What Multiculturalism Has Done To Us

[This is an excerpt from a paper delivered by Roger Kimball at the Manhattan Institute’s Closing Of The American Mind conference. It will appear in complete form in The New Criterion.]

..It is a rich and promiscuous stew that Allan Bloom served up, part polemic, part exhortation, part exercise in cultural-intellectual history. It sometimes grabs readers by the lapels and gives them a shake; at other times it assumes a dry, professorial tone as it delineates the genealogy of freedom, discriminates among diverse meanings of equality, or parses a choice passage from Plato, Rousseau, Tocqueville, or Nietzsche. the egalitarian, recognizing that genuine excellence is rare, declares greatness a fraud and sets about obliterating distinctions…

As Bloom recognized, the fruits of egalitarianism are ignorance, the habit of intellectual conformity, and the systematic subjection of cultural achievement to political criteria. In the university, this means classes devoted to pop novels, rock videos, and third-rate works chosen simply because their authors are members of the requisite sex, ethnic group, or social minority. It means students who graduate not having read Milton or Dante or Shakespeare – or, what is in some ways even worse, who have been taught to regard the works of such authors chiefly as hunting grounds for examples of patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism, etc., etc. It means faculty and students who regard education as an exercise in disillusionment and who look to the past only to corroborate their sense of superiority and self-satisfaction…


Bloom read liberal education in its highest form as a conversation across the centuries that revolved around the perennially fresh question “What is the good life?” He championed what he called “the good old great books” because they are the prime repositories of thoughtful alternative answers to that question. A liberal arts education for Bloom centrally involved a meditation on those books and the “permanent questions” they posed in themselves and, above all, in relation to one another. As such a liberal arts education was “a resource against the ephemeral” and prophylactic against nihilism and spuriousness.

..When he looked around him, Bloom saw a faculty that had abdicated its responsibility to cultivate that yearning and, correspondingly, students who were “nice,” “spiritually detumescent,” and intellectually unambitious. More and more, Bloom thought, they resembled the timid, narcissistic creature described by Nietzsche in his devastating portrait of The Last Man. Having absorbed the multiculturalist catechism espoused by their teachers and the larger society, they were reflexively “non-judgmental” about everything but their own intellectual poverty and sense of moral superiority. Thus it is that the great liberal virtue of openness degenerated into flaccid indifference and anchorless relativism. Hence melancholy irony of the situation Bloom dissected: “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” What had been proclaimed a magnificent opening turned out to be a great closing…
As Bloom saw, the “sensitivity” of the multiculturalist is an index not of moral refinement but of moral vacuousness. Multiculturalism is a paralyzing intoxicant; its thrill centers around the emotion of superior virtue; its hangover subsists on a diet of ignorance and blighted “good intentions.” The crucial thing to understand is that, notwithstanding the emancipationist rhetoric that accompanies the term, “multiculturalism” is not about recognizing genuine cultural diversity or encouraging pluralism. It is about undermining the priority of Western liberal values in our educational system and in society at large.

Our colleges and universities have been preaching the creed of openness and multiculturalism for the last few decades. Politicians, pundits, and the so-called cultural elite have assiduously absorbed the catechism, which they accept less as an argument about the way the world should be as an affirmation of the essential virtue of their own feelings. We are now beginning to reap the fruit of that liberal experiment with multiculturalism. The chief existential symptom is moral paralysis, expressed, for example, in the inability to discriminate effectively between good and evil…

Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor of the New Criterion.

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