Monday, May 24, 2010

Right-wing cultural relativism

When I was a college student, so was Dinesh D'Souza. He majored in English at Dartmouth. I majored in English at UC Berkeley. He graduated the year after I did. I didn't make a noticeable splash at Berkeley, but D'Souza made a name for himself at Dartmouth by
writing for the campus newspaper, working in the international students' association, joining an energy conservation committee, and eventually, helping to start the Dartmouth Review, a politically conservative magazine that became nationally notorious for attacking the college’s administration and taking controversial stands on minority issues

(quoting a piece by Rosie Grier that's posted on the subject's own website).

Though it predates him by many years, I will forever associate D'Souza with the silly, silly construct "politically correct," one of those phrases that regularly zips from human ear to human mouth without passing through a single human neuron. One indication that this is the case is that the literal meaning of the phrase is, from the perspective of a speaker or writer who applies the term, 'a statement about social organization that I endorse so fervently that I assert it is empirically true'; yet conservatives never seem to agree with things that they label "politically correct." Perhaps this is a form of irony?

Anyway, D'Souza was a major player in the so-called "culture wars" of the eighties and nineties, in which conservatives churned out reams of invective against multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Here's D'Souza himself on the topic, from an abridged version of a speech given in 2001, in Boise, Idaho:
Multiculturalists insist that [...] our children [...] must stop thinking of Western and American civilization as superior to other civilizations. The doctrine underlying this position is cultural relativism -- the denial that any culture can be said to be better or worse than any other. Cultural relativists take the principle of equality, which in the American political tradition is applied to individuals in terms of rights, and apply it instead to cultures in terms of their value.

Curious. It strikes me that it's conservative wingnuts these days who are trying to reshape principles of equality into constructs that, well, they just don't fit.

For example, creationist wingnuts assert that myths about the creation of the world, especially those in the first book of the Old Testament, are equal in credibility with scientific theories of evolution. (If this 'debate' seems murky to you, read Scientific American's "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" of July 2002.)

Then there's climate change denier wingnuts, who try to elevate crackpot dissent from overwhelming scientific evidence & consensus to an 'equally valid' interpretation of the (d)evolving physical characteristics of our planet. (Does this one seem murky too? Scientific American has "Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense" for those who can use them.)

Then there's the Texas school board.
Texas schools board rewrites US history with Lessons promoting God and guns

That's the headline of an article of May 16 in the UK's Guardian. In this you-wish-it-were-a-fairy-tale,
a clutch of Christian evangelists and social conservatives [...] have grasped control of the state's education board.

It is noteworthy that curricular requirements in Texas significantly shape publication of school textbooks nationwide due to publishers' economic incentives to deliver acceptable product to the largest markets. As the Guardian puts it,
Texas buys millions of text books every year, giving it considerable sway over what publishers print. By some estimates, all but a handful of American states rely on text books written to meet the Texas curriculum.

It's just as Orwell might have put it if he'd lived to see the 21st century: Capital is Truth.

Texas passed its new Ten Year Plan for social studies and history curriculum on Friday. Here are some of the more startling elements of rewritten Texas curriculum, paraphrasing the Guardian:

  • Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, is sidelined
  • references to the term "slave trade" are dropped in favour of the more innocuous "Atlantic triangular trade"
  • "the right to keep and bear arms" is trumpeted as an important element of democratic society
  • Sir Isaac Newton's contribution to scientific advance is dropped in favour of examining science through the lens of military technology
  • economics can now be said to show that prosperity requires "minimal government intrusion and taxation"
  • the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s is now regarded as justified
  • the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is driven by Islamic fundamentalism

These changes do not advance accuracy, truth, or understanding. They are ideological positions, plain and simple. If you're not sure that's so, take a look at how state education board member Cynthia Dunbar justifies recasting education in Texas:
There seems to have been a move away from a patriotic ideology. There seems to be a denial that this was a nation founded under God. We had to go back and make some corrections."

Cynthia Dunbar is an adult, and is free to embrace a "patriotic ideology" if she likes. But when she rams it down the tender throats of millions of schoolchildren, she's practicing cultural relativism on steroids, insisting that her alternate ideas are valid even when they conflict directly with those that form well-understood, considered & reconsidered, evidence-based, and widely-held bodies of knowledge. In fact, she's practicing cultural relativism at a pitch that would have Dinesh D'Souza spinning in his grave ... except for the fact that, unlike the infamous parrot in the well-known Monty Python sketch, he's not dead yet.

The New York Times quoted Benjamin T. Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P., putting the matter succinctly
The biggest danger is we’ll end up with children who don’t understand history. The school board members are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.


  1. I think that many people struggle with the ability to contain multiple ideas in their heads that are at first glance contradictory, but really just slightly more complex. I love being in the United States, I think our system of government is better than many. In casual discussion I might say that, but I know I'm expressing something relative and subjective, not something innate (after all, what does "better" mean?). There's a great article on Slate I can't find right now, about how people reject scientific thought and the different ways they do that. Challenging your beliefs is difficult, it's easier (and more affirming) to find sources that support you and the idea that your truth IS truth. It's only a threat when those people try to impose it on everyone else... which of course is all the time. The problem with relativism, though, is human nature. Put 99 gentle, peaceful relativists on an island with 1 ignorant bully, and in a year you'll have 80 relativists living in fear not understanding how this happened, 19 vicious toadies and one king of the island.

  2. And that, sadly, is the world we live in - that's human nature (and my own truth).