Multiculturalism and Nativism Linked, Michaels Argues Dale Keiger ------------------------- Special to The Gazette It's unlikely that a contemporary multiculturalist would want to be linked to the "America for Americans" anti-immigration nativist movement of the early 1900s. But English professor Walter Benn Michaels contends that they are linked. In his new book, Our America: Nativism, Modernism and Pluralism (Duke University Press, 1995), Michaels argues that the same fundamental reasoning underlies both--that cultural identity is determined by racial identity. Contemporary intellectuals who accept the idea that there is no biological basis for race, he says, nevertheless make arguments (as did the nativists 70 years ago) for a cultural identity grounded not in what a person does, but what a person is, as if that identity were handed down in the blood. Michaels contends that this is simply another way of invoking racial identity. "'Culture' is the newest justification for race," he says. "My argument is with the vast majority of intellectuals who do not believe in the biology of race, but try to get 'culture' to do what 'race' cannot." Broadly speaking, proponents of multiculturalism celebrate "difference," promoting the idea that cultural diversity is inherently good, like biological diversity. Members of various cultures incur an obligation to maintain that diversity by preserving their culture. If you no longer speak the language of the old country, or play the music, or observe the rituals, or adopt the attitudes, you "lose" your cultural identity--or so the thinking goes. The problem with this argument, Michaels says, is that for a cultural identity to be something you can lose, it has to be something more than a list of customs and mores. If cultural identity is merely a description of your habits, then it's not something that can be lost; it's a set of choices. If what makes some people Jewish, for example, is simply that they follow Jewish customs, and if the grandchildren of Jews do not follow those customs, are the grandchildren no longer Jewish? Can they be said to have "lost" their identity? No, argues Michaels, because by definition, if they aren't following the customs they weren't "Jewish" in the first place. And the only way they could lose their identity is if that identity is not what they do, but what they are--which, Michaels argues, is indistinguishable from a racial identity. This identity is where Michaels links multiculturalism to nativism. The nativists of the 1920s concerned themselves with defining the American identity and preserving it from immigration. Though they romanticized the American Indian, they usually defined an "American" as someone born in this country of northern European extraction. They worried that between mass immigration, casualties suffered in World War I and a lower birth rate, "Americans" were in danger of dying out. The Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 established immigration quotas based on percentages of foreign-born Americans as recorded in the 1890 census; the point was to exclude certain ethnic groups, like Italians and Jews, and thus preserve the nation's ethnic mix so that "American" meant the same thing in 1920 or beyond as it did in 1890. Nativism was deeply hostile to assimilation, Michaels says, for reasons the nativists insisted were not racist. They valued pluralism, they said, and claimed to believe not that American culture was superior to, say, Italian culture, but only that American culture was better for Americans, Italian for Italians and so on. An American preferred his culture not because it was superior, but simply because it was his. But lurking under this rationalization was a different truth. Were cultural identity merely a question of custom, a Jew or an Italian could become American by simple assimilation. But for American cultural identity to be something that could be diluted or threatened by immigration, it had to be more than a set of adoptable habits, notes Michaels. It had to be a matter of ancestry, of one's blood. It had to be race. Analyzing modernist novels of the 1920s such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Willa Cather's The Professor's House, and The Sound and the Fury, Michaels found literary expression of the truth that underpinned nativism: concern for "breeding," preservation of the family from undesirable outsiders, the desire to keep blood pure (a desire often expressed by allusions to incest). The well-bred Brett in The Sun Also Rises must be protected from the ill-bred Jew Robert Cohn. In Gatsby, Tom Buchanan views Jay Gatsby's love for Daisy as a sort of miscegenation. "The idea of heritage is entirely a racial idea," Michaels says. Michaels also questions another of multiculturalism's assumptions: "Why should you be loyal to your culture? That presumes that some culture is properly yours, and if you don't do it you are betraying it. I don't think there's any value in cultural diversity as such." What if, he asks, one aspect of a culture is the oppression of women? Would women be "losing something" if they adopted a different culture that treated them better? This article is reprinted with permission from the February 1996 issue of The Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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