Neal Stephenson on multiculturalism

Neal Stephenson is a writer of speculative and historical fiction whose work I like a lot.  In 1999, he wrote a long essay, “In the Beginning Was the Command Line,” in which he interpreted the crisis of Western civilization in terms of the rivalry between computer operating systems and interfaces (or maybe the other way around).  I liked the following passage so well that I copied it.

Neal Stephenson

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando’s civilian airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or “honoring diversity” or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing ) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. …… This is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It’s not expressed in these highfalutin’ terms, of course.  It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures—teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians—are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there’s no real culture left.  All that remains is clog dancing and macrame.  The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture.  ……

The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first.  The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely—and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed.  Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being.  And—again—perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.

On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you’ve got some tools.

Click on  “In the Beginning Was The Command Line” for the whole essay.  Scroll down to the sub-heading “The Interface Culture” to get to the best part.

Click on Neal Stephenson wiki for his Wikipedia profile.

Neal Stephenson recently published another interesting essay, in which he argued that the space program was a historical fluke that might just as well not have happened, based on the coincidence of development of V-2 rockets (by Nazi Germany) and atomic bombs (by the United States) at the same time.  This resulted in development of intercontinental ballistic missiles as delivery systems for rockets, and, Stephenson contends, ICBMs provided the basic technology for the space program.

Click on The strange persistence of rockets to read Stephenson’s full argument.

Click on The shape of social progress for rebuttal by Stirling Newberry.

Hat tip for the last two links to Ken MacLeod.

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One Response to “Neal Stephenson on multiculturalism”

  1. Anne tanner Says:

    It is easy to be cynical and believe that public figures are all hooey. They have the impossible job of pleasing a far right constituency and, on the other end, folks like me flaming away on the left. They can’t do it, most of the time, and sometimes any of the time, so we both look at them as folks who can’t achieve what they say they will do. But then came the Floods of 2008 in Iowa and as a flood worker my job was to deal with Iowa City officials. They went so far beyond my expectations, somehow managing to be available to us at all hours while still taking care of the rest of the city, that I began to realize that I’d been wrong, all those years; we all do what we can do, and sometimes that’s remarkable.


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