Diversity Is Not a Virtue
By Mark Helprin
 
11/25/1994
The Wall Street Journal
Page A8
(Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)

 Of all the divisions in the politics of the Western world the clearest and most consequential are those between corporate or communal rights and the rights of the individual. Though other questions may be all consuming, they are often restatements of this fundamental issue.

Socialists steadfastly champion central planning despite its monotonous failures because they cannot abide individual liberty even if it accomplishes their goals of material advancement. And proponents of the free market who rest their case upon its performance forget that ultimately they are its advocates not because of its operational superiorities but because it is a necessary precondition of free society.

A dispassionate look at the 20th century reveals amid the smoke of distant battles that the great alliances were ultimately what our propagandists held them to be. For all its pathos, the First World War was a struggle between liberal democracy and a state system in which legitimacy flowed merely from the success of executive action. In the Second World War the conflict between raw state power and the idea of individual rights was amplified by fascist enthusiasm for corporate rights, in which group identity was the basis not just of monstrous systems of government but of death warrants for whole peoples. The West then engaged the Soviet Bloc in a half-century proxy war, with millions of casualties, over the same division.

Though the Soviet apparatus disintegrated, the communalist ideal escaped. It is still with us, harbored by the old guard in the East and the intellectual elites of the West, who, now that their enthusiasms seem no longer a matter of national betrayal, are more fervent than ever.

At the founding of the nation, in the Civil War, and in the authentic struggle for civil rights, the corporatist idea was found wanting and the rights of the individual affirmed. Once again we are faced with the same choice, but today the churches, the president, the universities and the press endorse rather than condemn the idea that we are most importantly representatives of a class, a tribe, or a race and that we treat others and expect to be treated as such.

They do so to make amends and to "celebrate diversity," without concern that the recipients of their largesse may not themselves have been wronged. As they see it, they need only find people of the same type, and the deed is done. And what amends! To atone for having wrongly judged people by race, they will now rightly judge people by race. To atone for segregated accommodations, they offer separate dormitories. To atone for having said "colored people," they say "people of color." What they do now is as wrong as it once was -- not merely because of the effect, but because of the dangerous principle that individuals do not transcend the accidents of birth.

Almost every scholastic body in the country now considers itself a kind of Congress of Vienna with the special mission of making its students aware of race and ethnicity. Though they are forced to dwell on half a dozen categories, told that this is diversity, the reduction of 250 million individuals to a handful of racial and ethnic classifications is not a recognition of differences but their brutal suppression. This is a triumph of the academic impulse to classify, a triumph of the bureaucratic need to categorize, a triumph of reductionism, and a triumph of utilitarianism. But it is a defeat for the human spirit.

A long way from equal justice under law are the debit or credit now furiously assigned to membership in various communities; the federal laws that in requiring complex racial assessments embarrassingly parallel Hitler's Aryan Decree; the virtual numerus clausus in the American university, this time directed against Asians; the regrowth of racial segregation; and the computerized homelands of Congressional redistricting.

Many well-meaning liberals now deal carelessly with the stock and trade of Nazism and apartheid, and what they advocate is racism plain and stupid, no different from the laziness of mind and deficiency of spirit of the old-time segregationist -- "There goes a white one, there goes a black one, that one's an octoroon."

They are comfortable with what they once abhorred, because it is part of the good work of promoting communal rights, and in the past few years they have expanded their purview with the voraciousness they attribute to corporate raiders. Accelerating far beyond the relatively simple matter of race, they have included absolutely everyone in their systems of grievance, publicity, manipulation, and reward.

The sucking sound (the phrase is Melville's) is that of the entire population disappearing into a communal maelstrom. No longer is the family supposed to be the fundamental unit of society. The wife and female children owe their allegiance to womanhood. The children's loyalties lie not with their oppressive parents, but with the class interests of children. If one of them is adopted he must cleave to his ethnic or racial group, unless she is a girl, whereupon she may be a woman first. Even the dog has a union card, and if he feels abused will summon the people of animal rights.

This damage having been done, the next step is the promotion of diversity as a political value, and the institutional proclamation of ethnic differences ("We're so proud to have Melanie in our class, because she's an Eskimo"). Even were this somehow to further diversity, neither diversity nor unity are virtues, and should be left to find their own balance without stilted prodding. Freezing acculturation to keep each contributing element pristine would have been impossible even in the age of steam, much less now, when things change faster than we can register. Why then the useless, shallow and patronizing acclaim for the great tributaries of this new stream that goes its own way and will not be made to back up? Why the interminable school programs in which parents are forced to listen as their hostage children sing Indonesian Christmas carols? Am I really a European-American? The hell I am.

All the hyphenation and saccharine praise of differences (in which any politically useful subdivision becomes a "culture") is to organize and divide the otherwise unmanageable, unplannable chaos of a society of individuals, and thus augment the power of the state. When you want to control a complex social situation the first thing you do is make categories and award privileges. But, as in any statist system, for every entitlement there is an equal and opposite obligation. When, in the flush of class action, entitlements are compassionately granted to groups, obligations are cruelly drawn from individuals. Over all, the state is the decisive arbiter, its power increasing as it manufactures new rights and new relations, shifting them in an ever changing shell game in which the players have the illusion that they are winning but it is the dealer who goes home with the money.

Those who see individualism as selfishness and narcissism for which the only remedy is state planning and intervention are in full agreement with Mussolini, a bit of a narcissist himself, who said (as if anticipating Ira Magaziner) "The more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become." Bringing rights and powers over the bridge of tribe and class into the hands of government does not diminish world narcissism, it merely concentrates it in the people who think the rest of us should improve our characters by letting them tell us what to do.

They always mean well. Communalists, multiculturalists, the politically correct always want to do good, but they always, always require power to do so, and as their appetite for doing good is limitless, so is their capacity for acquiring power. Intent, as history shows, is a poor bulwark against despotism, and as a nation we have never failed to understand this, rightly refusing to accept either a benign despotism or one that is pernicious, for at heart they are the same.

If I have not done so already, let me make myself absolutely clear. The contemporary passion to classify and divide the American people is a portent of fascism both red and black. Where the communal approach rules (Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Soviet Central Asia, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia) blood flows and no one is treated fairly. We, on the other hand, have fought many times for the sake of being apprehended not as classes of people but as individual souls.

Six generations ago, my forebears left Russia after the Kishinev Pogrom, left behind the weight of a thousand years, for a future that they thought sparkled and shone like a diamond, because it was fair, because the great, euphoric gift of America -- its essential condition, its clarity, its purity, and its decency -- was that it took them for what they were, just as God would, looking past the accidents of birth and the complications of history. I cannot imagine that we would willingly leave this behind, and I, for one, will not.

Copyright @ 1994 The Wall Street Journal