Return of Jim Crow?

Scripps-Howard News Service 9.05.01
Balint Vazsonyi

Traveling in Italy and France, questions of culture inevitably pervade one's thoughts. Focusing on no more than three experiences - St. Mark's in Venice, the Dome of Milan, and the collections at the Louvre in Paris - is quite sufficient to make one wonder what the multiculturalists have in mind.

Presumably, many who mouth the words have nothing but a political slogan in mind. But multiculturalism's true prophets will get specific and explain that all groups of humans possess culture; that all cultures are equally valid, important, and valuable; that a process of cultivation is not a prerequisite for a culture to emerge; and that attributing importance to one thing or another is merely a matter of conditioning.

Now, unless one is totally uninformed and lacks exposure to the treasures of humanity, the foregoing thesis is manifestly at odds with reality. But it may be explained as a well-meaning attempt at being "inclusive."

Is it?

The phrase "treasures of humanity" is key. Indeed, a visit to the three wings of the Louvre will persuade anyone about the changing spotlights of history illuminating different areas of the globe in different periods. There was a time for Hammurabi's 282 laws to be carved in basalt, and a time for Vermeer to paint the Lacemaker. For the true humanist, the exhibits represent the exceptional accomplishments of humanity, and it gladdens the eye to observe so much of humanity coming to visit every day.

But those hostage to Marx's view of history as a series of class conflicts are unable to see the world in terms of transcendent human achievement, belonging to all. They force themselves to see everything, if not as class struggle, then one between continents and colors, as in European (white), African (black), or Indian (red?). Little do they care that lily-white Swedes and Norwegians flock to Italy (inhabited by people generally of black hair and darker skin), and not the other way around. Or that the Swiss from the heart of Europe visit the same cathedrals as the Japanese or the Ethiopians.

Although, perhaps they do. And that is troubling. Those who have been exposed to true greatness must know the same things the rest of us do. The examples here come from the visual arts, but would be equally true about literature or music. Yet separate venues have been designated to house African-American, Native American, and Women's "cultures." And, having been separated, we are told they are "equal" in importance.

But if they are, why not make them part of the general collections interested parties habitually visit?

Where did we get the idea of "separate but equal"?

The thought sends shivers down one's spine.

After the struggles of centuries, decades past all the epoch-making Civil Rights legislation, have we gone back to Jim Crow in our cultural establishment?

Is multiculturalism Jim Crow under a different name?

By way of illustration, the multicultural debate is whether Leontyne Price belongs with "women" or with "African-Americans." But surely, the place she has earned is in the distinguished line-up of great operatic sopranos.

We talk about the crime of not teaching slaves to read and write. We chastise our ancestors for placing obstacles in the path of real education for black Americans. At last, the door was opened wide. Good laws protected the right of every American to learn as much as the person's ability permitted. For many a black family, it was the first shot at culture as high as the eye can see.

But the prophets said, "This is not your culture. Don't read the great books of others; don't listen to the great music of others; don't gaze at the paintings of others. Stay with your own. Keep it separate - we will call it equal."

The prophets know perfectly well that St. Mark's in Venice, the Dome of Milan, or the contents of the Louvre have no equals in "African-American culture," "Native American culture" or "Women's culture" - nor indeed in Scandinavian, Portuguese, Rumanian or Serbian culture, even though the latter are in Europe. Worst of all, these "prophets" themselves know exactly the benefits of great literature, music, art. Why do they keep others away from those benefits?

In the meantime, we are losing generations. There still is time to set aside party differences and re-dedicate our schools to the conservation and dissemination of everything that is the common treasure of humanity. Americans representing every shade of skin tone have died for the preservation of what is good in the world. Surely, we could come together and work for the sake of that which is truly great.

Balint Vazsonyi, concert pianist and director of the Center for the American Founding, writes very Wednesday. His e-mail is bv@founding.org