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Let’s Not Get Bogged Down In Multiculturalism Versus Progressivism


In his reply to an essay by Ryan P. Williams of the Claremont Institute calling for a defense of America against multiculturalism, my Federalist colleague David Marcus misreads Williams’ core argument, which is that America’s most vital virtue is an insistence that its citizens and potential citizens “assimilate to a certain view of justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence and safeguarded by our state and national political institutions, first and foremost the U.S. Constitution” (emphasis mine).

Marcus avers that Williams is “demanding, especially of potential citizens that they assimilate into American culture,” and goes on to argue that Williams’s fundamental error “is the focus on culture.” Williams’s focus is not on culture, but justice. That’s why, despite Marcus’ claims, he doesn’t demand that citizens and potential citizens assimilate into American culture—a phrase that never appears in his essay.

Rather, he is concerned with the uniquely American view of justice that insists, with the Founders, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The safeguarding of those individual rights is the purpose of just government, and of the American regime properly understood.

That is, the object of American government is, or should be, justice, which, as Williams writes, “meant the equal protection of equal rights rooted in a common understanding of human nature.”

Against this natural law view of human nature and politics, multiculturalism posits that there is no basis for individual rights, only collective rights rooted in historical grievances and adjudicated through sheer force. Williams’ key paragraph on what he means by multiculturalism is worth quoting in full:

Unlike Americanism, properly understood, multiculturalism defines and defends the rights of groups rather than individuals and denies the possibility of any natural standard from which to assess the goodness of political or moral arrangements. By rejecting this natural standard by which the virtue of America (or any country) must be measured, multiculturalism denies equality of each under the law of all. But so too does multiculturalism therefore abandon any principled adjudication of willful or rival claims to prestige, honor, and resources advanced by groups as a matter of right. Will and force replace reason and deliberation.

Marcus gets distracted by the term “multiculturalism” and reads into it a definition—and a focus on American culture in particular—that Williams isn’t actually using. Of Williams’ definition of multiculturalism, Marcus says it’s “a very apt description of modern progressivism, but it’s not clear what it has to do with culture.”

Well, multiculturalism as Williams defines it doesn’t have much to do with culture as such. It has everything to do with a rigid political ideology that seeks to divide Americans into groups and accord them rights and privileges based on their membership in one or another. That, argues Williams, is fundamentally anti-American and conservatives need to start taking it seriously as a mortal threat to the republic.

As a term, “multiculturalism” is properly understood as a kind of euphemism for what we might call anti-culturalism, an intolerant regime that destroys the basis for individual rights and freedoms. Marcus says multiculturalism “embraces a relativistic view of morality,” but in practice the moral relativism that multiculturalism invokes is just a disingenuous means to a perfidious end, which is enforced conformity.

Cultural Marxism, argues Marcus, is the real enemy of Americanism, and the best way to fight it is to “show that our values and norms are good. Chief among those values is pluralism.” But the pluralism and tolerance that Marcus rightly prizes are the very things multiculturalism cannot abide. (Williams provides a litany of recent examples, from politics, to education, to foreign policy, etc.)

Indeed, if we want to preserve the pluralism that has allowed Americans to live and let live, we must recover—and yes, insist upon—a view of justice, rooted in natural law, that makes pluralism possible.

Maybe this is all a misunderstanding over definitions of terms. But it’s important that conservatives try not to talk past one another and strive for mutual understanding on this point. It’s not an adherence to American culture that we must insist upon—from citizens and immigrants alike—but an adherence to a uniquely American conception of justice. Only then can we resist multiculturalism’s drive to pull us apart into competing, fragmented groups and reaffirm our national motto: E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.”