The Noble Drive Toward Individualism

Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse By Orlando Patterson Stein and Day; 290 pages; $15

The whistle is finally being blown on easily the most discouraging, and frequently the most vulgar development within America's intellectual community: the neo-conservative, inherently anti-egalitarian cult of the "new ethnicity." For almost a decade now the movement has slowly, insidiously taken shape among the East Coast intelligentsia--in the halls and seminar rooms of universities like Harvard, and in the pages of prestigious New York intellectual journals like Commentary. Retreating from their former New Deal left-liberalism, political scientists such as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and social critics such as Commentary editor Norman Podheretz have nurtured and refined the social theory of "ethnic pluralism," an intellectual construct which--along with its pernicious step-child, "reverse discrimination"--they now trot out to the ideological front lines in their wide-ranging battle to halt the progressive advances of the'60s: affirmative action programs for women and minorities and increased federal spending for the poor and disadvantaged.

Until now, the renegade liberals have enjoyed, save for sporadic repudiations within the academic community, a kind of "sacred cow" immunity from criticism and scrutiny. In large part thanks to their combative, intimidating intellectual styles, taking them on has appeared a thankless, nasty task. Yet in the past year, as the controversy over the Bakke case rages and as political thinkers choose sides in the debate over the issues of welfare reform and federal aid to cities, more and more people have begun to see beyond the blinding gloss of the new ethnicity to the bottom line, reactionary impulse that lurks behind. Signs of this exposure are even now surfacing in the popular press. Side by side with its "Is America Turning Right?" cover story several weeks ago, Newsweek magazine ran a photographic "who's who" that resembled nothing if not a mug-shot line-up of the intellectual ringleaders of this drive to turn back the progressive, egalitarian tide. "There's no new right," Georgia State Sen. Julian Bond is quoted as saying directly beneath this assemblage of snap-shots. "There's a new left of unbelievably queasy liberals."

With this soon-to-be-published study, Harvard Sociology professor Orlando Patterson jumps into the ethnicity fray with both feet forward. To the unmasking of the neo-conservatism of the new ethnicity spokesmen he adds a trenchant and remarkably comprehensive critique of the psychological and sociological sources of the appeal to ethnicity, and more important, shows how this appeal has traditionally translated into reactionary and implicitly fascistic social and political action.

It's a ballsy book, one that must have taken a great deal of courage to write. What with the comforting sentimental aura that surrounds the ethnicity vogue, Patterson admits that in writing the book, "the very attempt at criticism became a form of treachery." And since so many social scientists have succumbed to the cries for allegiance to their own ethnicities, Patterson acknowledges that his publishers (Stein and Day) fear that "it will be difficult to find anyone who is sufficiently detached to review the book fairly."

Yet Patterson shrugs off the possibility of a negative critical recpetion, since he knows he is breaking new ground. He opens the book by dismissing previous studies of ethnicity as too ahistorical and descriptive. And in his fourth chapter on the "Nature and Classification of Ethnic Groups," he insightfully points out work that merely dwells on "ethnic traits" is not only analytically useless, but by definition inherently conservative. By ending the issue of how the cultural symbols associated with different ethnic groups relate to their socioeconomic position and interest, such studies put up a smokescreen that prevents their readers from realizing how the "ethnicity" appeal works as an obstacle to radical, egalitarian social change. Patterson's objective in this essay is to cut to the heart of that dialectical relationship, and--having exposed ethnicity's roots, to argue that the old demon must be exorcized.


The attraction of ethnicity, Patterson contends, is nothing new; it is, rather, a primordial problem. Its source lies, he argues in his introduction, in man's basic inward struggle between the "centrifugal pull of the group" and what Patterson proclaims "the noble drive towards individualism." Patterson puts his finger on a fundamental conflict between men's need to revel in their distinctiveness from other cultures--by banding together around unique cultural symbols--and their individualistic desire to strike out and forge independent identities. Patterson thus makes the daring intellectual move of taking on all the various and sundry historical forms of what David Reisman once called "groupism" as targets of his assault on ethnicity. Beginning with this premise, he goes on to sum up and criticize with remarkable incisiveness the broad range of forms that this pull toward group identification has taken in different societies and historical periods.

It is understandable, Patterson acknowledges, that the development of an atomized, impersonal, alienating modern industrial society should stimulate the yearning for these historical forms of "community." Yet Patterson points out that in their nostalgia for these various types of group life, people today mistakenly ignore how unjust and internally coercive these ethnocentric societies have been. This misguided romanticism is particularly characteristic of the modern world's nationalistic zeal, Patterson contends--and he comes down particularly hard on the use of racial mysticism in Third World nationalist movements.

In fact, Patterson argues that all symbol-laden nationalist movements are inherently fascist, in that they sweep up people's personal racial anxieties into a mass identification with the glory of the state. He goes on to argue that Leopold Senghor's theory of "Negritude" and similar mystical notions of black "soul-brotherhood" come dangerously close to the basic model of fascist ideology. It gives you an idea of how provocative Patterson is willing to be that, as a black sociologist, he consistently brings his criticisms so close to home.

Yet this elaborate sociological discussion of ethnicity, as fascinating as it is, only serves as a prelude to Patterson's commentary on the current new ethnicity debate. In his sixth chapter, "The Modern Revival of Ethnicity: With Special Reference to the United States," he moves in for the kill. Here again, the first target of his attack is the American black community. For although he sympathetically argues that the black nationalism of the '60s served as a defiant response to the racial shame American blacks have suffered for two centuries, he also points out that all the posturing and celebration of blackness has done nothing to alter blacks' marginal economic position in American society. An even more dramatic charge follows: the "black power" movement was partially responsible for reviving and legitimizing ethnicity as a principle of political action, and that this weapon of politicized ethnicity is now being used against blacks. One only has to look at the alliance of Jewish, Catholic, and WASP groups against the special: U.C. Davis affirmative action program in the Bakke controversy to see the accuracy of Patterson's point.

Perhaps the most provocative part of the book comes in Patterson's analysis of what he calls the "intellectual treachery" of America's group of neo-conservative once-liberal Jews. These champions of new ethnicity are, he observes, by and large second or third generation immigrants, uprooted from their European cultures and, as Jews, haunted by the idea of being exiled from the homeland, or belonging to a pariah class. Via intellectual cosmopolitanism, and either political left-liberalism or socialism, they compensated by making the world their home. But in the past 50 years, the holocaust and the subsequent creation of the Israeli state played on the consciences of many American Jews and seduced them into political parochialism.

Concern over Israel also brought back traditional Jewish anxieties over the future of the "race," and with a vengeance. With the reaffirmation of Jewish ethnicity that ensued, as Patterson puts it, "the Jewish intellectual was on the spot." For Patterson, the apostacy of the Jewish liberal intellectuals who for years have made Commentary one of the most respected liberal organs in the country best exemplifies the reaction of the Jewish intelligentsia to this crisis: a distressing turn rightward and the abandonment of their courageous conviction that all issues should be open to tough, non-partisan intellectual scrutiny in favor of increasingly self-interested defenses of Israeli and American Jewish interests. It took a lot of nerve for Patterson to air these issues, and it won't be surprising if for analysis alone the Commentary clique hits back hard at this book.

But the critique of American Jewish intellectual reaction only highlights the chief problem that Patterson perceives in the continuing fashionability of ethnic loyalty--that ethnic subcultures are now acting as political interest groups in the increasingly competitive scrap for America's, and the world's, shrinking social and physical resources. Drawing on his classification of ethnicity prototypes, Patterson notes that this politically revolutionary trend is inherent in the nature of what he labels "the revivalist ethnic group." Ruthlessly pursuing his argument, he summarizes the phenomenon by arguing that

The revivalist ethnic group, while some may sincerely believe in it, is merely a disguise for the conservatism of the economically insecure and the politically opportunistic. It develops when groups, especially the petit bourgeois groups which have achieved a tenuous hold on the lower steps of the good life, feel threatened by those beneath them who are clamoring for a place on the ladder. Politically, it provides a base for charlatans who, lacking all sense of human deceny or commitment to the common good, would place their own personal advancement by means of the monopoly of their own little ethnic turn above the harmony of their society. And, psychologically, such ethnic revivals are pathetic attempts to enhance a doubted sense of dignity and honor at the expense of others less fortunate and more vulnerable.

In these vituperative attacks on the dangerous and dysfunctional elements of ethnic chauvinism, Patterson has as much in mind the difficult road ahead for the developing Third World nations as the reactionary pettiness of the current neo-ethnicity movement in the U.S. And he concludes that if the modern world is to see any lasting structural social change toward a more egalitarian world order, it must transcend this historically cyclical pattern of "ethnic revivalism."

But if Patterson is long on criticism of ethnicity in its many guiss, he comes up a bit short on substantive solutions to the problems for which it has traditionally served as an answer. Throughout the book he espouses the alternative of a new individualist universalism, envisioning a world in which people respect each other's differences, appreciate each other's individual talents, and come together no longer in "ethnic" but in existential solidarity."

Yet if these philosophical abstractions were the only alternative to ethnic identification that Patterson offered, it could easily be argued that he commits the same error for which he attacks the ethnicity advocates--naively embracing an ideal while ignoring the structural social constraints that keep most of the world's people from realizing it.

He does offer, however, some sketchy ideas about the direction in which modern societies should move. The point he stresses most strongly in response to new ethnicity sociologists like Michael Novac, who see a retreat into ethnic culture as a valid response to the dehumanizing aspects of modern industrial society--is that industrial society is here to stay, and that the answer is not to "escape into primordiality," but to accept modernity and think about ways of shaping it. In addition, he warns the peoples of the Third World developing countries that transcendental nationalism, while a necessary credo in the process of bourgeois decolonization, shares with other forms of ethnic identification the inherent potential for reaction--that what it has given them with one hand it can take with the other. As models for progressive nationalism, Patterson singles out the current movements in Tanzania and Angola, both of which he praises for taking strong anti-ethnic stances and for downplaying mystical nationalist appeals in favor of symbolism directly related to work and to the land, to the immediate tasks of building a prosperous society.

Patterson freely admits, though, that many Marxists as well as conservatives may find the book disappointing. For while it proclaims the ideal of a "humanistic socialism" and dismisses the world-view of crude Marxist determinists who defer to future revolution, it never really grapples with the question of how structural reorganization of modern societies can otherwise take place. Patterson says he views this problem as the topic for another book, and that in taking on this next project he plans to bring to bear what he is learning as a special adviser to Michael Manley's socialist regime in Jamaica, where Patterson spends five months a year. Drawing on this experience, Patterson should no doubt be able to offer some important insights, and it will be interesting to see what he has to say.

Meanwhile, he has added to the current ethnicity debate a theoretically dazzling and particularly timely commentary in the psychological and cultural sources of romanticized ethnicity and modern nationalism. Intellectually, in its uncanny breadth of reference, Ethnic Chauvinism exemplifies precisely the broad humanistic spirit that Patterson champions, and its voyage both through history and into the depths of the human psyche in search of the key to man's need for ethnic identity puts many of today's more superficial and tendentious studies of ethnicity to shame. Patterson explains that one of the reasons he felt this critique necessary is that the new ethnicity intellectuals, in having it their own way for so long, have helped to precipitate the reactionary retreat into ethnicity merely by talking it up so forcefully. It can only be hoped that in talking down the phenomenon of ethnic chauvinism with so much learning and passion, Patterson can have a similar effect in helping us move beyond it.