Splitting image

March 31, 1995

Alan Ryan asks if America can attend to the difference of its many peoples and still preserve a single ethical, political culture.

When I was very much younger, political theory rotated around questions of freedom or justice. The famous trio of "class, race and gender" was not exactly undiscussed, but class was universally agreed to be the most important of the three. What women and subordinated racial groups needed was economic opportunity: given economic equality, all else would be opened to them. How remote this all seems now. At least in the infinitely fissiparous United States, what has got under everyone's skin is arguments about identity - everyone demanding to be allowed to apply some favoured label to themselves and having it greeted with "respect".

Over the past ten years, arguments about "identity" and "difference" have spread into every area of American political discussion, and especially into academic politics. Such conservative folk as Princeton administrators take it for granted that "diversity" is an educational goal, to be achieved by getting the faculty and the curriculum to acknowledge and respect the different identities that claim our attention. The hard sciences blithely go their primitive and unreflective - or perhaps I mean "unreflexive" - way, but everywhere else a thousand cultural sensitivities bloom. Their original home was in literary theory, and the initial provocation lay in questions of translation and interpretation. But during the 1980s questions of cultural attachment acquired immense political resonance, and we are living with some peculiar consequences. The most obvious is that when you raise questions about one identity, you provoke loud cries of "what about us?"

Even in Canada the perennial issue of Quebecois "particularity", and the new demands of Inuit and other aboriginal peoples have caused something of a backlash. In the US it is becoming hard to distinguish between one backlash and the next. Old anxieties about immigration have revived, with unlovely results. Despair over the plight of the African-American poor and the horrors of the inner city has reached new depths, and the obsession with identity has fed it. Emotionally undemanding questions about the affordability of aid to the hard-up and disorganised have been replaced with questions about what sort of people these are, and why they are so unlike us. The rights of women, sexual minorities and those with disabilities have been asserted with an energy that is now being matched by the ferocity with which the Republican right and the Christian Coalition are trying to remove them. All these issues raise questions of identity.

Demands for cultural recognition and respect for their identities have been pressed by people who felt that their vision of themselves and the world had been frozen out, with bad economic, political and cultural consequences; but they have had an impact on the better-off. The conservative and resentful well-to-do complain that the country is falling to bits. The more good-natured - or morally anxious - well-to-do no longer ask whether their prosperity is compatible with strict justice, but whether they have inadvertently imposed a narrow and exclusive political identity on their country. Is late 20th-century America essentially white, middle-class male and heterosexual or can it embrace multitudes? And what if the multitudes do not want embracing, but respecting at a distance?

Even the good-natured worry about national identity and its compatibility with cultural, sexual, and linguistic pluralism. How do we square the preservation of national identity with endlessly fragmenting cultural identities? If sexual and ethnic minorities, immigrants, non-English speakers, and women have formerly been excluded from power and wealth, can we now construct a single, if pluralistic, national ethical and political culture that will absorb and appreciate the formerly excluded? Or can multiculturalism exist only in the form of a mosaic of mutually respectful but essentially different cultural allegiances, and therefore of different identities?

These are not easily answered questions, and they cut deep. Black, Asian and Puerto Rican students at Princeton hold anxious seminars on the question: "Am I always the representative of my culture?'' On campuses and in offices throughout the country, wariness is the order of the day. Between people who want respect and people who are terrified of inadvertently showing a lack of respect, social life is not easy. Pundits have made a big deal out of the fact that 62 per cent of white men voted for Newt Gingrich and his allies last November, and have seen this as a revolt against affirmative action by men who think their jobs have been given to less qualified black men or women. That may be right, but part of the revolt may have been a backlash by the perfectly secure against new social constraints rather than economic insecurities.

In political philosophy, the effect has been to make "universalistic" theories look old-fashioned. It makes no odds whether it is utilitarianism, some version of a Kantian concern for rights, or egalitarian social democracy that is at issue. Any doctrine that starts from the identity of human interests and aims at a general theory of justice or the good society is in equal trouble. If they make it look as though everyone is in crucial ways alike, they fail to attend to difference. Old oppositions between the best-known contributions to the subject therefore shrink. From the perspective of the theorists of "difference", the philosophical defence of human rights offered by the conventional welfare state liberalism of John Rawls and the libertarianism of Robert Nozick are alike sociologically unsophisticated, and alike inattentive to the cultural identity of groups and communities and to the way they sustain their members' sense of their own individual identity.

The most interesting response to such challenges has come, not from adherents of the "old" liberalism, but from the free-wheeling Richard Rorty, professor of humanities at the University of Virginia. Rorty in effect says that the existence of cultural diversity, and therefore of endless arguments over identity, is a brute fact about American society, and an important one. But, he argues, this ought not to get in the way of old-fashioned liberalism, nor ought it to dilute a fairly old-fashioned American patriotism. It surely means that attention to rigorously philosophical defences of liberalism is misguided; but other defences are possible. Arguments over identity are usually conducted by appealing to historical accounts of how we come to be who we are, and there is a flexible and accommodating story about the way America has drawn foreigners and the estranged into a liberal and egalitarian society. In making this case, Rorty draws usefully on John Dewey, and reaches back to the first 20th-century quarrels over identity.

For, like many other novelties, identity politics has caused grief in America before. During the First World War, the old fear that the vast influx of immigrants would utterly transform the US latched on to new anxieties about the loyalty of Germans and anti-war socialists of foreign origin, and gave rise to campaigns of "Americanisation'' that not only wiped out German-language schools and newspapers in the Midwest but dictated the shape of general education at Ivy League schools like Columbia as well. Against this tide, Randolph Bourne, Horace Kallen and John Dewey stood up for a multicultural America that would simultaneously foster a distinctively American identity at the same time as it gloried in the pluralism and diversity out of which it was constructed. They were by no means of one mind about the balance between the one and the many, but they surely agreed that the glory of the American project was its aspiration to incorporate an infinitely various people.

Their past casts an interesting light on what political theorists might nowadays usefully be doing. In an essay in the New York Times last spring, and in a longer and more complicated essay, "Two Cheers for the Cultural Left", Rorty has argued that the American academy is, above all, American. Its patriotic duty is to carry on telling the "uplifting stories" of traditional American historiography, and to help preserve the values of the republic rather than forever sit on the sidelines griping. In identity terms, Rorty appealed to our American identity as the source of our intellectual obligations; Rorty's usual allies are by and large unamused.

His critics' complaint is an obvious one. If our "identity'' rests on our attachment to an "uplifting story", what about the people who feel that their story has not been uplifting - for example, racial minorities or ambitious women; can we really say that since they are American, the uplifting story is theirs, no matter what they feel? Perhaps we can: much of the "uplift" provided by the American story rests on it being a story of obstacles overcome and failings transcended - George III evicted, slavery abolished, robber barons tamed and trade unions accepted, and all the rest. But even then, not everyone emerges victorious. How does the "uplifting" story accommodate the darker passages, and what do its narrators say to those who have lived with the darker passages rather than their transcendence?

Dewey had an easier time answering that question than Richard Rorty has today, because Dewey was more explicit about which parts of the story he wished to repudiate, and which other parts of the story he was prepared to keep on telling. He was perhaps readier to ask simple questions about what social and economic changes we ought to make now if we are to have any chance of persuading people that "our" story is also their story. Like Rorty, however, he saw that "the uplifting story'' was not fixed and finished already; the American project was the project of making the uplifting story come true. Whatever you think of the pragmatist conception of truth, it was well adapted to this kind of ambition.

The uplift in the story lies in the thought that America might combine cultural plurality with political unity, to create equal opportunity and wide opportunity in a way the world had never yet known - and that it could extend this without regard to race, colour, sexual allegiance or national allegiance. It is an immensely ambitious project, and it is by no means clear that either we the people or our elected representatives can bring it off. All the same, one of the many pleasures of being an immigrant in the US is the extent to which this ambition permeates the atmosphere. What I still find hard to see, however, is what it has to do with identity - it answers the question "what are we up to?" more obviously than the question "who are we?"

Identity matters less than geography. Rorty is absolutely right to urge American academics to promote the American project, and to stop griping plaintively on the sidelines; but it is not because his readers are Americans that he is right. It is because first, the project is rationally and morally compelling, second, because American academics happen to be geographically well-positioned to promote it, and third, because American academics are supported by the taxes and tax concessions of large numbers of people whose consent to what the intelligentsia gets up to was never asked. As a resident alien and an unalienated resident - conditions nobody suggests count as an "identity'' - I am more likely than most to think that duty follows geography rather than identity: but as the most mobile people on earth, Americans especially would be well advised to think so too.

Alan Ryan is professor of politics at Princeton University.

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