Mixed Paint

America is less a mosaic than a can of paint whose colors are running together. But having enabled integration, liberalism has had to take the blame for the cultural antagonisms that integration has caused.

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The “culture wars”–the metaphor into which campus hate-speech codes, school prayer, Afrocentric school curricula, abortion, politically correct language, family values, affirmative action, the racial distribution of intelligence, deconstructionist literary criticism, sexual harassment policy, the Great Books, hardcore pornography, publicly funded art, and many other fractious things, are currently stuffed–are misfigured. The term suggests two great armies, one “liberal” and permissivist and looking a lot like a horde of Michael Kinsleys with slightly more raffish beards, the other “conservative” and traditionalist and looking alarmingly like a horde of Patrick Buchanans with slightly less charm. And “in the cross fire”: the soul of America.

This picture has two things wrong with it. First, there aren’t two sides. There are a dozen sides, and the “war” has much less the character of the Battle of the Somme than that of a playground free-for-all. Second, “liberalism” is not one of these sides. Although the term has come to stand for state-sponsored cultural permissivism (i.e., the encouragement of deviant lifestyles and obscene art), liberalism, in its classic meaning, is a politics that brings nothing cultural to the table at all. Liberalism only tries to help people get what they want; it has nothing to say about what it is they ought to want, nor should it.

The best definition of classic liberalism is the one formulated by British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Liberalism, in Berlin’s terms, is a philosophy of “negative” liberty, which means freedom from coercion by others. This freedom is contentless. It takes different people’s conceptions of the good life to be incommensurable. It doesn’t take a Christian or an atheistic position on, for example, school prayer. It just says that since there is no way of satisfying both Christians and atheists on this matter, there shall be no school prayer, period. To take another case, feminists who want to ban pornography are not “liberals.” They are, like fundamentalist Christians who want to ban pornography, people who do have a firm conception of the good life (and of the forces that militate against it) and who are willing to use public policy to help secure it. Liberals aren’t so willing. This doesn’t make liberals pro-pornography; it makes them anti-anti-free expression, which is a philosophically different thing.

The negative conception of liberty, which is very much the modern idea and the American idea, has always had to face the challenge of Berlin’s second concept, “positive” liberty, which he describes as freedom to. Believers in positive liberty think freedom comes from directing one’s actions toward some articulated conception of the good life. A certain, preferably benign, degree of coercion is therefore appropriate, since people need to know the right values from the wrong ones, and to be guided in their social doings toward those behaviors that will lead to self-realization and self-fulfillment. Schoolchildren will be better off praying; women will be better off without pornography.

In the mid-1990s United States, philosophies of positive liberty are in bloom all across the ideological spectrum. There have been challenges to liberalism before, but there has probably never been such a varied bouquet. Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning,” for example, a phrase she borrowed from Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, is a positive liberty philosophy. It seeks to infuse choices about values into the policy-making process in a manner alarming to classic liberalism. So does the communitarianism promoted by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni. Christopher Lasch’s neopopulism, Allan Bloom’s Straussianism, Catharine MacKinnon’s “feminism unmodified,” Patrick Buchanan’s new nationalism, Dan Quayle’s family values platform, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, Charles Murray’s “clanism” (his solution to the problem of racial differences in IQ that he and Richard Herrnstein claim to have established in “The Bell Curve”): All base their appeal on the perception that liberalism’s agnosticism about the nature of the good life has led to cultural breakdown.

If liberalism is now reduced by these competing moral doctrines to the position of an out-of-work gunfighter, hoping that things will get bad enough for its services to be in demand again, it has only itself to blame. For we are having these cultural brawls not because we fragmented, but because we integrated, and integration was a liberal accomplishment.

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. (It is profoundly symptomatic of the irrelevance of liberalism to the culture wars that the act’s 30-year anniversary has gone by virtually without notice.) The act is the monument to the great equity movements of the 1960s, which began with the civil rights movement for African-Americans and led to the women’s movement and, after 1969, to the gay liberation movement. The act mandated nondiscrimination by race, creed, and sex, and it has been the foundation of all civil rights progress–from the enforcement of voting rights to the equal funding of collegiate athletics for women–ever since.

The key to the act is neutrality: It doesn’t propose that women or nonwhites are better than white men, worse than white men, or even different from white men; it and its subsequent interpretations and emendations say only that whatever difference sex and race may make, that difference shall be ignored when counting votes, serving customers at lunch counters, admitting applicants to educational institutions, interviewing candidates for jobs, selling houses, and generally passing around social resources.

Among its many consequences, the act enabled the realization of the meritocratic system of education. The symbol of this system is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which represents the commitment made in postwar education, at every level, to reward only merit, regardless of race, sex, faith, or socioeconomic status, and to prevent class stratification in American life. Americans are supposed to feel that they have not been born into their social and economic positions, but can rise to whatever level their abilities permit (or even, I think most people hope, a notch or two higher).

But having established neutral standards, and having compelled adherence to nondiscriminatory procedures, liberalism can go no further. It must be satisfied with whatever these ostensibly neutral systems yield up. Liberalism’s faith is that groups are fundamentally equal in capacity, so that bracketing race and gender to eliminate bias will produce demographically proportional results. There is no reason to believe that, in the cultural vacuum tests like the SATs are supposed to provide, people will score lower or higher just because they have breasts or darker skin. Holding cultural background constant, liberals believe we can measure, and reward, excellence and excellence alone.

The most pointed challenge to liberalism’s neutrality is the movement known as “multiculturalism”–the notion that ignoring differences of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation is a covert method for continuing to oppress the different. For the very simple and disturbing point of multiculturalism is to suggest that there is no such thing as a cultural vacuum. This is not merely a theoretical proposition. It is based on, and draws its authority from, the experience of many of the women and nonwhites who showed up at the colleges and law firms integrated by the equality movements of the 1960s. Such people came to feel that although legal barriers to acceptance and advancement had been largely removed, cultural barriers remained.

For example, women in the academy (which was, until the late 1960s, one of the most overwhelmingly white and male places in America) found that although they might be paid on the same scale as male professors, and be free from discrimination in the legal sense, subtle impediments persisted, embedded in the institution’s traditional folkways and attitudes. These women found it not implausible to conclude that as subtle male bias is to universities, blatant bias must be to mass commercial culture. Thus the exposure of sexism in American movies, television, music, and advertising, and the insistence on its oppressive consequences for women, became a major scholarly industry. And thus the belief that expressions demeaning to women (and to nonwhites, gays, and other marginalized groups) are deserving of censure, since such expressions, wherever they are allowed, inhibit members of these groups from participating as equals.

But most multiculturalism is not simply reactive. It also advocates the identification and celebration of subcultures for a positive reason: to instill a sense of pride and self-worth in people who, because of their race or gender or sexual orientation, have been reduced in, or erased from, mainstream versions of American history. Self-esteem is, multiculturalists think, a necessary condition of empowerment: People cannot take control of their own lives unless they are convinced of the merits of who they happen to be and where they happen to come from.

The great villain for multiculturalism, therefore, is liberalism. It is liberalism that defends the right of panders and bigots to purvey their sexist wares and to utter their racist epithets. It is liberalism that established sham categories like “merit” and “excellence,” which have served as high-minded excuses for the exclusion, disparagement, and marginalization of “other” ways of knowing and achieving. And it is liberalism that insists on the majoritarian principles that permanently prevent minority groups–who will always be outvoted–from wielding power in America. Having enabled the integration of American institutions, liberalism has had to take the blame for the cultural antagonisms integration has caused.

The argument over multiculturalism now rages up and down the whole alphabet of American education, from K to Ph.D. It engages “culture” not only in the sense of “arts and letters,” but in the very widest connotation of the term. Many multiculturalists propose not only that, say, women might take an interest in books not formerly read in literature classes; they also propose that women might actually have different modes of apprehension and analysis from men. Some multiculturalists claim that only women can teach books by women and only blacks can teach books by blacks, or that the standards of science and mathematics are not neutral and universal, but reflect a racial or sexual bias.

It isn’t hard to see why these arguments drive many people to distraction–or, in the case of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who attacked multiculturalism as an educational doctrine in “The Disuniting of America” (1992), and Robert Hughes, who attacked it as a plausible interpretation of culture in “Culture of Complaint” (1993), to the production of best-selling books about it. Writers like Schlesinger and Hughes insist on a distinction between their antagonism to multiculturalism, which they regard as a liberal one, and the sort of antagonism to multiculturalism associated with conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Patrick Buchanan–the sort of militant and nationalistic assimilationism that was the rhetorical feature of the 1992 Republican national convention, and that shows promise of becoming more than just the rhetorical feature of the 104th Congress.

But although the sort of work Schlesinger and Hughes would like to see culture do–in Schlesinger’s case, to provide a common set of values for citizenship; in Hughes’, to represent the finest in human accomplishment–is clearly very different from the sort of work Buchanan and Gingrich would like to see culture do, it is not quite correct to call this a distinction between a “liberal” attitude and a “conservative” one. For there can be no such thing as a “liberal” attitude toward culture, since liberalism has nothing substantive to say about culture. Liberals, like anyone else, have views about culture, but liberalism doesn’t. And this is why, as shots ring out on Main Street, liberalism can only cool its heels and wait for the day when the townsfolk will decide that they have had enough and want the noisemakers run out of town. They don’t look like having had enough any time soon.

The antagonists in the culture wars all seem to share two assumptions. One is that American society really is in a state of increasing fragmentation, that groups which once happily assimilated are now refusing, and are likely to continue to refuse, to melt. The second is that culture can be used instrumentally, either to glue the shards together (as the commonculturists hope) or to foster the self-esteem of members of America’s constitutive groups (as the multiculturalists recommend).

The obsession with “culture” (as opposed to, say, economics) as the key to our national problems draws on an intellectual tradition which points to culture (high culture, indigenous culture, or folk culture, depending on the theorist) as the element of continuity and moral coherence in a world characterized precisely by its lack of respect for continuity and moral coherence. The trouble with this faith is that in addition to being socially and economically mobile and unstable, modern liberal societies are culturally mobile and unstable, as well. Capitalist democracies are not just permissive about cultural change; they actually thrive on it. A new taste means a new market. A free-for-all is exactly the sort of “culture war” capitalist societies produce.

Will the free-for-all end by bringing down the whole house?

Liberals can only stake the survival of their philosophy on a guess. The guess is that the cultural antagonisms that look like a new and dangerous tribalism are simply the epiphenomena, the shaking out, of an irreversible process of integration in American life. Contrary to most assertions, American society is becoming much less like a mosaic and much more like a can of mixed paint. The life-paths of women and men, and, to a lesser extent, of black and white Americans, are more likely to be congruent than at any time in history. Friction is not, after all, the consequence of separation.

But culture cannot be the organizer, blueprint, or palliative to this new and superficially diverse (though profoundly more unified) world, because culture is as fickle a hodgepodge of values, traditions, styles, and interpretations as anything else in modern life. It’s not a foundation stone; it’s only a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities. And the history of cultural achievement in the 20th century–the examples of people who have made memorable contributions to modern life–demonstrates, over and over, that what’s important isn’t the “right” combination, but simply access to the cube. For everyone’s combination must be different.

Almost everything we value in the way of individual achievement in the modern world has come when people have broken away from their traditions and made for themselves a new life out of materials their parents never knew. Almost nothing that we value has come from people submerging their identity into that of a group or trying to live facing backwards. But facing backwards has its appeal; and when Americans feel drawn to the notion, as they apparently do today, liberalism can only wait for them to get impatient with the results. They will.

Louis Menand teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


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