Friday, 23 November 2007

Multiculturalism, 'affirmative action', and those darn hyphens

Roger Kimball offers some thoughts on American multiculturalism and the semantics and policies surrounding 'affirmative action'.

What is your favorite bit of Orwellian Newspeak? Near the top of my list is “affirmative action.” It’s such an emollient phrase, so redolent of cheeriness (savor the word “affirmative”) and practicality (“action”). What it really means is “discrimination on the basis of sex, skin color, or some other item in the contemporary lexicon of victimology.” But you can—almost—forget that while the pleasing phrase “affirmative action” echoes in your recollection.
But what began as a Presidential Executive Order in 1961 directing government contractors to take “affirmative action” to assure that people be hired “without regard” for sex, race, creed, color, etc., has resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities. White is black, freedom is slavery, “without regard” comes to mean “with regard for nothing else.”

You may not wholly agree with Kimball — I don't — but his argument is interesting. I oppose division by skin color or ethnicity and think that a level playing-field is not one of reverse, or 'positive', racism. Then again I see nothing wrong with recognizing one's heritage and I am for a liberal immigration policy. Sometimes it's important to read writing that contrasts with your own views, to help you better understand and develop them.

To Kimball, the hyphen (e.g. African - American) represents the evil of multiculturalism's anti-patriotic sentiment.
Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity.

His liberal-bashing gets a bit old towards the end of the essay as he laments the "rainbow" developed under American multiculturalism, and warns of non-homogeneous bureaucracy like the European Union. The xenophobia card is played when Kimball expresses his distaste for non-English languages in a largely English-speaking country.
Every time you call directory assistance or some large corporation and are told “Press One for English” and “Para espaƱol oprime el numero dos” it is another small setback for American identity.

How is the sensible offering of another lingual option on a call menu a foe of "American identity"? Other countries print signs in a variety of languages to make, say, driving easier (not that the translations are always fantastic, as I found out in China). When you're in a country whose inhabitants speak the same language — for the most part — it makes sense to learn enough of that language to get by. However it is also only logical for that country to accommodate to people more familiar with another language, especially when they are present in large numbers. There is room for more than one language in the United States, and those afraid of Spanish becoming the de facto language should know their fears are unfounded anyway.

Whether you're a 'terrorist by birth' or a 'liberal baby' bawling about how bad it is to lose your heritage,* there are always people hoping to generate skepticism of multicultural coexistence to enforce their point: that America is losing its identity.

So again we wonder what it truly means to be American in a country known for its status as a melting pot. If the US removes multiculturalism from its societal fabric, racial/ethnic tensions could skyrocket as the people of an entire nation find their culture and individual identities forcibly homogenized; those who carry on their own way will be outcasts. I would like to see Kimball's idea for a monocultural society — no doubt it would be 'vanilla'.

* — Note: Those phrases are used to illustrate the language of the right-wing viewpoint I oppose. Of course someone cannot be born a terrorist, which is why we should not stereotype and ignore the origins of terrorism. Extreme fear has fueled racism; racism has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. The 'liberal baby' part is there because of the aforementioned liberal-bashing by multiculturalism opponents like Kimball.

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