From his Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.
Today the Center Left criticizes the Center Right for being objectively racist, sexist, or homophobic, that is, for not being sufficiently supportive of compensatory justice and affirmative action. It also accuses “conservatives” of issuing coded remarks about minorities by playing up “crime” and “family values,” unless it decides to appropriate the same code words for itself. Meanwhile “conservatives” scold their opponents for “misinterpreting” the achievements of the civil rights movement, by wrongly associating that noble crusade with “reverse discrimination.”
They also maintain that “liberals” insult the legacy of the women’s movement by falsely imagining that working women want more, and not less, economic control by the state. Whether or not the arguments that come from both sides are disingenuous is beside the point: Whatever crusades against discrimination have been launched by the administrative state since the 1960s have become a sacred legacy—and one that only those who are condemned as hopelessly bigoted would challenge.
While American parties and ideologues wrangle about governmental regulation of business and abortion, or whether the distribution of firearms among the populace should be more or less restricted, agreement has been achieved on what European social critics call “la culture unique.” All respectable members of the political culture profess sensitivity on minority issues, call for open borders or “universal nations,” and deplore the opening of moral questions that should have been settled by the awareness of past collective wrongs.
Such sins include, but are not exhausted by, sexism, homophobia, slavery, and a by now multifunctional Holocaust, guilt for which has been ascribed to Jewish indifference as well as to Christian malice. The facing of these catastrophes, as an unsubdued past, requires a vigilant, progressive state. Its intervention, moreover, is viewed not as a settled matter but as something that must go on continuously, lest bad habits come to the surface. Thus we read about the renewal of agencies to police once discriminatory voting districts in the American South, and about perpetual federal and state commissions to ensure minority representation both in the workforce and at educational institutions. In Europe judges and state officials make object lessons of those who question details of the Holocaust, deprecate Islamic theology, or propose to restrict immigration.
Such interventions by political authorities do not arouse widespread protest from American citizens. For all their complaints about “political correctness,” moderate conservatives, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and contributors to the National Association of Scholars’ periodical, Academic Questions, do not devote their primary attention to the government’s control of speech and behavior. The battle between supporters and opponents of political correctness is thought to be taking place among warring cultural elites.
Moderate conservatives see themselves as contending with New Class intellectuals, but they try not to express a negative attitude toward the American state. It is grievously wrong, according to Will, for conservatives to exhibit “blanket disdain for government and hence for the political vocation.” To the moderate Right, it seems better to expose what it views as corrosive cultural influences, particularly those associated with postmodernism, than to treat the state with unseemly suspicion. Not political administrations but literary critics and philosophers who do not accept moral absolutes or else who question the goodness of American democracy are allegedly the creators of our present communal problems.
But the state, whose power to “legislate morality” Will praised in regard to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can and does bend culture. This happens repeatedly in the United States and is illustrated further by a judicial act imposed on South Germans, for the most part against their will, in 1995. At that time Germany’s highest appellate court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, went against Bavaria’s ministry of education by requiring that crucifixes and other devotional objects be removed from public school classrooms.
Although the German Basic Law of 1949 protects religious freedom, such freedom was not held to conflict with the practice of hanging crucifixes in Bavarian classrooms. The Bavarian ministry of education and religion, in paragraph 13 of its legal code, provides for this custom in “supporting those eligible for educational benefits in the religious instruction of their children.” A profoundly Catholic region and the second largest of Germany’s Länder, Bavaria has usually enjoyed at the hands of the German federal government benign neglect with respect to its culture. Quite deliberately until now the federal administration has avoided tampering with Bavarian religious life, a practice that even the Nazi government hesitated to initiate.