Friday, August 17, 2007

Harvard Prof: Multiculturalism Kills Community

Daniel Henninger reported yesterday in The Wall Street Journal (“The Death of Diversity”) that the cultivation of diversity in the form of perpetually distinct ethnic communities “has a downside.” That is, “People in ethnically diverse settings don’t care about each other.”

That seems counter-intuitive.

He draws this conclusion from reading a study by Robert Putnam, public policy professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). He has just completed a study of the impact of diverse communities on social cohesion and civic engagement entitled E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century.

Henninger quotes Putnam’s scandalous conclusion:

Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.
Growing up in Canada, I was taught that while America follows the “melting pot” approach to integrating immigrants into the nation (understood to be clearly bad), enlightened Canada welcomes her new arrivals into something we called a “salad bowl” (understood to be clearly good). The Trudeau government of the 1970s made this a matter of policy, calling it “multiculturalism,” their way of trying to diffuse the bi-cultural, bi-national Quebec problem.

I came to see the inherent contradiction in this. The goal was to form a tolerant society of diverse communities, each appreciating and respecting all the others. The celebration of this social model was the annual “Caravan” festival in Toronto, a delightful arrangement in which the various ethnic groups would put on shows, serve food and sell crafts at their respective restaurants and community centers. People would buy “passports” and circulate from one venue to another all week.

The problem is that the people hosting and the people circulating represent two very different views of the world and of neighboring worlds. The more appreciation for diversity one has, the less attached one becomes to one’s own culture. Perhaps it is a weak sense of having a culture at all that inclines a person to circulate rather than host at an event like Caravan. Of course this is a generalization, but English Canadians are notorious for their paralyzing confusion over who they are.

So diversity, in the sense of a confederation of distinct yet peacefully coexisting communities, a "community of communities" as I think Canadian Tory leader Joe Clark once put it, is something that can be cultivated only by people who care nothing for it, but instead care only for their own respective insular ways of life. They care nothing for other communities and nothing for the nation as a whole, except perhaps insofar as it pertains to protecting what is particular to them, if they think about it at all. There is no citizenship within this view, except in the merely legal sense, for that requires a sacrificial concern for the common good. There is only the opposite. This social model encourages retreat into concern for what is narrowly one’s own, though not as far as what de Tocqueville calls individualism. Love for everyone else’s cultures is held up as a virtue, but those cultures can perpetuate themselves only to the extent that there are people paying no attention to other people’s cultures and perhaps even rejecting them. This is what Putnam has documented. (It is interesting that we need expensive studies to prove what otherwise is quite obvious.)

The American model, the so-called “melting pot,” is not the oppressive enemy of human flourishing that some claim it to be. Indeed, it is the opposite. The “melting” indicates the virtue and necessity of conforming to what is “American.” The United States is the only country in the world that is founded on certain principles of right, truths held to be self-evident, namely “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus, a newly naturalized citizen, whether from Canada or Tonga, is as much an American as a descendant of Washington himself, provided that he supports the Constitution and the principles on which it is based. This model is most conducive of citizenship, or what Putnam calls “social cohesion and civic engagement.” It directs people to think more about “us” than about “me,” with what is good for “us” being informed by what is objectively known to be good through reflection on nature and nature's God.

Putnam goes even further than I would expect, however, in his characterizations of these insular communities. Notice, they "withdraw even from close friends, [and] expect the worst from their community and its leaders." The final picture is one of total alienation: they "huddle unhappily in front of the television." It sounds like a stultifying and miserable existence. This goes beyond even the individualism against which de Tocqueville cautions us, and descends into egoism. I don't recognize this, but his argument merits reading.

Especially interesting is the hope Putnam sees in "large evangelical congregations" which provide people of diverse ethnic backgrounds with lots of little groups (perhaps local Bible studies and fellowship evenings) in the context of a common identity and community experience. I would say that the church of Christ offers people the social body and personal identity for which they long, but which can be found only partially in gangs, families, neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves. See my earlier post on community and the longing soul.

For a good study of the present fixation on diversity by our cultural elites, Peter Wood's Diversity, the Invention of a Concept (2004) is the definitive word of the subject.

No comments: