July 31, 2007

“As an eleven-year-old boy I could not do much for Kader Mia as he lay bleeding with his head on my lap. But I imagine another universe, not beyond our reach, in which he and I can jointly affirm our many common identities (even as the warring singularists howl at the gate). We have to make sure, above all, that our mind is not halved by a horizon.” —Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen is one of those supremely civilized human beings from Asia who have made their home in the West, and are as appalled as we are, perhaps even more than we, at what has become of us here.  Under massive immigration and government enforced “€œmulticulturalism”€ the England Sen loves is turning into something too much like the East Bengal of his childhood.

In Identity and Violence, the concluding sentence of which I have quoted above, Nobel Prize economist Sen meditates on what the Patriarch of Venice has well indicated as the unavoidable fact of civilizational hybridity. Sen, like Cardinal Angelo Scola, is sensitive to the concerns that many of us, who call ourselves cultural conservatives, have over what passes for multiculturalism:

“There is a real need to rethink the understanding of multiculturalism both to avoid conceptual disarray about social identity and also to resist the purposeful exploitation of the divisiveness that this conceptual disarray allows and even, to some extent, encourages. What has to be particularly avoided (if the foregoing analysis is right) is the confusion between multiculturalism with cultural liberty, on the one side, and plural monoculturalism with faith-based separatism on the other. A nation can hardly be seen as a collection of sequestered segments, with citizens being assigned fixed places in predetermined segments. Nor can Britain be seen, explicitly or by implication, as an imagined national federation of religious ethnicities.” (p. 165)

And neither can the United States — or Europe.  Yes, we are members of communities of faith.  But there is common humanity, and, in various places and at various times, common civilizations have flourished, each articulating that common humanity in its own unique way.  Our own civilization has been fairly unique in offering hospitality to those who come to us from other civilizations and their outskirts, trusting to our common humanity and to a set of institutions and traditions designed to allow members of different communities to collaborate as neighbors, clients, and colleagues.  And this has worked remarkably well, at least in America.

When I think of 9/11 I recall how my glass fortress diagonally opposite the World Trade Center complex was locked down by security, ingress and egress forbidden.  One gentleman, a computer technologist, as were we all, made it in — and out again.  When he emerged from the subway station and saw the Twin Towers on fire, rather than get back on a train for Brooklyn with the rest, he rushed to his cubicle, retrieved a medical bag (he was a trained paramedic) from his desk, and headed for what the media would soon be calling Ground Zero.  There are pictures of him there doing what he could for people until the building collapsed on him.  I am not sure any remains were identified.  He was the only one we lost.

I don’t even know the man’s name, and there were many like him, whose names are known to God.  What I do know is that he was from China, and that generations of Communist indoctrination had failed to eradicate the Confucian ethic, the conviction that knowledge imposes obligation.  And I am proud that this man chose my country to make his home.  Of course this is not a plea for unrestricted immigration.  But I think we waste too much energy on schemes to keep the wrong people out, when we should rather stop encouraging people to come for the wrong reasons, and strengthen and renew those elements of our culture that have attracted those immigrants of whom we are rightly proud.

America is a unique civilization, in which people of all cultures have made homes for themselves.  Not all came to suck the welfare tit.  Yes, my mother’s mother and my father’s grandfather came for opportunity, but there is nothing wrong with that.  The desire to achieve a decent life for yourself and your family is a noble one, especially when centuries of English rule and Protestant ascendancy have beaten in the lesson that as Irish and as Catholic you and yours are forever unworthy of a decent life. 

The American establishment, including my mother’s father’s people, dreaded the arrival of my Catholic ancestors, German and French as well as Irish, expecting to be overwhelmed by starving hordes of medieval peasants.  Of course nothing of the sort happened.  In wishing to be free from Protestant oppression, they wished to be free to live lives open to realities not anticipated by their predefined communal identity.  And such lives they have led, to the dismay of innumerable parochial school principals.  The same may be said, and indeed has been said, of the children of Hindu and, yes, Muslim families in America.  Even Jews complain of it, though the ghetto remains intact in parts of Brooklyn.  Still, a Jewish woman may take a seat in the front of a New York city bus without taking a beating for it, as she might in Jerusalem.

The Muslim community in America is quite unlike that of France or Britain or anywhere else.  Arabic speaking Muslims have been integrated into a wider Arab-American community founded by Christian refugees from Islamicist terror.  There is a certain concern and esteem for Palestinian refugees from areas controlled by Israel, but again, many of these are of Christian heritage.  The Bangladeshi Muslims who run so many small businesses are Bengalis before all else, who sing the songs of the Christianized Hindu Rabindranath Tagore, the national sage whose broad religious sense also reflects the kinds of Sufism common in South Asia.  On the whole, American Muslims, or, should I say, Muslim Americans, do not think that they dishonor God by treating secular matters in a secular spirit.

Despite the best efforts of demented social studies teachers in our public schools, what Sen calls plural, separatist, monoculturalism has made little progress here, except among two groups.  It is in Jewish circles that the specter of communalism became especially powerful in the wake of 9/11.  On the evening of that day itself a woman prominent in the Jewish organizations telephoned our home to make sure I was all right.  In the course of her conversation she said, “€œNow you know what it feels like to be Israeli,”€ a remark not only breathtakingly tactless, but singularly inappropriate addressed by a woman born and raised in the Bronx and educated at the expense of the taxpayers of New York to a woman born in a temple compound on the banks of the Brahmaputra.  After that I was prepared for the unspeakable Netenyahu’s brutal and bullying speech the next day.

In the years that followed strange things have been happening in the Jewish community.  Several teachers who tutor yeshiva students at home report that the boys are being taught to hold the subjects taught in the English language — including mathematics, science, and history as well as grammar and literature — in growing contempt.  One boy demanded to know whether his tutor accepted the idea of evolution.  “€œIn a couple of years you’ll know better,”€ he smirked — evidently he believed, believes, that Moshiah will come soon to teach the rest of us a lesson.

Sound familiar, you hinterlanders? Damn straight!  This is not a New York Jewish thing, but something that has been growing in the fundamentalist backwaters for years.  Indeed, it is fairly new out East, and still rather unwelcome here.  I live in the Gilded Ghetto of Manhattan’s West Side, which was, within living memory, a fading suburb of Habsburg Vienna, with old Budapest at the other end of the crosstown bus.  Here you don’t have to be an Irish Catholic to shake your head over the foibles of the Soviet-born Israelis who seem to be taking over.  Indeed, the Irish Catholics are an endangered species here ever since the ethnic cleansing known as urban renewal, and the tiny bits of public land from which Christian symbols were ripped away two generations ago now display triumphant menorahs for Advent.

But we somehow manage to get along;  if you don’t believe it, read the news from France, even England, and, God help us all, Sweden, and see what things are like overseas.  We are not, or at least not yet, in the grip of Sen’s pluralistic monoculturalism.  We have, in additional to our particular ethnoreligious cultures, a common culture of liberty, what Sen calls cultural liberty.  By this he means the ability given by education to make intelligent, informed, and responsible choices among the cultural alternatives offered to us. As Goethe says somewhere, we do not really own what we inherit until we freely embrace it. If you want to call this the criterion of Western civilization I will not dispute you, though it is one we have not always honored, and Sen can point, does point, to paradigmatic instances of it east of Suez.

The common culture may not be what it once was (and maybe it never was), but it is still enough to keep the conversation going, and as Oakeshott puts it, we are a species of ape who lost our tails sitting around talking.  Or, as Bob Hutchins pitched it to the upmarket, ours is the civilization of the dialogue.  And it is, unlike any other.  It’s not just that old man Plato wrote literary dialogues on the assumption that people should be prodded to make up their own mind about things.  It’s also that Christendom has always felt itself to be in a very odd relationship indeed with its Hebrew and with its Pagan ancestry.  We could say that this realization is as old as Petrarch, but it was no secret to Justin, Clement, or even Augustine.

Of course every social studies teacher and professor of critical studies in America would have hissy-fits over this kind of “€œEurocentric”€ talk.  Some member of the Brussels parliament might even want to make it illegal.  But while I have the freedom, I’m going to use it.  And so should we all.  That’s what civilization is all about;  the alternative, as Amartya Sen well remembers, is genocidal violence.

Frank Purcell is a philosophy teacher living in New York City.


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