On the myth of multiculturalism

Without a vision or programme of a different society or future, the left has retreated to pluralism and the idiom of choice as its most radical idea.

Portuguese pedestrians walk over a world map on the pavement beneath the Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon. The world's landmass is represented here in a tiled mosaic that Portugal is famous for and citizens walk across this depiction of their planet like giants on a mini-sized map. Located in Bel��m, on the bank of the River Tagus where the monument celebrates an era of adventure, expansion and colonial ambition. Within a circular frame, the ornate map shows an almost ancient world minus its geopolitical borders.
Portuguese pedestrians walk over a world map on the pavement beneath the Monument of Discoveries, Lisbon. The world's landmass is represented here in a tiled mosaic that Portugal is famous for and citizens walk across this depiction of their planet like giants on a mini-sized map. Located in Bel��m, on the bank of the River Tagus where the monument celebrates an era of adventure, expansion and colonial ambition. Within a circular frame, the ornate map shows an almost ancient world minus its geopolitical borders. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Why is multiculturalism a myth? I begin with a political observation: the demise of a viable and principled left. In the United States, at least, this had led to accenting the programme or language of multiculturalism. Without a vision or programme of a different society or future, the left retreats to pluralism as its most radical idea – not a new society, but one with more choices or more ‘cultures’. In the absence of an image of a striking future, the idiom of choice – fundamentally derived from the market economy – becomes omnipresent. Presumably, the more choice, the better; the more multiculturalism, the better. To be harsh, multiculturalism becomes the ideology of radicalism in an age of defeat and retreat. With little to offer, one offers more choice.

I am hardly the first to wonder if, increasingly, multiculturalism simply means more choices among restaurants. Using that as an index, clearly multiculturalism has increased: Sushi, tacos, Thai, Korean, Indian restaurants have become familiar in most mid-size and large cities. Moreover, the very faces and demographics of the population have altered. For instance, at UCLA, where I teach, the largest population group is now Asian-American. Yet this Asian population – to generalize broadly and wildly – is basically composed of reliable citizens who are anxiously trying to succeed in the American economy. What does it mean, then, that many of our advanced industrial societies have become more multicultural? If a Korean-American student is driving a BMW made in Germany, wearing Nikes advertised by American corporations but made in Indonesia, studying Western physics at school, eating at Mexican restaurants at night, listening to rap songs on a CD player, playing video games designed in Japan, does this constitute multiculturalism? Yes, but only if ‘culture’ has been reduced to a series of symbols and behavior patterns that take place within a very circumscribed terrain.

From another point of view, that student is a supreme example of advanced consumer society. To put this differently; what does it mean if multiculturalism prospers within a unified, homogeneous society? It indicates a certain amount of choice, but choice defined by economic and political imperatives – like one’s choice of television channels.

None of this implies that old antagonisms or hatreds cease to exist. Far from it. However, these differences no longer represent historical alternatives or projects – at least within advanced capitalist societies. With the demise of a principled socialism, antagonisms turn on the distribution of resources or, to put it prosaically, why large groups of people are excluded from prosperity. Obviously this exclusion makes these groups unhappy, angry, depressed, ill – and sometimes violent. Yet ghettoization – whether on grounds of racism or religious intolerance – does not turn these groups into vehicles of a superior social system. They simply want to be let in to enjoy the wealth as others do. They are hardly revolutionaries. They want to participate, not overthrow.

The spread of a mythical multiculturalism itself is a product of the democratization of the word ‘culture’. Once upon a time, ‘culture’ smacked of liberalism and elitism (which were identical), and was reviled from right and left. ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.’ This famous line comes from a 1933 neo-Nazi German play, Schlageter, by Hanns Johst, which was dedicated to Hitler. In the play a World  War I veteran goads his pal for lapsing into liberalism:

And the last thing I’ll stand for is ideas to get the better of me! I know that rubbish from ’18…, fraternity, equality…, freedom…, beauty and dignity!…No, let ’em keep their good distance with their whole ideological kettle of fish [Weltanschauungssalat]… I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word culture… I reach for my gun!

‘Culture’ here implies liberalism and the Enlightenment, everything the Nazis despised. Yet it was not only the far right that loathed culture, but the far left as well. With an unsettling kinship to Johst’s formulation, the Martinique psychiatrist Franz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘When the native hears a speech about Western culture, he pulls out his knife – or at least makes sure it is within reach.’ This view of culture roughly parallels that of Johst; talk of fraternity, equality, beauty and dignity drives the native to violence.

Liberals also denounced culture. John Bright, a nineteenth-century orator and Liberal member of Parliament, complained that when people ‘talk about what they call culture… they mean a smattering of two dead languages, of Greek and Latin’. Frederic Harrison, a follower of Comte and positivism, concurred: ‘Perhaps the silliest cant of the day is the cant about culture. Culture… applied to politics… means simply a turn for small fault-finding, love of selfish ease, and indecision in action.’

All quarters targeted a classical notion of culture that emerged with the Enlightenment. Ideas about education, cultivation and progress drenched ‘culture’, which implied a notion of progress. ‘The words enlightenment, culture and education [Bildung]’, wrote Moses Mendelssohn in 1784, ‘are newcomers to our language… Linguistic usage, which seems to want to create a distinction between these synonymous words, still has not had the time to establish their boundaries.’ ‘All cultural progress,’ wrote Kant fifteen years later, ‘represents the education of man… The most important object of culture… is man… endowed with reason.’ Kant called this process the gift of ‘becoming civilized through culture’. To Fichte, culture was the ‘exercise of all powers towards the end of full freedom’.

We have replaced the classical notion with the elastic, anthropological notion, where everything is a culture. This might be more democratic, but what we have lost is the ability to judge and discriminate. To put this another way, we have completely subjectivized the notion of culture. We have accepted that anything and any activity constitutes a ‘culture’ if it is so designated. Culture means whatever any group or researcher wants it to mean. No one challenges that a collection of people constitutes a separate culture.

At the same time, the jargon of cultural diversity obscures social and economic realities, which become either irrelevant or uninteresting. Multiculturalists see only culture, hardly attending to economic imperatives. Yet how can culture subsist apart from work and the production of wealth? And if it cannot, how can culture be apprehended without considering its entanglement in economic realities?

If the economic skeleton of culture were put on the table, patter about diversity might cease; it would be clear that diverse cultures rest on the same infrastructures. What does it mean if two different cultures partake of identical economic activities? What does it imply if the same jobs, housing, schools, modes of relaxing and loving inform two supposedly separate cultures? What does cultural pluralism signify in the absence of economic pluralism?

Perhaps the question seems meaningless. Yet the apparent lack of meaning signals intellectual retreat. The economic structure of society – call it advanced industrial society, capitalism or the market economy – stands as the invariant; few can imagine a different economic project. Such silent agreement says much about multiculturalism. No divergent political or economic vision animates cultural diversity. From the most militant Afro-centrists to the most ardent feminists, all quarters subscribe to very similar beliefs about work, equality and success. The secret of cultural diversity is its political and economic uniformity.

The literature on multiculturalism includes much that is reasonable and necessary. It is surely fair that various histories, long slighted, should get a hearing in curricula; it is desirable that people of all kinds populate the stories children read or the books they study. We want students to know that there were black scientists, Jewish gangsters and women artists. We want curricula to reflect the complexity of history and society.

These projects remain urgent and legitimate. Yet they constitute only a fraction of a multicultural argument that goes far beyond revising curriculum to addressing vast tracts of life and letters. Outside of the curriculum debate (and sometimes within it), multiculturalism easily loses its bearings. Driven by abstract ‘culture’ and a formalist ‘pluralism’, multiculturalism gives rise to programmes and notions that lag far behind social and economic developments. Hundreds of essays on ‘cultural identity’ fling out references to Derrida and Foucault with little purchase on their topic. Endless discussions of multiculturalism proceed from the unsubstantiated assumption that numerous distinct cultures constitute American society.

Only a few historians or observers even consider the possibility that the opposite may be true: that the world, and the United States, are relentlessly becoming culturally more uniform, not more diverse. Serious reflections about cultural pluralism must at least consider the powerful forces of cultural homogenization and ask these questions: how can pluralism exist within uniformity? What is the possibility of multiple cultures within a single consumer society?

To ask is partially to answer, for it is possible that cultural diversity and social homogeneity are connected inversely. The call for cultural identity may arise as a response to the demise of distinct cultural identities.

No group is able, and few are willing, to stand up to the potent homogenizing forces of advanced industrial society. All Americans, from African Americans to Greek Americans, buy the same goods, watch the same films and television shows, pursue the same activities and have (more or less) the same desires for success. From a marketing perspective, these groups may show up as discrete consumers of music or sports, but this hardly constitutes fundamentally different identities. All differences among groups have not disappeared; this is obvious. Yet they may progressively decline. Exactly for this reason, individuals find differences increasingly important to themselves. It is the rootless, not the rooted, who fetishize their roots.

The revival of ethnic identity amid its actual decline may be news to dogmatic exponents of multiculturalism, but not to historians of immigration and assimilation. One highly regarded historian of immigration, Marcus Lee Hansen, formulated a generational ‘law’ that speaks to this very issue. He called the law ‘the principle of third-generation interest’, which can be summed up in the maxim, ‘What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.’

According to Hansen, first-generation immigrants, burdened with ‘material cares’, paid little heed to the old-world culture from which they came. Their sons and daughters, taunted by native-born Americans, wanted to escape from the foreign language, religion and family customs, so they adopted a ‘policy of forgetting’. ‘Nothing was more Yankee than a Yankeeized person of foreign descent.’ It is the next generation, the third, that proudly remembers its roots and common heritage. In current terms, it is the third generation that fuels cultural identity and revival, feeding the enthusiasm for multiculturalism.

Since its formulation in 1937, Hansen’s ‘law’ has provoked much attention and criticism. In many ways his argument is too simple. Yet it captures a feature of immigration that remains pertinent: the renaissance of cultural identity in the context of its real decline. The sons and daughters, who want to remember and honour their past, are third-generation Americans; they are American-born and educated; they no longer feel any inferiority.

Their confidence, perhaps comfort, in their American identity, allows them to cultivate their past. They proudly carry their national or ethnic identity, but what does it mean? They are also assimilated, lacking the language, customs and practices of their grandparents. Polish Americans do not speak Polish. African Americans know little of Africa. This is a truth that current multiculturalists do not know or want to know. To put it sharply; multiculturalism is not the opposite of assimilation, but its product.

The inescapable forces of Americanization do not mean that all groups participate in society with equal success. Those excluded because of racial or ethnic injustice, however, do not necessarily constitute a distinct culture. Suffering does not engender a culture. With the best of intentions the anthropologist Oscar Lewis introduced in 1959 the term ‘the culture of poverty’ to fathom the endemic impoverishment of Mexican families. Lewis himself was a lifelong socialist – with a fear of anti-Semitism that led him to change his name from Lefkowitz. His first subtitle for Five Families was The Anthropology of Poverty, but the subtitle of the published book instead read Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty. The book and phrase ‘culture of poverty’ proved popular, but critics roundly denounced Lewis for implying that unique cultural traits, and not economic conditions, led to poverty.

Nevertheless, ‘the culture of’ approach enjoys unparalleled success; few attend to the economic content of the ‘culture’ in question. Nor, as the anthropologist Charles A. Valentine trenchantly argued years ago in Culture and Poverty, is much attention given to the relationship of the culture or the subculture to the larger society: ‘Clarification of these matters is very much overdue, if only because it has become so intellectually stylish to discover ‘cultures’ everywhere in national and international life.’ By logic or observation something sets a ‘sub-group’ apart from a larger society or culture. How exactly? Without considering the wider frame, what appears distinct is mythologized, as if each group lives in a separate universe.

For those who care to look, evidence is everywhere that distinct cultures are not so distinct. In On the Edge, his provocative book on poor black children in Philadelphia, Carl H. Nightingale found that, more and more, these kids have succumbed to consumer society, which preys on their vulnerability. Precisely because they are excluded and humiliated, they become fanatical devotees of name brands, gold chains and pricey cars – emblems of American success:

As soon as they are able, the kids begin to demand the basic building blocks of the b-boy outfit. Already at five and six, many kids in the neighborhood can recite the whole canon of adult luxury – from Gucci, Evan Picone, and Pierre Cardin, to Mercedes and BMW… From the age of ten, kids become thoroughly engrossed in the Nikes and Reeboks cult of the sneaker…

Then comes the fascination with rappers and drug dealers. The ‘ubiquitous rap tapes’ show ‘a preoccupation with consumption and acquisition that never characterized the old soul and R&B hits.’ The lure of local drug dealers arises from their ‘glorification of blackness… with virtuoso performances of conspicuous consumption’. Nightingale concludes that ‘the cult of consumption has permeated the emotional and cultural life of poor urban African-American kids’ with devastating consequences. No group wants to hear that it lacks culture, but that is not the issue; rather, the question is how different are the various cultures from each other and from the dominant American culture? For instance, scholars from Melville Herskovits to Sterling Stuckey have documented the persistence of African tales, songs and language in the American black experience. This is a valid and valuable endeavour, but it does not mean that, today, African Americans constitute a distinct culture – any more than do Italian Americans, Japanese Americans or Jewish Americans.

Little suggests that any group except the most marginal and inflexible can maintain, or even wants to maintain, a distinct culture within American society. Such groups do exist, but typically they play little role in multiculturalism because they do not want to be let in, but left out. For instance, the Amish rarely figure in discussions of multiculturalism – not simply because they are a small group; rather, they are too far outside the mainstream. Their absence, however, highlights the unspoken conformity of multiculturalism in which the multiple cultures want, more or less, the same things. Unlike other American ‘cultures’, the Amish reject the use of electricity, automobiles and most modern consumer goods; their dress, mainly sewn by themselves, has changed little over a century. They are almost pre-industrial and communitarian.

A mythical multiculturalism plays out on a global level – and here, some of the same issues surface, in addition to a new one. In the major capitals of the world, shops, restaurants and fashions seem more and more alike. One finds email and internet connections almost everywhere. For some, like Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, this is all to the good, leading to a peaceful world. To the degree that all countries participate in a liberal capitalist order, to that degree peace will reign. Indeed, Friedman dubbed this the ‘golden arches theory of conflict prevention’. ‘No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each since each got its McDonald’s.’ He asks which three countries in the Middle East have no McDonald’s? Answer: Syria, Iran and Iraq.

This idea has serious problems. As many have pointed out, soon after Friedman published The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the US and NATO bombed Belgrade, which had a McDonald’s outlet. Yet there are real issues here about globalization and multiculturalism. For Friedman, the two are synonymous. The world is divided between those who embrace the luxury car Lexus and those who refuse it, and fight instead over who owns which olive tree. The world is divided between those who look forward to a new economic order of prosperity and those who prefer to look backwards, and grow olives. ‘The biggest threat today to your olive tree is likely to come from the Lexus – from all the anonymous, transnational, homogenizing, standardizing market forces and technologies that make up today’s globalizing economic system.’

I don’t believe that multiculturalism plays out in the same way on global terrain as within the advanced capitalist societies. Yet there are obvious parallels – with the difference that, globally, the stakes are higher and the resistance more violent. Three points can be made here:

  1. To the extent that globalization affects culture, it leads to homogenization; Friedman is clear about that. Cultural differences are lost; they are marketed, packaged and lost. The Lexus and the Olive Tree almost closes with a story about local tomatoes from New Jersey, which are oddly shaped and difficult to ship – and are no longer being grown. Yet they were delicious. Yes, you can have sushi in Stockholm, tacos in Paris and kimchi in Chicago, but within societies that are becoming more and more alike.
  2. There are clear losers – those pushed out, and those who foot the bill. Huge swaths of population, not needed, become extraneous – virtually a surplus population.
  3. To the degree that globalization offers not cultural diversity, but more or less cultural homogeneity, it provokes an opposition that is religious and fundamentalist.


There is no cause and effect here, but one feature of the recent world, to which I alluded earlier, is the eclipse of a principled, thoughtful critique of consumer capitalism from the left. Instead, consumer capitalism has been, if not embraced, at least accepted by all political groups. Today’s left offers alternatives in everything from environmental regulations and pensions to welfare policy, but it no longer challenges capitalism’s basic principles. The only real challenge to globalization/cultural homogenization thus comes from religious fundamentalists. Putting aside for the moment the genuine political issues that provoke Islamic fundamentalists, one should not ignore the cultural issues – the threat of Western homogenization.

In A Fury for God, Malise Ruthven focuses on Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker in the World Trade Center attack. In some sense, Atta himself might be seen as the angry byproduct of Western consumer capitalism:

Indeed the depersonalized abstractions of modernity find their perfect architectural expression in the impersonal aesthetic of modern downtown city areas, which seem to dwarf humanity. Old Islamic cities such as Aleppo (the subject of Mohamed Atta’s dissertation) with its warren of covered suqs too narrow for motor traffic, open booths where small merchants display their wares, are at the opposite ‘civilizational’ pole to Oxford Street or Madison Avenue… Former teachers and classmates told Newsweek that Atta believed that high-rise buildings had desecrated his homeland… ‘In the ancient cities of the Middle East, the time-honored mode of construction was to build one- and two-story houses with private courtyards. The construction of towering, impersonal and usually ugly apartment blocks in the 1960s and 70s, Atta believed, had ruined the old neighborhoods, robbing their inhabitants of privacy and dignity. It may have been particularly galling to Atta that his own family had moved into an 11th floor apartment in just such a hulking monstrosity in 1990… To Atta, the boxy building was a shabby symbol of Egypt’s haphazard attempts to modernize and its shameless embrace of the West.

In some sense we are dealing with a rejection of cheap modernization in the name of rural, traditional religious values. These values cannot be simply rejected as worthless. Indeed, just to take Friedman’s iconic con- trasts, the Lexus and the olive tree: What sort of loyalty, what sort of life does a Japanese luxury car command? It smacks of speed and money, a fast and luxurious life. And what about the olive tree? This is something easier to love and cherish. A living entity, which has roots, lasts for decades; a tree that provides shade and a nourishing fruit, the olive, good for eating and oil. According to Greek mythology, the olive was Athena’s gift to mankind. The olive branch has come down to us as a symbol of peace. Compared to these realities and symbols, what does the Lexus offer as reality and symbol? Globalization? Money? Affluence? Traffic jams? If the choice is between the Lexus and the olive tree, we are in trouble. Culturally, and I might say spiritually, we are offered a flat, consumerist society – or a rural, retrograde life. Yet our future choice does not lie simply between a sleek Lexus or a romantic olive tree.

Understandably, those who have been excluded from American consumer society for reasons of race or colour have been angry. Yet their anger has not risen to the level of principle; that is, the angriest African Americans may hate white Americans, and may want to live among their own, but they do not offer a fundamentally different vision of society. The same is true of Latinos in America. In this respect, the comparison with Muslims in Europe (and the United States) may be illuminating. No matter the sense of rejection and exclusion that Latinos feel, in the United States they sense the possibility of joining in. They do not protest the idea of the West.

It can be argued that South America has suffered at the hands of the US as much as the Middle East has suffered at the hands of the US and world. Yet Latinos do not target ‘the West’. Sometimes they are revolutionaries, but in the traditional vein: challenging the economic structure of society. But they are not even potential terrorists. Why? One reason may be: they are Christians. They feel, for better or worse, a part of the West. Their protest, if they have one, is a traditional one against poor schooling, poor social services and discrimination. But it is not a protest that wants to overturn the civil structure of society and install, for example, the Pope and the cardinals as legislators.

Multiculturalism is often a cover for a global consumerism. In the absence of any alternative vision, it is also a liberal, even a left, programme. Its strengths are obvious: The mall vision of society, with competing restaurants and religions, offers many choices. Nor should this view merely be rejected as simple capitalism. To the extent that multiculturalism is based on equality, education and respect for the individual, it is something we can and should defend – especially, and this is the point – when the alternative is worse.

And today the alternative is worse. Yet much of the opposition, rejection and hatred of the West and its consumerist multiculturalism derives from the incompleteness of that multiculturalism – the large number of people who have been left out. They live in bleak projects far from parks and oceans; they have neither the Lexus nor the olive tree. If they were included, their cultural opposition would moderate.

This economic argument has limits. It may be that economic and political injustice fuels a reactionary cultural response. However, that is not the whole story. We must not be too timid to say that some principles of religious fundamentalism – about women, equality, theocracy – are incompatible with civil rights and liberties. We do not stone to death adulterers. We do not issue edicts calling for the death of authors we dislike. At that point we are no longer multiculturalists, but militant defenders of the Enlightenment.

On the myth of multiculturalism by Russell Jacoby was first published in Cosmopolitanism: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2006


Russell Jacoby