[8 September 2008]
This book could have had many perfectly applicable titles— The Ethnocentric Ramblings of Mr. Baber, Anthropology Goes Pop, and The Tortilla Police all come to mind. However, none of these titles could fully capture the wonderfully upsetting phenomenon of taking a perfectly good thesis and doing such a poor job of arguing for it that any potential proponents of the idea will never want to think in a similar way ever again.
Such is the misery of The Multicultural Mystique. After reading the sleeve’s synopsis anyone who has ever been skeptical of multiculturalism—and many people should be—will rejoice that someone has finally put their inchoate fears into text. After reading the book itself, these same people will forsake any objections they had to multiculturalism lest others believe they were in some way in league with Baber.
The argument that this book rests on is a simple, yet far too often overlooked one: multiculturalism may not be as positive as its hand-in-hand, technicolor, sing-song appearance of worldwide unity would suggest. Multiculturalism may actually be a pernicious philosophy that forces people of ethnic descent to be representatives of a culture they may not identify with. Furthermore, multiculturalism promotes the division of society into “ethnic enclaves” in its insistence that each culture be respected and preserved rather than allowed to assimilate. Against this end, Baber suggests the cultural melting pot may be healthier than the salad bowl.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this thesis. In fact, it is one to which I especially cotton, not being able to fully trust multiculturalism’s putative “solution” to the case of cultural diversity. The book does not assume its perverse horror-aspect until Baber actually starts to justify this viewpoint. Rather than characterize the text I will instead fit the readers with a quotation from the book, “Literate, cosmopolitan, technically advanced cultures are better than illiterate tribal cultures where people eke out a bare living through hunting and gathering or primitive agriculture” (italics mine).
I kid you not, Baber actually writes this sentence without so much as token qualification. Such a sentence would not get through a freshman cultural anthropology class without reprimand and it is appalling that it could survive to publication. As Baber goes on to announce that warring cultures that keep women as chattel are “defective” and are “like diseases or injuries”, the reader will likely embed this volume in the nearest trash can.
Baber neatly tries to sneak these sentiments by his audience by claiming that “anyone that has a serious interest in human rights” will accept his blanket generalizations without so much as batting an eyelash at the idea that perhaps his system of valuation is encultured in him. It’s not that I ever think gender slavery or any similar practice is acceptable, I just have to admit that my ethical verdict largely stems from the culture in which I was raised and, thus, I question its objective soundness.
Ever a master of the broad stroke, Baber traipses through chapter after chapter with all the refinement of a chainsaw trying to cut lace. Continually confusing culture and ethnicity, he lambasts those who confuse culture and ethnicity. Citing online articles far more than print pieces, Baber constructs a nightmarish picture of future scholarship. In place of anthropological rigor, Baber uses his experiences growing up in New Jersey (which he describes sickeningly as “tribal”) to support his claims. It’s not as if any of these chapters are necessary to Baber’s argument. Much of the content is a circumlocutious reiteration of his opening thesis couched in different flavors of ethnocentric tripe.
It’s not just Baber that deserves censure but the critical hammer must fall on his editor and publisher, as well. Several times at the beginning of chapters I was struck by how Baber had suddenly revealed a theretofore unseen mastery of prose and tempered philosophy only to soon discover that the passage was actually a quote which took up the entire first page (making the reader incapable of telling it was set off from Baber’s text by margins) and was only marked by a small endnote. Such practice, intentional or not, is absolutely misleading and runs the risk of tricking readers into thinking that any original aspect of this book could be rational, much less artful.
I humbly beseech anthropologically-attuned readers to answer the call of Baber’s thesis and revive the argument. Multiculturalism is by no means a bad philosophy, it just needs and deserves the polish brought by a strident confrontation with critics. However, as Multicultural Mystique illustrates, often the critics are far rougher around the edges than the philosophy that they are engaging. A worthy opponent, please.