A new and more unified direction for the left

The left can stay its present course, or we can have a real conversation about how to better combat economic inequality.

Let me be perfectly blunt: My Feb. 28 column ” ‘Celebrating diversity’ is a recipe for disaster” was bad. Many took my qualms with multiculturalism as an idiotic attack on minorities. That’s my fault.

That said, I have no regrets about the substantive ideas I was trying to express.

As I see it, multiculturalism has three essential features: 1) Multiculturalism celebrates racial, ethnic and gender differences simply because they are differences (i.e. “celebrate diversity”). 2) Multiculturalism asks us to have “pride” in our race, ethnicity and/or gender. 3) Multiculturalism demands safe, nonhostile spaces in which people of different races, ethnicities and genders can “be themselves” and feel comfortable.

At first glance, multiculturalism looks very enlightened and liberating – and, for a time, it was. The problem is that today, it is being expropriated to serve a reactionary right-wing agenda.

We can see the first feature of multiculturalism being hijacked by proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights, such as David Horowitz. Proponents’ main talking point is that it promotes “intellectual diversity,” or “political diversity,” on university faculties. If you go to their Web site, studentsforacademicfreedom.org, you’ll see countless references to “diversity.”

But the Academic Bill of Rights has nothing to do with diversity and everything to do with silencing professors with left-leaning views and legitimizing discredited academic stances that prop up right-wing political agendas.

Unfortunately, the truth doesn’t matter – the logic and rhetoric of multiculturalism (“celebrate diversity!,” etc.) has already been taken over, and effectively deployed, by conservatives in state legislatures nationwide (including ours).

The second essential feature of multiculturalism – racial and cultural pride – is also being expropriated. A good example is the debate over the presence of the Confederate flag on public grounds in South Carolina. Supporters of the flag argue it is an innocuous celebration of “Southern heritage” and their “roots.” This mirrors multiculturalist rhetoric almost perfectly.

Moreover, saying individuals should take pride in their race is an invitation to white people to have “white pride.” This has to be opposed radically. There might be some benefits when minorities assert self-pride, but these benefits are far outweighed by the prospect of legitimizing “white pride.”

At the risk of sounding inflammatory, it’s worth noting that easily accessible “white pride” was an essential component of fascism (which, to be 100 percent clear, was bad).

Finally, the third feature of multiculturalism – a demand that universities, governments and workplaces create safe, nonhostile spaces – is also being expropriated. On conservative talk radio, you’ll hear fundamentalist Christians complaining that teaching evolution creates a “hostile environment” for their children.

This idea pops up (again) in the arguments in favor of the Academic Bill of Rights: Conservative students complain about “hostile campuses” where students in favor of the war in Iraq are forced to suffer the sight of cartoons critical of President George W. Bush on the doors to their professors’ offices.

This is not to say nothing should be done about racism and bigotry on campus or in the workplace, nor am I saying multiculturalism is totally a bad thing, but it’s time for something new. Staying the multiculturalist course will continue to prove disastrous to progressive goals.

Multiculturalism doesn’t threaten anybody. In fact, its appeal lies in its seeming innocuousness. If it is so subversive, it would not be so thoroughly ingrained in the culture of so many universities, governments and corporations. It would be too controversial.

Conservatives constantly remind us Bush’s Cabinet is probably the most diverse in U.S. history.

Three corporations well-known for their human rights abuses – Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Nike – all eagerly trumpet their commitments to diversity on their corporate Web sites.

So sure, some women and some racial, ethnic and sexual minorities might benefit a little from multiculturalism. But huge corporations and their political cronies also benefit – by being able to invoke diversity in their midst while they simultaneously exploit women and minorities.

Furthermore, multiculturalism is silent on the most pressing social problem the world faces today: economic inequality. In my opinion, it solely wants to make economic hierarchies more colorful. Multiculturalism doesn’t attack (or even question) the hierarchies themselves.

What the left needs is a radically egalitarian, class-based alternative to multiculturalism. A class-based alternative would be able to more effectively resist co-optation by corporations and political conservatives. It is difficult to imagine Coca-Cola or Bush expropriating a working class movement that so thoroughly rejects everything they stand for.

A class-based alternative should exhort us to celebrate our similarities – namely a commitment to promoting the interests of poor and working class people – rather than our superficial differences. Practicing a class-based alternative to multiculturalism doesn’t mean that we just ignore race, ethnic and gender differences, but it does mean that they would be de-emphasized. The new movement wouldn’t have to be homogeneous, but it would regard difference as something to be transcended rather than embraced.

This doesn’t at all mean that we have to ignore minorities’ interests. The economic interests of many women and ethnic minorities are already working-class interests!

To take one example, Wal-Mart claims to be “the largest private employer of African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States.”

Yet Wal-Mart has terrible wages and working conditions. It follows, then, that anyone who wants to empower blacks and Hispanics should also support campaigns to make Wal-Mart more worker-friendly (unionization would be a great start).

A class-based alternative to multiculturalism would require activists to ask “How is my cause compatible with the interests of poor and working class people?”

This might sound like an unfair condition, but even superficially divergent causes like women’s rights, gay rights and environmentalism are inextricably linked with the empowerment of poor and working-class people.

If people are generally trained to see the connections and shared interests between seemingly different political agendas, they will become more astute political actors.

The bottom line is that liberals and radicals can “stay the course” and retain their pious fidelity to multiculturalism, or they can look for – and practice – alternatives.

Conservatives are only going to get more adept at using the rhetoric and logic of multiculturalism for their own agenda. The left needs to realize this and move on.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected].