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"Divide and Conquer in the New Republic" by Greg Moses

Divide and Conquer in the New Republic

by Greg Moses

Divide and conquer is a time-honored, great-and-therefore-sometimes, nonviolent notion. But on the black-vs.-white cover of the New Republic (see the special issue: Race on campus, February 18, 1991), divide and conquer is a misguided ploy to reinforce racist backlash at predominately white campuses of the U.S.A.

The cover says: them or us, white or black, we're clenched in the grip of a win-or-lose contest. The white backhand, straining against a black forearm, drips ice-colored sweat. A school ring with a blue-eyed gem shines on the white youth's pinkie finger, its golden lustre contrasted against shadowy, black flesh. The white arm has been subtly emasculated in pink sweater, while the black hand has been efeminized with a blue sweat shirt. In complicity with a willing illustrator, the editors have successfully depicted the abiding fear of white racism, that a black hand is about to come down on top.

The New Republic, being a magazine of pure thought, seems sincerely concerned that the white hand of "free subversive thought" is about to be overcome by a black-skinned "orthodoxy." What the editors mean by orthodoxy is cleverly ambiguous, encompassing Gibbon and Bloom in one instance, multiculturalism in another. What the editors mean by "free, subversive thought" is equally treacherous.

"Free, subversive thought," is a term loosely applied by the editors to the habits of our mostly-white, European-American campuses, from Plato's Academy to Harvard Square. "The most subversive force in our society is the idea of the university," say the editors. And because multiculturalism is, presumably, a threat to the subversive force of the university, the editors of the New Republic are compelled to propose a, "radical defense of traditional learning."

The assumption of the editors-lest it be lost for its up-frontery-is that multiculturalism is racism. "Scarcely a generation goes by without a 'crisis' in the universities," lament the editors. The 'crisis' this time is multiculturalism. Because the editors introduce the word "crisis" in quotes, one imagines they know the difference between "crisis" and the real thing. As they dash off to do battle with multiculturalism, one hopes they mean to mock themselves in combat with a windmill. Surely the editors don't intend to make good on the promises, declared in white type, that Iriving Howe will defend 'the canon', that Fred Siegel will analyze a "multicultural cult," or that Dinesh D'Souza will report on "damaging admissions." These folks are surely aware how neatly they fit the pattern of what James Baldwin called, "friends like these."

Please review the cover in question. The white arm on the left supports snide headlines, while the black arm on the right supports the only truth admitted by the editors-"learning is a subversive activity." Surely, these editors mean to jest.

The editors are no less clever in the choice of title for their introductory essay, "The Derisory Tower." Please say this is decadent self-parody at its best: "It is tempting to believe that if these crises did not exist, it would be necessary for social critics to invent them." There are no Blooms nor Gibbonses this month; and so there is "the orthodoxy of multiculturalism." Is this a crisis or a "crisis"? Unfortunately, the editors never get any further than this. The sympathetic reader is left hanging in ambivalent snickers about that black thing which is forcing its hand upon the white campus.

Do the editors of the New Republic really mean to suggest that Gibbons and Bloom are to be compared to the multiculturalists? Is multiculturalism already an orthodoxy of familiar and self-interested sentiments about the passing of a golden age? The editors allege that multiculturalism is, "based on a familiar rejection of genuinely pluralist thought." Multiculturalism is, "one of the most destructive and demeaning orthodoxies of our time." Furthermore, "the core of the 'multiculturalists' argument is that race is the determinant of a human being's mind, that the mind cannot, and should not, try to wrest itself from its biological or sociological origins."

For anyone involved in multiculturalism on today's white campus, these are perplexing charges. Multiculturalism is founded upon the assumption that our white campuses are still enmeshed in the racist habits of culture which set them up in the first place. Multiculturalism means to subvert European-American racism in all its subtle forms, including the strange thinking practiced by the editors of the New Republic.

Perhaps the editors really believe that our white campuses long ago purged themselves of racism. The proposition is not startling. One hears it set forth with frequency. The editors of the New Republic, however, should know better. Evidence suggests that the struggle against racism in the U.S.A. has not overcome recalcitrance at white college campuses nor within white intellectual elites. The editors of the New Republic reinforce a racist backlash to the limited progress which has nevertheless been made.

A scholarly tradition is emerging into prominence which is able to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the cultural approach of our white academies has been whitewashed in a centuries-long effort to purify the idea of a university as the idea of white folks.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out that the founder of the American Historical Association advocated a popular theory of late-nineteenth-century elites that civilization was born of a Teutonic breed.

Martin Bernal accumulates convincing evidence to show how historians have long been deliberately suppressing or ignoring African contributions to classical Western cultures. Although Plato often acknowledges African sources, and although Herodotus clearly assumes African impositions, our working sense of intellectual progress has been systematically engineered into impressions of Western homogeneity wherein the heroes of advancement seem inherently destined to have been white.

Edward Said issues a compelling indictment against our cultural habits of approach to Arab quarters. It was Arab scholars who kept Aristotle's work alive for a millennium so that, when European mercenaries sacked Istanbul, they could bring home the seeds for a Renaissance. And yet we still dare to tolerate the commonplace analysis that by comparison to Western standards, the Arab world is brutal and dark. Given the dramatic image on the cover of the New Republic, one presumes the editors mean to imply that the value of our white and Western tradition is indeed threatened by the arm of someone black.

As the editors of the New Republic fail to know themselves, they also fail to understand what it means to argue that certain traditions of the academy are racist. Multiculturalism does not allege what the editors report: "that Plato and Heidegger, Proust and Thucydides, Hegel and Freud are somehow intellectual equivalents because of their sex, race, and class." To the extent these pairings are relevant to multicultural criticism, they are chosen because of some likeness in thought which may then be correlated to some class interest, whether it be gendered, racial, or of economic interest. This is why white males such as Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche, and Gramsci may at the same time, "get away unscathed."

If multiculturalists celebrate the works of some white male authors, it is because there is something promising in the quality of thought represented. It is perfectly possible that many white thinkers will in turn be judged more worthy than Plato. And one does not have to be black to take exception to some qualities in Plato's thought. One may be white and multicultural at once.

[ African History, Thought and Esthetic - A Primordial Quest of Eternal Harmony ]

The multiculturalist is aware, as the editors say, that ideas bear traces of "social and sexual biases of their time and place." But the multiculturalist realizes that these constraints may be resisted, nevertheless. John Dewey was white, and there are white scholars who agree with Dewey that Plato and Heidegger have common failings. By accusing the multiculturalists of racism, the editors of the New Republic fail to see that multiculturalists help us to understand the term racism in its most precise meaning.

One is not necessarily racist for being a European-American male. One is racist for being persistent in habits which accrue to white, male control. The editors of the New Republic are not racist because they are white, if they are white. They are racist because they portray multiculturalism as a black thing which has set out to threaten all things white.

When multiculturalists praise some white talent, the editors refuse to re-examine their own presumptions about multiculturalism; instead, they howl that multiculturalists are inconsistent. In this perplexing situation, the editors are adamant in their disappoint that multiculturalism is not racist enough. The editors ignore actual multicultural practice, the better to insist that "racial dogmatists" are bashing like Vandals against our gates.

Instead of valuing multiculturalism as a promising, new force against the lingering crisis of racism, the editors of the New Republic choose to view multiculturalism as a wasteful misexpenditure: "precious faculty time is spent soothing racial sensitivities or deconstructing the canon on ethnic lines." You see, if a white student challenges material, he's got intellectual sensitivity; whereas a black student's sensitivities are racial and his challenges are along ethnic lines. Efforts responding to the white student are well spent, while energy demanded by the black student is misspent. As the editors say, "Our universities, which should strive for an identity in contradistinction to the world at large, have become distillations of our bitterest social divisions." How is it possible to hear the editors speak most truly only by reversing the context of their words.

The editors want to protect a tradition of "free, subversive thought"; therefore, they oppose multiculturalism. They even dare to chastise the multicultural presumption "that the traditional idea of free thought is an illusion propagated by the spoilers of freedom, by the relations of power that obtain in any given society." By using the jargon of freedom to oppose multiculturalism, the editors of the New Republic furnish new evidence to support multicultural suspicions about the role played by the jargon of freedom.

As the editors incredulously observe, at the bottom of the multicultural experience there is a specific suspicion: "that the old liberal notion of freedom is only a sentimental mask of a power structure that is definitionally oppressive of those who are not white males." Although multiculturalism would insist that an understanding of power structures is better developed through practical categories than definitional ones, it has become a very safe wager to anticipate that the liberal tradition of freedom talk is still very much the one exemplified by its historic fathers, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

The freedom jargon worked curiously well for the slave holder, not to mention those who chartered slave territories in the name of their Queen. If multiculturalism indeed alleges to find in this kind of hypocrisy, "the very meaning of-the deepest truth about-those texts" established by Western civilization, the editors of the New Republic do a poor job of dismissing the charge. In the hands of the editors of the New Republic, the jargon of freedom continues to work curiously well in behalf of racist backlash today.

When the reader hears what multiculturalism would have us do to "the established texts of Western civilization", she will not likely share the editors' sense of alarm: "The university should therefore be devoted to blowing the whistle on those texts, to replacing them with those that identify and transcend this white male oppression, and indeed go beyond the mere study to the actual defeat of the racial and sexual structure of society at large." Remember, the university is definitionally free and subversive. Only the orthodoxy of practical multiculturalism is to be feared.

If the reader is weary of the vertigo imposed upon her by the topsy-turvy world of the New Republic, there will be no easy relief: "The furor over affirmative action in admissions and hiring in our universities and over a "multicultural" curriculum is, in fact, a bitterly ironic distraction from the battle against racial injustice in our society at large." Indeed the furor over these things is distracting. May the editors of the New Republic, and all neo-liberals of their kind, someday stop their cacophony, confusion, and complicity to instead join "the battle against racial injustice" and in consequence contribute to the so-called crisis of multicultural reform.

Greg Moses
Copyright 1996