Ideas without Consequences

by Steve Sailer
National Review
6/11/2001

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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America, by Angela D. Dillard (New York University, 245 pp., $26.95) 

ANGELA DILLARD, a young black political historian of leftist views, has written a well-intentioned book about "multicultural conservative" intellectuals, whom she defines as blacks (such as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Clarence Thomas), Hispanics (e.g., Linda Chavez), gays (e.g., Andrew Sullivan), and women (e.g., Midge Decter and Gertrude Himmelfarb). Theoretically, lesbian conservatives would also qualify, but Dillard can find only two. Although she quotes a number of Asian conservatives, such as education reformer Arthur Hu, she can't make up her mind whether Asians are multicultural enough to count.

Obviously, there's not much conceptual coherence to her grouping. The euphemism "multicultural" is popular because it obfuscates the fact that most identity-politics categories are fundamentally biological. Blacks, for example, are a racial group defined by their possessing some degree of African ancestry. They are not a culture, per se. The notion that blacks are permanently stuck with a culture clearly separate from white America's (either because of white racism or genetic difference) is precisely what many black conservatives oppose. They envision an America that is multiracial but essentially monocultural.

Similarly, women belong to a sex, not a culture. If female conservatives were actually defined by a shared culture, then Decter and Himmelfarb could have passed it on to their sons John Podhoretz and William Kristol; but what they passed on was conservatism, not "female conservatism." And whatever it is that causes male homosexuality also seems to incline gay men away from anti-elitist multiculturalism and toward conserving the high culture of Dead White European Males. Just imagine how moribund ballet, sculpture, painting, opera, and the Broadway musical would be today without gay men. Nevertheless, the steady growth in the number of conservative pundits who are not straight white guys is an important topic.

The fact that Dillard treats her conservative subjects with a certain amount of respect makes her nearly unique among leftists. Dillard deserves praise for overcoming her original prejudice that black conservatives must be "traitors, sellouts, and self-loathing lackeys." Within the claustrophobic limits imposed by her liberal perspective, she is surprisingly fair. For instance, she points out that although the first major black woman novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, is jealously worshiped by leftist feminists, she was in fact a staunch conservative. She also admits that the conservative establishment's warm reception of black intellectuals reflects a change in attitudes on race that her fellow leftists would prefer to ignore.

Sadly, however, Dillard is ill-equipped to offer much meaningful or substantive analysis of the arguments of minority conservatives. She is interested only in analyzing these thinkers' rhetorical positioning, especially the relationship between their autobiographies and the stands they took. Dillard lives in the postmodern dreamland that hovers disconnected from reality like Gulliver's Laputa, the floating island of intellectuals. Her disdain for facts is palpable. For example, she repeatedly labels as "stereotypes" all references to blacks' suffering from high rates of illegitimacy and murder. It never seems to occur to her that they describe actual live babies and dead bodies. She also accuses "multicultural conservatives" of trying "to assimilate on the backs of the black poor." In reality, black conservatives since Booker T Washington have traditionally focused more on uplifting the black poor, while black liberals have worked harder to help the black elite that W. E. B. DuBois dubbed the "Talented Tenth." The NAACP, for instance, cares more about restoring quotas at UC-Berkeley than doing anything that would actually help inner-city schools.

The value of nonwhite pundits to the conservative movement is reflected in an old joke that the humorless Dillard fails to include:

"Q. What do you call a black man at a Heritage Foundation conference?"

"A. Keynote speaker."

Okay, it's not too hilarious, but it does point out three facts about nonwhite conservative intellectuals. First, the best are highly impressive figures. Second, the very existence of nonwhite conservative spokesmen is hugely reassuring to white conservatives terrified of being called "racist." Third, as George W Bush's dismal performance among minority voters last November demonstrated, the problem is not that there are too few minority conservative thinkers but that there are too few such voters. Conservatives should therefore take heed of Dillard's forecast that all this minority intellectual support won't translate into many minority votes.

Dillard's political predictions are much more interesting than her policy analysis. Writing before the 2000 election, she argued that conservatism has "little likelihood of a deep and lasting success" among nonwhite voters. The election results did nothing to disprove that thesis. Despite his outreach efforts, George W. Bush still ended up earning just 35 percent of the Hispanic vote and 9 percent of the black vote. (In Bush's home state of Texas, he carried more than 70 percent of the white vote, but a mere 5 percent of black voters.) He did a bit better among Asians, but even there he was trounced 54-41. Blacks and Asians actually gave a larger share of their votes to the hapless Bob Dole in 1996. Even for those who hold a more optimistic view of conservatism's prospects among "multicultural" voters, numbers like that should give pause.

Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and an Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute. 

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