February 7, 2013
This is from an email sent to be by a friend and the quotes are from an address given by a guy named Deneen at a gathering of 20 Georgetown students who met to enjoy some leisure and to discuss, apparently, the battles that need to be fought. This allowed me to elaborate on why I think that multiculturalism as it exists these days is not the threat some make it out to be. But, also, this is not a defense of that currently existing multiculturalism.
"One sees, then, how a diversity of cultures becomes the liberal form of multiculturalism. Cultural diversity in the truest sense results from internal standards and practices within cultures, and cultures collectively and cohesively provide definition of their beliefs, their practices, their customs, their ways of life. Cultures patrol their borders, defining what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and involves distinctions between members and outsiders.
“Multiculturalism,” or – to use the updated language – “diversity” – reduces beliefs and ways of life to the level of the individual, demanding then in advance of any belief that every individual first assent and commit to a willingness to tolerate any other belief or way of life, so long as there is no threat of physical harm. What becomes intolerable are people who will not give that preliminary assent, who insist that certain standards or beliefs ought to govern in a particular context or setting. Such people need correction, restriction, or ostracism for their intolerance."
Here is the problem I have come to have with this argument made here by Deneen against multi-culturalism or diversity. It is not so much that it is wrong about the standardization that is required to fulfill the wishes of the multi-culturalists. But, hell, that is hardly unique to those guys. I mean Mahoney and Dobski certainly attack diversity but they are hardly people who seek to create an alternative to standardization. And talk about ostracism! I understand that and all because I did not toe the political line Mahoney thought I should. [Note the setting of this address: about 20 students from Georgetown got together and I bet at some posh resort to experience "leisure." How diverse is that? Bet you could find some standardization there as well.]
So, it isn't only the multi-culturalists who effectuate standardization, while praising diversity. And this brings me to my concern: the problem with relativism, the relativism that underlies the current concern with multi-culturalism, is not simply that it leads to a kind of mindless and lifeless standardization. Rather, the problem is that such relativism cannot be maintained in the real world. Nihilism, real nihilism, cannot be adopted easily, and certainly is not adopted by most professors or college students. They are just mouthing slogans because they want to be popular or successful or because they are lazy or all three. As Nietzsche's life illustrates so well, real nihilism is a project, an intense project that can only be undertaken by the few and which is apt to, as it did Nietzsche, make you crazy. As a professor of mine a long time ago said, those who profess to be relativists don't invite guests back to their homes if they suspect those guests pilfered their silverware!
And this, for me, is the most substantial danger of the alleged "relativism" around today under the guise of multi-culturalism: Under duress it disappears in a heart beat, in a "New York minute," as we use to say in Jersey. Just remember the response to 9/11: what role did relativism play in that response? None that I could detect. We went from a nation which had allegedly embraced multi-culturalism to a flag-waving, chest pounding, gun toting, well-oiled killing machine in no time flat. As relativism, multi-culturalism is about a mile wide and an inch deep. The deeper issue is, as it has always been, the human tendency toward tyranny and war, based on what is alleged to be and usually is genuinely thought to be a defense of and expansion of what is deemed to be "the truth" or the only "right" or "virtuous" way to live in the world. As I read Plato and Aristotle, and even Machiavelli, these are the phenomena, tyranny and war, that need to addressed. Human beings need to be tamed, be made gentle and peaceful and political - that is, ruling and being ruled in turn.
A false relativism is not the threat: It is what that leads to which is the threat. As Deneen senses, the question is or should be: Does modernity provide us with the means to truly tame human beings? Or does it only "re-direct" us by encouraging us to "make money" or to become "successful" and, for a few, acquire fame, while leaving those deeper passions toward tyranny and war untouched? Or to put this differently: The problem with "the last man" is that s/he isn't "last" or that s/he cannot "last." When push comes to shove, as it always does, the last men reveal their "dark side," ala' Dick Cheney, Shrub, or Obama.
The argument for leisure is not about using leisure to gear up to "do battle" with those forces you deem threatening. The argument for leisure is or should be an argument for a non- or apolitical life, a philosophic or artistic or domestic/simple life [reread the myth of Er at the end of the Republic where Odysseus chooses the simple life as his next life]. Or perhaps you might say a saintly life, ala' St. Francis.
My fear about Deneen's "retreat" is that those attending will leave seeing themselves as "warriors" out to "save" Western civilization by doing "battle" with the "multi-culturalists." And like any battle, the results will include injustices and even inhuman acts.