Is America Ready to Embrace Cultural Pluralism?

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More than a century after Jewish American philosopher Horace Kallen developed the concept of cultural pluralism in 1915, it has never been more important. Simply put, cultural pluralism is the idea that diversity is the real genius of American culture. Or as Ralph Ellison put it in 1961, “I believe in diversity, and I think America’s real death will be when everyone is the same.” The concept is rooted in the belief that America is at its best when it welcomes immigrants and enables them to cultivate their distinctive social worlds and create a living mosaic of interacting parts. Cultural pluralism views American culture as an ever-changing process rather than a fixed product and America as an ever-emerging nation whose polyglot nature has always been its greatest strength.

Cultural pluralism materialized as a forceful response to the white racism and rabid xenophobia that erupted in the years surrounding WWI. Understanding how a group of men and women faced such bigotry and persecution over a century ago can provide a map for reflection and practice as we struggle to respond to these same forces in the world. here.

A wide range of intellectuals and activists have developed versions of cultural pluralism with Kallen, including social worker and activist Jane Addams, philosophers William James, Josiah Royce and John Dewey, radical journalists Randolph Bourne and Max Eastman, the Norwegian American novelist Ole Rolvaag, Jewish intellectuals Judah Magnes and Jesse Sampter, and black writers WEB Du Bois and Alain Locke. Their view contrasted sharply with the demands of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson that immigrants and minorities fit into a uniform American mold or merge into an annihilating crucible, as popularized by British Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908. , The crucible.

Seven years after Zangwill’s play appeared, Kallen coined the term “cultural pluralism” in an essay called “Democracy Against the Crucible”. Born in 1882 in the German province of Silesia, Kallen immigrated with his family to Boston in 1887. He grew up in a poor household, the eldest of a large family overseen by a bossy father and an expectant Orthodox rabbi. what he follows. in his footsteps. He rebelled and went to Harvard, where he became a privileged student of the philosophers William James and Josiah Royce, whose respective visions of a “pluralist universe” and of a “wise provincialism” deeply marked the young scholar. Kallen has had a long and eventful life. From his first teaching post at Princeton, where he was fired in 1905 for discussing Judaism and atheism in the classroom, to his distinguished tenure as a founding member of the New School for Social Research in New York between 1919 and 1974, Kallen was a talented and influential multi-person.

Horace Kallen circa 1908 (Image courtesy of the author)

The most productive stretch of Kallen’s career occurred during the years he lived and taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1911 to 1918. This was his first exposure to life in the West. ‘Hudson, and his experiences of living and traveling through the young, The cultural diversity of the Midwest was essential to the birth of his central idea. His exposure to vibrant immigrant communities in Chicago and other Midwestern cities as well as his encounters with ethnic enclaves across the rural Wisconsin landscape provided living examples of pushing back the concept of a militant and unifying melting pot. He was an endearing young man, and personal interactions with a range of Midwestern intellectuals as diverse as novelist Theodore Dreiser, Norse racist Edward A. Ross, and progressive statesman Robert La Follette added significance. texture to his nascent idea. This multitude of Midwestern experiences, combined with the approach of war and anti-immigrant hysteria, precipitated Kallen’s 1915 vision of a polyglot America as a vast symphony orchestra, as “a multiplicity in the world. ‘unity, an orchestration of humanity’, an ideal that stood as a peaceful alternative to the toxic nationalism that had engulfed Europe and threatened the United States.

Similar images had been used long before, especially by social worker and activist Jane Addams who, based on her work at Hull House in Chicago, portrayed the nation as a great choir of many voices and promoted “cosmopolitan neighborhoods.” “As breeding grounds for diversity, as in 1892. Indeed, the hope of truly” making our country successful “, as the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1999, and of achieving a society where” individual life will become incredibly diverse and incredibly free social life ”was expressed in various forms. through much of the 19th century. A deeply rooted belief that America’s true genius lay in its capacity for infinite diversity had, for example, been expressed in Frederick Douglass’ 1869 speech, “Our Composite Nationality,” where he envisioned the United States as ” a country of all extremes “whose” races range from black to white, with intermediate nuances that no man can count. ” This prophecy, also projected by Emerson, Melville and Whitman, presented America’s mixed and pious character as its greatest strength and highest achievement.

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that “any man who wears a hyphen carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the stained glass windows of this Republic”.

Several generations later, Kallen’s vision of a multifaceted America struck a chord and sparked widespread debate. Less than a year after Kallen’s landmark essay, his close friend, radical journalist Randolph Bourne, projected a picture of the United States as “transnational America” ​​and “a cosmopolitan federation of national cultures, including the spur of devastating competition has been removed. . “With the nation’s entry into the war at the end of 1917 and in response to demands for absolute loyalty and persecution from those who refused to kneel and kiss the flag, a growing number of pluralists joined Kallen and Bourne to extol diversity and denounce the threat of unwavering obedience to the state.

This enraged nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment persisted after the end of the war; in 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that “every man who wears a hyphen carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the stained glass windows of this Republic”. In contrast, the philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1916 that “the authentic American, the typical American, is himself a character composed of a hyphen”. Meanwhile, Norwegian-American novelist Ole Rolvaag believed immigrants and their children needed multiple roots to thrive in a new country, warning in the early 1920s that due to the “much-loved melting pot … the America is doomed to become the most spiritually impoverished land on the face of the earth.

Kallen was at the heart of this pluralistic conversation, but it’s important to recognize that his original theory was fraught with flaws, the darkest being his narrow frame of reference. Although radical for his time, Kallen’s early focus on European-based ethnic groups to the detriment of non-white African and Asian groups was a serious myopia shared by many of his otherwise far-sighted contemporaries. As historian Mike Wallace put it succinctly in 2017, “Kallen’s cultural pluralism… stopped at the color line”. Wallace’s statement underscores the criticism of fellow historian John Higham that “the pluralist thesis from the start was encapsulated in white ethnocentrism.” But in the 1950s, his theory would evolve far beyond white ethnocentrism and the color line, thanks to Kallen’s interracial friendship with fellow philosopher and Harlem Renaissance founder Alain Locke, who deserves credit. as a co-creator of cultural pluralism.

Is America ready to think of itself as an orchestra?  |  Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Alain Locke circa 1908 (Image courtesy of the author)

In 1906, Locke, 20, was a student in a class at Harvard taught by Kallen, 24. They exchanged ideas on cultural identity and diversity, and in the process, as Kallen recalled, “the formulas, the phrases developed—“ cultural pluralism ”,“ the right to be different. “” A year later, their paths crossed again in Oxford. , where Locke was the first Black Rhodes Scholar and Kallen was doing post-doctoral research. In England, their friendship and cultural pride deepened as Kallen became increasingly aware of anti-Semitism and Locke suffered a double prejudice for being both gay and black.

From the start of their relationship, Locke would surpass his mentor in the breadth of his view of diversity. As early as 1908, Locke gave a far-sighted speech at the Cosmopolitan Club in Oxford, praising, in his words, “a divided nationalism within a political nation, an ideal difference within a geographic unity, and a cosmopolitanism within a political nation. a nation “. In 1911 he published several papers espousing the cross-fertilization of a panoply of crops, including black and white, a perspective far broader than Kallen’s.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Locke pushed his friend to broaden his view of cultural pluralism and include African Americans and other non-European groups in his theory. Kallen’s attention shifted after World War I to other concerns, one of which was fighting for broader civil liberties and awakening the public to the rise of fascism. But with the spread of a new war and racial atrocities across Europe and Asia in the early 1940s, Kallen finally heeded Locke’s advice, broadening his view of pluralism and finally publicly acknowledging the role. original from his colleague as co-creator of the concept. Deeply influenced by Locke, who died in 1954, Kallen’s racial awakening continued to encompass an ever-expanding universe of humanity until his own death in 1974.

The alarmism, hate speech and demands for 100% Americanism that Kallen, Locke and others witnessed over a century ago continue today in new forms. This authoritarian new era of border closures and denigration of people of color has made the pioneering work of Kallen and Locke increasingly relevant. For, in order to truly realize our nation as a perpetually unfinished and open project that offers hope to a dividing world, pluralists and the general public must forcefully reject the fear of any minority group. By following this path, we could finally begin, in the words of James Baldwin, to “end the racial nightmare, realize our country and change the history of the world.”

Barack Obama’s vision, expressed in 2020, of America as “the one great power in history made up of people from all corners of the planet, comprising all races, religions and cultural practices,” echoes persistent pluralistic hopes, as does his faith that we will succeed in this experience because “we come from everywhere, and we contain multitudes”.


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