George F. Will's homogeneous America


George F. Will is the master thinker on the conservative flank of national pundits. His opinion in columns and television talk shows commands a large audience. Will has a way of lining up his arguments that makes a reader feel intelligent just for following the logic and the obscure references; indeed, it takes an effort to fully understand the high erudition and sheer intelligence of Will's prose. As one intends to digest it, however, the message often brings up its own difficulty.

In a recent column, Will makes the heaviest of arguments for the view that a unicultural America, one with a "unified" point of view, is one of the great results of the 9-11 tragedy. He makes this sound as if this were the return of the natural order of things, that somehow this foreshadowed an America made up of "unified individuals again," rather than, as he expresses it, "coagulated groups."

By "coagulated groups," columnist Will means the varieties of cultures and subcultures in American life, some organized as political entities, from non-profit organizations to interests groups, and of course, potentially including the reality of American Indian nations, perhaps the ultimate interest groups in some minds.

The national will to unity, indeed, the "national mind" is now most "malleable," according to George Will. This is a good thing, he reasons. It is as things should be, as it was when America knew it was right and the world was wrong; when America was the Good and whoever, was the Evil. Remember when Indians were disparaged as the precursor to removing them from their lands.

Now we know the evil again, Will exults. Now, we are back to the way it was. We know who and what "evil" is. Amazingly, in Will's America, as he argues, the problem, perhaps a source of "the evil" has been "multiculturalism," which brings on, evil of evils, "cultural relativism." Yes, in Will's America, "multiculturalism" is definitely a source of "evil."

If all these evilisms induce a bit of sea-sickness, we apologize, but the code-talking is everything among the spin-doctor pundit class. It is good for us to see the argument coming and to try to analyze it just a bit. Will's argument is troublesome because he is saying that America should not be multi, but uni. We are not many cultures, he wants to drive home, we are one culture: American. Thus is George Will happy, loading up his particular definition of nationalism onto the "morality" of the American mission. But which America? Which American?

Will seems to argue that the return to standards of beauty and grace repudiates "multiculturalism" and toleration of "diversity." Leave aside that he cites examples from the music of Diana Krall, a Canadian who grew up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and the world of jazz, one of the great triumphs of the American blend of cultures from alien continents. Will is muddling together two very distinct philosophies. When he attacks "multiculturalism," his real target appears to be "cultural relativism," the position that all cultures are equally valid. All "value-systems" are products of their time and place; none has a claim to universal validity. Tesuche Pueblo or the Sistine chapel, each is admirable in its way. None is to be preferred to the other, because no external, abiding standard exists by which to judge them. This sort of cultural relativism is a product of 19th century European thought. Both smug and hypocritical, it assumed the superiority of the European academic who can rise above the belief of all other cultures that their way is the best.

We base one point of defense of "diversity" on an even older European principle, one expressed in medieval Europe by the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. Around 1312, Dante wrote a political tract De Monarchia, defending the (hypothetical) universal government of the Holy Roman Empire on the paradoxical ground that it would best allow human diversity to flourish. He argued that the end of man was to exercise his intellect in contemplating creation. But since creation's possibilities were infinite, no single human perspective, or single culture could possibly appreciate it all. "And since that potentiality cannot all be reduced to actuality at the same time by one man or by any of the particular groups distinguished above, there must be a multiplicity in the human race by which precisely the whole of this potentiality may be actualized."

This is the diversity treasured by the First Nations of this continent, who universally have found a moral order in the universe. For thousands of years, individuals here have divined this order through their own unique experiences, not through books of revelation or Aristotelian three-step logic. Their practices were as diverse as the hundreds of tribes and languages that flourished here, but the end was the same. It took the European intrusion to begin the process of restricting and extinguishing this rich array of perspectives, a process that reached its peak here just as the European world-view was collapsing at home.

Will's phrase, "multiculturalism," is code-speak for the "other" peoples of America, mostly minority races, those beyond the mainstream that he speaks to and for. "Multiculturalism" is code for those that argue that America is a composite of many cultures and ethnic groups and Indian nations, each with its cultural and social and legal histories and each contemporary in its unique way. To Will, this is the thinking of some sort of internal enemy.

In the same column, Will exults in President Bush's "promiscuous use of the word "evil," which he notes is an "unselfconscious expression of his [the President's] religiosity." Religiosity, yes? But, again, what religiosity? Whose religiosity? Would it have to be Christian for Will to prefer it? In any event, just where does this "religious" international policy take us? Why does religion have to play a role in setting U.S. international policy?

Will exalts Ronald Reagan for having "remoralized foreign policy" back in the 1980s. We recognize President Reagan's accomplishments. However, to us the call to "unify" at the expense of the other cultures casts the shadow of Manifest Destiny, the great justifier of the fastest, most drastic land dispossession in history. Will is excited by the strength of his own one-mindedness, but again, he expresses it as an idea that despises distinct cultural constructs and traditional social bases. His described "unity" would apparently opt to destroy or more politely "erase" such bases to create the individualized entities that make up his sense of "individuals united" ? as the concept of the American nation. Gone, presumably, would be the "coagulated groups" ? who might be who, ostensibly ? American Indians? Latinos? Jews? Homosexuals? African Americans? Is it in the national mission to search for and destroy the diversity of the nation-state as part of the mission to combat an evil or barbaric enemy? Will seems to be saying just that. What Will calls "multiculturalism," is this the new strawman of misinformed conservatives, a re-invented boogeyman.

Proud of his patriotism, Will would have all of us know that he is also an ardent nationalist. He defines "nationalism," as "the rejection of cultural relativism, the basis of 'multiculturalism.'" He wishes a bad week on those "diversity mongers" who think America is actually a "mere" mosaic. It certainly would seem that, according to Will, multiple points of view, particularly perspectives arising from a cultural prism, need not express themselves in American life. Perhaps he should spend some time talking with American Indian veterans, those who know all too well how to consider several social, cultural and national prerogatives all at once. After all, they have protected and defended the freedoms and sovereignties of European nations, of the United States, and of their own governments, simultaneously, without stumbling into the same philosophical trap from which Will seems unable to extricate himself.

That is why George F. Will's argument is not acceptable. Not when in our history American Indians have been among those determined to be "the other," the "evil ones," "anti-Christian," "devil-worshipers." Remember the quote, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian?" It wasn't so long ago. Most painful were the periods of long-standing denials of Native identities and spiritual beliefs by varieties of Christian institutions and Christian-led governments, right to contemporary times.

When the lands of the American Indian nations were taken by the newly-arrived, who immediately invited all their relatives over, the great and complicated and perennial world that constituted the original, diverse Native America was rolled over, trampled, and damaged by those who pretended to possess the superior culture. Fortunately, however, many strong pockets of Indian culture, of family, clan and government did survive. Multiculturalism of the highest order still lives on in Indian country, and, in fact, is evident by its incredibly diverse display among the over five hundred Indian nations still active within the United States.

A multi-cultural mosaic emerges just to look at Native America today ? distinct languages, varieties of Creation stories, varieties of survival narratives, deep desires for self-representation. Then look at the whole of America, as the waves of migration receded, what pockets of cultures were left in the wash ? a vibrant and important variety. Then look at the African experience in America, cultures brought and a culture re-enlivened, a dimension denied, segregated, then emergent again. Now comes the brown wave once more from the South, including many indigenous people, some migrations even of whole cultures.

We all understand and fully have felt the barbaric assault upon America on September 11. That the United States had to react and pursue and punish the perpetrators of the crime was completely rational and justified, and must continue. But that horrific assault should not be used by pundits to weave arguments that can cause the diminution of the rights and freedoms and legitimate legal protections of others. We live in a multicultural society and tribal sovereignty exists and has a basis in historical fact. Multiculturalism is not a political stance, Mr. Will, it is a social demographic and long-standing reality of American Indians, Indian country, and therefore, of America.

We would like to think that the right wing, for all its faults, upheld the great virtue of tradition, that it valued the wisdom of the ages accumulated in a variety of cultures. To abandon this birthright for the homogeneous porridge of 1950s sitcoms would betray the deepest tenets of what we would like to think was the highest intellectual tradition of the conservative movement.

Diversity. S'wonderful.