Why Multi-Culturalism is Misguided

First, it is not clear what is even meant by “culture.” Is culture monolithic? Does it have a essence? From where does it come from? What are its constituent parts? What unifies disparate phenomenon as part of a single culture? What about divisions at an even lower level–within the confines of a singular culture, such as geographic, linguistic, religious differences? What counts as belonging to a certain culture? I can go on and on, my point being that in general, the concept of “culture” is riddled with many metaphysical, ontological, and epistemic questions that have no obvious, self-evident answer.

If we can’t even get clear about a single culture, let’s say our own American culture (whatever that means), then how can we, as a policy, promote the understanding of other “cultures?” And what does it even mean to promote other cultures? Does it mean mere passive tolerance? Active acceptance? Respect? Compromise? And what does it mean to “understand” other cultures? How does one know when one has understood another culture?

And what does multi-culturalism mean exactly? Is it merely an ontological claim about the existence of other “cultures” which we perceive to be different from our own? And in what sense are these other “cultures” different? Are these differences significant enough to warrant that we devote resources to understand or even reconcile them? Again, there are riddles abound, but yet few, outside of academics, think about these things, but yet multi-culturalism has become a bona fide socio-political movement, showing no signs of going away anytime soon.

But I haven’t even gotten to the real reason why I think multi-culturalism is misguided. Thus far, I’ve only pointed out what I perceive to be some very difficult theoretical questions about the concept itself. I think if we were to promote multi-culturalism as a social policy, we ought to at least think more carefully and more rigorously about what it is that we promoting. And it is this serious thinking that I am not seeing.

Second, even assuming that all the metaphysical, ontological, and epistemic questions about culture are resolved (a highly problematic assumption, but one which I will grant for the sake of this part of my argument), there is still one glaring problem with multi-culturalism. And the problem is this: multi-culturalism does not treat individuals qua individuals, but individuals qua members of groups distinguished by their cultures.

This problem goes against the very ideal that is supposed to be promoted by multi-culturalism: genuine understanding of pluralistic, genuinely different individuals. But multi-culturalism assumes that in order to understand genuinely different individuals, one must do so through the framework of “culture,” which, whatever else it is, is a collective notion. And here lies the contradiction: how can one genuinely understand another person as a real, different individual through a collective framework?

Time for an example. In Scenario 1: Suppose I meet someone from China (assuming that I can be from any national/ethnic grouping other than China, and assuming that this is the first time I have ever met someone from China and have no previous knowledge about China at all), how am I to attempt to understand this Chinese person as a genuine, but different individual? Assuming that we can achieve a level of communication that is sufficient for basic communication, I can begin to understand this Chinese person by just talking to him, finding out his interests, his opinions, his personal quirks and eccentricities, and so on and so forth.

In Scenario 2: Suppose I live in a community that values multi-culturalism and actively promotes it as a matter of policy. Presumably, in this community, I will have had some knowledge of Chinese “culture,” (again, brushing aside the philosophical problems about the concept). Defined in an unsystematic, but plausible way, what that might entail is something like this: I know some general history of China in broad strokes; I know the basic characteristics of an average Chinese person; I am roughly familiar with some of its cuisines, music, literature, customs, so and so forth; I roughly know what are considered appropriate and inappropriate, what counts as praise and what counts as offense–in other words, a general knowledge of its norms. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and it certainly isn’t a priori–these are merely things which I would argue that a basic understanding of another culture might plausibly entail.

In this scenario, I meet the same exact Chinese person. The basic question is the same: how am I to attempt to understand him as a genuinely different individual? But with this question there is now another: will having lived in a community that actively promotes multi-culturalism change how I answer the first question? My contention is that, yes, it in fact does, and in a way that treats the individual no longer as an individual, but as a member of a group defined by its culture.

What do I mean by this? When I meet this Chinese person, instead of interacting with him and then gauging and interpreting how he interacts with me, I will have already filtered my interpretation through a “cultural” lens. Whereas before, I am observing him without considering anything about his group membership (after all, how can I, since I know nothing about China?), I am now observing him and categorizing my observations of him under my pre-conceived notions about what Chinese culture is like.

I do not claim that my understanding of this Chinese person in these two scenarios will never converge, because it might very well be that what I observed of the Chinese person in Scenario 1 is in fact highly shaped by a culture that has shaped and influenced how he acts. But it must be emphasized that the two does not converge by necessity–for the very same reasons which are raised by the philosophical questions about culture which I’ve raised at the very beginning.

Therefore, multi-culturalism promotes viewing people of other ethnicities/nationalities in terms of their “culture,” not in terms of the people themselves. And this is a very false sense of understanding–just because one has been to a folk-like festival, or eaten at a few “authentic” ethnic restaurants, or seen “traditional” art, dance, music, literature, etc., or read a book about that culture–it does not mean that one has “understood” the culture under discussion. And then to use this false sense of comprehension to view another individual through such a murky lens is definitely not understanding the invidual as an INDIVIDUAL.

But I can hear the objection already: what if a policy promoting multi-culturalism created a real sense of understanding of other cultures? My response is two-fold. First, like I said earlier, it is extremely unclear what it means to “really” understand another culture. Second, what is the point? If one understands another culture that well, then why even use it as a filter? Why not just get to know the individual without pre-conceptions to begin with? If that individual does in fact act in a way that is highly influenced by his culture, then nothing will have been lost or gained? If he doesn’t conform to expectations, then knowing that particular culture well is useless in that particular interaction.

Of course, there is an argument of necessity, because learning about someone else with absolutely no pre-conceptions is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But this doesn’t change the fact that in order to TRULY get to know another person as a real, different individuals, one cannot go in with pre-conceptions, because the idea of pre-conceptions, as they apply to a genuinely different person, is a contradiction in terms.

If the idea behind multi-culturalism is that it will help one understand a different person better, then I don’t think it does that all. People are surely different, but surely they are different in different ways. But multi-culturalism makes the false assumption that differences between people are primarily categorized along cultural lines. This is surely not the case with people who are really different–people are different precisely because they resist categorization along any given lines–and to view and interpret their differences primarily along one dimension seem to squash the real, genuine differences between people.

This is what I ultimately mean when I say that multi-culturalism, despite its pluralistic premise, is actually a monistic, one-dimensional concept that fails to recognize genuine individual differences arrayed along multiple dimensions, none of which is always necessary or sufficient to really understand them.

Advertisements

Reflections about My Job, Part 2

I was attending a fundraiser for a certain House committee Ranking Member this evening, and as he spoke, I was struck by the utter reductionism of his claims.

He was talking about how the free market does wonders to the economy, and he used China as a example. He claimed that under Communism, China experienced very little economic growth, but under a capitalistic free market system, China has experienced a dynamic period of growth.

This talk offended the academic side of me, the side of me that is extremely sensitive to claims of causation, the side of me that knows that the world is much, much more complicated than what a certain member of Congress would like to believe.

And then it dawned upon me: one of the unifying, common features that runs through my work experience thus far is this tendency, excessive I would say, to over-simply and reduce complex phenomenon in DC. Everyone seems to talk in this dualistic, either/or manner, without acknowledging that for the most part, things are not as simple as a binary divide. The discourse around this town is abymal when it comes to subtlety–everything is set up as an opposing duality.

But the ironic thing is that politics, as far as human phenomenon go, is one of, if not the most complicated thing there is. Politics is totally beyond simply dualities in its content, and yet in a city that is all about politics, the complexities and subtleties of politics are almost completely ignored.

And every time I hear this kind of rhetoric, I am disturbed. And this is why I can never fully embrace politics as a career: I love the ambiguities and complextities too much. And that’s something only academia can afford.

Ted Stevens Indicted, Not as Funny as a Series of Tubes

Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), he of the “a series of tubes” fame, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for making false statements in connection with a federal corruption investigation.

It’s funny, because this morning I attended a nomination hearing in the Senate Commerce committee, considering the nomination of John Hewko to the Assistant Secretary of Aviation and International Aviation at the Department of Transportation. There were only two members present: Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye.

If the series-of-tubes moment wasn’t obvious enough, I clearly saw that Ted Stevens has done lost his fucking mind. The man is senile: he stutters, goes on and on, jumps into random tangents that have nothing to do with the nomination hearing, and talks about Alaska way too much.

So if Ted Stevens is found to be criminally guilty, or if he loses his re-election, his legacy will be a federal grand jury indictment and an Internet phenomenon for the ages. So here it is, a moment to remember:

Ronald Dworkin on Boumediene

Via BookForum: “Why It Was a Great Victory” by Ronald Dworkin (in NYRB)

This is Ronald Dworkin’s take on Boumediene vs. Bush, and it’s a mix of historical background, legal analysis, and advice for Congress, all written in a way that I think is pretty accessible to the educated layman. For anyone interested in perhaps one of the most important cases in recent memory, this article provides a good read. So the next time you are at a cocktail party, you can pawn it off as your own opinion 😉

The heart of Dworkin’s analysis lies in the distinction he makes between Scalia’s “historical” reading of the suspension clause and Kennedy’s “principled” reading of the same clause:

“Scalia’s dissent mainly challenged Kennedy’s disposition of the first of these two issues. How should a contemporary judge decide whether the Constitution’s guarantee of habeas corpus applies to aliens held by United States forces outside the United States? Scalia insisted on an historical test. “The writ as preserved in the Constitution, he said, “could not possibly extend farther than the common law provided when that Clause was written.” Kennedy argued that it is impossible to know what the common law was in 1789. In the absence of definitive historical evidence, he said, the issue should be decided on principle. Scalia disagreed on both points. The history was clear beyond doubt, he said, that the writ was not available in an English court for prisoners held outside the formal realm of England— it was not available to prisoners held in Scotland before the Act of Union, for example, even when the crowns of England and Scotland were united in the same king. But even if the history were ambiguous, he added, the DTA/ MCA scheme should not be held unconstitutional because when constitutional issues are doubtful, the Court should defer to Congress as representative of the people.

Was Scalia right to make the history of the Constitution decisive? We can read the suspension clause in two ways. We can take it to declare, as Scalia did, that the United States should never deny any prisoner the rights he would have had if he had lived in England or America in 1789, except in rebellions or invasions. Or we can read it to state a constitutional principle: that except in those cases government must allow anyone it imprisons the right to challenge his imprisonment in court. Like other constitutional principles, this requirement could not be read as absolute. It would not require habeas rights when it would be impossible or particularly burdensome to grant them—for example, if a prisoner would have to be flown to a US court from a battlefield abroad.

That qualification would not, however, allow government to escape habeas responsibility by building its prison camps in a foreign territory that is as much under its control as any base in this country. As Kennedy said, “The test for determining the scope of this provision must not be subject to manipulation by those whose power it is designed to restrain.” Scalia’s historical reading demeans the Constitution and insults those who made it. It is absurd to translate their clear declaration of principle into a rule pointlessly limiting prisoners’ rights to those enjoyed at some fixed and essentially arbitrary date.[9] Kennedy adopted the second, principled, reading. The scope of the constitutional right to habeas corpus, he said, should be determined by what he called a “functional” test: the right should be available unless it would be, in his words, “impracticable and anomalous” to grant it—as it would be in the midst of military operations.”

For Dworkin, the distinction essentially comes down to what standard is being applied: either the Court applies a strictly historical standard a la Scalia, or it applies a functional one a la Kennedy.

There is a whole lot more in that article, and the thing of most interest to me is Dworkin’s suggestions on how Congress can enact a statutory scheme that complies with the Court’s decision in Boumediene.

All in all, a good summary of a very important case, one which will have implications far beyond this Administration’s term as the War on Terror seems to be a never-ending one.

Did the Times Higher Education Plagiarize from Wikipedia?

I was reading The Times Higher Education‘s Book of the Week feature, which happened to review “Democracy Incorporated” by Sheldon Wolin this week. When I got to the “About the Author” section in the review, I noticed something curious: there are several instances of word-by-word quoting of the Wiki page (permanent link to the version that I’m talking about) on Sheldon Wolin without citation or any kind of reference.

I’m now going to document every instance of what is possibly plagiarism.

1) From the THE article:

“Sheldon S. Wolin is often described as representing the hard Left, owing to his views that the US has turned into an oxymoronic “superpower democracy” and that neoconservative policymakers are turning North America into an “inverted totalitarian” state.”

From Wikipedia:

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

Notice the word-for-word copying of the Wiki article, with the exception of the last parenthetical clause.

2) From the THE article:

“Within his work, Wolin defends a radical account of democracy. He views it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment that needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal “mega-state”.”

From Wikipedia:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

Again, with some very minor word changes, an almost exact replica of the Wikipedia article on Wolin.

Before someone gets smart on me, yes, I realize that the THE article came out on July 8th, 2008, and the Wiki page I cite is last modified on July 26th, 2008. So there is a possibility that whoever edited the Wiki page last copied from the THE article instead.

I have not dismissed that point, so in doing a little bit of digging, I found the following evidence.

1) From the July 8th, 2008 edit of the Wiki page:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

2) From the May 22, 2008 edit of the Wiki page:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

3) From the January 8, 2008 edit of the Wiki page:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

4) From the December 21, 2007 edit of the Wiki page:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

5) From the June 25, 2007 edit of the Wiki page:

“Wolin defended a radical account of democracy. He took it not as a form of government, but as a form of political judgment which needs to be wrested away from its close association with the liberal megastate.”

“Wolin is often described as representing the hard-Left in his views that the United States has turned into the oxymoronic entity of ‘superpower democracy’ and that neo-conservative policy makers are turning the United States into an ‘inverted totalitarian’ state (with all of the fascist implications).”

I think the evidence is pretty compelling.

Of course, someone might also raise the objection that the whoever contributed to the “about the author” section in the THE article was also the one who originally wrote the Wiki article on Wolin that happens to include the language that I have quoted. Of course this is possible, but even granting this assumption (which seems unlikely, because the last several edits I’ve linked to are made by several different contributors), THE should still have cited Wikipedia.

I submitted my comments to the THE editors, and hopefully this is nothing but an innocent mistake. But I find it ironic that a paper explicitly about higher education should be in danger of committing one of its cardinal sins.

Spiritualized in Concert

Last night, I went to the 9:30 Club to catch Spiritualized live, and I have to say, that shit was fucking awesome.

Courtesy of NPR, you can listen to the whole set here, and look through their photos here.

The line-up is fairly minimal for Spiritualized, consisting only of J. Spaceman, another guitarist, a bassist, two back-up singer, the drummer, and a guy who plays keyboards/synthesizers. But make no mistake: it was loud as hell and very energetic. But as a result of this minimal lineup, the band could not fully reproduce the sheer majesty of its orchestral sound on records.

In terms of song selection, I wish the band played less material from Amazing Grace (4 songs out of a total 15 song set is too much for what I think is Spiritualized’s weakest album). Not that the songs don’t sound good live, but I wanted a little bit more from “classic” Spiritualized albums like Ladies and Gentlement, Lazer Guided Melodies, and Pure Phase.

However, the material they did play from their older stuff is great. “Shine A Light” from Pure Phase just hit me like a ton of bricks, especially near the end when shit is just going crazy everywhere. As the two guitars went crazy, the two gospel singers went higher and higher, singing “Lord, shine a light, on me” over and over again. It was definitely an ecstatic moment. “Come Together” and “Electricity” from Ladies and Gentlement… rocked so much more live than they do on the record.

I only wished that Jason Pierce would actually talk in between songs, instead of just standing there with his shades on, although he does look pretty cool with those shades and that white t-shirt. But then again, as my friend John once told me: He’s fucking J. Spaceman–he can do whatever the fuck he wants.

Q.E.D.

Mind Blown in 3, 2, 1…

According to this article on HoopsHype, there is a possibility that the Lakers will bring Kwame Brown back.

Hold. Up. Say What?!?!

The same Kwame Brown who was booed by the hometown fans?! The same Kwame Brown whose exit led to chorus of cheers? The same Kwame Brown that squandered the potential people saw in him as a former number one pick in the draft? The same Kwame Brown who can’t even hold a piece of cake?!

But I suppose I could see some reason in even the remote possibility of getting Kwame Brown back. After all, the Lakers just lost Ronny Turiaf to Golden State, and Andrew Bynum’s knee is still a question mark in training camp. So the organization probably felt like they needed another body, in fact, any BODY, for nothing else other than taking up some room in the post. And believe me, if there is one thing that Kwame Brown is even remotely competent at, it is standing there and taking up space. But sometimes, he can’t even do that right.

Yet one must wonder, how awkward must this re-union be? I mean, this is worse than saying to an ex whom you triumphantly dumped for someone much hotter, and then later going back to that ex and saying: I would like you back just so that I can another pair of hands around the house, but by the way, I’m sleeping with the much hotter girl that I dumped you for while you get to sleep in the basement on an old futon.

But, I suppose if the Lakers pay something like a $1 mil a year for two years with a second-year team option, I can see the deal making both basketball and financial sense. And even as the logical part of me can potentially rationalize this, there is a part of my brain that just exploded when I read that article.

If this deals does end up happening, then the Lakers will have essentially traded Ronny Turiaf for Kwame Brown–surely a trade that no one would make, considering that Ronny Turiaf is an improving young player that plays with energy and provides a lift off the bench, whereas Kwame Brown is a has-been who wasted ten years in the league and has nowhere to go but down, assuming that he can even go lower.

None of this would have happened if the Lakers simply matched the offer sheet for Ronny Turiaf. After all, the Lakers are one of, if not the, richest and most profitable franchises in the NBA. And this is where the notion of restricted free-agency makes no sense to me. First of all, the very phrase “restricted free-agency” is a contradiction in terms.

Second, restricted free-agency is completely biased in favor of the players, because no matter what happens, the player who has an offer sheet made to him will get paid than what he’s actually worth. From a prospective team’s point of view, the only reasonable way to get a restricted free-agent is to offer him a contract whose value exceeds his market value, because otherwise the original team can always just match the offer sheet. Therefore, you have situations in which second or even third-tier players being offered ridiculous contracts, in which case, he wins whether his original team matches or not.

The effect of this is obvious: it grossly inflates payroll, which means additional costs passed onto the consumers. Really, the NBA should get rid of free-agency altogether: let both teams and players have complete freedom when their contract is up, so that both sides can negotiate in a more optimal way. But then again, restricted free-agency is skewed towards the players, and for this reaosn alone, it will probably stay because the players’ union can use it as a huge leverage when it comes to renew the collective bargaining agreement.

Posted in sports. Tags: . Leave a Comment »