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Divided We Stand? : Multiculturalism is tearing apart America, say 2 authors who want a return to unifying values. Not everyone agrees.

April 13, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of context, it sounds like a reactionary war whoop from the film "Falling Down": "White guilt can be pushed too far."

But it's not Michael Douglas as a fed-up-with-multicultural-confusion nutcase spouting that line. It's Arthur Schlesinger, quintessential liberal, in a 1992 book whose title echoes a growing concern in some circles: "The Disuniting of America."

In a similar book from what may prove a budding genre, Time magazine critic Robert Hughes worries about "the politics of ideology that for the last 20 years has weakened and in some areas broken the traditional American genius for consensus. . . ."

"There never was a core America in which everyone looked the same, spoke the same language, worshiped the same gods and believed the same things," the "classic liberal with some conservative tendencies" writes in "Culture of Complaint--the Fraying of America."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 14, 1993 Home Edition View Part E Page 3 Column 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Mistaken identification--Remarks attributed to Patrick Buchanan in Tuesday's article "Divided We Stand?" were actually made in a letter circulated by evangelist Pat Robertson.

But there was, he and Schlesinger assert, a common culture or creed that bound the country's disparate groups.

Now, with Serbs and Croats tearing each other to shreds, the former Soviet empire disintegrating into ethnic enclaves and Los Angeles seemingly intent on mimicking the new world disorder, other thinkers have sworn their allegiance to what might be termed the tribe of E Pluribus Unum-- "one composed of many."

Without necessarily knowing what their like-thinking cohorts are up to, they're stepping in to defend Western civilization, denounce ethnic nationalism and deplore the alleged breakdown of critical thinking skills that has allowed the rise of "political correctness" and assaults on what they see as America's unifying values.

It's time, they say, for America's hodgepodge of ethnic, gender and ideological interest groups to weave themselves back into the national fabric.

Those who suggest otherwise, Hughes says, "cannot know what demons they are frivolously invoking." There's a problem, though.

The very people the Unum folk seek to engage, shrug off their views as the weak self-assurances of an embattled elite.

"These are academic fascists and liars," declares John H. Clarke, professor emeritus of Africana studies at New York's Hunter College and a target of the withering critiques that Schlesinger, Hughes and others have leveled against Afrocentrists' view of history.

"This nation, in spite of what it says to the world," Clarke says, "was founded as a haven for free white Protestant males, middle-class and up, who agree with the prevailing middle-class status quo. Everyone else in this country who thinks they're going to get democracy is kidding themselves."

*

It doesn't take a Schlesinger to tell folks that the comfortable old norms have been unraveling fast: Feminists and other "marginalized" critics rail against a literary canon that focuses on the thoughts of "dead white men." Multicultural activists flay the traditional image of Christopher Columbus. Lesbian separatists isolate themselves from the "dominant culture," while some African Americans argue that only a person of similar heritage can direct a movie about Malcolm X--and then the man who does so requests that only journalists of his skin color interview him.

"It's a black thing," supporters say.

Conservative-Americans began yowling their protests about all this long ago.

But now moderate-Americans and centrist-Americans and even a few left-of-centrist-Americans have joined in.

Last year Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, lamented the trend toward identification by hyphen. This "subordination of the noun to the adjective," he said, "makes a mockery of both the American premise and the democratic spirit."

George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni, whose "Spirit of Community" just arrived in bookstores with a chapter on "the limits of multiculturalism," says it was last year's Los Angeles riots that spurred many to lend their voices to the cacophony.

"What happened in Los Angeles," he says, "was like a hanging. "It focused our minds."

*

The most prominent--and predictable--front in the conflict has been dubbed the "political correctness" debate. Here, people whom Hughes accuses of the "priggishness of the Puritan marm . . . seeking nits to pick" attack as racist phrases such as "a chink in his armor."

On a broader level, the Unum tribe says, PC reflects a dangerous retreat from clear thinking about the nature of American culture--and the way students are taught about their common culture.

One incident has been discussed so often as to assume the quality of anti-PC folklore. It pops up again in Schlesinger's book:

There was, it seems, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who mentioned her "deep regard for the individual" in memorandum.

Back came a note from a college administrator, with the word individual circled.

"This is a red-flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist," he wrote. "Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the 'individuals' belonging to the largest or dominant group."

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