History Wars and Hollinger’s Postethnic America

A week ago, noted American historian Eric Rauchway drew attention for his heated response to the California Association of Scholars’ recently published attack on the UC system. In its report, “A Crisis of Competence,” the CAS blasted the California schools for perceived liberal biases, supposed pedagogical failings, and unwillingness to explore broad American themes. Rauchway’s critique, posted at The Chronicle, rightly denounced the report as a methodological mess, relying as it did on scattered anecdotes and anonymous complaints (while the academy undeniably skews to the left, the report’s version of the “professoriate’s radical leftism,” rife with self-proclaiming Marxists, seemed rather comically drawn and outdated). But Rauchway went a step further in the course of his very necessary criticisms of a flawed, partisan, and altogether harmful report. Rauchway declared his next course would be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.” The thinness of the CAS’s arguments and the nakedness of its ideological leanings demanded nothing less, but the image of the sneering academic is not often a constructive one. I wondered if, somewhere beneath the naked partisanship of the CAS report, there was in fact some avenue available to engage similar critics in a more thoughtful and reflective debate. I dusted off a copy of Berkeley historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism to find out.

Hollinger, a leading American academic and dean of American intellectual history, wrote Postethnic America in the mid-1990s to chart a path for the evolution of American multiculturalism. Its argument furnishes the tools to understand much of the partisanship surrounding contemporary American history. The book is by now relic of an old debate but, given the contours of the recent Rauchway-CAS spat, one that continues to resonate.

In Hollinger’s telling, multiculturalism arose as a response to the universalist claims of World War II-era intellectuals, men (and it was almost always men) who too easily “confused the local with the universal.” Mid-century writers mistakenly conflated Americans—typically white, middle-class American males—with the more universal “man.” Their conceptual monopoly over the universal allowed them to ignore or suppress racial and ethnic groups, indulge an arrogant nationalism, and engage in all of the other ethnocentric cultural preconceptions we now so eagerly condemn. Multiculturalism offered the antidote to a restrictive culture, what Hollinger termed a widely resented evil: “the narrowness of the prevailing culture of the United States.” Diversity, once denied or denigrated, suddenly and rightly demanded respect and even celebration. “The inadequate attention to the cultural contributions of ethno-racial minorities was a failing much in need of correction,” Hollinger wrote, “and our scholars and educators have applied themselves to this task with great success in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.” In the field of American history, researchers began exploring long neglected subjects and stories (This turn still provides professional historians with self-satisfaction). The public culture seemed to follow. Once controversial and new, multiculturalism became widely accepted, and nowhere more fully than in the academy.

But, Hollinger asked in the mid-90s, what now? The proper response to a particular historical moment, multiculturalism lingered. Once an embattled, minority opinion, multiculturalism had become mainstream. It hardened and persisted until, Hollinger wrote, it had “outgrown itself.” No longer dynamic and adaptable, multiculturalism was now bloated and narrow and restrictive, as much an obstacle as the “Vital Center” monoculturalism of the 1950s had once been.

Hollinger expressed frustration with the narrow debates then surrounding multiculturalism. Hoping that intellectuals could consolidate the gains of the movement and advance the argument further, Hollinger instead found multiculturalists clinging to a defensive and reactionary posture that eviscerated opportunities to explore the broad and the common. Although entirely mainstream—again, at least within the academy—multiculturalism seemed equipped only to engage in a with-us-or-against-us cultural battle, rather than what Hollinger hoped would become a critical self-examination and evolution. As the CAS report and Rauchway’s response both illustrate, and as Hollinger lamented, debates “often construct the issues as a series of choices between similarity or difference, wholeness or fragmentation, assimilation or dissimilation, and uniformity or diversity.” Epithets, Hollinger complained, replace arguments. “The debate is too often scripted as a two-sided confrontation between traditionalists who want a uniform culture grounded in ‘Western Civilization’ as presented by colleges in the 1950s and progressives who appreciate difference and promote diversity.” It’s clearly a one-side argument: no one wants to return to the 1950s. Right?

Whatever the power and reality of contemporary conservative claims, among academics the stark zero-sum debates over multiculturalism seem to be essentially meaningless. We accept the basic assumptions of multiculturalism. As Hollinger wrote, “Part of the problem is that virtually no one defends monoculturalism, with the result that multiculturalism is deprived of an honest, natural opposite.” Stark yes-or-no rhetoric therefore precludes a nuanced engagement with multiculturalism, of recognizing, as Hollinger suggests we should, that different strands exist within the movement. Hollinger proposes two for further examination:  “A tension between cosmopolitanism and pluralism runs throughout these debates, is rarely acknowledged, and is increasingly acute as resistance to essential multiculturalism diminishes.”

Here, I think, Hollinger offers a way out from the increasingly fruitless debates that have mired professional historians into empty partisanship with conservative critics, debates that underlie much of the Rauchway-CAS row. As Hollinger noted, and regretted, the multicultural consensus that emerged by the mid-1990s largely threw away—or, at least, minimized—notions of “an American character or even culture,” branding any such enterprise as a nationalistic attempt to conceal or repress diversity. This, I think, gets to the heart of the issue. When confronted with the myopia of mid-twentieth-century intellectuals, why didn’t academics attempt to fix, rather than merely reject, their old universalist project? With a now well-worn multicultural self-awareness, why can’t academics attempt to build a better and more honest whole? This, of course, is not a particularly novel question. Thomas Bender memorably made similar calls in the Journal of American History in 1986. Nevertheless, decades later, these concerns continue to be made, and continue to need to be made. And yet, increasingly beset by conservative critics, it has become even more difficult to embark upon any such enterprise. “Common ground,” Hollinger wrote, “is feared as a trick to hoodwink some Americans into sacrificing their interests for someone else’s interests disguised as a common interest.” Confronted with the recent intrusions of the culture wars into American history, many academics are reflexively and understandably defensive: “Chasing down and exposing as reactionary those who try to address the question of the national culture has become a popular search-and-destroy sport,” Hollinger wrote.

Believing his manifesto would be more effective with a clear and digestible label, Hollinger pushed for a “postethnic” turn. Rather than rejecting the realities of ethnic identity, Hollinger proposed that academics could recast their attention toward common bonds. Hollinger emphasized further recognition of the mutability of identity, the overlapping of multiple identities, and the importance of voluntary affiliation. He therefore called for a more critical and cosmopolitan brand of multiculturalism—as framed against the pluralist’s celebratory brand—that, while still promoting a “recognition, acceptance, and eager exploration of diversity,” could desacralize division, engage in commonalities, and approach some form of a national universal. Such a move, Hollinger believed, could restore “American” history.

Hollinger makes clear that binding subjects together under a national narrative is not to indulge a blind ethnocentrism, nor does it in any way deny the realities of historical injustices or the persistent power of cultural bonds rooted in ethnic identity. “The national community’s fate can be common without its will being uniform,” Hollinger wrote, “and the nation can constitute a common project without effacing all of the various projects that its citizens pursue through their voluntary affiliations.” To affiliate is not to assimilate. With these disclaimers in place, Hollinger proceeded to sketch possible strategies by recognizing the dilemmas of a small but growing number of mixed-race individuals, accepting the layering of identities beyond the ethno-racial axis, and acknowledging the “diversity of diversity.” Accepting that academics can explore the question of a national culture without resorting to melting pot delusions or one-hundred-percent-Americanism, Hollinger offered the American “civic nation” as one path toward reestablishing a commonality beyond the ethnic. “A postethnic perspective on American nationality emphasizes the civic character of the American nation-state, in contrast to the ethnic character of most of the nationalism we read about today,” he wrote. “A civic nation can mediate between the species and the ethos in ways that an ethnic nation cannot.”

Hollinger’s payoff is therefore his call for renewed attention on a national “American” culture, a recognition and exploration of what he called a “postethnic nationality” located between the two now oft-told tales of transnationalism and “ethno-racial particularism.” Presupposing a diversity of perspectives and experiences, this project allows former strangers or antagonists to transcend division and deliberate together. Of course obstacles remain, obstacles obvious in the Rauchway-CAS episode. “We tend to avoid earnest discussions of American nationality out of fear that the topic itself can yield only chauvinism,” Hollinger asserted. “A theme in multiculturalist discourse has been the discrediting, as nationalist, of efforts to identify cultural adhesives that enable Americans to feel a sense of peoplehood while continuing to recognize their own diversity.” Such concerns are explicit in American historiography’s recent move toward the transnational and furnishes many of Rauchway’s suspicions of the CAS’s report. But when cleared of partisan maneuvering (in this case, on the part of the CAS), the model of a “civic nation” has much to recommend it and little to detract from it. As Hollinger wrote, “we can … be a people, so long as we remember that we are not a chosen people.”

Hollinger’s project promises much. As he put it, “a civic nation is built and sustained by people who honor a common future more than a common past.” The notion of a connected whole, of a common good, of a broad community: these recognitions manifested themselves in the Occupy movement last fall, when calls for solidarity and democracy transcended particular policy goals. And those calls are not novel. As Hollinger pointed out, they were made during the great political movements of the previous century as well—the Great Society, the Civil Rights crusade, the New Deal, and the Progressive movement all asserted a national “we.” He wrote that “The appeal to a common destiny—to a sense that we, as Americans, are all in it together—has been a vital element in the mobilization of state power on behalf of a number of worthy causes.” Hollinger urged multiculturalists to look to a postethnic civic nation as a vehicle for advancing expansive rights and basic welfare, as a plea to transcend particularities, as a way to “act on problems that are genuinely common” by appealing to the common good, and by seeing the United States as a shared venture in which all have a stake. Hollinger added that we can also better address institutionalized inequalities and power disequilibriums that transcend or cut across more narrow ethno-racial divides. In an national economy increasingly riven by inequality, this becomes an ever more pressing concern. As Hollinger wrote, “any society that cannot see its diverse members as somehow ‘in it together’ is going to have trouble distributing its resources with even a modicum of equity.” His model of a postethnic nation avoids distracting and superficial “culture wars” and embraces solutions to intractable structural inequalities that no political party has yet been willing to promote.

In a plea all the more relevant in light of the CAS report and recent conservative counterhistories, Hollinger proclaimed the danger of letting conservative critics appropriate the idea of the United States for themselves. “The ideological resources of the United States are simply too useful to democratic egalitarians to be conceded to the far Right while the rest of us devote our public energies to more narrowly particularist or more broadly universalist projects,” he argued. Reflecting on Postethnic America in 2000, Hollinger doubled down on the notion of a “civic nation.” “The potential value of the national ‘we’ for the citizens and noncitizen inhabitants of the United States is too great to be downplayed for fear that it will be taken over by proto-fascists,” he asserted. “Such forces will loom all the larger in national politics if more space is left open for the flag-flying far right because the rest of us hide the Stars and Stripes in embarrassment and devote all our political energy to affiliations of more certain virtue but less certain strength.” Such longings for a more ardent assertion of common interests has been made elsewhere. Other notable intellectuals, such as Jurgen Habermas and Richard Rorty, have embraced similar projects, if through different means and in different ways. Hollinger’s model of a civic nation, though, is particularly useful for historians. “The history that has led so many citizens of the United States to call themselves Americans is just as real as is the history that yields the identities brought here amid diasporas,” he wrote. In his 2000 reflections, he reasserted that “the shared memories and practices are more than the set of procedures and rules that make up the constitutional order of the United States. The nation is a finite historical entity with a record of specific tragedies, successes, failures, contradictions, and provincial conceits sometimes missed by theorists eager to treat it as a set of abstractions. Theorists skeptical of the notion of a national culture sometimes underestimate the extent to which the United States can become, for some of its citizens, a solidarity to which one is attached with the same sense of belonging conventionally associated with ethnic communities.” He’s right.

Hollinger—and this is where, in the context of contemporary historiography, he is most radical—was willing to offer a clear and encompassing interpretation of United States history. He wrote that “The United States now finds itself in a position to develop and act upon a cultural self-image as a national solidarity committed—but often failing—to incorporate individuals from a great variety of communities of descent, on equal but not homogenous terms, into a society with democratic aspirations inherited largely from England [emphasis in original].” He goes on: “There is much more to the United States than this. But if one were obliged to sum up in one sentence what a history of the United States is a history of, this sentence has much to recommend it beyond its simple truthfulness.” This is his notion of a postethnic America. Attempts to understand and articulate a vision of American history should never seem to be a radical project, but Hollinger’s bold and nuanced manifesto recommends it nonetheless. If followed, it could have possibly softened many of the popular conservative attacks now working to cripple public education across the country. By removing one weapon from the arsenal of our critics, drawing down part of the culture wars, and ultimately obviating the need to sneer at ill-informed partisans, the postethnic model could still be a very useful twenty-first-century tool. We have only to wield it.