Phati’tude: Multiculturalism in the 21st Century

Phat_multi-logo2 Multiculturalism generated a great deal of interest in American college campuses in the 1980s and ’90s–as well as a great deal of controversy. Since then multiculturalism has gone mainstream. Yesterday, the President of the United States visited his boyhood home in Indonesia, where he closed his remarks at a press conference with the Muslim greeting “salaam aleikum.” But this is also a time when an NPR correspondent was fired for remarking, “if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” Recently a candidate for the US Senate falsely asserted that Dearborn, MI and Frankford, TX, which doesn’t exist, are governed by Sharia law.

This is the climate into which Phati’tude, a literary magazine, debuts–or, rather, relaunches. The journal was last published in 2001, when the terms of cultural debate abruptly shifted to a realm beyond language, beyond the orthodoxies of liberalism and multiculturalism.

The Spring 2010 issue of Phati’tude is a retrospective of multiculturalism as it has developed over the past 30 years. There are interviews with veterans of the curriculum wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Lawson Fusao Inada, a Japanese-American writer and educator, has been involved with the West Coast poetry scene since the 1960s. A. Robert Lee is a British Professor of American Literature, has been writing about multiculturalism since the 1980s. For Inada and Lee, multiculturalism is a community with a common set of reference points: Ishmael Reed and Maxine Hong Kingston, to name only two. A lively and interesting literary community has always been one of the prime attractions of multiculturalism.

The essays from younger contributors, somewhat surprisingly, cover much of the same ground. David Zinser argues that American universities commodify diversity, which is true in the sense that, in the age of declining public support for upper education, pretty much everything is commodified on college campuses these days. Mark Crane’s scattershot attack on all forms of hegemony hits all the wrong targets. He rails against an unnamed “rich white guy who writes for The New York Times Book Review” about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s a secret from the patriarchy: rich white guys don’t read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, let alone write about him in The New York Times. That’s how they become rich. Crane also informs us it’s a “taboo to imagine any notion of identity that undermines what has been assigned by one’s parents and cultural group.” Speaking for the millions of parents across the land, all I can say is, “if only.” David M. Wulf contributes an essay that’s well meaning but strays into territory that was marked off limits in the 1990s. “Authors of diverse cultural background, due to their own unique heritage, present an alternative to the hegemonic Anglo-American Dream that is foisted on them as a requisite to their integration,” he writes. “This essay attempts to make a clear distinction between authentic identity and what is merely socially prescribed.” Back in my school days the notion of authentic identity was demolished by every post-structuralist thinker from Jacques Derrida to Homi Bhabha. If it has made a comeback, I don’t want to know about it.

Zinser, Crane and Wulf are carrying out ideology critiques, which I’m all for. And multiculturalism is a proper medium for examining ideology. After all, what is multiculturalism but ideology critique under another name? However, ideology critique is an advanced critical skill. It easily falls into the trap of a false binary between self and other. Your thought is rigid and dogmatic, hegemonic in intent and delusional in content, while my thought is wonderfully nuanced and flexible, intuited from lived experience and broadly sympathetic. This mode of thinking is itself deeply ideological.

While the Phati’tude editors are open to contributions in all literary forms, poetry dominates the Spring issue. There’s a fine poem from Heid Erdrich, the sister of poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, and a pair of contributions from Lawson Fusao Inada. Jaime “Shaggy” Flores’ “Letter of the Day” is impassioned, like a lot of the work in the issue, and also inventive. Also not to be missed is Gabrielle David’s sensitive and learned reviews of poetry collections.

As I was reading Phati’tude I kept returning to my days as a graduate student and faculty in English and Film Studies. But the multicultural debate of the 1990s suddenly seemed distant and quaint last Sunday, when I saw my little nephew for the first time since he started kindergarten. He was enrolled in a magnet school focusing on language and arts. Children are assigned one of four languages for an immersion program: Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Urdu. When his class was assigned Urdu, the parents contemplated protesting, but in the end they didn’t. This is America today: a boy of almost entirely English extraction dutifully working on his Urdu letters, which he shows to his proud and baffled parents. So much for Mark Crane’s claim that parents can’t think outside their cultural identity.

My nephew is on the front line of a problem that multiculturalism and liberalism are ill-equipped to handle. A good liberal leaves behind religious commitments behind and makes political decisions not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities. Since 9/11 the idea of a multicultural nation has had to contend with the reality that some versions of Christian fundamentalism, some versions of Orthodox Judaism, some versions of Islam refuse to separate the public from the private self. In a troubling twist on the old saw “the personal is the political,” there are people who want to see their religion’s strictures and regulations enacted in every corner of daily life, including the public sphere. Sharia law, whether enacted in Afghanistan or an imaginary town in Texas, is deeply illiberal. Strong religious conviction completely frustrates liberalism’s conviction that one of the mighty achievements of the radical Enlightenment to reject the idea that virtue or vice depend on your ethnic or religious background. Multiculturalism wasn’t built to understand suicide bombers.

The gamble my nephew’s school is taking is that we will be able to somehow decipher the cultural code of people who sympathize with the Taliban and thereby neutralize the effects of religious fundamentalism. My nephew isn’t learning Urdu to converse with a Pakistani classmate; he’s learning it with an eye on the minarets of Karachi. Chicago means that multiculturalism has gone global, but not in a good way. Hopefully, future issues of Phati’tude will address the next challenges of the great American experiment in a pluralistic society. Multiculturalism is an endless conversation, and that conversation is as important now as it has ever been.

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