The Multiculturalism of Liberty v. The Multiculturalism of Coercion

In an important sense, everyone must be a multiculturalist, because each culture is itself a multiculture. Take the social and political culture of the West. It is famously constituted by a dialogue between two intellectual poles—Athens and Jerusalem—a culture of reason and a culture of faith and tradition.  But, of course, the culture of the West is not only a social and political culture but an aesthetic one. And here it is composed in part of all sorts of national cultures that are themselves the products of subcultures within the nation.

All cultures thus are mongrel cultures.  A culture is also never static but always in motion propelled by collisions with others. And what emerges from the collisions is the result of millions of choices of individuals over generations who determine how to mix and match what many cultures offer them.  At its best what underlies all multicultures is the dynamism of liberty.

Unfortunately, much that goes under the name of multiculturalism today is a multiculturalism of coercion. While praising diversity, it tries to keep cultures pure and apart, robbing them of dynamism and their denizens of the liberty to participate in their change and improvement. The recent efforts to stigmatize cultural appropriation offers the vulgar example of the denial of cultural liberty.  Culture often benefits by being appropriated. The great musical innovation of jazz began in the African American communities of the South, but then musicians trained in the classical tradition gave it a twist and the result was music like Rhapsody in Blue. On a less exalted level, vigorous hybrid culture is created when a cook from one culture tries to integrate some food of another in a traditional meal.

Even worse is the rise of the multiculturalism of coercion in intellectual life. The intellectual dialectic between cultures comes from comparing, contrasting, and debating their differential effects. Many great works have emerged from this academic impulse—from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion Seed. But at our colleges and law schools today comparing and contrasting the effects of one culture and another is often met with anger and attempts to shut down debate on the subject.

Happily, however much the multiculturalism of coercion continues to oppress our universities, it will not much displace the workings of the multiculturalism of liberty. One of the consequences of globalization is that people have a chance to choose among cultures as never before. Our migration routes are those trodden by people seeking to leave behind at least some part of their culture for another culture.  The rule of law that has been developed most by the culture of the West is the great attraction for many migrants.  Just by going to nations that enjoy the West’s political culture, they greatly increase the value of their human capital. These immigrants practice the multiculturalism of liberty that many of our intellectuals are determined to deny themselves.