Why the American ‘multicultural’ model falls apart in Europe and Israel

By Gadi Taub


So routine has the use of the word “multiculturalism” become, that it is now invoked to described a variety of different things. In some of its popular usages, it is merely a synonym for pluralism. There is of course no problem with this from a liberal democratic point of view. Originally, though, the term referred to something far more drastic, an offshoot of postmodern ideology. Thus, as postmodernism maintains that there is no truth, multiculturalism claims that all cultures are on par. In its own eyes, the multicultural stance is actually a broadening of democracy from human beings to values. It is not enough to acknowledge that all human beings are equal; true equality requires that we respect their cultures equally too.
This simple argument contains a contradiction: According equal value to cultures can have the effect of undermining equality among human beings, not only of expanding it. Granting equal status to a culture in which women are the property of men, or in which slavery is permitted, is not a broadening of democracy. But despite this flagrant contradiction, multicultural rhetoric has taken hold among large segments of the Western elite and has become the cornerstone of political correctness. Of “the Other,” one may speak only in terms that are (to a liberal ear) positive. In this conversation, the Other is usually perceived only as victim and as saint.
A close listening to the discourse of the progressive elements in Europe about the refugee question shows how deeply entrenched this viewpoint has become. What one is allowed to say is that cultural encounters are productive, that diversity enriches and that contact with otherness expands our horizons.
But there is something deceptive about this paean to multiplicity. It talks about otherness but refuses to look at it, declares diversity but presumes uniformity. In other words, it is a form of self-deception. Its (misleading) name notwithstanding, the posture known as “multiculturalism” rests on a unicultural assumption: that beneath all the misunderstandings, we all share the same basic liberal beliefs. In fact, the colorful cultural mosaic that espousers of such approaches create in their mind’s eye works only when it is not actually colorful. Or, it is perhaps better to say, the mosaic can exist only when all its parts are themselves enthusiastic about mosaics – only when all its elements share the same passion for multiplicity, and are equally delighted with diversity.
Paradoxically, when everyone believes in diversity, it does not really exist. Beneath the thin veneer of talk of multiplicity we find the liberal assumption of unity. Of course, if all “cultures” are liberal, there is no problem with this stance. However, if one of them is not liberal, this stance offers no solution. Thus multiculturalism offers us a solution only when we don’t have a problem.
Along with the rest of the West, we in Israel bought this misleading view, by which liberalism presents its unity as multiplicity, from the United States, under the auspices of academic fashions that come under different headings but are related. Of these the most widespread are postmodernism (the versions that gained traction in Western academia are saliently more American than French), critical theory (the most widespread versions are more American than Marxist), culture studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies and more. All of them are embedded in American liberalism, and with them we have also bought American liberalism’s lack of self-awareness. For American academics liberalism is so self-evident that it’s presence, like the air we breathe, is transparent and intangible.
God is a liberal
American liberalism, which developed within a migrant society, had to wrestle with the question of creating unity from multiplicity from its very inception. And it also found effective solutions. In America, too, the multicultural view involves self-deception. But in its case the self-deception was beneficial, juxtaposed as it was on the bedrock of a deep and far-reaching consensus.
The assimilationist forces in America are tremendous, and the pressures they exert on people to conform are powerful. In various ways, both de facto and de jure, assimilation demands that migrants accept the country’s basic moral values: individualism, natural rights, gender equality, democracy, capitalism and a contractual conception of society and human relations. This is a precondition for becoming part of the American dream. If you have other dreams, America will shatter them quickly and efficiently, lest they endanger the moral consensus. True, diversity has a place beneath this uniform liberal umbrella but there is no place outside its purview.
One of the important progenitors of the American formula that so adeptly transformed multiplicity into unity was Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. By shifting the emphasis of the arguments for freedom of religion, Jefferson found a way to square the circle. He was not alone in believing in freedom of religion, of course. Most of the liberals of his time agreed that it was wrong for the state to intervene in the citizens’ beliefs. But their reasoning was, generally, that none of us has direct access to God’s intentions. As the government, too, lacks such access, it must not decide for us what to believe.
Jefferson, however, stood the formula on its head. His statute opens with the resounding declaration, “God hath created the mind free.” In other words, freedom of religion itself is divinely ordained. The reason we should enact it is not because we lack access to God’s intention, but precisely because we do. And so we know that God himself is a liberal. Thus was unity sanctified through the language of multiplicity.
Jefferson’s formula underwent multiple transformations. However, the relevant version for our purposes is the one that emerged from the failure of the student revolt movement in the 1960s, in the wake of young Americans’ serious disappointment with their country. It thus remains tinged with the bitter taste of that disappointment; and it brought with it the moral kitsch that turned self-flagellation into an easy, theatrical substitute for genuine self-criticism.
One great campaign
The revolt of the 1960s in the United States was many different things. But for a moment it seemed as though all its factions were one common outcry against a single adversary: “the system.” It was believed that the system, meaning the establishment, creates many types of wrong wherever it is involved: discrimination against blacks in the South, the war in Vietnam, male chauvinism, classification of gays as psychiatric patients or offenders deserving punishment, and so on. All these ills would be cured when the masses – the people – shook off its shackles. And then, in place of the uniform gray concrete of establishment oppression a thousand flowers would bloom, each with its own color and in its own way. The student movement, the civil rights movement, feminism, the gay community’s Stonewall demonstrations and the protest against the Vietnam War – all were part of one great campaign. Or so it seemed.
The first deep shock to this assumption of partnership came in 1966, when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement was taken over by advocates of “black power” and “black pride.” Stokely Carmichael was elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the young branch of King’s movement) and immediately demanded that all its white supporters be expelled. The Black Panthers began to occupy front stage, and Malcolm X became a celebrity. Whereas King spoke in the name of common values and espoused integration, the generation of leaders who succeeded him derided him as a type of new Uncle Tom who kowtowed to the establishment in order to be accepted by whites. Integration itself became a pejorative, a symbol of forgoing self-respect and identity. Instead of integration, the young leaders called for voluntary segregation, pride in their distinctive identity, a separate culture.
Afterward came clashes between Black Power advocates and the feminist movement. In the last convention of the organized student movement, held in Chicago in 1969, the Black Panthers disparaged the feminists as “pussy power.” Furious, the women stalked out.
The protest against the war in Vietnam had a dynamic of its own. On its fringes, it morphed into unreserved support for the fanatic communism of North Vietnam. Some of the movement’s leaders sought, in effect, a military defeat for their own country, an approach that cost them the support of the moderate peace advocates. Shortly after the end of the decade, the diverse tributaries of the revolt appeared to have flowed into any number of directions. Everyone went his own way, and to his own struggle. For a time.
In the following two decades, they gradually regrouped under the auspices of academia and the banner of postmodernism. From social and political activism, the protest movement became an academic theory, and in theory all the struggles could again be seen as one. The postmodernist framework, as it was understood in America, would again conjure up the Jeffersonian magic: All beliefs have an equal place, on condition that they accept the equality of all beliefs. Pluralism would thus become a unifying force. The God of the new discourse, it seems, is himself pluralistic.
At first, the new postmodern spirit appeared to have a different impact on different veterans of the different 1960s’ struggles. The participants in the turbulent demonstrations against the Vietnam War found in Edward Said a new formulator of their opposition to imperialism and colonialism. According to the historian and literary scholar, the roots of Western colonialism and imperialism in all their incarnations lie in the patronizing Western discourse that “constructs” the West as a rational scientific subject and the East as a primitive object of “our” knowledge. In this way “we” justify our rule there. For those who had read Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and Foucault in the ‘70s, this was easy to accept.
Feminism, in the wake of a crisis of its own, adopted what its advocates initially called “standpoint theory.” It too shifted the weight to the discourse and prioritized the concept of “gender” (which had made the rounds among the cognoscenti already at the end of the 1960s). As with Said, according to this view, knowledge concerning femininity and masculinity is produced by men from a masculine standpoint, and as such is intended to justify the existing inequality. And as with Said, here, too, discourse constructs Man as the subject and Woman as the object.
In the same manner, the Stonewall Inn struggle, in which the gay community demanded that the police get off their case, found renewed expression in the deconstruction of the psychiatric discourse and reincarnation in a new academic field that branched off from gender studies: queer studies.
The civil rights movement, the oldest of the ‘60s revolt’s manifestations, had no trouble adapting black separatism to the new terminology. The “hegemonic discourse” is “white,” and the way to uproot oppression is to extricate black culture from its influence. Social, political and economic problems were reincarnated as a discussion of identity, culture and discourse.
One by one, imperceptibly, all these notions converged, identified themselves in one another and started to rebuild, brick by brick, the old image of the common struggle against the “system.” That term was supplanted by a new one – “hegemonic discourse” – in which all the marginalized groups are victims, and therefore all are partners in the struggle to dismantle it. In this way, the separate distinctiveness of each movement became a basis defining what they all have in common. Black separatism, the feminine viewpoint, queer singularity and the thrust for self-determination in the Third World all fused into one vision by positing a common adversary and a strategy of struggle against it.
Hegemonic monopoly
Though the jargon was inflated and the formulations tangled, the thesis itself was catchy and simple. The core of the new paradigm is the idea that the dominant group (defined, in the wake of Antonio Gramsci, as “hegemonic”) possesses a monopoly on the manufacture of knowledge. This group creates the discourse that constructs the social world, in the service of its continued rule. The discourse styles itself “universal,” but this is only a way to justify its desire to impose itself on all the others.
Imagine, if you will, a central circle that contains the hegemonic group: white males who are European and straight. They are the ones who manufacture our knowledge, and that knowledge is intended to justify their dominant status. Now draw smaller circles outside the main hegemonic circle, each representing a group: women, blacks, gays and the Third World – and you have the format of the multicultural conception. Each of these groups needs to storm the center from a different direction, dismantle its discourse and replace it with a different, liberating discourse whose pluralism contrasts with the uniformity of hegemony.
It’s a model of alluring clarity. It’s elegant and spare. But what it gains in elegance, it loses in its inability to illuminate the complex reality of cultural encounters. Without a multiplicity of cultures, and when all cultures share a broad, deep consensus, as in the case of liberalism in the United States, the problems arise less frequently. But once one leaves the United States and enters realms in which such a consensus does not exist – Europe, for example, or Israel’s immigrant society – the model falls apart. There is no reason to assume, to put it cautiously, that the struggle of a Muslim migrant in Germany to preserve his identity in the face of the hegemonic center makes him a natural ally of German gays who advocate same-sex marriage.
The insularity of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, in Israel in the face of the hegemony of the Zionist discourse does not necessarily advance the aspirations of Haredi women. Just as the campaign of Egyptian women against female circumcision is not necessarily a natural companion for those seeking to protect Egyptian identity against Western influences. Because, elegant models notwithstanding, not all forms of oppression emanate from the “hegemonic center.”
The confusion that the multicultural model creates can be glimpsed from within its own geometric pureness. It is analytically misleading. This is because the marginal groups it portrays – women, blacks, indigenous Third World peoples, gays, etc. – are not separate “groups,” but intersecting social categories. The model doesn’t work because the categories crosscut. It turns out, surprisingly, that there are women who are black, lesbians who are Arab, Haredim who are gay and so on. This is how the model conceals a simple fact: that some types of oppression emanate from the margins. But the margins are off-limits for criticism, of course.
In fact, when one peels the jargon off multicultural rhetoric, one finds an absurdity at its core. Saturated as it is with the liberal spirit, it nevertheless somehow assumes that liberalism itself is not liberal enough, whereas all the adversaries of liberalism are for some reason more liberal than it is. It’s not surprising, then, that an obfuscating jargon is needed to hide such a simple contradiction.
The Black Panthers were not feminists, Ho Chi Minh was not one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the Shas party’s rabbis are not defenders of the gay community’s rights, and the conclusion of Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip did not make Hamas a human rights organization. The assumption that democratic pluralism and liberal freedom will necessarily emanate from the margins has no foundation in reality. The logical fault can be formulated in brief: The whole model rests on the moral kitsch that identifies victimization with justice. Unfortunately, however, in the real world, victims are not necessarily saints, still less saintly liberals.
Conscience of elites
But the multicultural model is not about reality, it’s about the conscience of elites. It ignores the fact that in a migrant society multiplicity is first of all the problem, not first of all the solution. For a society of this kind needs, in the first place, to lay the common foundations without which solidarity is untenable, a functioning political arena impossible and an equal access to resources inconceivable. Only afterward is basking in multiplicity meaningful. Contrary to the impression created by the rhetoric of multiculturalism, it’s an ideology that originates in the center, not at the margins.
In the current climate, it is prohibited, as we know, to say anything good about the Israeli melting pot. Indeed, its implementation is susceptible to criticism. But it should be remembered that its other side is equality and a sense of belonging, and that the two sides are interdependent. A common identity means solidarity, mutual responsibility, a shared destiny.
Mapai, the forerunner of Labor in Israel, also enforced economic equality aggressively. In contrast, the multiculturalists’ attack on the Israeli melting pot is part of the zeitgeist of the market society. The “privatization of identity,” as Prof. Daniel Gutwein termed these tendencies, is the cultural mirror of economic privatization, and the attack on the common ethos is an attack on the most important bulwark of the weak: widespread solidarity.
Multiculturalism is thus actually an attack on concrete equality, beneath a smokescreen of symbolic equality. It markets indifference as concern for others, narcissism as empathy, and preoccupation with the conscience of the elite as imaginary responsibility for the margins of society.


Published in Haaretz, April 9, 2016

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