Multiculturalism Now: Civilization, National Identity, and Difference Before and After September 11th
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boundary 2 29.2 (2002) 109-127

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Multiculturalism Now:
Civilization, National Identity, and Difference Before and After September 11th

David Palumbo-Liu

The events of September 11th and following have been shocking beyond belief. For me, part of the shock has been the almost instantaneous contradiction in public-speak: the simultaneous evocation of the notion that the world has changed, that the war we will fight will be a "new" war, and the rearticulation of only slightly modified Cold War rhetoric and "civilizational" discourse. Indeed, in his address before Congress on 20 September, George W. Bush declared, "This is civilization's fight." In so doing, he evoked, consciously or not, Samuel Huntington's well-known theory about the "clash of civilizations," a theory that has been used to explain why the [End Page 109] attacks took place and also how the United States should respond. Huntington's thesis, if taken in toto, has dramatic ramifications for minority studies, minority rights, and political dissent in general.

This essay takes the form of both a description and an exhortation, as indicated by its title. I will first try to outline some of the recent historical contexts of what we call "multiculturalism" and in particular address the way multiculturalism, while usually understood within the United States in terms of "domestic" minorities, has always had an important international dimension. Today's new civilizational model goes beyond the cultural internationalism of the 1970s and even beyond the language of the nation per se. 1 What we find, rather, is the imbrication of nationalist and civilizational thinking, and that is what makes the case today so difficult to disentangle. National interests seem indistinguishable from "a way of life," and national policy seems synonymous with large, civilizational imperatives. While the convergence of national and civilizational thinking is nothing new (indeed, one could say that the former usually implies the latter), the specific historical conditions under which this is taking place today bring the civilizational into the national in a particularly potent and dangerous way for minority rights. Thus, added pressure is put on critical multiculturalism to address the imperatives of the moment and to rebut the particular assumptions of the new civilizational thinking. By "critical multiculturalism" I mean a multiculturalism that focuses on the material historical productions of difference rather than on "culture" as a ready-made thing.

One question has to be asked at the beginning: On what grounds was a distinct American identity to be founded? It was during the period of the Second World War that the modern attempt to understand national identity took hold. It began most visibly in the work of anthropologists. As early as 1939, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, two students of Franz Boas, founded the Committee for National Morale. When the war came, they were enlisted by the Office of War Information and the Office of Strategic Services [End Page 110] to help the U.S. plan its war strategies. Dealing with the enemy, as well as discovering the constancy of American identity, required particular attention to the notion of "culture." "Culture" would serve to explain and define what was then called "national character." This, indeed, was the birth of American studies, which was declared "a branch of cultural anthropology." 2 It was during the war, and for those purposes, that Mead wrote a classic text probing the American national character entitled And Keep Your Powder Dry. For her, "character is . . . an abstraction, a way of talking about the results in human personality, of having been reared by and among human beings whose behavior was culturally regular." 3 In a later essay, "National Character and the Science of Anthropology," Mead explains what was to be included as evidentiary forms. To study national character "means to interpret the people of a nation as distinguished from their history, literature, arts or philosophy." She defines the project's nature as "a form of applied science, by which skills developed in the field work on primitive, preliterate societies were used for rapid diagnosis study . . . [to] provide some kind of prediction...