"Affirmative Action," hyphenated Americans, and other conundrums

What is your favorite bit of Orwellian Newspeak? Near the top of my list is “affirmative action.” It’s such an emollient phrase, so redolent of cheeriness (savor the word “affirmative”) and practicality (“action”). What it really means is “discrimination on the basis of sex, skin color, or some other item in the contemporary lexicon of victimology.” But you can–almost–forget that while the pleasing phrase “affirmative action” echoes in your recollection.


I had occasion to ponder this anew last week when I attended a dinner in New York following the latest Intelligence Squared debate. If you do not live in New York, you may not know about this splendid series of live debates organized by Robert Rosenkranz and the Rosenkranz Foundation. The resolution this evening was “It’s time to end affirmative action.” To me, the question is a no-brainer. Of course it is time to end “affirmative action.” But that is not how some of my dinner partners saw it. Nor, as it happens, did the audience for the debate. Much to my surprise, they voted heartily against the resolution (44% against, 34% for, and 22% undecided). My surprise was only increased when I looked over the transcript of the debate (I had to miss the event itself): I thought those arguing for abolishing the practice of “affirmative action” had all the good arguments.

Alas, debates are not always won by the better arguments–a fact I know to my sorrow. When I participated in an Intelligence Squared debate last year on the motion “Hollywood has fueled anti-Americanism Abroad,” I went to the debate thinking my side, which argued for the motion, would lose. But then we argued so much more persuasively than the other side (or so I thought) that I awaited the audience’s vote with confident equanimity. It was a misplaced presumption, unfortunately, since we lost by a considerable margin. As I noted at the time, “in order to win an argument, you must appeal to the audience’s emotions as well as their reason. What people yearn for, what they fear, is often more important than what they think in determining how they vote.”

Notwithstanding the results of the IQ2 debate, it seems an opportune moment to step back and reflect on the phenomenon of “affirmative action” and its ideological comrade in arms, multiculturalism.

A favorite weapon in the armory of multiculturalism is the lowly hyphen. When we speak of an African-American or Mexican-American or Asian-American these days, the aim is not descriptive but deconstructive. There is a polemical edge to it, a provocation. The hyphen does not mean “American, but hailing at some point in the past from someplace else.” It means “only provisionally American: my allegiance is divided at best.” (I believe something similar can be said about the feminist fad for hyphenating the bride’s maiden name with her husband’s surname. It is a gesture of independence that is also a declaration of divided loyalty.) It is curious to what extent the passion for hyphenation is fostered more by the liberal elite than the populations it is supposedly meant to serve. How does it serve them? Presumably by enhancing their sense of “self-esteem.” Frederick Douglass saw through this charade some one hundred and fifty years ago. “No one idea,” he wrote, “has given rise to more oppression and persecution toward colored people of this country than that which makes Africa, not America, their home.”


The indispensable Ward Connerly would agree. Connerly has campaigned vigorously against affirmative action across the country. This of course has made him a pariah among the politically correct elite. It has also resulted in some humorous exchanges, such as this telephone interview with a reporter from The New York Times in 1997.

Reporter: What are you?

Connerly: I am an American.

Reporter: No, no, no! What are you?

Connerly: Yes, yes, yes! I am an American.

Reporter: That is not what I mean. I was told that you are African American. Are you ashamed to be African American?

Connerly: No, I am just proud to be an American.

Connerly went on to explain that his ancestry included Africans, French, Irish, and American Indians. It was too much for the poor reporter from our Paper of Record: “What does that make you?” he asked in uncomprehending exasperation. I suspect he was not edified by Connerly’s cheerful response: “That makes me all-American.”

The multicultural passion for hyphenation is not simply a fondness for syntactical novelty. It also bespeaks a commitment to the centrifugal force of anti-American tribalism. The division marked by the hyphen in African-American (say) denotes a political stand. It goes hand-in-hand with other items on the index of liberal desiderata–the redistributive impulse behind efforts at “affirmative action,” for example. Affirmative action was undertaken in the name of equality. But, as always seems to happen, it soon fell prey to the Orwellian logic from which the principle that “All animals are equal” gives birth to the transformative codicil: “but some animals are more equal than others.”

Affirmative action is Orwellian in a linguistic sense, too, since what announces itself as an initiative to promote equality winds up enforcing discrimination precisely on the grounds that it was meant to overcome. Thus we are treated to the delicious, if alarming, contradiction of college applications that declare their commitment to evaluate candidates “without regard to race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or national origin” on page 1 and then helpfully inform you on page 2 that it is to your advantage to mention if you belong to any of the following designated victim groups. Among other things, a commitment to multiculturalism seems to dull one’s sense of contradiction.

The whole history of affirmative action is instinct with that irony. The original effort to redress legitimate grievances–grievances embodied, for instance, in the discriminatory practices of Jim Crow–have mutated into new forms of discrimination. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee because blacks were openly barred from war factory jobs. But what began as a Presidential Executive Order in 1961 directing government contractors to take “affirmative action” to assure that people be hired “without regard” for sex, race, creed, color, etc., has resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities. White is black, freedom is slavery, “without regard” comes to mean “with regard for nothing else.”


Had he lived to see the evolution of affirmative action, Tocqueville would have put such developments down as examples of how in democratic societies the passion for equality tends to trump the passion for liberty. The fact that the effort to enforce equality often results in egregious inequalities he would have understood to be part of the “tutelary despotism” that “extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.”

Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity. As such, they oppose the traditional understanding of what it means to be an American–an understanding hinted at in 1782 by the French-born American farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his famous image of America as a country in which “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” This crucible of American identity, this “melting pot,” has two aspects. The negative aspect involves disassociating oneself from the cultural imperatives of one’s country of origin. One sheds a previous identity before assuming a new one. One might preserve certain local habits and tastes, but they are essentially window-dressing. In essence one has left the past behind in order to become an American citizen.

The positive aspect of advancing the melting pot involves embracing the substance of American culture. The 1795 code for citizenship lays out some of the formal requirements.

I do solemnly swear (1) to support the Constitution of the United States; (2) to renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen; (3) to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; (4) to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and (5) (A) to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law, or (B) to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law . . .

For over two hundred years, this oath had been required of those wishing to become citizens. In 2003, Samuel Huntington tells us in his book Who We Are, federal bureaucrats launched a campaign to rewrite and weaken it.

I shall say more about what constitutes the substance of American identity in a moment. For now, I want to underscore the fact that this project of Americanization has been an abiding concern since the time of the Founders. “We must see our people more Americanized,” John Jay declared in the 1780s. Jefferson concurred. Teddy Roosevelt repeatedly championed the idea that American culture, the “crucible in which all the new types are melted into one,” was “shaped from 1776 to 1789, and our nationality was definitely fixed in all its essentials by the men of Washington’s day.”


It is often said that America is a nation of immigrants. In fact, as Huntington points out, America is a country that was initially a country of settlers. Settlers precede immigrants and make their immigration possible. The culture of those mostly English-speaking, predominantly Anglo-Protestant settlers defined American culture. Their efforts came to fruition with the generation of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison.

The Founders are so denominated because they founded, they inaugurated a state. Immigrants were those who came later, who came from elsewhere, and who became American by embracing the Anglophone culture of the original settlers. The English language, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, the industriousness and piety that flowed from the Protestant work ethic–these were central elements in the culture disseminated by the Founders. And these were among the qualities embraced by immigrants when they became Americans. “Throughout American history,” Huntington notes, “people who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values. This benefitted them and the country.”

Justice Louis Brandeis outlined the pattern in 1919. Americanization, he said, means that the immigrant “adopts the clothes, the manners, and the customs generally prevailing here . . . substitutes for his mother tongue the English language” and comes “into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate[s] with us for their attainment.” Until the 1960s, the Brandeis model mostly prevailed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups, understanding that assimilation was the best ticket to stability and social and economic success, eagerly aided in the task of integrating their charges into American society.

The story is very different today. In America, there is a dangerous new tide of immigration from Asia, a variety of Muslim countries, and Latin America, especially from Mexico. The tide is new not only chronologically but also in substance. First, there is the sheer matter of numbers. More than 2,200,000 legal immigrants came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990s alone. The number of illegal Mexican immigrants is staggering. So is their birth rate. Altogether there are more than 8 million Mexicans in the U.S. Some parts of the Southwest are well on their way to becoming what Victor Davis Hanson calls “Mexifornia,” “the strange society that is emerging as the result of a demographic and cultural revolution like no other in our times.” A professor of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico gleefully predicts that by 2080 parts of the Southwest United States and Northern Mexico will join to form a new country, “La Republica del Norte.”

The problem is not only one of numbers, though. Earlier immigrants made–and were helped and goaded by the ambient culture to make–concerted efforts to assimilate. Important pockets of these new immigrants are not assimilating, not learning English, not becoming or thinking of themselves primarily as Americans. The effect of these developments on American identity is disastrous and potentially irreversible.


Such developments are abetted by the left-wing political and educational elites of this country, whose dominant theme is the perfidy of traditional American values. Hence the passion for multiculturalism and the ideal of ethnic hyphenation that goes with it. This has done immense damage in schools and colleges as well as in the population at large. By removing the obligation to master English, multiculturalism condemns whole sub-populations to the status of permanent second-class citizens. By removing the obligation to adopt American values, it fosters what the German novelist Hermann Broch once called a “value vacuum,” a sense of existential emptiness that breeds anomie and the pathologies of nihilism.

As if in revenge for this injustice, however, multiculturalism also weakens the social bonds of the community at large. The price of imperfect assimilation is imperfect loyalty. Take the movement for bilingualism. Whatever it intended in theory, in practice it means not mastering English. It has notoriously left its supposed beneficiaries essentially monolingual, often semi-lingual. The only “bi” involved is a passion for bifurcation, which is fed by the accumulated resentments instilled by the anti-American multicultural orthodoxy. Every time you call directory assistance or some large corporation and are told “Press One for English” and “Para español oprime el numero dos” it is another small setback for American identity.

Meanwhile, many prominent academics and even businessmen come bearing the gospel of what John Fonte has dubbed “transnational progressivism”–an anti-patriotic stew of politically correct ideas and attitudes distinguished partly by its penchant for vague but virtuous-sounding abstractions, partly by its moral smugness. It is a familiar litany. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns that “patriotic pride” is “morally dangerous” while University of Penn PresidentAmy Gutmann [n.b., thanks to the reader who corrected me on this: see below] reveals that she finds it “repugnant” for American students to learn that they are “above all, citizens of the United States” instead of partisans of her preferred abstraction, “democratic humanism.” New York University’s Richard Sennett denounces “the evil of a shared national identity” and concludes that the erosion of national sovereignty is “basically a positive thing.” Cecilia O’Leary of American University identifies American patriotism as a right-wing, militaristic, male, white, Anglo, and repressive force, while Peter Spiro of Temple University says it “is increasingly difficult to use the word ‘we’ in the context of international affairs.”

Of course, whenever the word “patriotism” comes up in left-wing circles, there is sure to be some allusion to Samuel Johnson’s observation that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” Right on cue, George Lipsitz of the University of California sniffs that “in recent years refuge in patriotism has been the first resort of scoundrels of all sorts.”


Naturally, Dr. Johnson’s explanation to Boswell that he did not mean to disparage “a real and generous love of our country” but only that “pretended patriotism” that is a “cloak for self-interest” is left out of account.

The bottom line is that the traditional ideal of a distinctive American identity, forged out of many elements but unified around a core of beliefs, attitudes, and commitments is now up for grabs. One academic epitomized the established attitude among our left-liberal elites when she expressed the hope that the United States would “never again be culturally ‘united,’ if united means ‘unified’ in beliefs and practices.”

Nor is this merely an academic crotchet. Many politicians–and, as Robert Bork shows earlier in this volume, many courts–have colluded in spreading the multicultural gospel. The nation’s motto–E pluribus unum–was chosen by Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams to express the ideal of faction- and heritage-transcending unity. America forged one people out of many peoples. Vice President Al Gore interpreted the tag to mean “Within one, many.” This might have been inadvertence. It might have been simple ignorance. It might have been deliberate ideological provocation. Which is worst?

The combined effect of the multicultural enterprise has been to undermine the foundation of American national identity. Huntington speaks dramatically but not inaptly of “Deconstructing America.” What he has in mind are not the linguistic tergiversations of a Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault but the efforts–politically if not always intellectually allied efforts–to disestablish the dominant culture by fostering a variety of subversive attitudes, pieces of legislation, and judicial interventions. “The deconstructionists,” Huntington writes,

promoted programs to enhance that status and influence of subnational racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. They encouraged immigrants to maintain their birth-country cultures, granted them legal privileges denied to native-born Americans, and denounced the idea of Americanization as un-American. They pushed the rewriting of history syllabi and textbooks so as to refer to the “peoples” of the United States in place of the single people of the Constitution. They urged supplementing or substituting for national history the history of subnational groups. They downgraded the centrality of English in American life and pushed bilingual education and linguistic diversity. They advocated legal recognition of group rights and racial preferences over the individual rights central to the American Creed. They justified their actions by theories of multiculturalism and the idea that diversity rather than unity or community should be America’s overriding value. The combined effect of these efforts was to promote the deconstruction of the American identity that had been gradually created over three centuries.


Taken together, Huntington concludes, “these efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

The various movements to deconstruct American identity and replace it with a multicultural “rainbow” or supra-national bureaucracy have made astonishing inroads in the last few decades and especially in the last several years. And, as Huntington reminds us, the attack on American identity has counterparts elsewhere in the West wherever the doctrine of multiculturalism has trumped the cause of national identity. The European Union–whose unelected leaders are as dedicated to multicultural shibboleths as they are to rule by top-down, anti-democratic bureaucracy–is a case in point. But the United States, the most powerful national state, is also the most attractive target for deconstruction.

It is a curious development that Huntington traces. In many respects, it corroborates James Burnham’s observation, in Suicide of the West (1964), that “liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” For what we have witnessed with the triumph of multiculturalism is a kind of hypertrophy or perversion of liberalism, as its core doctrines are pursued to the point of caricature.


Trending on PJ Media Videos

Join the conversation as a VIP Member