Obama's Authoritarian Multiculturalism

National Public Radio's firing of the talented and amiable Juan Williams for comments he made on Fox News about Muslims is outrageous, even disgusting. But it is not an aberration. It is emblematic of the "dictatorship of virtue" imposed on Americans by the country's elites -- many of them, like those at NPR, publicly funded but unaccountable to the American public. Judging from the response to Williams's firing and the immediate extension of his multimillion-dollar contract with Fox News, it looks like he will thrive. But arrayed against the unchecked power of elite multiculturalism, now ensconced not only in Ivy League universities, but in the White House as well, it is not at all clear that the country will.

Americans of all political stripes appeared mystified by NPR's firing of the highly regarded Williams after he gave Bill O'Reilly something resembling an honest (if not completely innocuous) rendering of his feelings about flying in airplanes nowadays: "But when I get on the plane, I've got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

The public's bewilderment is easy to explain. The takeover of our most prized institutions by the type of authoritarian multiculturalism exhibited by NPR took place quietly, over time, and out of the public eye. Multiculturalism began as the academic adjunct to the integrationist civil rights movement of the postwar decades, an attempt to correct the improper omission of underrepresented groups in American history. But its practitioners also reserved for democracy a place of special grandeur, the natural and logical culmination of humanity's centuries-long struggle over the best way to govern. In America, newcomers were free to retain any lawful cultural practices they wished, but they gained status and respect only to the extent they were able to "melt," to conform to principles consistent with life in a commercial republic.

American Jews, for example, had to go through the heart-wrenching process of relinquishing the Yiddish language exclusivity that sustained them for generations against czarist brutality. The Yiddish daily Forward was one of the leading metropolitan newspapers with a nationwide circulation of more than 275,000 in 1930. By 1939 it declined to 170,000 and by 1990 to 7,000. To take another example, migrants from southern Italy had to expand their circle of trust beyond the family or the clan in order to take advantage of public schools and higher education.

For a while, the results of this "pluralistic" multiculturalism were exhilarating. Not only did white ethnic groups join America's vast middle class, but a generation of great social historians like Stephan Thernstrom, Mary Beth Norton, Gary Nash, Winthrop Jordan, and Leon Litwack wrote textbooks that broadened the historical understanding of race, ethnicity, and class in the American past.

Like the postwar civil rights coalition itself, however, the early multiculturalism disbanded amid racially incendiary demands for "black power" and urban rioting. With the achievement of legal equality for minorities, the persistence of inequality generated a reassessment of the "melting pot" model of social mobility for all nonwhites. The belief that the integrationist goal of "colorblindness" was a ruse, a plan to sustain white superiority, gained traction. Critics like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who saw in the social pathologies of the poor a possible cause of impoverishment, were accused of "blaming the victim." Under the new multicultural regime, "racists" like Moynihan merely replaced skin color with "culture" to excuse racial hierarchy. In response, multiculuralists wedded themselves to the idea that, in fact, no culture was better than any other, and that no objective standards even existed by which to make such a judgment. If some groups were comparatively more affluent or powerful, it was because of their own corruption or brutality. No culture -- especially not the middle-class "white" one -- had the right to expect deference of assimilation from the others.

The new authoritarian multiculturalism, in short, replaced the "melting pot" with the primacy of group "identity."

Inevitably, the new multiculturalism became laced with anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. The Americans and the Jews, after all, stand as the most obvious refutations to the notion that all cultures are equal. Each possesses disproportionate wealth and power. So multiculturalists advanced the following narratives: America's global dominance was achieved not by dint of its work ethic, its forward-looking optimism, its respect for individual initiative and enterprise, and its willingness to stand up to tyranny. Instead, it was achieved through the American propensity for war, treachery, and theft, which America inherited from a now properly emasculated Europe. The Jews, David Brooks pointed out, became "the money-mad molochs of the earth ... overrunning poorer nations and exploiting weaker neighbors in their endless desire for more and more."

These narratives explain why some cultures -- namely Western, Christian, and Jewish -- seem to lie outside the circle of "inclusion" touted by multiculturalists. They also explain why Juan Williams's rather tepid remarks about Muslims were a fireable offense, while the 2009 comments of PBS all-star Bill Moyers -- in which he claimed that for Jews and Israel, "God-soaked violence became genetically coded" -- were not.

In perhaps the most powerful testimony to the country's disdain for ideological warfare, however, America's governmental and civic institutions quickly succumbed to unprecedented demands for racial empowerment, affirmative action, minority "set asides," "community control" of schools, "majority minority" voting districts, English as a Second Language education, Afro-American and ethnic studies programs, and educational curricula featuring prideful versions of ancestral backgrounds.

A recent study of education schools by the Manhattan Institute found that the schools where America's teachers are trained offer 82 percent more courses in areas involving "multiculturalism," "diversity," "inclusion," and variants thereof than they do in math. 

To be sure, as in the case of the outcry against NPR, there have been a few notable cases of resistance along the road to multicultural hegemony. In New York City in 1968, the mostly Jewish teachers' union went on strike and won a partial victory against black radicals, who demanded control over teacher hiring and curriculum changes. In the early 1990s, City University of New York professor Leonard Jeffries was removed from his position as chairman of the Black Studies Department after his frequent anti-Semitic tirades and his belief that whites were emotionally cold "ice people" became widely known.

Almost exactly the same storyline holds for the removal of the New Jersey State "Poet Laureate" Amiri Baraka and University of Colorado activist Ward Churchill. In each of these cases, the perpetrator flitted from endowed chair to endowed chair at taxpayer-funded universities, only to have his noxious views revealed when someone in power sought his imprimatur on a superficial attempt to display enthusiasm for "diversity." Leonard Jeffries, for example, was exposed by his appointment to a commission charged with evaluating New York State's public school curriculum in an effort to make it less racist.

But for the most part, multiculturalism has succeeded brilliantly in setting the political and academic agenda in America. Humanities and social sciences faculty nationwide abound with scholar-activists who see America as the vulgar, Neanderthal voice for the superiority of Western values against the enlightened global community, the equality of all civilizations, and the natural brotherhood of men. The large nonprofit sector of charities and foundations, whose revenue now makes up roughly 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product, is more fastidious in distributing the nation's resources on the basis of racial identity than it has ever been. The authoritative report "Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best," set forth by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says that "non-profits should provide at least 50 percent of their grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginal groups."

As for the public schools, the opening in 2007 of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York City, the first English-Arabic public school in the country to emphasize the study of Arabic language and culture, testifies to how far we have come from the public school "Americanization" efforts of the early 20th century.

There is, in fact, little question that Islam's difficulty with accommodating democracy -- to "melt," in a word -- to say nothing of its blood-soaked jihadist wing -- poses the greatest challenge to the multicultural insistence that all values are relative. The barbarity of Islamic extremism, more than one conservative critic has prematurely insisted, signals the death of multiculturalism.

But multiculturalism has proven durable. It appeals to humanity's better nature through a large cache of high-minded jargon ("tolerance," "diversity," "respect," "brotherhood"). And it plays for keeps. Before anyone could shake a stick, the country's loudest multiculturalists were branding the 70 percent of Americans who opposed the construction of a mosque at Ground Zero "bigots," "useful idiots," "Muslim bashers," "hideous," "hostile," and "Islamophobic." In short, nobody wants to appear to be against multiculturalism.

The problem posed by the Islamic world for American democracy, in fact, fits nicely into the multicultural narrative, to wit: no culture is superior to any other. It is only power that determines the inequalities among people. Islamic terrorism is a response to power, to outside forces acting upon it. The United States, as the most powerful country in the world, shares a measure of responsibility for creating those external conditions, for presiding over a world order that can produce that kind of hate -- the international equivalent, if you will, of the idea that high levels of street crime have "root causes" that are external to the criminal.

Finally, authoritarian multiculturalism today possesses an advantage it never had before: one of its most enthusiastic adherents currently occupies the White House. Barack Obama is an apostle of multiculturalism. Like many American blacks, Obama believes that America's original moral flaws of slavery and discrimination have been seared permanently into the American character, and that America therefore lacks the moral authority to wield disproportionate power. Obama also believes he is the perfect instrument for navigating America to its proper, more modest place among nations and that he has made strenuous efforts to do so.

On his first world tour, Obama repeatedly disowned American policies of prior eras -- those that in his dismissive words were implemented when he "was three months old" -- and apologized on three continents for America's "arrogance," its use of atomic bombs, its tendency to "dictate its own terms," it's "unwillingness to listen," and its refusal to embrace the Muslim world. As Dorothy Rabinowitz noted in the Wall Street Journal, "No sitting American president had ever delivered indictments of this kind while abroad, or for that matter at home, or been so ostentatiously modest about the character and accomplishment of the nation he led."

Consistent with his view that America is "exceptional" only in the way "the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism," Obama has attempted to inflate the status of other civilizations in relation to the United States. Decoupling Islam from terrorism has been the primary manifestation of this effort. In March 2009, the Defense Department's Office of Security Review e-mailed a message to Pentagon staff members stating that "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'" This was no bureaucratic snafu. Obama's secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, became the first head of that agency since its creation in 2003 to drop the term "terror" from remarks to the U.S. House of Representatives. In explaining her wording to the Homeland Security Committee, Napolitano told Der Spiegel, "In my speech, although I did not use the word 'terrorism,' I referred to 'man-caused' disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur."

Obama, it seems, will try anything to create a perception that the Muslim world has been involved in everything but terrorism. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Chief Charles Bolden explained to Al Jazeera in July of 2010 that "[w]hen I became the NASA administrator he [Obama] wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science ... and math and engineering."

The reasons for these language and policy changes may be complex, but at their core is the belief that the U.S. is responsible -- maybe partially and maybe indirectly -- for the anti-American animus of the Islamic world. That is why when addressing Iran during a speech from Cairo in June 2009, Obama spoke openly about America's role in a 1953 Iranian coup, the first American president to do so. "In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government," Obama told the Cairo audience. "[T]here is in fact a tumultuous history between us."

For Obama, Iran's descent into a brutal, terrorist-supporting theocracy based on tenth-century moral codes is an understandable response to the CIA's (rather inconsequential, it turns out) intervention in the 1950s. And it isn't just the American intelligence agencies of the Cold War era that Obama blames for a portion of Muslim anti-Americanism. In September 2009, the president gave his approval to Attorney General Eric Holder to open an investigation into whether CIA agents under the Bush administration did anything illegal while interrogating terror suspects. "It hasn't made us safer," Obama told an interviewer from "60 Minutes" about aggressive interrogation techniques. "What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment." Obama did not elaborate on the sources of the Muslim anti-Americanism behind the 9/11 attacks, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the string of bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and hijackings leading back to before Iran's 1979 taking of 66 American hostages, all of which predated America's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

...Which brings us back to Juan Williams. Obama essentially hung his country and his own CIA employees out to dry for the sake of proving, in his own mind, at least, that America has behaved as badly as the extremists of the Muslim world -- to draw a moral equivalence, as it were. Juan Williams was fired by NPR purportedly for implying that there is, in fact, more to fear from Muslims than from other groups of people -- that there is, in other words, no moral equivalence in this clash of civilizations. Given the way Obama has treated people in his employ who acted on the presumption that there was something specific to fear from Muslim extremists, Williams should call himself lucky to have worked for NPR and not the White House. He might have become the subject of a formal FBI investigation.

Americans have demonstrated little appetite for sustained cultural combat over things like social studies textbooks, university faculty, or public broadcasting. But our public schools, universities, and publicly subsidized radio stations can squelch dissent within their ranks free from marketplace competition. Obama is in the public eye and ultimately accountable to the voters. It may not be possible to defeat authoritarian multiculturalism in its protected spheres of influence. But will Americans continue to suffer this attack on free speech, national pride, American exceptionalism, and common sense from the White House, too?
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