Monday, July 21, 2008

Culture and choice

Will Wilkinson has an excellent post, “The World is Not a Zoo,” on multiculturalism and the desire to force people into certain cultures.

The "zoo" metaphor strikes me as a very good one. Actually, on one of Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcasts, Michael Munger used the term "human zoo" to describe what he saw as one of the driving forces of opposition among Western liberals to free trade with the Third World: we like having strange foreigners with exotic folkways to gawk at, and that might be ruined if the Exotic Foreigners gain access to the same wealth and consumer goods Westerners enjoy- they might start wearing Nikes or eating at McDonald’s, which would make them boring and of no use as a source of entertainment for us.

Now, I like the idea of a world of diverse cultures, and I certainly have no objection to people choosing to keep their traditional culture, or seeking to revive cultural elements that have been lost. Indeed, it’s important to keep in mind that many extinct or near-extinct customs, traditions, and languages got that way through government oppression and centralization, not as a natural outgrowth of people’s free choices; for instance, many dead or near-dead languages were the victims of centralizing nation-states trying to enforce a uniform “national” identity. I suspect that, in a fully free society, the elimination of centralizing states and particularly centralized compulsory education would result in both greater interconnection and greater diversity at the same time. But I abhor both attempts to use compulsion to force people to remain culturally static, and attempts to pressure or guilt people into it.

In the United States, the multiculturalist mentality sometimes seems to have an interesting result that seems counterintuitive, in light of the doctrine’s popularity on the Left. White heterosexual Americans, who aren’t perceived to have any meaningful cultural identity of their own (as Rad Geek has sardonically commented on), are relatively free to be what they want, whereas anyone identified as a minority is supposed to be “true” or “authentic” to whatever group the are born into. I am not a practicing Lutheran, I prefer Irish beer, and I own not a single pair of lederhosen. Nevertheless, multiculturalists aren’t going to mourn the fact that I have forsaken my heritage or chastise me for doing so. Freedom of choice and identity is for whites only- a curious result for a leftist philosophy.

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