Sunday, August 8, 2010

From Taboo Breakers, to Taboo Makers (part I)

For many years, liberals and leftists were viewed as taboo breakers, as individuals who bravely explored, debated and deconstructed social, cultural and economic edifices. From race, to religion, to culture, to gender, all topics and traditions were subject to the light of reason. In a sense, the conclusions were less important than the process of self reflection and debate. This process led many Americans to see, feel and ultimately diminish the gaping chasm between the noble ideals of the American Republic and our actual practices. Atrocious, illogical ideas and practices, such as state sponsored segregation of African-Americans could not stand up to the light of reason and over time public opinion and practices markedly changed. Even in areas were liberal challenges against tradition, such as religion and sexuality, have been less successful, they have dramatically changed the nature of the debate. Subject to the discipline of the marketplace of ideas, the majority of conservatives now must defend their positions with reason, rather than use the mantle of tradition to justify them.

Over the last three decades, we have witnessed a fascinating phenomena; many of the liberals and progressives who challenged American institutions in the 1960's, have gained ascendancy over those very institutions. Their ascent has been most felt in academia, government and large swaths of the media. The influence of liberals in corporate life is less direct, but also noteworthy, as demonstrated by the "commitment to diversity" that most larger corporations proclaim and the hundreds of millions spent on affirmative action and diversity management programs. This begs the question - how have the taboo breakers and free thinkers of the past responded to challenges to their cultural and institutional authority? How have they responded to evidence of the short comings of their policies? Have they maintained the same self reflectiveness, intellectual honesty and openness that they championed in the past?

In most instances, I believe that the answer is "no." The taboo breakers of yesteryear, have become the taboo makers of today. No where is this more clearly seen than in issues of race, culture and ethnicity. The admirable commitment to anti-racism has rendered many progressives unable to seriously explore and debate issues of race and culture. The almost religious like fear of uttering a word or even thinking a thought that could misconstrued as racist leads many to avoid making negative observations or drawing conclusions about diverse groups or even diversity in general. Rather than allow data and reason to draw them to reasonable conclusions, those who are beholden to a taboo, be it religious or secular in nature, will engage in mental gymnastics to avoid conclusions that contradict their rigid worldviews. And like the religious zealots of the past, few progressives respond with reason to those who challenge their taboos, instead relying on ad homonym attacks and vitriolic labels. Whereas the zealots of the past terminated debates and tarred their opponents with the label "heretic," the label "racist" or "nativist" are now used in lieu of serious discussions. The end result is that serious exploration and real debate on race and culture are nearly impossible.

Before we continue, we must briefly digress and touch up the difference between race and culture. Race tells us nothing about the beliefs or behavior of a group or individual. In contrast, culture implies values and visions that have a tremendous impact on the social, economic and political life of a nation. Culture speaks of the means in which individuals and groups approach the unique as well as universal challenges that we face, such as providing for the material and spiritual needs of its members and resolving conflicts both within a group and between groups.
If you doubt the power of culture, ask yourself this question: would the United States have achieved the same level of freedom, peace and prosperity if the founders fathers and the dominant population had been Arab Moslems, Russian Orthodox or Spanish Catholics, rather than English Protestants? Is it by sheer coincidence that it has proven to be far more challenging to establish democracy, rule of law, women's rights and free markets in nations dominated by Arab-Islamic culture than it has been in nations dominated by western, Judeo-Christian culture? To declare that one race is superior to another is repulsive and irrational, however reason and good conscience allows us to judge the relative merit of different cultures in promoting positive social, economic and political outcomes. Successive waves of immigration have rendered Anglo-Saxon Protestants a minority, yet classical American values, visions and institutions have remained dominant. Why? Because the majority of immigrants and their descendants were assimilated to the core American values and visions. How? For much of its history, American political, economic and educational elites were committed to assimilation. Theodore Roosevelt best embodies this spirit in the following quote:

"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag..."

So, to the racists and xenophobes, I declare: today's waves of immigrants are no different than your ancestors. Their ethnic and racial composition may be different, but just like your ancestors they have come here seeking the American Dream. However, to progressives I must ad: America's political, economic and educational elites have changed. The majority are no longer committed to promoting the American Way to immigrants or even to native born Americans. Those entering the United States now encounter teachers, politicians and corporations that have subscribed to multi-culturalism, ethno-identity politics and a corrosive welfare state.

Recently, it was announced in various newspapers that by 2042 whites were projected to be a minority in the United States. This transformation of the United States that is without precedence in the annals of history. This shift began with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which increased the volume and radically altered the ethnic composition of America's immigration flow. And in recent decades, changes in the federal government's policies towards undocumented immigrants and shifts in in fertility patterns, have accelerated the demographic transformation. Pundits of every political persuasion are virtually unanimous in the belief that this will have a major impact on social, cultural, economic and political life in the United States. Yet, we encounter a dearth of serious exploration and serious questions about the ramifications of these changes. The majority of progressives offer pollyannish exhortations that we must "celebrate diversity," while most Americans nervously avoid the topic and a small minority gravitating towards blatant racism. In other words, race, diversity and culture have become the great taboos of our age and progressives have become their steadfast guardians.

Progressive critics will most likely respond "we do not treat the topic of diversity and demographic change as taboos, we merely view them as social and economic goods." To this I respond - I am not concerned about progressive answers; because the said demographic change may very well offer net benefits to the United States. However, I am concerned about the lack of serious questions posed by progressives. And I am concerned that their obsession with race and ethnicity has left them unable to focus on the relevant economic core of this debate. Whether my neighbor is black or white, native born or immigrant are irrelevant, but the extent to which they burden or benefit my community are vital questions. Those seeking to determine the impact of the projected demographic changes should look to the cities and states that have already experienced them. The clearest examples are Los Angeles and California, which in the last two decades have been transformed into a minority-majority city and state, in which no ethnic group enjoys a majority status.

A serious exploration would ask questions like: Relative to the national average, what is the poverty, graduation and incarceration rate of rapidly growing demographic groups? What have the economic, social and environmental impact of these changes been? Has it strengthened or strained the public health and education systems? How (if at all) has it contributed to California's current fiscal emergency? Has it aggravated or ameliorated the city and state's growing poverty and economic inequality? Has it strengthened or weakened the rule of law? Has it increased or decreased social cohesion and the vitality of community life? Has it contributed to the net exodus of native born Americans from California and especially from Los Angeles? And if so, why? Have the states and localities that have experienced more modest demographic transfomration in better social and economic shape? A serious investigation would also pose more speculative questions like: Is it more challenging to maintain a republican form of government in a more diverse nation? Will the erosion of a majority population impede the capacity of the United States to assimilate diverse groups towards classic American values and visions. If so, will this diminish our capacity to maintain the culture and institutions that have contributed to the unparalleled peace, prosperity and freedom that we enjoy? Will a milieu of multiculturalism that downplays assimilation, allow the negative aspects of some diverse cultures to thrive? For example, will the misogyny and disregard for freedom of expression present in much of Islamic culture thrive, if the "flames of the melting pot are allowed to dwindle?"

Perhaps free and open debate will prove that the concerns towards diversity and demographic change are groundless. We can hope that free and open debate will disarm much of the racial and ethnic tension that lurks beneath the surface of American life. The problem is that well meaning progressive taboos on race and ethnicity have made it all but impossible to ask these questions in polite company. And if those who desire peace and prosperity for all Americans, regardless of race, color and creed are afraid to ask difficult questions, then only the most racist and xenophobic among us will provide the answers.This is a fate that our great nation cannot afford.

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