Monday, October 28, 2002

The Melting Pot II

America was founded on liberty, but it’s always had its conservative, traditionalist, virtue-pedantic side. The point of liberty is that it allows one to pursue happiness in the way most likely to yield it: the way one prefers. The problem is to determine the degree to which to constrain liberty in order to promote virtues and ways of life that are the best. For the values embraced by adults are mostly fixed. And some preferences are better suited to human nature than others. It is good for everyone to fulfill his preferences, for this is the only chance he has for happiness. But, as we saw in “The Melting Pot I,” it would be better if we could all be raised in a culture that nurtured the best preferences and produced a single, shared set of harmonious preferences. This is the key idea behind American multiculturalism: the melting pot. It is an idea that implies liberty, public debate, and the quest for virtue.

Different people have different preferences. In multicultural America there is a variety of cultures, from Minnesotan, to Tennessean, to Chinatown, to Tex-Mex, and to black American culture, with plenty more to name. Most of us would be unhappy being forced to live according to only one of these. The spirit of liberty protects us from this fate.

But liberty is just the hollow shell of a value. The vast majority in American share more values than liberty. There is a common culture that cuts across the vast majority: a Greco-Western, Anglo-American set of practices and values. If the majority who subscribe to this set of values wish to preserve it, they may do so. They should. It contains a rich array of norms that is unexcelled in its capacity to create good lives. Culture is fragile and precious, and if the people see fit to promote this predominant culture (including publicly funding it), they may. It is not good for the minority that diverges from mainstream values and doesn’t cherish the predominant ways. But it is good for the descendents of that minority. The present generation can’t just change its attitudes, but their descendents will be better off. The point is no different from their duty to pay for the military even if they disapprove of defense. If rational, they would wish their descendents to be defended and, similarly, to have a better and more unified culture than theirs. This is why there is no duty to support minority cultures in any way, and it is permissible to promote only the predominant culture of the majority, even with public funds.

Here is how multicultural America should work. We allow liberty and open debate so that the best ways of life - the highest virtues - will be discovered, preserved, and propagated by rational persuasion and demonstration. The predominant culture accrues new ideas from minority cultures, evaluates them, and settles disputes amongst the various cultures by siding with the one that has been shown to be the best: to promote good lives, and to prevent cruelty. In some cases, one of two equally plausible alternative ways of life must be chosen. Even then, the one which is traditional to the predominant culture may and should be chosen. It is better to have a unified set of values than a hodgepodge, or what I called a “cacophony of the heart” in “The Melting Pot I”. But even after these decisions are made, liberty remains, to the extent that recalcitrant minorities are free to maintain their own cultures. The idea is twofold. Forcing them to stop would make them unhappy, since, as I mentioned, adults cannot easily switch ways of life midstream. Also, the excellence of the predominant culture will win over the recalcitrant minorities’ descendents in the fullness of time by demonstration and reasoned debate. The parents cannot reasonably deny their children this higher fulfillment. And as for the minority ways of life themselves, it doesn’t matter that they die off. They’re not people. In sum, both minority and majority must tolerate each other. But the majority may and should support only those ways of life it deems best.

Notice that the liberty of the minority is constrained. Only its more superficial values are to be tolerated. Those values which conflict with the norms governing cooperative endeavors favored by the majority are not to be tolerated, since these are cases in which majority rule holds (unless the minority can demonstrate the superiority of its norms). These may be matters of law or extra-legal morality. Good old boys can’t get drunk and race their cars on any road they please, Muslims may not kill infidel Americans, Muslims must not prohibit the drinking of alcohol in their neighborhoods, and Korean grocers should not place your change on the counter, rather than in your hand. There is no duty to tolerate these practices, but rather a duty of all to refrain from them. But mosques, Chinese traditional clothing and shrines to ancestors, the study of Indian poetry, and the like that are to be tolerated, since they don’t greatly impinge on cooperative endeavors.

Still, it is permissible to offer criticism of minority cultures while tolerating them, and to voice one’s opinion that they are inferior, whenever one sincerely believes that this is true. There is a representation of a worldview in each of the tolerable, superficial practices and values of a culture, a worldview which should be subject to criticism and scrutiny. Keeping the Taoist book Chuang-tzu as one’s favorite book and wearing a yin-yang symbol does not directly cut against American values. But it might do so indirectly; only scrutiny will tell. Confucian family values might count as oppressive by American standards. It makes no sense to consider it to be a duty to lie to someone about whether he is pursuing an inferior way of life. Americans are widely known to be mutually critical. That’s one reason that we excell. Reasoned public debate is crucial, and it requires truth. Furthermore, if we are to be required to tolerate inferior values in America, then we reserve the right to voice reasoned rejection of them. We will not stand idly by while our children, impressionable as they are, are attracted by alternative ways of life that they cannot see are inferior. If objections to inferior values are stricken from the public forum, youth will be lead astray. We will not betray them in this way. Therefore, no minority culture has a right to have its culture acknowledged to be equal to superior culture when it is actually inferior.

On the other hand, Americans are not to show disrespect for the people who are pursuing passably decent ways of life, even if those ways are demonstrably inferior to those of mainstream American culture. American liberty and equality are not consistent with snobbery. On the contrary, it is appropriate to congratulate minority Americans for their happiness, even if you think they could have achieved more were they psychologically equipped with an even better set of values. American multiculturalism represents solidarity between decent Americans of various cultures, but it also is committed to honesty about which ways of life are best and to be preserved and which are inferior and to be left to fade away.

This is the scheme of the melting-pot multiculturalism of America: liberty, public debate, and the quest for virtue. Diversity and liberty are good as means to virtue and unity in America, and as ways to promote the happiness of minority groups before their melting is complete. But virtue, the best ways of life, and unity in them should always ultimately, and with the gentle guidance of liberty and tolerance, override cultural diversity. Diversity is a mere means; virtue is the end. For this reason, the melting-pot multiculturalism of America is only moderate multiculturalism.