Henry Louis Gates New Book on the Culture Wars

In an excerpt from Tradition and the Black Atlantic, Henry Louis Gates Jr. says forget the either/or struggle of America’s culture wars and embrace a multi-cultural approach to the world.

Henry Louis Gates. (Josh Reynolds / AP Photo)

In an excerpt from Tradition and the Black Atlantic, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. says forget the either/or struggle of America’s culture wars and embrace a multi-cultural approach to the world.

An excerpt from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recently released, Tradition and the Black Atlantic , which charts the long culture war over identity, Eurocentrism, and modernity from the 17th century to the present. In this concluding chapter, he visits the compelling work of philosopher Isaiah Berlin who points a way toward a new multicultural view.

By way of a return to politics, and a rounding out of my critical overview, I want to enlist Isaiah Berlin, whom we might describe as the paterfamilias of liberal pluralism, and whose utter and complete banishment from the debate was a matter of puzzlement, unless the fear was that adducing Berlin’s lifelong argument would compromise our claims to novelty. For Berlin stresses—and, as I say, his is an argument that was largely overlooked in the debate over multiculturalism—that “relativism is not the only alternative to what Lovejoy called uniformitarianism.” In what Berlin describes as pluralism, “we are free to criticize the values of other cultures, to condemn them, but we cannot pretend not to understand them at all, or to regard them simply as subjective, the product of creatures in different circumstances with different tastes from our own, which do not speak to us at all.” He writes, and because this is one of my favorite passages of his, I’d like to quote him at length:

What is clear is that values can clash—that is why civilizations are incompatible. They can be incompatible between cultures, or groups in the same culture, or between you and me. . . . Values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual; and it does not follow that, if they do some must be true or others false. [Indeed,] these collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are. If we are told that these contradictions will be solved in some perfect world in which all good things can be harmonized in principle, then we must answer, to those who say this, that the meanings they attach to the names which for us denote the conflicting values are not ours. We must say that the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; that principles which are harmonized in this other world are not the principles with which, in our daily lives, we are acquainted; if they are transformed, it is into conceptions not known to us on earth. But it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.

The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable—that is a truism—but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind.

Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.

To be sure, Berlin’s pluralism is radically antiutopian. Perhaps it is not the sort of thing likely to inspire one to risk one’s life or the lives of others. But I don’t think it is a flaccid or undemanding faith for all that. And in the essay from which I’ve quoted, entitled “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” he anticipates the complaint:

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can, I believe, be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in need of repair—that alone, I repeat, is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution, you will say? Not the stuff of which calls to heroic action by inspired leaders are made? Yet if there is some truth in this view, perhaps that is sufficient.

The vision here, if it is a vision, is one of the central themes of Berlin’s corpus, but we can find it promulgated elsewhere and with a range of inflections. It warns us off final solutions of all sorts, admonishes us that the search for purity—whether we speak of “ethnic cleansing,” of “cantonization,” or of “cultural authenticity”—poses a greater threat to civil order, and human decency, than the messy affair of cultural variegation. It lets us remember that identities are always in dialogue, exist (as Amselle expatiates) only in relation to each other, and are, like everything else, sites of contest and negotiation, self-fashioning and refashioning. (As John Higham observes, “An adequate theory of American culture will have to address the reality of assimilation as well as the persistence of differences.”) And it suggests, finally, that a multiculturalism that can accept all that—and I see no inherent barriers to it—might be one worth working for.

It’s gotten so I can’t find anyone not already in the debate who wants to identify with either side! Down with either/or. Up with both/and.

The not-so-very utopian vision here may correspond to what Alasdair MacIntyre has called for in the present-day university, as a place of “constrained disagreement.” Constrained disagreement: It doesn’t seem such a daunting ideal, and perhaps not only the university but also the society that supports it should expect to survive by conducting itself in this way. But let me anticipate some concerns.

Have I permitted a benignly folkloristic notion of multiculturalism to preempt a potently oppositional one, “red in tooth and claw”? Here, I’d recommend that these critics on the left remind themselves of the vehement opposition of those on the right to even such concessive pluralism; surely anything that makes Buchanan foam at the mouth can’t be all bad. Beyond that, however, I believe we should concede that the radical critics are correct in suspecting multiculturalism as an agency for radical transformation. If you want radical transformation (as opposed, say, to dramatic reform), identity politics probably isn’t the place to start and multiculturalism is a veritable quagmire.

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Conversely, though, others may wonder, Haven’t I discounted too quickly the perils of cultural diversity? On the diversity issue, I meekly suggest that its conservative critics listen to its radical critics: If the issue is half as inert as they say, surely civilization as we know it is all too likely to continue.

The truth is, though, I’m wary of overly schematic responses to these issues. The culture wars have presented us with a surfeit of either/ors. Tradition versus modernity. Separatism versus assimilationism. Monoculturalism versus multiculturalism. Eurocentrism versus Afrocentrism. Communitarianism versus individualism. Rights versus responsibilities. My culture versus your culture.

It seems to me that if the discourse of multi-culturalism can yield a lasting benefit, it would be to steer us away from these mindless dichotomies. For we’ve become demoralized by the crude reductive side-taking on the debate. It’s gotten so I can’t find anyone not already in the debate who wants to identify with either side! Down with either/or. Up with both/and. Both rights and responsibilities. Both tradition and modernity. Both your culture and mine. And they will conflict, these things we cherish; they will jostle and collide against one another, and these clashes will determine and define who we are.

There is a war going on, Pat Buchanan told us, incredibly, almost twenty years ago, in the words with which I began this chapter, a war “for the soul of America.” I think there’s a sense in which Buchanan was right. There was, and continues to be, such a cultural war going on, and, indeed, there always has been. (In words uncannily similar, the liberal Charles M. Blow has argued that the cultural right’s rage at Obama is just one face of “the current fight for the soul of this country. It’s not just a tug of war between the mind and the heart, between evidence and emotions, between reason and anger, between what we know and believe.” But when Buchanan said that the war was for the soul of America, he misspoke. This war, as it continues even at a length and in forms that we could not possibly have imagined in the early 1990s, is not for the soul of America. This war is the soul of America.

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.