- Against the Multicultural Agenda: A Critical Thinking Alternative
Most critics would probably agree that postmodern theory has both heralded multiculturalism and left it adrift. Still controversial, multicultural theories, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, seem at once revolutionary and incoherent. Yehudi O. Webster directs his book Against the Multicultural Agenda: A Critical Thinking Alternative toward the incoherence rather than the revolution. In the spirit of a “demasking exposé” made notorious by William Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, and Allan Bloom, Webster manages a gallant and often successful effort at clearing away at least some of the obfuscation surrounding this ill-defined movement.
The book’s central concerns go like this: multicultural theory has potential merit but goes wrong by articulating the “bodies, politics, and values” of the disputants rather than the “structure of [their] arguments” (118). Similar to his thesis in The Racialization of America, Webster believes that many [End Page 167] of America’s multicultural problems arise from flawed reasons, and only later flawed behavior. For example, the misconception that race can be categorized causes the real damage beneath the occurrences of racism. And for Webster, Reason with a capital R undergirds all. His brash, unforgiving advocacy for “critical thinking” leads him even to claim that any classificatory remark having to with race is, in fact, a form of “racism” (125). Consequently, since “racism” develops out of defective reasoning, not only is America not “plagued” by racism, but there can be, by definition, no “problems between the races” (127).
These provocative comments, Webster feels, serve to underline the crucial need for standards in argumentation. Not surprisingly, he cites Lyotard, Foucault, Bourdieu, and Kristeva as the culprits who have corrupted Enlightenment-based expectations for reason. Their combined influence has led critics to forget that their first obligation is to “the development of a consensus on standards for deciding which ideas are flawed” (152). Illustrations of how a return to this reason-as-consensus philosophy might save multiculturalism from its “significant inadequacies” (3) and move it in a responsible direction become a critical part of every section.
Webster establishes this strategy in four topic-chapters: education, social reconstruction, foundation, and reformation. Like Alain Finkielkraut, Webster begins his critique of multiculturalism by citing its acceptance of the “Herderian tradition.” According to Webster, Johann Herder’s emphasis on separatism, relativism, and “cultural determinist explanations of behavior” produces such faulty educational policies that “‘culture’ comes to be all politics” (25). This leads to a political “particularist” agenda that eventually contradicts itself in various ways. For example, it tends to pose race as both essential, i.e., stable enough for social policy, and non-essential, i.e., a floating signifier for culture’s markings. This self-serving ambiguity leaves students not only with a fragmented notion of community (45), but also with the fallacy that crucial intellectual conflicts will never rise above their status as “unresolvable political disagreements” (47). In the next chapter Webster worries that, out of a desire to end oppression and prejudice, well-meaning teachers focus on “cultural equality” (72) instead of critical thinking. Enlarging on these social transformation concerns, chapter three searches for the analytical foundations of multiculturalism. In discussing the work of “critical” (somewhat anti-essentialist) and “educational” (somewhat more essentialist) multiculturalists, Webster tries to represent major theoretical positions in an impartial manner. His last chapter reminds the reader that an [End Page 168] emphasis on critical thinking will provide multiculturalism with what it has wanted all along: empowered students and fair-minded teachers.
Although Webster’s “return to reason” as an answer to multiculturalism’s woes seems a bit predictable by now (compare Allan Bloom’s return to Socrates, Alain Finkielkraut’s “enlightened” Goethe, or Satya P. Mohanty’s Kant), it does articulate the deep division between what one might call the postmodern and the Enlightenment multiculturalist. The former’s creed that a single word could expose essential and constructed meanings depending on the discursive situation profoundly disturbs Webster and the Enlightenment critics. While the postmodernist wants to ferret out ideology, the Enlightenment advocate sees language revealing...