Multiculturalism and History

Late last month, Boris Johnson’s conservative government announced a new plan to overhaul Britain’s national history curriculum in order to, according to the Daily Mail, “push ‘diversity, migration and cultural change’ over ‘classic’ topics like the Tudors or the Second World War.” As his education minister said regarding the change: “This is about the range of opportunities there are within the curriculum to teach world history and the relevance of that to modern Britain.” In other words, less British history for Britain’s future generations.

Britain has actually been watching a social revolution of sorts over the issue of historical “inclusiveness” for some time. Recent British films and TV dramas, for instance, have portrayed mixed-race couples strolling the streets of 18th-century London and depicted numerous historical figures as black, including Roman soldiers who occupied the isle in ancient times, King George III’s wife from the 18th century, and Henry VIII’s wife, Ann Boleyn. Such attempts to normalize Britain’s “multicultural past” (which ironically would seem to blunt its “racist” past) has spawned a popular (and regularly suspended) YouTube channel, History Debunked, partly premised on challenging these false perspectives.

“Revising” national history by distorting and also negating it has, of course, been taking place in the U.S. for some time. In her 1999 book, Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason, former education professor, Sandra Stotsky writes: “Beginning in the early 1980s, the most effective way to upgrade the status of students whose academic performance in school had barely changed… was not so much to enhance it positively through celebratory readings but to reduce the moral and cultural status of the mainstream. (emphasis mine).” To do this, she writes, teachers began to “load the history and literature curriculum with literary works… that stressed the flaws and failings of the United States.” As she concludes, many educators believed it was useful to “highlight a group’s victimization by white Americans because it served to elevate a minority group’s moral status and create guilt in white students.”

Education historian Diane Ravitch reached similar conclusions in her own book on the issue: 2003’s The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (2003). She found, for instance, “sensitivity guidelines” of textbook publishers McGraw-Hill to be filled with “barely-concealed rage against people of European ancestry” and designed to inculcate in students the idea that whites were “uniquely responsible for bigotry and exploitation in all human history.”

Bracing stuff (back then, at least), although it’s almost humorous when conservatives and centrist liberals express shock at such pedagogical pivots. It should seem pretty natural to most.

With enough demographic change, it is possible for new countries to take the place of old ones, and new countries require new histories. For instance, in order to make newcomers feel welcome, it would seem almost necessary to at least downplay the history of the founding stock and traditional majority. So, it’s puzzling when supporters of the immigration status quo from the right get exercised over multiculturalism and the revising of our national history. This basically includes the entire neoconservative establishment. Neocon godfather Irving Kristol, for instance, railed against multiculturalism all the while staying silent on mass immigration from non-traditional source countries -- Linda Chavez being another good example.

While assimilation is always possible (even for the most culturally distant immigrants, but more on this later), as the late British MP and mass immigration-critic Enoch Powell said throughout his career: ‘It’s all about the numbers.’

Try and name a Western country today with record-breaking foreign-born populations (all, mostly) which does not have ethnic enclaves and integration problems generally. An illustrative example of Powell’s lesson is the Southwest’s small, multi-generational Mexican-American population. In the last U.S. presidential election, among those Hispanics who voted Republican (the party of national pride and patriotism, of course), it was this cohort that predominated.

There’s another reason why neocons shouldn’t be surprised. As Stotsky and Ravitch intimated, “building up confidence” in today’s immigrant and minority kids by breaking down other kids from the traditional majority would seem to be most “needed” for those most culturally distant i.e. non-Europeans. For a lot of them, the history of civilizational development is unarguably lopsided and, for many, the results can be painful. As the late National Review columnist Joseph Sobran once wrote: “The charge of racism [from non-whites] puzzles whites who feel not hostility but only baffled goodwill, because they don’t grasp what it really means: humiliation.”

There is something to the idea that many non-European newcomers feel, at least subconsciously, a certain amount of envy towards their hosts -- after all, why else would they have come here? And if there is gratitude, too often it’s gone in their kids’ generation. So, the problem of weak assimilation and the clash of historical narratives would seem to be not just numbers, but cultural distance as well.

The reasons why erasing and negating Western history is so serious are manifold. According to Ernesto Caravantes, Hispanic students subjected to curricula that pushes them “to feel sorry for themselves for perceived wrong-doings in the past” works to “perpetuate[] an activist and negative mentality...” The same, of course, can be said for other minority groups; most of whom, thanks to textbooks like Howard Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States, have grown increasingly sensitized towards America’s past.

With the ubiquity of public expressions of resentment today, we’re starting to see where such attitudes lead to. One British professor writing about the increased sensitivity over Britain’s history of black slavery rightly notes that “stigmatizing an entire ethnic group [i.e. indigenous Britons] because of the sins of a small minority is a textbook example of racism.” In other words, mass demonization of the traditional majority. And if left unchallenged, we all know where it can further lead.

Few have tackled how else historical negationism might affect targeted majorities’ own self-confidence and what it might portend, but it would seem hard to match former National Review contributor Lawrence Auster on this question. As he rhetorically asked years back in response to character assaults made against the Founders: “What happens to a nation when the figure most closely associated with its own origin is demonized? What happens to children, too young to absorb the moral complexities of history, when they are told that this national grandfather figure is a monster?” The answer, he writes, is:

Alienation and suspicion are implanted in their souls. Their ability to love and trust, to feel themselves a part of something larger than themselves -- whether their own family and nation, or a transcendent moral order -- is corroded… [Furthermore, they will] tend to see every further act of aggression against them and their culture as getting its just deserts. They will be rendered morally incapable of defending themselves or their country.

In other words, they will begin to resemble what so much of the West has become today.

In discussing the conflict in Ukraine recently, celebrity British historian David Starkey contrasted the Ukrainians' deep sense of national pride with that of his own countrymen. Broken-down and deracinated Britons today, he said, would likely never defend themselves with such resolve. And no state, he said, can survive which cannot defend itself. This includes its own history.

You can find John Kline on Twitter

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