold so variegated a nation together? From the 18th to the 20th century the answer has remained constant: the “American Creed.” As Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944, Americans hold in common “the most explicitly expressed system of general ideals” of any country in the West: the ideals of equality and the inalienable rights to freedom, justice, and opportunity. It is adherence to those ideals, not one’s race, original nationality, or ethnicity, that makes one an American.

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Today, says Schlesinger, the American identity is in jeopardy as multiculturalism and Afrocentrism elevate racial and ethnic over national affiliation. At the end of this road, he warns, lie Yugoslavia and other contemporary battlegrounds of racial and ethnic separatism. While the analogy may seem a touch overwrought, there can be no question that multiculturalists are playing with weapons that can wreak havoc on our already inadequate schools, our social structure, and economy.

Separatist ideas of history are among those weapons. To be sure, today’s multiculturalists and Afro-centrists are hardly the first to revise history. During previous waves of American ethnic consciousness, Schlesinger points out, underdog groups similarly fabricated their own “compensatory” versions of history—what the historian John V. Kelleher calls the “there’s-always-an-Irishman-at-the-bottom-of-it-doing-the-real-work approach to American history.” The crucial difference, however, is that those earlier movements never sought to impose their ethnocentric mythologies on the public-school curriculum.

By contrast, Afrocentrists, who place Africa at the source of the world’s cultural and scientific achievements, view the teaching of history in the schools as a tool for group empowerment and for the advancement of group self-esteem. Such “therapeutic” uses of history undermine what Schlesinger sees as the true purpose of historical study: “the recognition of complexity and the search for knowledge.” Moreover, as Diane Ravitch, now an Assistant Secretary of Education, has warned, “Once ethnic pride and self-esteem become the criterion for teaching history, certain things cannot be taught” in the schools. Proscribed subjects include (in Schlesinger’s formulation) “the tyrannous authority [of African emperors], the ferocity of their wars, the tribal massacres, the squalid lot of the common people, . . . [and] the complicity with the Atlantic slave trade.”

As for what is being taught, the twin pillars of Afrocentrism are the claims that the West stole its culture from Egypt, and that Egypt was black. Schlesinger debunks both these fallacies, and disproves as well the relationship between ethnocentric education and self-esteem or academic achievement. Self-esteem, he notes, originates not in racial pride but in personal achievement and family encouragement, while the presence or absence of ethnic role models in the curriculum has no known correlation with academic success.

The connection between Afro-centric education and American black identity is even more tenuous, Schlesinger boldly argues. Since the early 19th century, most black leaders have repudiated the notion that they are Africans first, Americans second. The current cult of “self-Africanization,” among a people who no longer have an authentic relation to Africa, Schlesinger dismisses as “play-acting.” Most damning of all, he concludes, Afrocentric pedagogy works against the very goals it claims to be pursuing, since nothing could be more cunningly designed to retard the social and economic progress of black children than the new form of segregation represented by black-only public schools, the deemphasis of logic in favor of emotive forms of expression, and the encouragement of “black” English.

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In defense of their policies, multiculturalists routinely cite the sins of the European “canon” against which they are rebelling, an allegedly monolithic, exclusive, and intellectually repressive structure which, in the words of a leading Afrocentrist, is “killing [black] children, killing their minds.” Western culture as a whole, they add, is the world’s leading source of racism, imperialism, sexism, and all-around nastiness. Yet as Schlesinger points out, the Western canon—a fluid, immensely complex cultural inheritance that contains voices of rage and protest as well as voices of celebration and devotion—is precisely what has inspired the great black political theorists and philosophers, not to mention innumerable critics of the West both white and black.

What sets Europe apart from the rest of the world is not oppressiveness—its sins have been more than matched by Asia, the Middle East, and Africa—but rather the fact that Western oppression has “produced [its] own antidote”:

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. These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle Eastern ideas, except by adoption.

And though Schlesinger can be severe about the West’s failure to live up to its ideals, including the treatment of blacks and other minorities, he is scathing on the relative merits of other cultures compared with ours:

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. In this regard the Afrocentrists are especially absurd. The West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of those “sun people” who sustained slavery until Western imperialism abolished it (and, it is reported, sustain it to this day in Mauritania and the Sudan), who still keep women in subjection and cut off their clitorises, who carry out racial persecutions not only against Indians and other Asians but against fellow Africans from the wrong tribes, who show themselves either incapable of operating a democracy or ideologically hostile to the democratic idea, and who in their tyrannies and massacre, their Idi Amins and Boukassas, have stamped with utmost brutality on human rights.

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The eloquence and erudition of The Disuniting of America make its hostile reception all the more disturbing. Reading this book, one is torn between admiration for its arguments and the sad conviction that they are utterly futile. To warn against the dissolution of our common national ideals and our common culture holds little threat for people who claim, however speciously, that they never shared those ideals and were never part of that culture.

One of the most pernicious effects of multiculturalism has been to destroy the linguistic ground necessary to debate it. For such a debate would have to invoke terms like “we” and “commonality.” Yet multiculturalists, aided by the sophisticated deconstructive efforts of literary theorists like Stanley Fish and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, reject any such appeal to an American “we” as an act of imperialist violence. The only language that remains is that of an increasingly narrow “us” versus an increasingly alien “them.” This is the language of civil war.

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