A way out of the Balkans

Suzanne Fields

6/14/2004 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

We've had two weeks of nostalgia and patriotism, celebrating the World War II generation and mourning the death of Ronald Reagan (as well, I suspect, as mourning the passage of the youth of a considerable number of us).

We've waved flags, embraced heroes, and drawn tears in remembrance of things past, of good times and bad in another time and another country.

There was a remarkable willingness over the past weeks to put aside differences and divisions and appeals to false multiculturalism as we were once more swimming together in the great melting pot called the United States.

Unabashed and unembarrassed, we put hands over hearts to pledge allegiance to America and "to the republic for which it stands." We lifted voices in prayers of thanksgiving for the good fortune to live in a country that cherishes democracy. We honored those who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the rest of us. For one brief shining fortnight, we focused on what's great about our country.

But that was then. With spring surrendering to summer and we move closer to another election campaign, we'll once more emphasize what divides us rather than what brings us together. That's as it should be as we debate who we are and where we're going.

Honest debate is exactly what we should have about certain phenomena that divide us: "multiculturalism" and its popular enforcer, "political correctness."

If multiculturalism actually meant striving to understand other cultures, that would be a genuine contribution of seasoning to the melting pot, enabling young people, especially, to contrast and compare differences. But multiculturalism has become the prevailing euphemism for discounting Western values and celebrating every ideology and mindset with an anti-American core.

"Wherever the imperatives of multiculturalism have touched the curriculum, they have left broad swaths of anti-Western attitudinizing competing for attention with quite astonishing historical blindness," writes Roger Kimball in the New Criterion.

Not only do these courses take the place of Western history, philosophy and literature, they play to the bias that every other culture is superior to the one bequeathed by the Founding Fathers, who are just a gang of dead white men, anyway.

This is hardly a new observation. Myths reflecting other cultures have dominated the education of our children for two decades, appealing to a psychological fragmentation that, if it continued unchecked would surely lead to an ethnic balkanization of America.

Al Gore accidentally got it right in the 2000 campaign when, with twisted tongue, he described E Pluribus Unum as "out of one, many," instead of the other way around, which is what Franklin, Jefferson and Adams invoked when they wanted to connect the nation's principles to a unified vision. This vision has been aggressively assaulted by hyphenated Americans who elevate their often exotic and usually undemocratic countries of origin.

"No one idea has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward the colored people of this country," wrote Frederick Douglas 150 years ago, "than that which makes Africa, not America, their home." When the freedmen more than a century ago took new names after emancipation, they chose those of American heroes such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Today African-American studies encourage an Afrocentrism that ignores the self-correcting history of civil rights in America.

Multiculturalism not only weakens community bonds, but reduces the motivation for new immigrants to participate in the common culture, the shared history and a common language. No matter how much multiculturalists try to elevate other cultures, the American ideas of liberty, law, democracy, and freedom of expression, religion and human rights are Western values.

"These are European ideas, not Asian, nor African, nor Middle-Eastern ideas, except by adoption," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a decade ago in "The Disunity of America," a critique of multicultural society. "There is surely no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures based on despotism, superstition, tribalism, and fanaticism."

We may still turn such attitudes around if we bring back to the schools an appreciation and understanding of Western values and American history. Whatever America's flaws, no other country has worked harder to change, and this is what we must teach our young.

The National Endowment for the Humanities will soon distribute to schools and libraries a set of 15 books that emphasize freedom. Kids from kindergarten through third grade can read books with titles such as "Sam the Minuteman," and "Paul Revere's Ride." They can later read "To Be a Slave" by Julius Lester, "1984" and "Animal Farm" by George Orwell and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

"These books," says Bruce Cole, chairman of the endowment, "are about freedom sought, freedom denied, freedom lived." That's telling it like it is.