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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Multiculturalism: Control or Sensitivity? : DICTATORSHIP OF VIRTUE; Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future by Richard Bernstein ; Knopf $25, 378 pages

October 26, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rodney King asked exactly the right question: Can't we all just get along?

Richard Bernstein offers a disquieting answer in "Dictatorship of Virtue." The politics of race, gender and ethnicity in America have become so vicious, Bernstein argues, that we are hopelessly out of touch with the notion of a color-blind and classless society that was once the ideal of American democracy.

Instead, Bernstein argues, we are threatened with a bizarre kind of cultural and intellectual authoritarianism in which every American is defined by his or her minority status, ranging from color to sexual orientation to physical stature, and every dissident is punished by Orwellian thought police.

The whole sorry mess, Bernstein suggests, is encompassed in the phenomenon of multiculturalism and all that it implies.

Exactly what is multiculturalism? According to Bernstein's rather snide definition, it's "a set of goals that ranges from teaching first-graders in Oregon about the achievements of sub-Saharan African civilization to racial set-asides and quotas at newspapers on the East Coast."

But multiculturalism is not merely a matter of race, according to Bernstein's superheated polemic. Rather, multiculturalism (and its cognates, such as diversity, inclusion and sensitivity ) describe what has become a holy war on not only racism but also sexism and "ageism," "classism" and even something called "lookism."

The examples of multiculturalism that Bernstein cites in his book are carefully chosen to make the point that multiculturalism is thought control, ranging from the merely silly to the downright sinister.

At times, he justly and correctly points out that the emperor of multiculturalism has no clothes, and he plausibly suggests that the most militant advocates of diversity are actually the guardians of a rigid orthodoxy.

"They exalt racial and sexual rage over reason," he writes of what he characterizes as the Red Guard of multiculturalism in America. "They will turn almost anything they do not like into one of the new cardinal sins--racism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia--and they will try to punish those who commit those sins."

Bernstein, who now works for the New York Times, is a veteran journalist who saw the worst excesses of thought control in the People's Republic of China, where he served as Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine. Now he gives us a parade of horribles intended to show us that the worthy goals of multiculturalism have been turned into a grotesquerie worthy of the Great Proletarian Revolution.

Bernstein visits the Philadelphia Inquirer, where an editorial on birth control prompted a public scourging of the editorial writers, who were accused of advocating "slow genocide" of African Americans.

And he quotes from a feminist critic who says she discerns in the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony "the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release."

Bernstein cannot be faulted for the liberal and humane values that he espouses in "Dictatorship of Virtue"--he calls on us to keep an open mind, but he insists that it be used for clear thinking and plain speaking.

But the subtext of "Dictatorship of Virtue" is mostly a matter of politics. When Bernstein defines multiculturalism as "a code word for political ambition, a yearning for more power . . . " for example, he is betraying his own anxiety about the changing balance of power in America--the traditional Establishment is facing some vigorous competition from some very assertive people.

"Insofar as culture is involved in multiculturalism," Bernstein writes, "it is not so much for me to be required to learn about other cultures as for me to be able to celebrate myself and for you to be required to celebrate me, and, along the way, to support my demand for more respect, more pride of place, more jobs, more foundation support, more money, more programs, more books, more prizes, more people like me in high places, a higher degree of attention."

Bernstein clearly disapproves of such demands. But we might well ask ourselves: Exactly what is wrong with the ambition for "more respect, more pride . . . more jobs"?

What weapons do we prefer the powerless to use in their struggle--words or guns? And where do we want the struggle to take place--on the campus and in the workplace, or in the streets?

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