The Soul of Multiculturalism ExpandsCory Panshin on August 14, 2010
Every vision encounters a pivotal moment early in its development when it helps midwife the birth of the vision immediately following it and in the process becomes able to shake off the influence of earlier visions and discover its own true shape and purpose.
For holism, that moment came between about 1936 and 1939. Multiculturalism was born in those years as an extension of the holistic understanding of the natural world to human society, and in return it provided holism with the means to move beyond its original philosophical and scientific roots and become a complete vision of existence.
The proto-holism of the 1920’s and early 30’s was deeply concerned with abstract questions of matter, life, and mind, but it didn’t have much relevance to everyday life. It took the social ideals of multiculturalism to reinvent a holism that did not merely dream of getting back to nature but was ready to provide blueprints for how human beings might live in a more organic relationship to one another and to their environment.
That unsuccessful Frank Lloyd Wright project of 1939, in which seven unique houses were related organically to each other and to a central farming area, was one such blueprint. But there have been others since — all of them showing a strong family resemblance — as holism and multiculturalism have continued to develop and mature together.
In the late 40’s, the relationship between holism and multiculturalism was expanded to embrace the dawning technological revolution and a strong dose of do-it-yourself-ism. When my in-laws finally built their dream house in 1947, for example, it was designed not by Wright but by a different architect, Fred Keck, who is best known as a pioneer of passive solar heating. And according to Alexei, who was seven at the time, his uncle served as the contractor and he and his parents helped out at times with the construction.
My mother-in-law wrote to Keck that Christmas, “It is not just a house, it is a new way of living. Our souls are still expanding to encompass it all.” A bit over the top perhaps — especially for someone who under most circumstances was emotionally reticent. But that’s the intoxicating effect that living out a brand-new set of visions can have.
The dream that holism and multiculturalism might some day change the world was marginalized for a time in the 1950’s, when the science-and-democracy partnership reasserted its claim to cultural dominance, but it came back strongly with the rise of the 60’s counterculture.
The three-way relationship among holism, multiculturalism, and technological empowerment was reaching its peak when Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968. Brand not only set an example of do-it-yourself-ism by publishing the first edition of the catalog himself, but he explicitly subtitled it “Access to Tools.”
As well as being a passionate holist, Brand was dedicated to multiculturalism and deliberately avoided the democracy-based tactics of organized pressure groups. He would later explain that “at a time when the New Left was calling for grassroots political (i.e., referred) power, Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grass-roots direct power — tools and skills.”
The Whole Earth Catalog was extraordinarily innovative and influential from 1969 to 1971, but as the counterculture faded, it became impossible to keep all the aspects of its original mission in alignment. Brand ceased putting out new editions, and according to Wikipedia, the updates and supplements that did continue to appear through the 70’s were marked by a turning away from both Bucky Fuller’s technological optimism and hippie-style individualism in favor of a more intense focus on ecology and community.
In recent years, the distrust of technology that was common among followers of deep ecology in the 70’s and 80’s has greatly diminished. Even Brand himself now embraces what he calls an “ecopragmatist” position, arguing that environmentalists have to accept technology — including nuclear power — as a way to ward off global catastrophe. But skepticism about the extreme individualism associated with the chaos vision has had a far more enduring effect on both holism and multiculturalism.
Chaos had been an important part of the mix which gave rise to multiculturalism in the 1930’s. It was chaos that prompted the search for a social model that would put more stress on individual uniqueness and less on democratic leveling. A chaos-based emphasis on personhood also played an important role in the successive eruptions of multiculturalism in the late 1960’s which included the black power movement, women’s liberation, and the gay rights movement.
But that kind of identity politics tended to be self-indulgent at best and divisive at worst. It’s no coincidence that the disparaging term “politically correct” began to be used by the left in the 1970’s to describe its own excesses.
If that wasn’t enough of a problem, by the early 70’s the chaos vision was headed in two opposite but equally dead-end directions — and doing its best to drag multiculturalism along with it.
On one hand, chaos was falling into excesses of sex, drugs, and other forms of deliberate decadence. The Rocky Horror Picture Show — which began as a stage play in 1973 and was then released as a film in 1975 — may have offered a rousing defense of diversity, but it never furnished any motivation for its characters’ wacky antics beyond personal self-indulgence.
Meanwhile, at the other extreme, chaos was actively being tidied up and co-opted by commercial interests, which saw “do your own thing” as a perfectly dandy way to sell product.
There was, for example, the infamous 1971 Coca Cola commercial in which a multi-ethnic group of clean-cut young people joined together on a hillside to warble the praises of carbonated beverages and the power of money to purchase authenticity:
I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company
It’s the real thing, what the world wants today, Coca Cola
On the whole, Dr. Frank-N-Furter clearly offered a more positive role model than the Coke clones. But neither provided a viable line of further development for multiculturalism, any more than the rowdies and roughnecks of the wave of blaxploitation films which began in 1971, or the Mafiosi of The Godfather (1972).
That period of cultural floundering proved to be mercifully brief, however, and after 1975, the chaos vision began to shed its rough edges and take on greater social responsibility. Even multiculturalism would be drawn for a time into the orbit of the emerging democracy-and-chaos partnership.
An early example of the shift can be seen in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), in which Clint Eastwood plays a farmer transformed by the murder of his family into a chaos-based outlaw figure, not unlike Eastwood’s Man With No Name character in 1960’s spaghetti westerns. But while on the run, Wales takes up with an unlikely and multi-ethnic group of associates, ranging from an old woman to an elderly Indian, and their eccentric companionship ultimately brings him healing and forgiveness.
This was a significant transition. Not only did it become possible for multiculturalism to reconnect with the idealism and moral purity that it had seemed at risk of losing, but stories like Josey Wales or Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) went a long way towards placing America’s own multi-ethnic origins at the heart of its history as a nation.
But even as something was gained, something else was being lost — because when chaos took on respectability, it surrendered its transcendent strangeness. Films like Rocky Horror or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (both released in 1975) mark the last point at which the old weirdness was still possible. Josey Wales, for all its quirky charm, lacked the surrealism of a true spaghetti western, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire that same year reduced even vampires from representatives of transcendent chaos to just one more misunderstood ethnic minority.
As long as multiculturalism remained tied to this domesticated version of chaos, it would be limited in the extent to which it could express its intimations of radical social change. What was needed was a new inner experience vision that would lead multiculturalism to a recognition of its own transcendent potential.
The first hints of that new vision, creative imagination, had already begun germinating in the 1960’s in response to both the weaknesses of chaos and the growing influence of holism. Just as chaos in the 1920’s and early 30’s had created the need for a social vision that would allow more scope for individuality, so holism created the need for an inner experience vision that would be based upon pattern and relationship rather than absurdity and fragmentation.
But holism alone couldn’t do the job. It took multiculturalism to provide the final, crucial insight.
In the reason vision, reality had been perceived as highly structured and humanly knowable. In the chaos vision, reality had been unorganized and ultimately unknowable. But for creative imagination, reality is multiplex and multi-dimensional. It is knowable to a degree, but only in scattered and often contradictory fragments.
If all knowledge is fragmentary, however, then every fragment is a valuable part of the puzzle and offers a unique and irreplaceable perspective. That was the true gift that the multicultural ideal offered to jump-start creative imagination.
But the same lesson was also the gift that creative imagination returned to multiculturalism — the definitive explanation for why every culture and every unique individual has to be considered as possessing a priceless treasure.
And that shared secret has formed the bond between the two visions — a bond that will yet prove to be every bit as powerful and productive as that between holism and multiculturalism.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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