LET US BEGIN by dispensing with the coy euphemization of multiculturalism as a stand-in for multiracialism, as if minorities were public restrooms or some other entity requiring verbal camouflage to appear in polite society. Let us take multiculturalism in its only possible honest sense as meaning the idea that individuals, institutions, and nations should possess a multitude of different cultures. In that case, the ultimate problem with multiculturalism is none of the things that have been eloquently dissected in this magazine. It is that multiculturalism does not really believe in what ought logically to be its core concept: culture.
Multiculturalism cannot answer the question of why we should value culture in the first place. Why should we have any culture at all, since it causes so much trouble? Why not just have consumer products? And if multiculturalism can give no reason why we should have any culture at all, it has no reason why we should have a multitude of cultures. The best answer one can get out of multiculturalists on this question is just identity politics, the postmodern version of what the old Tammany machine in New York used to call the Balanced Ticket and the Three I’s (Ireland, Italy, and Israel). Culture has no particular value, but as long as it exists, let the pie be divided equally like any other sort of patronage. Like all sorts of patronage, the act of division introduces corruption.
It follows from this little critique that if conservatives are to offer a serious alternative to multiculturalism, we must have a serious idea of what culture is for. The key to answering this question is to look at the origin of the word. First used in its present sense by philosopher Immanuel Kant, Kultur in the German is ultimately derived from the same root as the English agriculture. In its original meaning, it meant what we would now call self-cultivation, i.e. the cultivation of the individual consciousness through exposure to the arts. It presumes the idea that the consciousness is just as worthy of cultivation and perfection as the body. This is why we insist on a hierarchy of culture, as higher forms of art impart a greater refinement to the consciousness and give it objects of higher quality on which to form itself. "Shaping taste" is an extremely superficial way of describing it, but not misguided. The concept of taste is the tip of a far more important iceberg, the question what objects this consciousness has formed itself on and come to be moved by. What attracts it? Garbage, or things of real quality? This is all motivated, ultimately, by a sense that what a man’s consciousness amounts to is an essential component of what he amounts to as a human being, what he is worth.
That this cultivation requires culture, i.e. the property of a community and not just an individual, is caused by the fact that individuals on their own cannot sustain culture, one of whose essential attributes is communication. Therefore culture tends to be the property of groups of people who communicate with each other, i.e. societies. Nietzsche said a culture was a group of people who understand each other. Because it takes time to build up a culture, cultures tend to be the property of groups of people who have done this for some time, i.e. nations grounded in history. Because it takes time to learn and requires real, not virtual, circumstances, individuals tend to belong to only one culture. Because the upper rungs are hard to reach without the lower, this is especially true in the case of high culture. The objective of culture is the cultivated person, what the Germans used to call the gebildete Mensch, the first word having a root related to "build," also to the German word for education.
Multiculturalism makes a mockery of this. It asks people who haven’t even learned their own culture yet to learn another. How are students supposed to learn someone else’s culture when they don’t yet know what it is to learn a culture or even to have a culture? It is hard enough to learn one’s own, and probably harder today than it used to be, now that high culture lacks the authority it once commanded and low culture has exploded in technical sophistication and ubiquity. More likely, they will learn neither, and their culture will in fact be the same child-centered commercial pop culture they came to college with—which is to say, they will have learned nothing, and probably wasted their only serious chance of a lifetime to do so. Multiculturalism therefore produces what we can call the default to the lowest common denominator. It is not a philosophy of freedom of choice; it is a philosophy that imposes the lowest common denominator on people who have no choice in the matter.
Multiculturalism also favors the lowest common denominator because it throws together people who have no culture or any quality in common. If everyone is encouraged to embrace wildly different cultures, the common conversation of culture, that conversation in which people experience the highest elements of their common humanity through their common experience of the highest products of human creativity, is broken. People share nothing but pop-cultural junk. There can be no community of experience, no shared critical standards, no common memory, no common aspiration. There are just dozens, if not hundreds, of ghettoes, and it makes no difference if some of them are gilded.
Within living memory, localism was the common condition of mankind and cosmopolitanism was a rare and special accomplishment attained only by a few. But television, cheap travel, and free trade have brought a kind of demotic, Blade-Runner consumerist cosmopolitanism to the masses. To be truly local is now the rare and special achievement. How many Americans are rooted any more? Some. How many more are just consumers, equally at home in any of the world’s identical malls? You tell me. Multiculturalism is the perfect excuse for cultural consumerism, the trivializing nightmare that even intelligent leftists, like Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, feared. It is the perfect ideological rationalization for commercial interests that want people to move through life in a haze of trivial novelty, never giving their minds to any act deeper than the act of consumption. It is culture cut up into small pieces too small to threaten anybody. It is an endless cultural buffet with never a dinner.
Multiculturalism leads to people who are forever condemned to the lower rungs of culture, to a permanent condition of the aesthetic neophyte, of the stunting of their soul’s capacity for experience. It is thus hostile to high culture as such and contains a covert agenda of not just equality between cultures but a leveling within cultures. It is just as hostile to serious Brahminism or Mandarinism as it is to their Western analogues. Foreign cultures, particularly if they are non-white, have been granted a temporary pass by political correctness against being attacked the way Western Culture has been, but this will eventually expire as a generation of American-educated angry leftist fools comes of age overseas. Multiculturalism cannot stand to see anything remain that is a possible reproach to its sad self, like a viable and coherent single culture that is confident of itself and does not aspire to dissolve into bits and pieces.
A common high culture is one of the key ways in which intellectuals, artists, and the rest of the cultural elite are kept loyal to the nation. As Burke said, if we are to love our country, our country must be lovely. How many times have we heard intellectuals say things like, "how can I take America seriously? American culture is The Brady Bunch." A common high culture is one of the few things the rich can aspire to that is not just love of wealth or power. It enables the construction of a parallel hierarchy in society that is not one of wealth, power, or birth, lessening the deadening effects of these hierarchies. It bolsters the prestige of tradition in other fields. It gives education a focus beyond technique. It satisfies people’s natural desire to have something in common with their neighbors and with their own past. But these things can only be done with a common high culture; they cannot be done with the cultural fast-food court of multiculturalism.
James Q. Wilson’s famous "broken windows" theory applies, I think, to culture too: if people see ugliness all the time, it conditions them to expect and tolerate it. People need spiritually uplifting gestures of beauty in their lives. Even the most run-down neighborhood, for example, should have at least one truly fine building in it (usually a church. It has a certain inescapable significance when the most beautiful thing around is a church. Second best would be some symbol of civic authority.)
It is not really in the American grain to worry about culture in what Camille Paglia called "this masculine pioneer country that has never taken the arts seriously." It is our habit to defer to "practical things." But multiculturalism, by making culture a battleground, has forced a lot of people on the Right to become interested in culture again. People have realized that the culture shapes the society and is therefore worth fighting for. It simply must become part of the conservative agenda that we are the party of serious culture and the opposition the party destroying it. We have to have a cultural agenda beyond censoring naughty pictures at the National Endowment for the Arts.
It’s that or Blade Runner.
Note: Before anyone accuses me of being an elitist, let me just plead guilty as charged. 99% of significant human achievements are done by 1% of the population. See William A. Henry’s A Defense of Elitism for details. And do rent Ridley Scott’s classic 1984 sci-fi thriller Blade Runner. It’s the negative utopia we are most likely to get.