Please install macromedia flash plug-in
Reviews in American History 24.3 (1996) 519-523
From Pennsylvania Dutch to California Ethnic: The Odyssey of David Hollinger
Rudolph J. Vecoli
David A. Hollinger. Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism. New York: Basic Books, 1995. xii + 210 pp. Notes and index. $22.00.
David Hollinger has thought long and hard about the nature of diversity in America and the perils and possibilities it presents us. This book--part intellectual history, part cultural commentary, part advocacy--is his attempt to break "the logjams of the multicultural debates" (p. 84). Since practically everyone today professes to be a multiculturalist, multiculturalism, he observes, has been reduced to a shibboleth. In this rigorously argued work, Hollinger strives to move the debate "beyond multiculturalism" to a consideration of "postethnic America."
Hollinger's postethnic America would not be a reversion to a monocultural society; rather it would be a country in which a multiplicity of diversities flourish freely. In fact, his critique of multiculturalism is that it is not ethnic enough. He objects to its orthodoxy, which would impose rigid racial categories (defined as bodily shapes and colors) upon a dynamic, fluid cultural diversity. This orthodoxy is embodied in what Hollinger calls the "ethnic-racial pentagon," the quinquepartite division of the American population into "ethnic-racial blocs" (p. 24). The pentagon, he recognizes, is a "historical artifact" (p. 24), invented in the 1970s "to correct the injustices committed by white people in the name of the American nation" (p. 36). Neither races nor ethnicities, the ethnic-racial blocs were born of "a history of political and economic victimization based on bad biology" (p. 8). Essentially the categories were established to gather statistics needed to implement antidiscrimination and affirmative action policies. In the 1980s multiculturalists reified the pentagon, conjuring it as cultural and political reality.
Hollinger faults the pentagon paradigm for its inability to accommodate the increasing diversification of America, citing the demands of mixed race persons for recognition of their hybrid ancestry. (More emphasis could have been placed on the new immigration, which greatly complicates the business of ethnic-racial classification.) Since a basic principle of postethnic America would be an individual's voluntary rather than involuntary affiliation with [End Page 519] "communities of descent," a major indictment of the multicultural pentagon is that it pastes labels on persons regardless of their culture, affiliation, or identity.
Hollinger himself at times not only appears to accept the ethnic-racial blocs of the pentagon as defining real ethnicities, but to approve of the outcome. For example, he declares that "the pentagon . . . has symbolically erased much cultural diversity within the Euro-American bloc" so that the Irish have become indistinguishable from the English (p. 26). Hollinger also accepts the logic of the pentagon, approving of the "racialization of Latinos" (p. 32), since they are entitled to racial status on the basis of their history of victimization. European Americans, while they may have had "their share of suffering," do not rate high on the victimization scale as compared to "races" (p. 37). Without entering into the question of placement on the index of suffering, this reader was stopped cold by the following generalization: "Being classified as Euro-American, white, or Caucasian has rarely been a basis for being denied adequate employment, housing, education, or protection from violence" (p. 22).
Hollinger is well aware that he is caught in a "tragic contradiction" (p. 49) between his desire to affirm freedom of cultural affiliation and his endorsement of a policy of entitlements which requires the classification of the population into "crude, colloquial categories, black, yellow, white, red, and brown" (p. 8). Although the dismantling of the pentagon that institutionalizes and hardens these pseudoethnic-racial categories would seem to be a prerequisite to ushering in postethnic America, Hollinger's commitment to a politics of victimization prevents him from contemplating such a resolution of the dilemma. "The goal of equality," he foresees, "demands for America a future even more ethnic [racial?] than its past" (p. 23).
As an alternative to multiculturalism, Hollinger proposes a "postethnic perspective" that prefers voluntary to involuntary affiliations, allows for multiple identities, and entertains the formation of new groups. Rejecting the notion of primordial group identity, this perspective regards both race and ethnicity as social constructions. It appreciates the ethnos (defined as "a particular solidarity rooted in history," p. 4), but denies that either history or biology should dictate affiliation (Hollinger prefers affiliation to identity as the basis for community). While the postethnic perspective favors "communities of descent," it affirms the "principle of affiliation by revocable consent" (p. 13). Noting that religion is seldom invoked in discussions of multiculturalism, Hollinger speculates that the principle of separation of church and state, individual rights of entry and exit, and voluntarism might provide the model for ethnic-racial communities in postethnic America.
The postethnic perspective also contemplates "we" communities based on [End Page 520] solidarities other than shared descent, such as epistemic communities linked by science and global solidarities joined by a common fate, for example, the ecological crisis. Parting company with the multiculturalists, Hollinger enters a spirited defense of the national culture that enables Americans to act together. Hollinger is insistent that the United States is not simply a "container of cultures" but rather a nation-state. Distinguishing between ethnic nations and civic nations, he attributes the cohesiveness of the United States to its cultural core, a "nonethnic ideological tradition" (p. 23) rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Maintaining that the constructed American identity is as real as ethnic identities, he conceives of an ongoing struggle between the diasporic cultures and the national culture within the democratic polity.
Questioning the efficacy of the United Nations as a guarantor of human rights, the author holds the American nation-state to be an essential bulwark against global capitalism on the one hand and ethnic particularism on the other. In these two contrasting forms of separatism, "a diasporic consciousness . . . under the aegis of multiculturalism" (p. 149), and a transnational business elite, Hollinger identifies the principal threats of fragmentation to the nation. A third force, the Middle American Right, with its coercive, moralistic impulse for conformity, is also signaled as inimical to postethnic America.
Hollinger's postethnic perspective rests upon his distinction between pluralism and cosmopolitanism. Tracing these doctrines back respectively to Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne, he describes the former as a conception of an America composed of permanent, static groups based on ancestry, while the latter posits a process of dynamic intermixture which transforms old stock and immigrants alike. The postethnic perspective espouses a "rooted cosmopolitanism" (p. 5) which, while respectful of ethnicity, insists upon voluntary and reversible affiliations. In what he terms "Haley's choice," 1 Hollinger identifies a major obstacle to a postethnic America: the assignment of persons to involuntary communities of descent.
The "great question" which Hollinger poses to his readers is "How wide the circle of the 'we'?" (pp. 68, 106). In a learned exposition, he traces the trajectory of post-World War II thought "from species to ethnos" (p. 51ff). In this paradigm shift from universalism to particularism, he locates the source of multiculturalism. Equally uncomfortable with a species-centered perspective which denies difference and an ethnocentrism which denies a common humanity, the postethnic perspective recognizes the many layers of "we," encompassing global as well as local communities. In a skillful balancing act, Hollinger reconciles a universalism based upon human interdependence with respect for diversity. While cautioning against the notion that we are a [End Page 521] "chosen people," he appears to subscribe to the idea that "our democratic-egalitarian ethos" might be properly extended to others (p. 115).
In a historical review of American discourse regarding diversity, Hollinger traces the fluctuating fortunes of pluralist ideas. This account, in my view, understates the influence of Horace Kallen's cultural pluralism in recent decades. Certainly we were reading and discussing his essay, "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot," in the sixties and seventies. From a participant's perspective, Hollinger does not give sufficient credit to the pluralist initiatives of those years which initially challenged the melting pot paradigm. 2 A landmark event, not mentioned, was the enactment by Congress of the Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act of 1972, which recognized "the heterogeneous composition of the nation." Hollinger also subscribes to the facile interpretation of "white ethnicity" as a backlash against the black movement. Most serious, however, is Hollinger's failure to distinguish sufficiently between the pluralism of the seventies and the succeeding multiculturalism. Crediting multiculturalism with including non-European cultures and recognizing inequalities that pluralists had overlooked (itself a questionable assertion), he does not, however, cite the exclusion of European American ethnic groups from the multicultural agenda and the tendency to reduce the enormous diversity of European American cultures to just "white." 3
Toward the end of the book, Hollinger introduces class into a discussion of the growing inequality in American society. His examination of how the rigidification of the social structure entraps ethno-racial groups in poverty adds a new dimension to his analysis. Finding both racial and class inequities at the source of the problem of the underclass, Hollinger criticizes African-American leaders for falling into the "ideological trap" of blaming racism for black distress. Observing that there are more poor whites than poor blacks, he approvingly quotes Jacqueline Jones to the effect that a politics based on race is self-defeating--and calls for a national economic program to raise people out of poverty. All well and good, but one wonders how this conclusion squares with his earlier endorsement of a policy consciously based on ethnic-racial categories to compensate alleged victims of past as well as present injustice.
Throughout this work Hollinger strives valiantly to carve out a middle ground between the One Hundred Percenters and the Multiculturalists. Rather than resolving the conundrum of the one and the many, the postethnic cosmopolitan chooses to live with the paradox of unity and diversity. While such a liberal, tolerant prescription is appealing, it also expresses the author's hopes that ethnic-racial identities will diminish and global affiliations grow in the postethnic era. To say that ethnic identities are socially constructed has become a cliché of cultural studies. But between the notion of constructed [End Page 522] identities and primordial (whatever that might be) identities, there are bone-deep identities rooted in history, culture, and memories. Hollinger, for all his efforts to respect the ethnos, seems to lack a personal feeling for and commitment to this kind of ethnicity.
Placing this book in the context of our own historicity, one wonders what David Hollinger brings to the subject in terms of his own beliefs and values. What is the author's "historical particularity" and to what "historically specific communities of human beings" does he owe his "truths, rights, and obligations" (p. 60)? The book is silent on the subject, although we learn from a publisher's blurb that he is of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, was raised in a strict Protestant home, grew up on the West Coast, and refers to himself as a "California ethnic." Even such scanty biographical data allows one to view the book in a certain light. One might even speculate that the shadow of a Pennsylvania Dutch grandfather looms over the work. 4
Although it includes three previously published articles, which inevitably makes for some repetition, the book attains a striking coherence and synthetic elegance. It is a challenging and learned work which well repays a close reading. At a time when screeds appear to be in fashion, its reasoned and temperate prose is refreshing. Finally, although he recognizes the formidable obstacles in the path of a postethnic America, Hollinger, in the midst of a slough of cynicism and despair, chooses to offer a vision of a peaceable kingdom.
Rudolph J. Vecoli, Department of History, University of Minnesota, is the author of "PRIMO MAGGIO: May Day Observances Among Italian Immigrant Workers, 1890-1920," Labor's Heritage 7 (1996) and is at work on a book about Italian Americans, 1945-1995.
1. "Haley's choice" refers to Alex Haley's lack of choice when he came to write his family history. He traced the side which originated in Africa, not Ireland.
2. For a different assessment, see my essay, "Ethnicity and Immigration,"in Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stanley Kutler (1996).
3. For an elaboration of this criticism, see my article, "Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?" Italian Americana 12 (Summer 1995): 149-61.
4. For an effort to come to terms with my own historical particularity,see "Italian Immigrants and Working-Class Movements in the United States: A Personal Reflection on Class and Ethnicity," Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 4 (1993): 293-305.