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Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future
By Richard Bernstein
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 367 pages

In this hot-tempered contribution to the ongoing culture wars, Richard Bernstein, a cultural correspondent for the New York Times, continues what is, in many respects, an ancient quarrel about education and the meaning of diversity. While this argument dates back all the way to Plato and the Sophists, it seems to have reached a feverish pitch in recent years with the publication of such books as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, Benjamin Barber's An Aristocracy of Everyone, and Russell Jacoby's Dogmatic Wisdom. While Bernstein seems to have fanned the flames in his latest offering, there is surprisingly little that is new here.

Bernstein calls multiculturalism "a humane and humanizing idea that has, somehow, gone wrong." Today, he argues, we are being threatened by a growing "bureaucracy" of diversity trainers, educational counselors, organized feminists, arts administrators, college deans, and proponents of a "New Consciousness" who are peddling not merely an appreciation of diversity but a radical political ideology. Multiculturalism condemns Western culture as racist, sexist, and imperialist, he says, while elevating the virtues of non-Western, non-patriarachal, and minority cultures as underrepresented and underappreciated. In doing this, it often operates not through the usual means of civil discourse and persuasion but through intimidation and intellectual decree, cheapening public discourse and elevating the politics of difference over the politics of equality.

Bernstein devotes the better part of this book to a series of accounts which exemplify the forces multiculturalism at work. Some of Bernstein's examples are already well-documented; others, collected during his visits to newsrooms, school boards, liberal churches, corporate training seminars, and university campuses across the country, are reported here for the first time. Bernstein uses these narratives to develop a dual thesis. First, he argues, the once-liberal impulse to safeguard equality and social justice, to let in the excluded and defend the virtues of pluralism, has now merged with the forces of political correctness to create a powerful "dictatorship of virtue." Second, assimilation into the American mainstream has become a taboo notion. As radical multiculturalists strive to suppress the mainstream elements of our culture in the institutions they control, the very values and traditions we have in common begin to wither away.

Bernstein uses a word favored by scholars of the French Revolution — derapage, meaning "skid" or "slide" — to describe the shift that has taken place as a movement "aimed supposedly at a greater inclusiveness of all of the country's diverse component parts ... has somehow slipped from its moorings and turned into a new petrified opinion of the sort it was supposed to transcend." Just as Robespierre's insistence on virtue led to the Terror (to which the book's title is an allusion), so the new drive to stamp out racism and sexism in America is the first step toward the creation of a tyranny of good intentions. In Bernstein's view, multiculturalism, in its more radical manifestations, is the derapage of the civil rights movement. "The whole point of the liberal revolution that gave rise to the 1960s was to free us from somebody else's dogma," he writes, "but now the very same people who fought for personal liberation a generation ago are striving to impose on others a secularized religion involving a set of values and codes that they believe in, disguising it behind innocuous labels like 'diversity training' and 'respect for difference.'"