Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

7 thoughts

  1. If you believe a culture needs some critical mass of adherents in order to be of value, then you wind up with the interests of would-be defectors pitted against the old-school hold outs — they can’t both live the culture they want. (I feel like the arguments over who should get their way would be analogous to the ones folk have about what, if anything, is owed to the “losers” from new trade deals.) While it was a nice essay, it seems like it left standing a case for modern multiculturalism beyond identity yoking for the benefit of the yoked.

  2. Thanks for the heads-up, Will. There is much to say, but I’ll keep it brief.
    Mr. Malik writes: “The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state.”
    Cultural preservation is, I think, a worthwhile goal; however, as a statement, it’s incomplete, elliptic: it suppresses its implication. Without its implication, which derives from the idea of the “subject”, multi-culturalism can lead to great folly in theory and practice.
    I find it useful to think in terms of biology, here. We preserve the whale, the owl, the seal, and the eagle without question — they are beautiful, and they do not kill us. We preserve the wolf, the bear, the lion and the tiger only after a point — i.e., after our dominion has turned our predators into our wards. We do not seek to preserve the tick, the mosquito, the cockroach, and the disease — they are biologicals, but they are not and cannot be symbiotic.
    We make these decisions as human beings, unembarrassed in our anthropocentrism. We should be as wise in our dealings with other cultures.

  3. Two more things.
    1. Americanism (now called Westernism) is unstoppable, precisely because it is metacultural (even though the shape and contours of the outcome remains unpredictable).
    2. The effect of metaculture is exactly as Mr. Malik writes: the infection begins with the conception of one culture among many, with the concept of culture as such.
    3. Many cultures will have to settle for being anachronisms — i.e., self-consciously eccentric clusters of history within the overarching, fast-evolving, complex networks of modernity. This will cause the world much heartache and headache.

  4. Good stuff. The “zoo” metaphor strikes me as a very good one. Actually, on one of Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcasts, Michael Munger used the term “human zoo” to describe what he saw as one of the driving forces of opposition among Westerners to globalization and free trade with the Third World: we like having strange foreigners with exotic folkways to gawk at, and that might be ruined if the Exotic Foreigners are allowed access to the same consumer goods Westerners enjoy. There is, as you say, a convergence: outspoken parts of both Left and Right just don’t see people from foreign, minority, or non-Western backgrounds as actual individual human beings.
    In the United States, the multiculturalist mentality often seems to have an interesting result: White heterosexual Americans, who aren’t perceived to have any meaningful cultural identity of their own, are relatively free to be what they want, whereas anyone identified as a minority is obligated to be “true” or “authentic” to whatever group they are a part of. A curious result for a leftist philosophy.

  5. Will, while there is much to recommend and admire about the general type of position Malik stakes out in the multiculturalism debate, as a work of public political theory, it’s a pretty atrocious piece. Kymlicka, Young, and Taylor are either badly mischaracterized or reduced to mere slogans, in the service of painting his opponents with a very broad brush. He’s not building a strawman, exactly; there are people whose arguments about multiculturalism are as simplistic as he presents them here. Those people, however, are not Kymlicka, Young, and Taylor. Their arguments are actually a great deal harder to dismiss than they appear to be in Malik’s presentation. He doesn’t move the conversation forward, or even give an honest account of existing positions and where he stands on them. (Hell, he even oversimplifies Appiah, whom he agrees with). Anyone familiar with the countours of the debate, regardless of which side they may be on, should be frustrated to see such an important debate presented to a wider audience in such a silly manner.

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