Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 25 1996

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

     This article is reprinted with permission from the February
1996 issue of The Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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