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LETTER: Multiculturalism Encompasses Everyone

A letter to Congressman Steve King, from Iowa State University professor Warren Blumenfeld.

To Representative Steve King: Multiculturalism Encompasses Everyone

 
By Warren J. Blumenfeld

U.S. Representative Steven King from Iowa’s 5th Congressional District recently claimed that the promotion of the concept of multiculturalism will ultimately bring about the demise of the country as we know it. Speaking to supporters on August 21, 2012 at a Le Mars, Iowa, Townhall meeting, King conjured up a supposed deep and sinister plot to ensnare young and impressionable first-year college students into campus multicultural groups for the purpose of turning them into victims, which will convince them to work toward the eventual overthrow of the social power structure.

King talked about preparing for a debate some time ago at the Iowa State University campus on the concept of multiculturalism. He checked out the university’s website: “I typed in ‘multicultural,’” he stated, “and it came back to me at the time, 59 different multicultural groups listed to do to operate on campus at Iowa State….And most of them were victims’ groups, victimology, people who feel sorry for themselves.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_ukvj7QA-wU)

He warned that these groups are “out there recruiting our young people to be part of the group who are feeling sorry for themselves….But just think of 59 card tables set up across the parking lot on the way to the dorm….And the first group says, ‘Well, you’re a victim that fits us. We want to help you. Why don’t you join us?’....And then you’re brought into a group that has a grievance against society rather than understand there’s a tremendous blessing in this society.”

Though King attended Northwest Missouri State University from 1967 to 1970, taking courses toward a career as a wildlife officer, he never completed his degree. His political career officially began when he was elected to the Iowa Senate serving from 1996-2002. While there, he was instrumental in passing the law making English as the “official” language of Iowa. He then ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representative in 2002 serving on the Agricultural and Judiciary Committees, Constitution Subcommittee and Immigration Subcommittee. He also chairs the powerful House of Representatives Conservative Opportunity Society caucus. While in public office, he has consistently taken stands championed by the political Right opposing affirmative action for women and minoritized people, marriage equality for same-sex couples, abortion, and gun control, among others.

Since Iowa has recently lost one Congressional House member, King is now running in the newly redistricted 4th Congressional district, which I inhabit, against Christie Vilsack, career educator teaching 18 years middle school and high school language arts and journalism, and six years teaching English and journalism at Iowa Wesleyan College. She is also wife of former Iowa Governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Continuing his conspiratorial theory in Le Mars, King warned of the work and philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, whom he referred to as “the president of the Italian Community Party from 1919 to 1926…” and “the father of multiculturalism.” According to King, “[Gramsci] made the argument that Karl Marx was right in his broader theory but wrong in the details that the Proletariats (sic) would never rise up against the Bourgeois effectively because they needed the Bourgeois for their jobs….And so, he said they needed to find victims groups and then that way if they could have a common sense of being victimized, they would have a stronger resistance toward the establishment, and then you could bundle up these victims groups and they together could overthrow the establishment….”

In fact, Gramsci was a leader in the Italian Community Party, as well as political theorist, politician, and linguist whom the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini imprisoned for his outspoken advocacy for human and civil liberties. At his trial in 1926, the chief prosecutor argued: “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” While serving his sentence, he wrote more than 30 notebooks between 1927 and 1935 constituting over 3000 pages of history and analysis together known as the Prison Notebooks. In these writings, he stressed the imperative for workers’ education founded upon the strong bedrock of history and understanding of social relations, and the origin and function of ideas. Gramsci’s health deteriorated dramatically while incarcerated, and he died in 1937 at the age of 46.

Gramsci advanced the concept of “cultural hegemony,” which describes the ways in which the dominant group successfully disseminates its social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as “common sense,” as “normal,” and as “universal.” This hegemony maintains the marginality of other groups with different or opposing views. Hegemony is advanced through what Michel Foucault (1980) terms “discourses,” which include the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. These are implanted within networks of social and political control, described by Foucault as “regimes of truth,” which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as THE truth.

The dominant group, therefore, exerts power and control by attempting to define the “other” to deprive people their agency and subjectivity, and in echoes of the Fascist prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial, to “stop this brain from functioning.” In the final analysis, they attempt to control the others’ bodies and minds.

Recently, the so-called “Birther Movement,” of which Rep. King is a prominent member, has tirelessly worked to define President Barack Obama as “other” by attempting to prevent our President the right of self-definition – an apparent contradiction within a political party that emphasizes rugged individualism, freedom, and liberty over one’s life. In August 2012, King made the absurdist accusation during a tele-townhall meeting that though his staff had found Barack Obama’s birth announcement in two separate Hawaiian newspapers, “That doesn’t mean there aren’t some other explanations on how they might’ve announced that by telegram from Kenya.” http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/08/01/619371/steve-king-birther/. In addition, according to King while Obama was running for the presidential nomination in 2008: “When you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected President of the United States…[w]hat does it look like to the world of Islam? I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the radical Islamists, the al-Qaida, the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11 because they will declare victory in this War on Terror.” "Local News: King announced bid for fourth term (03/08/08)". Spencer Daily Reporter. March 8, 2008. http://www.spencerdailyreporter.com/story/1316727.html

A common theme at the resent Republican Party National Convention in Tampa included the battle cry that “We built it ourselves.” Though an intentional distortion of Obama’s words, taking out of context his statement at a political rally in Virginia that business creators may have built their businesses, but they did not educate their employees nor construct the publicly funded infrastructure that has enhanced their business success, Mr. King would deny individuals from resurrecting their past and educating themselves during their most important time in life in the construction of their personal and collective identities. How paradoxical?

In reality, according to Erik Erikson, preeminent developmental psychologist, individuals possess an innate drive for identity, an inborn lifetime quest to know who they are, which powers their personality development. (Erikson, 1950/1963, 1968). Anita Woolfolk (2003) defines identity as “…the organization of the individual’s drives, abilities, beliefs, and history into a consistent image of self. It involves deliberate choices and decisions, particularly about work, values, ideology, and commitments to people and ideas. (p. 68)

Foundational to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is his belief that throughout life, individuals progress through a series of eight discrete periods or stages, during which they confront tasks that they must successfully negotiate and resolve in order to advance to the next stage. Healthy development at any one stage rests on meeting the challenges posed by the tasks at previous stages.

During the high school and into the college years, young people experience their greatest and most concentrated timeframe of identity development in which they strive to answer the questions: Who am I now? Who was I before? Who will I become? High school, college, and university campuses provide students the space to explore issues of personal and social identity along with academic subject areas.

Rather than resisting the concept of multiculturalism and viewing it as a challenge to our country’s very existence, we need to embrace our rich diversity. According to the National Association for Multicultural Education: “Multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity as acknowledged in various documents, such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, constitutions of South Africa and the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. It affirms our need to prepare student for their responsibilities in an interdependent world.” (Feb. 1, 2003, http://www.nameorg.org/resolutions/definition.html)

Without a strong emphasis on multiculturalism in our school and larger society, we will continue down the shameful historical path laid by those who have gone before us in the United States, which Joel Spring refer to as “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” (p. 3) through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture” (p. 3).

By the late 1960s, communities of color, as well as some white ethnic groups—predominantly from working-class backgrounds—and women in a new wave of the feminist movement, reacted against this “ruthless Americanization” (Kallen, 1915) process and the “melting pot” (Zangwill, 1908) and demanded rather the creation of a “patchwork quilt” or “salad bowl” in which each group—while joining with other groups—would, nonetheless, retain its unique cultural traditions and identities.

Later joined by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, advocates for youth and the elderly, people with disabilities, working class people, people of numerous faith backgrounds and free thinkers, a push was underway to “decenter” the standard school curriculum and teach from multiple (multicultural) perspectives. The multicultural movement was founded on the principle that multiple voices and multiple perspectives must be represented in order to ensure a well-rounded education for all students, and to aid in the identity development process so essential to young people.

Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal (1960) traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating people of color.

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Today, the United States stands as the most culturally, ethnically, racially, linguistically, and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. I would advise Mr. King that the way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

References

Erikson, E. (1950/1963). Childhood and society. New York: Norton 
Erikson, E. (1968). Identity, youth, and crisis. New York: Norton. 
Foucault, M. (1980). The history of sexuality, Part 1. New York: Vintage Books. 
Gransci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. New York: International. 
Kallen, H. (1915). Democracy versus the melting pot, The Nation, 100(2590) 190-94, 217-30. 
Myrdal, G. (1962). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and modern democracy. New 
York: Harper & Row. 
Spring, J. (2004). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education 
of dominated cultures in the United States (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 
Woolfolk, A. (2004). Educational psychology (9th ed.). Boston: Pearson. 
Zangwill, I. (1908). The melting pot. A play.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is associate professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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