On Ross Douthat, Cosmopolitanism, and Cultural Relativism

I’ve been thinking to myself for some time about how certain parts of the discourse of the right have seemingly flipped over the years. Today, for instance, we have the spectacle of conservative writers responding to student movements by adopting an absolutist position on free speech that would have been anathema to conservatives warring against communism, obscenity, and the perversion of American society not too long ago. As I wrote in Harper’s earlier this year, God & Man at Yale, the text that many argue launched the American conservative movement in earnest, was a full-throated jeremiad against free expression and the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. Now, writers at William F. Buckley’s magazine mock students who agree with Buckley’s stance in Yale as idiots. So it goes.

It seems as though Brexit, Trump, and furor on both sides of the pond over immigration have revealed an even more dramatic and complicated shift. The right has finally succumbed to cultural relativism.

It’s not liberal relativism, but it’s a kind of relativism nonetheless and the inevitable outcome of years of conservative pop sociology that sought to explain – defensively, ham-fistedly, and incorrectly – American political divides as largely immutable and easily defined by certain cultural markers.

One of the most salient critiques the left has been leveling of late against liberal pundits is that the explanatory mode is essentially amoral. To concern oneself merely with the explanation of what is and what seems within the immediate realm of possibility rather than with what is ultimately right or wrong is to bias oneself towards the status quo and ignore the reasons why we engage in political thought in the first place. We should be striving towards a general Good. The things around us – cultures, systems, practices – don’t take on a moral weight simply because they exist. They need to be justified or thrown away.

This, broadly speaking, rings true as far as material politics are concerned. Social politics are more complicated This is not dissimilar to the central claims conservatives have made against cultural relativism and multiculturalism: They erase right and wrong. Not all ways of living are equal. An explanation for a culture is morally insufficient as justification for its practices. Et cetera. This is the kind of thinking that animates paranoid right-wing fantasies about minority cultures and helped lead Brexit to victory.

But lately, it’s become clear that the right’s opposition to relativism only goes so far. Ross Douthat is the latest conservative writer to explain Brexit in the terms of “tribalism.” There’s nothing new about this lens – it’s another iteration of the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus-type routine David Brooks hawked to explain American politics in the last decade. It’s the background of every piece written about how liberals just don’t understand gun culture. Here, Douthat sketches a picture of the cosmopolitan tribe:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West…are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise.

This is an old critique of multiculturalism based on an old and flat stereotype of liberals that few would deny holds at least partially true. There are, as Douthat writes later, “open borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project” and “American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools”. Liberal hypocrisy on race is a fact and a shame. This gets pointed out in cosmopolitan outlets far more often than Douthat implies, and cosmopolitan city-dwellers are held to account for their own racism most stridently and compellingly by minority voices that are not at all conservative. But that’s not the point here.

The point is that when cultural conservatives such as, say, Allan Bloom used to advance this critique – the idea that liberals are only shallowly interested in other cultures and end up subsuming difference into a bland monoculture – it was an appendix to a larger and more important argument: that we should be invested in the idea that certain ways of living and thinking are Good, or at least better than others. Multiculturalism, cultural conservatives have argued, denies this. Liberals like myself believe critics like Bloom were wrong to suggest that multiculturalism is incompatible with ethical striving. We also believe that kind of thinking is an open door to, if not an outright self-justification for, the kind of bigotry we’re seeing here and abroad. But they weren’t wrong about the existence of right and wrong or about the existence of the Good being an inevitable source of tension between cultures.

I’m certain Douthat believes this. But his column argues simply that, “Human beings seek community, and permanent openness is hard to sustain.” Given this, the tribalism of cosmopolitan “elites” and anti-immigrant Brexiters alike is presented as an inevitability. It is natural. People are simply different. Absent here is any kind of moral evaluation of either side, beyond the potshots takes at liberals not for letting multiculturalism distract from a notion of the Good or core principles, but for not being multicultural enough. Cosmopolitans, he argues, are just as much of a closed community of similar people as Brexiters are.

In his rendering these are two closed cultures in conflict, and it seems almost irrelevant whether one side has the better end of the argument, politically, economically, or ethically. He is explaining, not judging because, he seems to imply, it’s not our place to judge. Douthat’s critique of multicultural cosmopolitans is itself couched in a kind of empty multiculturalism. It is a limp cultural relativism advanced in a whataboutist defense of a “tribe” and a culture that constitutes a significant threat to minorities.

The fact that liberals can be hypocrites on diversity and the fact that liberals can be blind to the reasons why others resent them has no bearing whatsoever on the rightness or wrongness of the way Brexiters speak about, treat, and would like to deal with immigrants. If pressed, Douthat would say this himself. But in this piece we see the kind of smoke-screening that seems reflexive on the right in debates about culturally potent issues. Again, the dynamics of the gun debate are similar. Actual arguments against gun control are flanked by pieces like these in which the divide on guns is explained as a cultural divide liberals are too ignorant to understand. A deep cultural divide certainly exists. It is not obvious what bearing that ultimately has on how we should think about gun control as a matter of ethics and a matter of policy.

Likewise, conservatives obviously do advance actual arguments (that I disagree with) about the challenges posed by high levels of immigration. Douthat has made them elsewhere. But it seems that conservatives find actual debate about the efficacy and ethics of immigration policy insufficient. As with the gun debate and other debates, it must evidently be coupled with rearguard defenses of entrenched cultures that just happen to be on the right. This reflex would be less suspect if conservatives defended, say, Islam or African-American culture just as regularly. Of course, they don’t. For minority cultures, the prescription is routinely assimilation and the erasure of differences and cultural practices for the greater good. Tolerance – the taking of cultures as they are without demanding or expecting change – is for gun owners, Brexiters, and Trump supporters. Their cultures are to be explained and not challenged.  It’s an inconsistent and self-serving kind of relativism. But it is relativism.

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