Conservatism and Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

Contemporary Western society is bedeviled by a dilemma largely of its own making: the intractable contradictions of multiculturalism. We are the beneficiaries of a culture created largely by many generations of our ancestors that has resulted in unparalleled wealth, comfort, freedom, and artistic and intellectual attainment. The privilege of being born into such a world, however, has generated in many men and women not gratitude but rather a sense of entitlement mingled with resentment and guilt. The denigration of achievements of the founders of Western civilization and of its characteristic institutions, so typical of academic and political discourse over the past several decades, serves to assuage the moral discomfort of the recipients of a great cultural heritage, which, along with the benefits it confers, demands deep respect and a heightened sense of responsibility. It is hard to feel that one truly deserves the opportunity of living in a world of such material abundance and spiritual richness; it is daunting to stand erect under the burden of preserving such a legacy. There is, no doubt, a certain emotional relief in assuming an attitude of patronizing disdain towards the men and women who made possible the extraordinarily affluent world of Western civilization with all its imaginative and intellectual possibilities; and to condemn it on behalf of non-Western cultures, which have somehow, supposedly, been cheated out of their rightful glory by the ascendancy of the West, offers the satisfaction of sanctimonious virtue at a very economical price. The only flaw in this plan is that few of the West's domestic critics are keen to relinquish the conveniences and personal latitude it provides, so the moral anxiety only returns in a different form.

Nowadays the most prominent object of multicultural deference is Islam. The progressive elite of the West rarely misses an opportunity to admonish the less enlightened members of the civilization, with their residual Christianity, for ignorant intolerance of Islam and bigoted abuse of Muslims. Regrettably, Islam, either as a religion or as a political society, hardly fits the profile of multicultural diversity and tolerance advocated by its selfappointed defenders. Hence the dilemma, which has resulted in the devising of a Utopian myth of Islamic history: during the Middle Ages, Muslim civilization was a beacon of intellectual and artistic attainment and cosmopolitan sophistication in contrast to the ignorance and barbarism of medieval Christendom, whose emergence from the "Dark Ages" almost wholly depended on the benign influence of Islamic culture. In what we regard as a very important essay, Dario Fernandez-Morera confronts a specific example of this myth, the idealization of the seven-century Moorish domination of the Iberian Peninsula. Fernandez Morera provides an array of historical facts and insightful arguments that demonstrate how the influence went in the other direction: it was the Romanized Visigothic kingdom, defeated and obliterated by Islamic invaders, which furnished the inspiration and the elements of the cultural achievements of the latter--including both the materials and the key architectural features of the fiimous mosque in Cordoba.

Of course, the multicultural temptation is by no means an innovation of the late twentieth century. Moshe Roshwald provides a subtle account of the deleterious effect of excessive cosmopolitanism on the spiritual condition of the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), one of the most remarkable literary figures of the nineteenth century. By his own account, his alienation from the faith of his fathers, from his native Germany (he is buried in Montmartre in Paris), from his romantic poetic roots--all contributed to a spirit of Zerrissenheit, or inner conflict. Roshwald leaves the final judgment to the reader, but it seems undeniable that Heine embodies a poignant instance of the personal cost of noncommittal detachment from faith and culture. …