Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Multiculturalism and Barack Obama - Guest Post

The political debates and arguments which have, in the past, surrounded questions of ethnicity, race and cultural difference in the United States have led to a growing crisis in the idea of nation as one unified community. Theories of multiculturalism, and fears about the possible separatist impulses that could result from encouraging the growing multicultural movements and the implementation of their ideas within our education system, only strengthened that crisis. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who began his career as a liberal in the 1960s, but gradually moved to the right over the years, in his book, The Disuniting of America, spoke about the “cult of identity” being pushed on our school children and running rampant on university campuses in the United States, and worried that its attacks on the “common American identity” would result in the “decomposition of America”. These ideas made their first major appearance on the national stage and began to strengthen and push forward when Newt Gingrich came to power in the United States Congress in the nineties, and it culminated in the election and reelection of George W. Bush, who pushed forward an aggressive agenda that was very much informed by fear of the “others” in America and abroad. 

Those “others” were not just minorities, ethnic Americans or immigrants, but also non-Christians, agnostics, atheists, scientists, environmentalists, gays and lesbians, poor people, people without access to healthcare, people who were against the War in Iraq, people who lived in urban centers, any type of liberal, pretty much all of those hoity-toity Europeans (especially the French), and anyone else who voiced ideas and concerns that did not completely agree with Mr. Bush and the Republican party. The question of American national identity became an intense topic of concern. Multiculturalism and cultural heterogeneity came to be seen as threats to national unity, especially in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the war on terrorism, when it became very easy to capitalize on Americans´ fears of war and destruction. 

The idea of the true patriot and the true American became so narrowly defined by the Republican party, that it only encompassed those who were mainly white, evangelical Christians or other religious conservatives, and people who were socially ultraconservative. Anyone else was suspect and needed to be excluded from the national discussions and debates. If they dared to challenge this notion, they were immediately labeled as unpatriotic. When Sarah Palin, John McCain´s vice-presidential running mate, openly declared that only small, rural, predominantly white, towns and villages qualified as the “real America”, and made it clear that urban, multiethnic and multicultural communities didn´t fit into her definition of being American, this was perhaps the culminating moment in the politics of exclusion as practiced by the Republican party.

However, during the past twenty years, a small, quiet revolution has slowly been taking place under the radar of most. Firstly, as others have recently pointed out, the United States has gradually become a predominantly urban nation. Today, the majority of Americans live in medium to large cities, or their extended metropolitan areas, which tend to be home to people of different races, creeds, colors and beliefs. It is the minority who live in small towns and villages in rural areas. Secondly, those offices of intercultural affairs that were opened at many schools and colleges twenty years ago to begin to address the growing urbanization and multicultural issues people and institutions faced, have now finally begun to bear fruit in a more tangible way. 

Strong liberal arts curricula with an interdisciplinary focus, and programs informed by theories of multiculturalism that have been teaching patience, tolerance, curiosity about other cultures and communities, the value of community service, compassion for others less fortunate, leadership skills, area studies, foreign languages, international and multicultural cinema, arts and literature, have finally begun to see results, as larger and larger numbers of students are graduating with a completely new vision of the society and the world in which they live. When I was in college in the eighties, at the beginning of multiculturalism within the educational system, studying abroad was encouraged, and many, but not all students, spent some time living and learning abroad. 

Today, practically every student that attends a four year college or university in the United States spends some time abroad, or spends a semester or year doing community service somewhere else. Often the two are combined, and students have the opportunity to participate in a community service project in another country. With the advantages of the most modern communications technology at their finger-tips, these new citizens of the world have been able to communicate more effectively with people from around the world, have access to news and opinions from other places, and through tools like email, YouTube, blogs and alternate internet news sources, get a better, more informed picture of what is happening around the world. 

One of the many reasons that the War in Iraq has been so unpopular with most Americans might be that fewer people are willing to demonize the Iraqis. It may be that one of the results of the multicultural movement is that it has become easier for people to see the human side in someone from a different culture, and therefore they find it easier to empathize with their plight. Access to international news sources via the internet also contributes to this trend, as these sources have not been censored the way the American network and cable coverage of the war has been. The true story is always out there, and those who are regular users of internet technology have complete access to it. The traditional sources of news and information are becoming less and less relevant for younger generations.

While the conservative movement in America has gone along excluding everyone else, what has been really happening is that they are gradually being excluded and isolated themselves. The Republican party still hasn´t figured this out yet. They don´t seem to get it. It will be interesting to see if their post-mortem analysis of the election will include any recognition that they are out of touch with the American people and the world, or if they will continue to blame the “liberal media bias” or some other inexistent force that unfairly sabotaged them. The landscape in the United States and the world has changed, and it is unlikely that things will go back to the way they were. A new generation is coming of age, and their thoughts, ideals and values are very different. Did the economic crisis give some momentum to this force? Yes. But it was there, lurking and waiting to come forward nonetheless.

Barack Obama gets this. He has always understood this undercurrent and its force because he is of the generation that is part of it. The entire way he structured his campaign says practically everything. He used techniques he learned as a community organizer to communicate his message and get out the vote. In addition to energizing his diverse and ever growing base, he made the effort to meet with people from those tiny rural communities, the ones who are supposedly the “real Americans”, the ones they said would never vote for him. And guess what? 

When they sat down and talked with him and felt included in the discussion, they were willing to give him a chance. He understands the generation that is coming of age now, those twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings and forty-somethings. He understands how they think, how they were educated, what they want from life, how they feel that they are connected, not just to their immediate communities, but to the global community, and perhaps most importantly, how they use technology to communicate, assemble and organize. And he understands that in a world where the forces of globalization will not be stopped anytime soon, and in a country where cultural heterogeneity is the present reality and the future strength of society, any successful leader in the twenty-first century must find a way to embrace difference, embrace tolerance, and promote cooperation and a proper sense of inclusion for everyone. 

He understands that any future definitions of American identity or patriotism will have to deal with all of this and do it well. As a country, we are now standing on the precipice of something completely new. It is exciting and a little bit scary. Change is always difficult, but it doesn´t have to be bad. It´s hard recognizing that your children are growing up, that they have their own ideas, and that they may no longer agree with you. But whether you like it or not, change happens, and given the dire straits we currently find ourselves in as a nation, real, substantive change deserves a chance. I hope that those Republicans who are unhappy with the outcome of the election will be astute enough to see that. I hope that they will put aside their resentment, intolerance and ideology of fear and exclusion, and stand behind our new president and the growing force that accompanies him wherever he goes. I feel certain that Barack Obama will include them in his idea of America. The question is, will they include Barack Obama? 

Thanks, Erin, for a great post! Now - let the commenting begin!


Heidi said...

I have several issues with this article, and as Erin asked me personally to respond, I'm going to stick my neck out and do something I almost never do: I'm going to engage in an online debate.

Firstly, I think there is an error in facts here about the Bush administration. Without making a stand one way or another on how I view the Bush administration, I will say that you can't say it's exclusively white and evangelical Christian. His administration is one of the most diverse in history, exceeding even Clinton in both the number of women and minorities as well as appointing more of them to higher cabinet positions.

To say that he has also has touted social ultraconservatism is as ridiculous to say as to say that Obama will tout liberalism. Of course he will. This is the perspective that he comes to the office with, the way in which each of them see strengthening America. As Obama will try to extend government-sponsored social programs to those in need, Bush tried to reign in the role of government over people's lives and encourage people to take care of themselves and each other and limit government to what it's original purpose was - to govern.

I don't recall one instance in which Bush ever called anyone who disagreed with him unpatriotic. While there will always be individuals in each party - in the media and in your own circle of friends - who will make statements like this, the administration has never promoted this idea.

As for the idea that education tries to be inclusive and tolerant, I would argue that they try to be inclusive and tolerant of those ideas they support, but not of those they don't. As liberalism grows, tolerance of conservatism decreases. There are many schools now in which it is okay to have gay support groups but not Christian prayer groups. It is imperative that Christians tolerate homosexuality, yet the gays do not have to tolerate the Christians who believe that homosexuality is wrong. It is regarded as a fundamental right to fight for your rights as a homosexual or atheist but not to fight against those things. When California voters vote three times on the issue of gay marriage and three times vote it down, how is it considered an unfair vote? In America, it is the will of the people, the democratic process which has always guided us. That is quickly disappearing.

On a last note, if Americans are against the war in Iraq because they don't wish to demonize the Iraqis, they clearly don't understand the war and what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war is not against the Iraqis. It is against the terrorist that reside there and set up camps and plan to attack not only America but any country that does not believe as they do. The military men and women overseas are often in the position of giving their own lives for the Iraqi people. They are rebuilding their roads and their utilities and helping them protect themselves against the people who wish the country to be a rogue nation of chaos. People are against the war because they are against war... because great men and women are dying, and no one wants that. It's one thing to be against the war on the idea that war itself is bad and should be avoided at all costs, and quite another to misunderstand the purpose of this war.

While there might be some leaders around the globe which can be approached diplomatically, radical terrorist cannot be. They do not want to compromise. They want it their way or no way.

If the Republican party were that out of touch, that isolated, that ridiculously extreme, this election would not have been as close as it was. Clearly it is not a very small group trying to impose their will on the people. And this election merely continues the trend in American politics over the past two centuries: a pendulum swing from what we have now to something different. In four years, or eight years, or twelve, the pendulum will swing back the other way. Because the truth of the matter is this: no one side is perfect or represents all the people all the time. And the beauty of America is that it doesn't have to.

Silvia said...

While the growth of multicultural programs in higher education can be tied to how younger Americans perceive people in other countries (like Iraq), I think the Web 2.0 is also largely responsible for this shift. Blogs, YouTube and social networking all allow not only civilian Americans abroad, but also people in the armed forces and citizens from other countries to tell their own story, making them closer and more real.

Erin Halm said...


You make a good point that gives a good example of how the network media no longer completely control what is news and what the message is. In the case of soldiers fighting in Iraq and telling their own stories via blogs and YouTube, the new technology has eliminated the government censors. People get the real story not the sugar coated one and that definitely has played a major role in people´s attitudes towards the war.


Heidi said...

I agree with Sylvia, too. But not just the web, it's the access we now have to being in the middle of things. Vietnam was the first time Americans actually got to see what it was like for the soldiers as news cameras were allowed to be on the front lines with the military. It marked a huge shift in the way Americans saw - and supported - war.

I'm not sure I think the news sugar coats things, but it is restricted by time and air space and by what it thinks will generate viewership. And it is more general. The web is deeply personal and individual. And you can pretty much find whatever you want to support how you feel, too.

JKB said...

First of all, I would like to say thank you to Jen for hosting me today and for allowing this discussion to take place on her blog. Hopefully, we will have an interesting debate that will examine the issues from various different perspectives. Now to repond to Heidi.


Thanks a lot for taking the time to read my essay and for putting together such a complete response. I know you are not totally comfortable in political debate circles, so I also want to thank you for going outside of your comfort zone to participate. I wanted to make sure that there were different perspectives represented in our discussion because otherwise I´m just preaching to the choir, as they say, and that way nobody really learns anything new. If you only dialogue with people who agree with you, then you tend to become a very narrow minded person.

So, in the spirit of dialogue and bipartisan debate, I will try to respond to your comments as best I can and in the process, perhaps elaborate a bit on some of the initial points I made in my essay.

First, I think it is important for me to mention that I make a distinction between the Bush administration and the Republican party. You are correct to point out that Bush made an effort to include quite a few underrepresented groups in his administration. This is obviously a good thing, and should be applauded. I´m not totally sure that the people he chose, also represented a diversity of opinions on the issues, however, or that when they did, he may have listened to them, but that is another issue altogether. That being said, I still stand by what I wrote which is to say, I believe that the Republican party has become more and more narrow minded and less and less tolerant to differences of opinion. There was a piece published just a few days ago in the Washington Post (I may have forwarded the link to you) by Christine Todd Whitman (Republican former governor) which sums up a lot of my analysis. In this piece, she very correctly observes that elections in the US are not determined by the base of either party, rather they are decided by the moderates in the middle. Some of these people may tend to vote Republican, some Democrat and some are what we call swing voters because they go back and forth depending on the issue or the candidate. Her opinion is that part of the reason the Republicans lost the election was because they moved so far to the right that they alienated the moderates, whereas Obama´s message was about inclusion, empowering the people and finding common ground where everyone can work together. Obviously there are many things that influence an election, but I tend to agree with her that over the past ten to fifteen years, using a strategy perfected by Karl Rove, the Republican party pandered to the social conservatives, and I think they simply went too far. The country was beginning to move in another direction for some of the reasons I mentioned in my essay, and the party was going the other way. In the long run, my personal opinion is that it is no longer a viable strategy if they want to regain the ground they lost in the House, Senate and White House in the future. Even though Obama didn´t win by an excessive margin in the popular vote, he won by a larger margin than pretty much any president in the past thirty years, and that to me signals something to pay attention to, especially when things have been pretty much a 50/50 gridlock for such a long time. I think the Republicans would be wise to do some soul searching and try to really understand what has happened. The whole country benefits when both parties make an effort to represent as wide a margin of the population as possible and when they listen to people´s real needs.

You said that “Bush tried to reign in the role of government over people´s lives and limit government to what its original purpose was – to govern.” I can´t disagree with you more. I think the trend that the Republican party has been following over the past decade is for bigger and more intrusive government, and the Bush administration has truly manifested this trend. Because their strategy has been to play to their base, they have allowed their platform over the past ten or so years to be completely dominated by social conservative issues like gay marriage, prayer in public schools, posting the ten commandments everywhere, creationism versus evolution, teaching abstinence in school versus the established programs in sexual education, abortion, stem cell research, etc. I don´t see this as reigning in government, I see it as blurring the lines between church and state and government intruding on very personal issues that are better dealt with by individuals and their personal or religious belief system. I think it has gotten to the point where a lot of people are kind of tired of it all and they want to solve real problems that have an effect on their day to day lives. They are not so concerned with a few gay people getting married when their cancer has returned and they can´t get health insurance, or when they´ve lost their job and can´t get another one, or they can´t afford to send their kids to college. There are so many other, more pressing problems, that focusing so much on these conservative social issues at the expense of the ones that hit people hard seems out of touch with people´s real lives and problems.

Regarding the financial side of reigning in the government, I can only quote Stephen Slivinski, the Director of Budget Studies of the conservative think tank, the Cato Institute when he said in May of 2005, “President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years….The Republican congress has enthusiastically assisted the budget bloat. Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs they had vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27 percent. The GOP establishment in Washington today has become a defender of big government.” If that is reigning in government, what would letting them go hog wild be?

You rightly bring up a point about more liberal types discriminating against social conservatives, and I agree with you that there is definitely plenty of that to go around. It is my hope that the Obama administration will continue to work hard to include everyone in the national dialogue. I am encouraged by his speech on the night of the election when he spoke about those people who didn´t vote for him, those whose trust and confidence he had yet to gain. He said that he would be their president too, and I hope that he will, and the rest of us should learn from this example. Dialogue is important and it must happen within a framework of respect. Maybe others from the liberal side could comment on this because I think it is important.

There is, however, one remark you made on this same subject that I have to differ with. You said, “There are many schools now in which it is okay to have gay support groups but not Christian prayer groups.” I have been working in the university environment for a long time and I can tell you that this is simply not true. I have never worked at any American university that did not have among its student groups all of the major religions represented, and some smaller, fringe ones too, along with GLT groups and many, many others. If you could name one American college or university that would not allow a Christian group to assemble, meet and pray, I would be astounded. However, I don´t think that this issue should be confused with the issue of prayer in American public elementary schools. I am of the opinion that any group, be they Christian or gay and lesbian student groups should have the right to form clubs within the school and meet after school to discuss their issues or plan their assemblies. However, it is not appropriate for teachers or administrators of public schools to force others to have to pray or listen to religious teachings or beliefs in the classroom during school hours. The public school system must respect everyone´s religious and spiritual rights, and I interpret freedom of religion to also encompass freedom from religion.

Regarding the Iraq war, there is already a very well-established, public record of what happened and how the US got involved. If you recall, the first argument the Bush administration gave was the false weapons of mass destruction one, then when that was uncovered, they went for the freeing the Iraqi people and bringing them democracy. When that wasn´t working out, they began to tell us about all of the Al Qaeda terrorists who were there and then it became all about the war on terror. Unfortunately, I don´t think very many people believe these days that our initial involvement was at all related to Al Qaeda or fighting terrorists. When the Bush administration bungled everything and chaos reigned, then sure, Al Qaeda got in on the act, why not? However, it is my belief that we went to war in Iraq because of issues related to the larger Middle East foreign policy goals, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with American interests in the region. There is an interesting study conducted by Richard Perle who was a top official in the Defense Department under Bush that you might like to read which spells it out pretty well. I think the study is entitled something like “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Protecting the Realm”. You might find it interesting. I did. I was against the war from the beginning, but once we were there, I sure hoped that we would be successful, and I still hope that some semblance of normalcy and democracy can be achieved for the Iraqi people. You rightly point out that the American forces are working hard to rebuild infrastructure, schools, etc. and that is obviously a good thing. But then again, we were the ones that destroyed them in the first place.

Finally, there is also a very large public record of news articles discussing the way the Bush administration and the Republican have attempted to quell criticism of their policies and the war by playing the unpatriotic card. In the presidential campaign alone, there were attempts to paint Obama as a terrorist (like he would even be walking around if he were), and then when that didn´t stick, they went with the whole communist line (smacks of McCarthyism to me). But even before that, there was the whole series of back and forth in March 2002 between Tom Daschle and the Republicans when he questioned the Bush administration´s demand for huge increases in military spending without an explanation of military goals. He was labeled unpatriotic and Trent Lott was quoted as saying something like, “How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush when we are fighting a war on terrorism.” Tom DeLay painted him as “aiding and comforting the enemy”. This sort of thing has been really common during the Bush administraton. It got to the point in 2005 when Senator Chuck Hagel (Republican of Nebraska) had to try to reign things in. He went public to criticize the White House´s new line of attacks against critics of its Iraq policy. He was quoted in a Washington Post article on November 16, 2005 as saying, “The Bush administration must understand that each American has the right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them.” Then there was the whole Cindy Sheehan thing, where the Republicans started calling her unpatriotic. These were all such huge issues in the press that in the long run backfired for the Republicans, that they have become rather standard criticisms of the Bush administration and its strategies and tactics, even by the conservative side.

Anyway, I guess that´s all I got for now. I´ve probably gone on way too much. You are right though that the pendulum swings back and forth and no one group represents everyone, but it is my hope that Obama will be able to truly bring people together and help the country to really try to focus on the important issues where we do all have common ground and create solutions that we all support. That would make everyone´s lives better. I think he has a tall order to fill and the expectations are incredible. I hope that he can do it. Actually, I hope that we can do it.

JKB said...

That post above was Erin, the post below is Andrew Swan"s.

JKB said...

I thought Obama ran a positive campaign and I found the whole election thing interesting, but as a European (or Brit or even Scot) living in the Americas, I am still sceptical. At the end of the day to me it's just another American and whilst that sounds rude, I believe people outside of the States do think like that and why not.

Obama's message is fresh and forward thinking and Erin makes some good points about America (as I would put it) becoming part of the World. I wasn't sure about the numbers of Americans travelling, I recently read about 21% own passport but only 10% have travelled. I would be interested to see how many outside of North America.

Bush himself had only been ouside of the United States 3 times himself when elected President, an incredible fact given his father had previously been Vice President and President. So maybe Erin has a point about the US becoming more worldly wise, as they did in the 1940s and 60s.

I would like to have heard a discussion on the percentage of voters and the Apathy that exists and how that affects democracy. Surely that's what the Democrats did best, people on the streets getting the voters out.

The 1st response talked about Democracy. Again I am at a loose why there is not one simple system of voting. Each State (even county) have different procedures and ways to vote. Some almost 19th century. Surely it just a question of the popular vote when deciding a Head of State. That must really put many off voting.

Of course the rest of the World has equally confusing systems but we are discussing a World Power here.

Personally I felt the Republicans during the last two elections did play on the voters fears and this historically has often been the case in the developed World, where events stir self interest, or mis understood patriotism (the Falkland Islands for example).

I didn't want to get into the Iraq debate, but really I disagree that Iraq was a heaven for Terrorists. I think now it is and one has to consider the situation from a World view not just a US security view. If the US and Europe where so concerned about Iraq and Sadam they would have ended him in 1991. They didn't and most of the powers choose their position based on their own self interest, not the World at Large.

I hope that Obama can deliver on some of his words, but I think Erin makes a good point, "will they let him". It was important that someone of such a diverse ethnic history, who has lived outside his country, was elected and hopefully in the future we will perhaps see a woman in the Whitehouse too.

Edison said...

This is a nice essay, maybe a bit provocative by design.

In my experience, America is one of the most open and tolerant countries in the world. But I am not sure that multiculturalism is clearly defined along party lines.

For instance, I know tolerant, open, and culturally curious people that are republican because they identify with lower taxes, smaller government, free trade, etc. Similarly, there are democrats that need to police themselves not to make offensive and somewhat xenophobic remarks.

While cultural groups drifted apart during Bush's presidency, my sense is that openness to different cultures, beliefs and races has more to do with background, education and surrounding environment than party lines.

My 2 cents.

Stephen Parrish said...

I know I'm late to this conversation, but I want to say that Erin's comment above (the one that begins, "First of all, I would like to say thank you") is an outstanding summary, one I wish I'd written myself.

Dawn Anon said...

I don't often comment on political things, because so many people want to argue rather than discuss... but i have to add my 2 cents (my late 2 cents. I like this discussion.

The first (main) blogpost struck me as over generalizations of many things: Republicans, those educated in the Liberal Arts, and etc.

The follow up comment was more informative and I appreciated it. I like tangible information; names, and references so i can read it for myself.

I am a Liberal Arts educated, multiculturaled, foreign-country-traveled, Mennonite-rooted, social-work degreed, Democrat registered voter... and I have as many concerns about Obama as I did/do about Bush and McCain. And not out of resentment, fear, intolerance, or exclusion.

I think the use of fear tactics and mudslinging ran rampant on both sides. And i agree that it needs to stop, but we certainly can't count on politicians to stop it (I'll get my numbers wrong but McCain mudslung at a higher percentage -- say it was 70some % --, but Obama had several times -- 4xs? --more ads at 60some % mud, therefore more incidents of slung-mud total) Meanwhile, let's continue to discuss facts, plans, and true information.

good discussion folks. And i LOVE to hear the "outside" opinion(read: citizens of other countries)

Does Erin have a blog? I'm a bit confused.

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