Academic journal article Social Justice

The Multiculturalist Problematic in the Age of Globalized Capitalism

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Multiculturalist Problematic in the Age of Globalized Capitalism

Article excerpt

What constituted a mulatto by our law? ...Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of the Negro blood. But observe, that this does not reestablish freedom.... If emancipated, he becomes a free white man, and a citizen of the United States....

Thomas Jefferson (from a letter dated March 4, 1815, Monticello)

WITH THE END OF THE COLD WAR AND THE RISE OF TRANSNATIONAL, GLOBALized capitalism, a new "cultural war" has erupted in the United States, an ideological-political conflict symptomatic of the interminable crisis of liberal democracy. I am not alluding here to Samuel Huntington's "war of civilizations," the replacement of class struggle with the clash between the Islamic/Confucian axis and a monolithic Western dispensation. If by "culture" we mean the "public, standardized values of a community" that mediate the experience of individuals (Douglas, 1966: 39), the war involves antagonistic sets of norms, values, and beliefs expressed in institutionalized symbolic and discursive systems open to differing critiques and interpretations. The existing maps of meaning that make the world intelligible, maps objectified in patterns of social organization and relationship, are being discarded, reformed, invented, and reviewed in an accelerated process today. In any case, history has not ended with the demise of utopia and the triumph of the free-market neoliberal gospel.

What has flared up is the long-buried antngonism between polarized worldviews or frames of knowledge-production. In academic and intellectual circles, we observe the confrontation of two irreconcilable positions: one that claims the priority of a "common culture," call it liberal or civic nationalism, as the foundation for a democratic solidarity of citizens; and another that regards racism or a racializing logic as inherent in the sociopolitical constitution of the United States, a historical ground undercutting the universalist or cosmopolitan rhetoric of its proclaimed democratic ideals and principles (Perea, 1998). Attempts to mediate the dispute, whether through the artifice of a "multicultural nationalism" or a postethnic cosmopolitanism (Hollinger, 1998), have only muddled the precise distinctions laid out by the various protagonists. Multiculturalism, inflected in terms of cultural literacy, canon revision, the debate between Eurocentrism versus Afrocentrism, and so on, has become the major site of t heoretical and philosophical contestation.

A drive toward uniform standards informs the goal of Establishment thinkers who seek to mediate contradictory paradigms in the "culture wars." The noted literary critic E.D. Hirsch gained a certain notoriety by producing his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1988; second edition, 1993) premised on the notion of a common knowledge or collective memory as a necessary requisite for a "truly functional literacy." The literate national language and culture on which "the unity and effectiveness" of the nation-state depend, despite its avowed conservatism, needs to be transmitted in the schools to insure "national communication" among a diverse population divided by ethnicity, party affiliation, generation, locality, and so on. This communication among "strangers," Hirsch argues as he explains in "The Theory Behind the Dictionary," repudiates conventional interpretations and provokes us to revise our liberal resistance to a traditional curriculum:

We help people in the underclass rise economically by teaching them how to communicate effectively beyond a narrow social sphere, and that can only be accomplished by teaching them shared, traditional literate culture. Thus the inherent conservatism of literacy leads to an unavoidable paradox: the social goals of liberalism require educational conservatism. We only make social and economic progress by teaching everyone to read and communicate, which means teaching myths and facts that are predominantly traditional (1993: xv). …

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