Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

By Michael Bérubé | Go to book overview

9 Disuniting America Again

The aggregation of ethnicities that composes the United States at the end of the twentieth century differs both in degree and in kind from that of the previous fin de siècle; and yet our current controversies over multiculturalism are in one respect identical to those of the late nineteenth century, insofar as they continue to turn on the argument that American citizens must shed their ethnic particularities in order to participate fully in the imagined community of the nation. Even those of us who dissent from this argument have nevertheless taken it as our starting point, and if we're to move the discussion forward at this late hour, it's clear that we'll have to assert American multiculturalism as something more than the politics of ethnic inclusion. The question facing us today, therefore, is whether liberalism can provide the means for forging a new common sense about our own multiculturalism, and what 'multiculturalism' will consequently mean in the sublunary realm of public policy. This is not a question of whether we as a nation will 'acknowledge' our multiculturalism, for to do so would be only to recognize the obvious; nor is it a question of simply substituting one metaphor for another--'salad bowl' or 'mosaic' for 'melting pot'. Nor, finally, is it a question of whether we will be 'one' or 'many'. The question is, rather, more basic than any of these: what kind of national unity is necessary to the functioning of a putatively democratic and nominally egalitarian society?

Unless we press this question, we're likely to remain in the idealist fog that has obscured so much of the multiculturalism debate to date, wherein one camp insists that American unity depends on the repudiation or marginalization of individual and group difference, and the other camp insists that American unity depends on the acknowledgment, toleration, or celebration of individual and group difference. It's axiomatic on the left, by now, that both of these formulations are empty unless they interrogate the meaning and production of 'difference'. But such left critiques, in putting

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