What Lies Behind the Multicultural Approach to History

tags: whiteness studies

I. In early 1981, after twelve years of producing radio documentaries and cultural criticism at Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, I was hired as Program Director to implement affirmative action and “multicultural” programming policy. In my innocence, I interpreted that mandate as the legacy of the heroic civil rights movement: we were to present an integrated history of women, minorities, and labor as part of a comprehensive long-term project of education and research in the political, economic, and social history of these groups, locally, nationally, and where possible, globally. Simultaneously, in my own work at the radio station I continued producing materials about institutional censorship, the transmission of history in museums and popular media, and the decoding of antidemocratic propaganda.

Pacifica and I were on a collision course. After eighteen months, I was fired. Significantly, my removal prevented the confrontation between science and myth that I was preparing for the Fall Fund Drive. And when I returned to the air in the late 1980s-1990s, tracing the contested definitions of fascism from the 1930s on, I was banished again, this time permanently after ten years of attempting to rescue the libertarian heritage of science and what I thought was the progress advanced by meritocracy and the marketplace of ideas. In terms of programming, such a mad scientist approach challenged what had been a post-60s commitment by Pacifica to policies that were simultaneously replicated on college campuses: Insurgent 1960s social movements had demanded that the contributions and travails of women and minorities be included in the humanities curriculum; moreover that (domineering) white male faculty were unwilling or constitutionally unable to integrate women’s history, etc. into a new synthesis. Therefore, separate women’s studies and ethnic studies departments were institutionalized, staffed primarily by women and minority faculty in the spirit of rooted (as opposed to rootless) cosmopolitanism. The separation was legitimated by the counter-Enlightenment social theory derived from Herder and German Romanticism: Only members of the cultural nation (defined in the language of blood and soil) were privy to the “consciousness” or “spirit” of their Volk; linguistic discourses were unique and incommensurable. Meddling outsiders (the rootless cosmopolitans) could not get into the heads of the in-group and should not impose their universalist values, goals, and ethics upon “the Other.” And since American women and minorities were now defined as collectivities, as corporatist entities that had been “colonized,” it was the mission of these new departments to “struggle” against white male “hegemony” and the death-dealing “whiteness” enforced by Amerika. “Liberal” historians were advised to broaden their horizons with “cultural anthropology,” replacing the outmoded and repressive “scientific history” with “cultural history.” It is the broad acceptance of the role of anti-imperialist activist scholar throughout the humanities that has led to what many libertarians and conservatives now decry as a recent left-wing takeover and the absence of intellectual diversity. Their periodization is incorrect, as it does not recognize the ongoing centuries-old elite offensive against modernity, that is, fully realized democratic participation.

This essay, written after I had studied the shaping of the humanities curriculum by progressives since the Civil War, but especially after the first world war, attempts to explain the politics that led to my disillusion with Pacifica and finally to distancing from the populist-progressive hostile reading of the Enlightenment. By denying the universalist claims of scientific method, the campus “Left” has little in common with the libertarian ideals that radical scholars often claim to advance. 

II. Through the advocacy of “multiculturalism” as a weapon against elite hegemony, interdisciplinary scholars in history and literature discredit the tools upon which historians have depended since the mid-nineteenth century, specifically archival research and the critical evaluation of sources in the interest of a relatively objective reconstruction of the past. Leopold von Ranke is dead, having been supplanted by classroom activists opposing the “essentially imperialist, racist, and patriarchal historical project” of this country”; such (essentialist) labeling cannot be sustained with empirical evidence; not surprisingly, scientific method is under assault by cultural historians of science. This campaign by scholar-activists was not a post-1960s novelty, as some critics aver. Social psychologists and sociologists allied with the 1930s Popular Front against fascism, before, during, and after WWII, transformed the democratic Enlightenments, analyzing Enlightenment ideology as protofascist, and misrepresenting their own vision of the paternalistic organic society as “genuine liberalism”. I call this group the “corporatist liberals.” In their hands, “scientific history” morphed into “cultural history”; the Jeffersonian “melting-pot” (as publicized in Israel Zangwill’s play of 1908) was reinterpreted as forced assimilation to the materialist culture of a bourgeois liberal WASP elite; and the conception of the free-standing, self-managing, often dissenting American citizen dissolved into the individual-in-society, molded by “cultural” context, and possessing group (ethnic or racial) identity, hence bearing “group facts” that were incomprehensible to other “races” or “ethnicities.” The corporatist liberals (led by Talcott Parsons and his circle at Harvard) fostered postwar definitions of fascism and nazism that looked retrospectively at “the puritan” (including the moral mother expanding her empire) as not only a dangerous American type (the narcissistic, hot-headed and cold-hearted imperialist), but “romantic puritans” were precursors to Hitler (reconstructed as a hyper-capitalist) and his genocidal policies: it was a straight line from New England antinomians to today’s right-wing militias. 

Scientists and mathematicians (e.g. Gross and Levitt) have protested the postmodernist misunderstanding of science, while other historians (e.g. Windschuttle) are dismayed by “the killing of history” by the post-60s generation, but have not identified the possibly controlling sub-text of cultural histories explaining the rise of fascism/nazism: Fascism, abetted by science and technology in the hands of the upstart middle-class, the culturalists argue, demonstrates the failure of “mass politics,” i.e. democracy. Writing on behalf of the American Historical Association in 1939, Carolyn Ware advised that the cultural historian should not “rest upon the prescription of the scientific historians to let the facts speak and to be guided wherever the material may lead.” A particularist definition of tolerance was central to corporatist liberalism between the wars. Progressive social psychologists disseminating national programs of “civilian morale” in 1940-41 posited group diversity and advised the inclusion of minorities in government planning processes: Working toward common goals, while utilizing the special qualities of different corporatist entities (races and ethnicities), would serve social harmony. Such “tolerance” removed the threat of “rupture” by excluding the intellectual engagement of diverse belief systems with each other, a “moderate” strategy advanced by the Tory historian David Hume in the mid-eighteenth century as he contemplated unbalanced extremists: repressive Catholics and fanatical puritans, the latter seduced by the Old Testament and its “eastern poetic” or “eastern prophetic style”: Crusading puritans were all-too-given to the dictates of individual conscience, primary source research [reading the Tindal Bible], and unbounded curiosity; while Catholic censorship was similarly disruptive as it created martyrs. Hume’s middle way, the promotion of rooted cosmopolitanism, is usually associated with the völkisch thinker J.G. von Herder, and persists today as multiculturalism/ethnopluralism. Following the tenets of romantic nationalism, all members of the same “ethnic” or “racial” group share inherited group character and economic interests-- a corporatist formulation that compels dissenting individuals to submit to “the community” as defined by its natural leader(s).

But there is also a Left critique of cultural nationalism, asserting the socially constructed character of ethnicity, seen as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Other antiracist critics, following Elias and Foucault, attribute nationalism and genocide to the Enlightenment or “modernity”: “Bourgeois liberals” fortified by science and panopticons, they say, emerged to assume the command posts of culture, and in the “civilizing process” ruptured the bonds of traditional communities, erasing folk knowledges and proclaiming all non-adherents to their middle-class notions of technological rationality as “deviant.” Moreover, while complaining that nationalism mystifies class antagonisms, “postcolonialists” in literary theory and American Studies have collapsed the analytic category of “class” into “race”; “whiteness studies” confer a corporatist unity upon all white people or “the [imperialist] West.” While apparently rejecting “imagined communities,” these scholars deploy a communitarian discourse, embracing cultural pluralism, now corrected and updated as “dynamically emerging group identit[ies].” In practice, progressive cultural historians and literary scholars support identity politics.

The liberal component of the corporatist liberal ideology, then, consists in the tolerance of “diverse” groups with their unassailable “points of view.” The hyphenated Americans co-exist under the rubric of American nationality, as long as each group eschews the triumphalism Hume and his admirers ascribed to moralizing puritans or Catholics. Functionalist comparisons of Hebraic puritans with nazis served the objective of social “equilibrium” by removing the rationalist presence from the ethnopluralist “mosaic” or “symphony.” The multiculturalists were necessarily antisemitic, insofar as Jews, like radical puritans, interpreted “We the People” as an entity that resisted irrationalist methods of social control in their search for “a more perfect union.” This is a key point, for the social scientists and philosophers I am criticizing were irrationalists, rewriting American history to serve the higher goal of social cohesion in a pluralist society. Specifically, they reinterpreted the rationalist legacies of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson to create continuity with the activist New Deal state; similarly potential bomb-throwers were integrated through relegating scientific method to a bounded sphere of influence distant from, and lower than, the humanities, or, in cultural studies of science, going so far as to relativize scientific facts themselves as produced solely by institutional context in order to maintain a power elite..

The efforts of the corporatist liberals resulted in the erasure or marginalizing of some key figures in American history, who, notwithstanding diverse political goals, all shared the same, now often proscribed, “Hebraic” i.e. libertarian opinions and empiricist methods of analysis: That society was a collection of individuals; that the liberal state protected the human rights of every individual by guaranteeing equality before the law, equal treatment, and opportunity; that public education of high quality was indispensable for the attainment of popular sovereignty and the informed conscience; that the marketplace of ideas must not be bounded; and that American nationality consisted in the ongoing emancipation of individuals from illegitimate authority through appeals to reason. Such emancipation was unthinkable without scientific method (empiricism), institutional transparency and accountability, and ethical universalism. I have described the fundamentals of the liberal state before it was revised by corporatists harkening back to Ferdinand Toennies’s distinctions between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: Reiterating the agrarian alternative to industrial capitalism, corporatists claimed that a network of small towns, independent producers, and stable hierarchies would defeat the anomie, nihilism, miscegenation, decadence, and class warfare induced by modern science and technology, speedy urban life, giant corporations and Jewish money: the same primitivism, along with its demonology, has characterized the academic Left and “community” radio and television in general. Defending the moral economy of pre-capitalist societies against the intruding free market, the corporatist liberals have necessarily marginalized some of the most eloquent American advocates of the libertarian ideal. Their motives and achievements have been denigrated either as causes of avoidable and catastrophic civil conflict (Anne Hutchinson, Charles Sumner), or as conniving elitists, arrayed against “the People” (Walter Lippmann, Ralph J. Bunche). Is it an accident that Melville’s character Captain Ahab was switched from a Sumner-like radical liberal to an “anticipation” of Hitler and Stalin at precisely the same moment that “scientific history” was switched to “cultural history?”

In sum, corporatist liberals rejected an eighteenth-century conception of the liberal nation based, not on hyphenated Americanism--a congeries of rehabilitated “Others” and their repentant ex-persecutors-- but upon a shared project: the cooperative search for truth and amelioration. And individuality was a quality assigned to discrete individuals endowed with human rights—individuals who were not simply collapsed into nations, classes, genders, races, or ethnicities. Such an enlightened quest did not repudiate the past, thus alienating ex-slaves and immigrants from their cherished ancestors, but rather furthered understanding of the choices that shaped prior institutions and beliefs, without idealization of leaders or the led. By substituting cultural (i.e. irrationalist) interpretations of history for empirical studies of the political and economic conditions (including their contending ideologies) that facilitated the rise and maintenance of fascist dictatorships, ethnopluralist progressives switched the Enlightenment and undermined an appropriately critical and functioning democratic polity.


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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/26/2004

People's travel records don't impress me, because so many are able to travel with closed minds and not learn anything. As to heritage, I remember some Nazi Skinheads in the San Jose area around 1980 who openly identified as "Mexicans", so one's background isn't necessarily an indicator of sophistication. And I can't pretend to know what kind of experience you gained interacting with your broad selection of girlfriends, but it clearly never gave you the ability to relate positively to people different than yourself when not in the clinch.

David Lion Salmanson - 4/23/2004

Interesting looking at the bibliography. Only one work from the Harvard Lab, no historians of whiteness. In fact, I couldn't find any recent history that is multicultural and a whole lot that was sociological such as Werner Sollors. You could have at least cited George Lipsitz (sp?), Bill Cronon's recent edited volume, much of the work of Richard White, not to mention folks like Peggy Pascoe, Susan Lee Johnson, George Sanchez, Ramon Gutierrez, David Gutierrez, Neil Foley, Richard Candida-Smith, George Chauncey, etc. etc. etc.. Except that none of this work fits your stereotype of multicultural history or cultural history. Maybe this piece should have been titled "Sociology Sucks."

Clare Lois Spark - 4/22/2004

There seem to be some misunderstanding of what my position is with regard to the study of history, particularly with respect to the history of women, minorities, non-Western cultures, etc.
I am saying that "multiculturalism" is not what it appears to be, namely a sensitive and empathic reconstruction of societies from which the historian does not originate. And I am defending "the Enlightenment" (with reference to materialist historical method) from the slanders of its pseudo-progressive critics who are exceedingly powerful in the profession today and who dominate departments of history in the most influential universities. Some of these critics are in cultural studies, some in literary studies, and others are doing "interdisciplinary" (cultural or social) history in departments that formerly supported the writing of diplomatic and political history.
I am not criticizing "cultural relativism"; that is, the historicizing of events and decisions in the physical and institutional settings that at least partly limited outcomes: that would be the contribution of the Enlightenment to human knowledge. I am criticizing the concept of group character that the multiculturalists assume pertains to every member of the group before they even investigate the actions and consciousness of historically specific individuals.
And I certainly am not oblivious to the absolute necessity of close readings. Deconstructionists are not simply close readers. They have a view that textual meanings are ever elusive, and that is part of their "postmodern" assault on objectivity and science. This notion of radical subjectivism (which is part and parcel of multiculturalism as practiced) is deadly for any rational decision making by citizens, let alone the kind of historical investigation that helps citizens decode the messages that contending politicians and other leaders present to them for their assent or dissent. In other words, "postmodern" means that modernity has been surpassed by something that is better for ordinary people. I am arguing that postmodernism is reactionary and a disaster for critical thought. And most of all, I am saying that contending definitions of what fascism and nazism were about has had a tremendous and insufficiently noted effect upon the debates in our field. That is, social democrats or any other bureaucratic collectivists have defined fascism and nazism as their opposites in order to mask structural similarities between their political and economic remedies. Meanwhile, their "cultural" approach has a common origin in the racial assumptions of German Romanticism.
If this is all too abstract and compressed, please consult my book, _Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival_ (Kent State UP, 2001). That should clear up any misunderstandings regarding for instance the Talcott Parsons circle at Harvard (or other moves by social psychologists in the late 1930s and afterward).

chris l pettit - 4/22/2004

What has always bothered me is when a particular historian...or legal scholar to draw upon my other area of experience, assumes a narrow view of a topic and maintains only an analysis from that view instead of taking into consideration how other fields or views impact the subject area. My favorite example is doing an economic analysis without acknowledging natural, social, cultural and historical factors. In law, I have seen it in cultural interpretations of the law...a white or hispanic or african american advocating only the promotion of their ethnic viewpoint in the law and their cause regarding the promotion of their interests above all others without considering how it affects others. I understand the need to have historians or specialists in any field concentrate solely on specific aspects of their field or specific viewpoints, but when one takes that narrow viewpoint and applies it to every other situation without taking into consideration multicultural or interdisciplinary viewpoints, one ends up causing more problems than they solve. Depending on the subject, one may end up completely biased and prejudical towards others.

One of the main reasons I switched from political science to political history way back when is because political scientists oftentimes try to fit things into their own little boxes: rational choice theory, structuralism, culturalism, etc. They find a favorite theory that fits their methodology and inherent biases and try and apply it to every situation. To me this demonstrates inherent weakness because of the failure to be interdisciplinary and recognise the intersection of political science (for example) and other subjects. This is one of the huge shortcomings of law today...the lack of recognition of the many intersections between law and just about any topic one can think of. many lawyers and legal experts seem to think that the "law" exists somewhere in the clouds...given to us by the great sovereign. This cannot be further from the truth and needs to be changed. I think both law and history are in vital need of multiculturalism in order to uderstand where others come from in constructing their histories or systems of governance. There is a real danger in individuals using "multiculturalism" to promote their own biased beliefs, but we cannot allow individuals to accuse all those who promote multiculturalism of having an agenda. This brings us back to the inherent biases of dealing with singular subjects or topics and not understanding what is going on in totality...we need to promote the understanding that there is no "one size fits all" method of dealing with every situation. We also need to learn from historical events as viewed through all eyes and learn the positive factors other cultures have to offer our own.

It seems to me that we are left with either all choosing our own favorite bias or way of looking at things and clashing continually, or we accept the greatness and potential of multiculturalism, and attempt to root out those who would use it to mask their own prejudiced purposes. If one constructs a careful argument and points out the contradictions in a viewpoint that purports to be multicultural but in reality is not, we can weed out many of the truly non-multicultural viewpoints.

Making general accusations and statements like those of the author, especially without a proper understanding of the true multicultural nature of those examples she tries to use, is extremely dangerous. I concur with her belief that there are those who use the guise of "multiculturalism" to make their own self serving arguments, but this does not take away from the positives of multiculturalism, this simply should serve to make us even more careful in analyzing arguments to ensure their accuracy and integrity.


David C Battle - 4/22/2004

Close minded and ignorant? I've lived on three continents, and travelled on four. My father is a Spaniard and my mother Mexican-American. I grew up overseas, and bilingual, and have dated women from countries you've never even heard of you Liberal poseur. I'm multicultural in the truest sense of the word. The difference between you and me is that I don't play at "culture" like the Liberal poseur you are, or wield it for political purposes by anti-status quo ideologues. Multi-culturalism is something I enjoy, not WIELD or fake when my friends are watching, as you do.

chris l pettit - 4/22/2004

Its always nice when Mr. Battle has something to add to the conversation.

How the view from your little world today?

David Lion Salmanson - 4/21/2004

I completely agree that figuring out what really happened is the first order of business. My field is Western US History and nothing gets one called names faster than pointing out what really happened in the American West. What infuriates me is that when the facts are incovenient, certain constituencies cry about the necessity of myth, but when the left indulges itself in its own mythmaking (and who doesn't?) it gets assailed for having an agenda. What is very interesting here is that the author treats her own assumptions about the civil rights movement as fact despite a lot of recent scholarship that suggests the "King and the Great Liberal Alliance" school of thinking is at best simplistic.

As for Parsons and the Harvard Laboratory of Human Relations, I think she also badly misreads them. Kluckhohn, for example, was extremely concerned with communism and its threat to democracy. The whole project, while Liberal (or should it be "liberal"?), had more of an anti-mass culture bent more akin to William Whyte's Organization Man and Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, books that cherished individualism and decried conformity.

I am not exactly sure what counts as interdisciplanary studies; if you are writing about the past, you are doing history. I also don't see how deconstruction steers one away from this. By deconstruction, I mean the recognition that what is assumed to be normative is, in fact, dependent on the category assumed to be not normative. It has been used to great effect in whiteness studies which have shown very effectively that immigrant assimilation was based less on the adoption of "American" values and more on immigrants demarcating themselves as not black or in some places not American Indian or Asian. Of course, it is only effective after you have the realization and the evidence. But you have to be open to the possibility that what you think was normative (or is normative) was not always that way. Theory - properly used - allows us to put our assumptions aside and open up avenues of analysis we normally would not have thought of. This may or may not lead to revealing insights about the pasts.

Compared to political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc., historians as a whole are much less beholden to theory.

mark safranski - 4/21/2004


Spark's point is probably better aimed at " intellectuals" or " scholars " generally who adhere to this academic trend than just historians specifically, though some cultural and social historians fit her description.

No, the other historians I mentioned were not free of bias by any means and I'm sure there are fine cultural historians who use rigorous methodology. That being said you have to be very, very careful when doing interdisciplinary studies and you start adding or applying the techniques of other fields - while the end product might still be good or important scholarship, it might not be history.

Even when relying strongly on quantitative analysis historians can fall prey to the human temptation to start looking mostly for the evidence that will fit the hypothesis and not the facts that contradict it. When you then additionally begin with a focus on theory, conceptual deconstruction and literary analysis it's even easier to wander away from Ranke. There's plenty of room for interpretation once you figure out what really happened, which is a historian's first order of business.

David C Battle - 4/21/2004

>>>"Through the advocacy of “multiculturalism” as a weapon against elite hegemony,..."

Multiculturalism IS INDEED wielded as a weapon against the status quo, that's why it's so deserving of our suspicion. It reeks of agenda, not scholarship, and that's why its proponents feel that advocating multiculturalism goes hand in hand with trashing Western culture.

And no, I'm not a "white male".

David Lion Salmanson - 4/20/2004

Maybe you and I have different understandings of what cultural history may mean. The historians of household economy and others missed the interconnectedness of economy, religion, gender, and work that the cultural approach allows for(that is, studying a society's culture in a particular moment in the past and doucmenting how that culture changes or where it comes from). Surely you don't mean to suggest that political, economic, and social historians are somehow magically free of ideological bias? Let me be clear about this: cultural history is based on the same types of research methods and techniques as other types of history, although it tends to have less quantitave analysis and in that way resembles older, traditional history. Cultural history as a methodology or approach is neither more or less biased than other forms of history in terms of outcomes. Is there a GIGO factor. Sure. But it is significant that almost none of the people mentioned by name in the article are historians.

mark safranski - 4/20/2004

" What she finds is a world of women's networks, - a whole shadow economy and social world otherwise missed by "objective" history - that forces us to rethink what we know about the time period."

" Objective" social, agrarian and economic historians wrote about these topics at considerable length using standard archival research and historical methodology. The literature on colonial and 19th century " household economy " alone is vast and the ideological viewpoints are diverse - however most of these historians were striving to write " objectively".

Spark's complaint is against intentional mythologizing masquerading as history to serve a particular political agenda


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/20/2004

What is meant by "the multicultural approach" here? That the term "multiculturalism" can be used as a label for what is described above I will concede for argument's sake, but is it the way most historians use the term most of the time?

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/20/2004

What is meant by "the multicultural approach" here? That the term "multiculturalism" can be used as a label for what is described above I will concede for argument's sake, but is it the way most historians use the term most of the time?

David Lion Salmanson - 4/19/2004

There are a lot of problems with this essay. I'll point out just one and let others chime in with their opinions. Spark claims that cultural history is irrational and rejects archival research and historical method so that it can dispose of an objective understanding on the past. But when I actually read cultural history, and I'll use Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Midwife's Tale as my example, I see plenty of archival research. Ulrich takes a document, in this case a diary that other historians have said is useless, and starts asking what the various mundane activites described meant to the author. Using other primary documents, she recreates the social world of a Maine town in the era of the early Republic moving forward and backward as necessary. What she finds is a world of women's networks, - a whole shadow economy and social world otherwise missed by "objective" history - that forces us to rethink what we know about the time period. Why should it surprise us if Martha Ballard took a different meaning from a sermon than her husband or neighbors? We need only look at the reception of The Passion of the Christ to see how one supposedly stable document can be interpreted in widely differing manners by different audiences. Cultural history seeks to replace a so-called objective history with a more accurate recreation of the past in all of its complexity. So-called objective history (and who - besides Von Ranke - are the examples here? I can't think of one historian that isn't tainted by one of these strands: Turner, Hofstadter, Beard?) seeks to simplify the past, cultural history tends to complicate it.

One last point, "whiteness studies" hardly puts a corporatist unity on to white people. The example by Peggy Pascoe on miscengenation this week shows many whites as individuals acting against the dominant thinking. After all, who were these folks trying to get marraige licsences. Rather, it shows how others used a variety of mechanisms such as the law, violence, social shunning, etc. to enforce racial boundaries that would have otherwise collapsed.