Ideas without Consequences
by Steve Sailer
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
The value of nonwhite pundits to the conservative
movement is reflected in an old joke that the humorless Dillard fails to
"Q. What do you call a black man at a Heritage
"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.
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