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Aleinikoff's Definition of 'Multicultural Nationalism'


This text was previously posted as one of the pages in the 'divlib' section of the website 'Arguments and Facts'. It was reformatted as the present article on 2018-01-03.

To the best of our knowledge, the term 'multicultural nationalism' was introduced by T. Aleinikoff in an article in The American Prospect in 1998, [pan-2988] . Another early article, by Daniel Sabbagh, appeared in 2004 in the French-language journal Critique Internationale [pan-3031] . In the present website we shall consider these two articles as the original definition of the term 'multicultural nationalism'. The present page will summarize the contents of Aleinikoff's article, using selected excerpts from it together with some comments of ours.

The next page after the present one contains a similar summary of Sabbagh's article. Additional articles about multicultural nationalism are listed in the page under the tab 'List of references'. The left-side menu lists pages that are intended to be read in sequence, so it is recommended to first read the page with the tab 'What's this' before continuing with the present page.

Aleinikoff defines his major claim in the introduction of his article. He refers to the attitudes of 'multiculturalists' and 'cosmopolitans', and writes: . . . Neither multiculturalists nor cosmopolitans lose much sleep over the fate of the nation-state or are overly concerned about preserving a strong American national identity. . . . Yet the idea of the nation -- of the American nation -- is worth defending against multicultural and cosmopolitan attack.

The author does not define explicitly what he means by 'multiculturalists' or 'cosmopolitans', and it is not even clear to what extent he considers these positions to be the same. However the intended meaning may be inferred when he writes multiculturalists continue to assail assimilation as illegitimately "hegemonic," and cosmopolitans say that we should gladly accept our growing diversity and recognize that in this age of "transnationalism" many people will cross borders so easily that they will establish ties and allegiances to more than one country.

There is actually a possible source of confusion here, since while Aleinikoff uses the terms 'multiculturalists' to designate a position that is different from his own, he also uses the term 'multicultural (nationalism)' in order to describe his own position, even in the title of his article.

This position, which Aleinikoff has put forward through this article, is therefore the concept of a nation that can maintain the allegiance of all its citizens, but one which at the same time allows and encourages a diversity of cultures among them. He continues:

This view translates into policy recommendations -- I will call them "ground rules" -- intended to foster a nation comfortable with cultural diversity and culturally diverse groups loyal to the nation.

Aleinikoff proposes two principles that will be important for his proposal, namely, mutuality and permeability. Mutuality is described as follows: Mutuality demands active engagement, learning about others in their own terms ~ not a suspension of judgment, but judgment based on information and interaction. Tolerance is a politics of peaceful coexistence; mutuality is a politics of recognition. Recognition changes the observer. This is the lesson and promise of multiculturalism that has gotten lost in the culture wars.

Permeability is described as follows: Mutuality moves us beyond assimilationism. But we need to stop short of the strong multiculturalism that, like Kallen, proclaims "permanent group distinctions." A second perspective must come into play: a principle of permeability, which insists on both the reality of group boundaries and the ability to cross them. And further down: Even if we can't change our grandparents, we can and do choose which grandparents we recognize as endowing us with our national origin, ethnicity, religion, or other group membership.

One may presume that when Aleinikoff distances himself from the 'multiculturalists', he means the proponents of such 'strong multiculturalism'.

Besides mutuality and permeability, Aleinikoff identifies another guiding principle that he calls allegiance: The existence of mutually respecting groups gets us much but not all of the way there. The important question is how such groups interact. What is required is an identification with a whole beyond the parts. - - - A cultural unity is not in the cards, and a mutual commitment to liberal political principles including diversity - although important - produces a thin unity that may be little more than an agreement to disagree, tolerance without mutuality. What the unum has a right to ask of the pluribus, to use Lawrence Fuchs's figure, is that groups identify themselves as American. - - - The central idea is that a person be committed to this country's continued flourishing and see himself or herself as part of that ongoing project. The allegiance, the common identification, need not be exclusive, but it must be paramount.

In this way Aleinikoff emphasizes the issue of allegiance to the common nation as an important one, besides mutuality and permeability. But allegiance for him seems to be mostly required for instrumental reasons, since national cohesion is an important goal but the principles of liberal democracy -- these being the cornerstone of civic nationalism -- are not deemed to be sufficient for obtaining it. This is apparently why he begins with the issue of how groups interact, and then ends up with the seemingly unrelated issue of allegiance to the nation.

Furthermore, it is not clear whether Aleinikoff considers allegiance as something that arises as a result of mutuality and permeability, or whether separate activities are required to achieve it. One may think, for example, of practices where every school days begins with a statement of allegiance to the nation, or the frequent singing of the national anthem at common gatherings.

But for our part and for use in the present website, we also want to emphasize a key issue in the first part of the cited paragraph, namely, the question how (such) groups interact. For our part, we want to interpret it as a question of how the leaders and the members of one group relate to the existence and the members of another group, taken as a whole and not merely on the level of individuals. We shall refer to this as group-level relationships within the nation at hand. Additional pages on this website will expand on this issue.

Aleinikoff concludes his article by recommending the following policies in a multicultural nation. These points do not really follow from what has been said before and can best be viewed as an additional perspective on the issues facing such a nation.

1. We have a right to control our borders, and it is appropriate for the federal government to devote substantial resources to doing so.

2. We need a national reexamination of appropriate levels of legal immigration.

3. We must resist a growing tendency to harden the line between citizens and immigrants.

4. Public policies should pursue the goal of a nation of English speakers.

5. Finally, wishing away or seeking to eliminate cultural differences is not a productive response to polyethnism. To be sure, we ask allegiance of newcomers to the nation, but the nation must welcome them in a way that fosters their allegiance. Bourne wrote that integration and dedication to the American project could only come when no group felt that "its cultural case is being prejudged." This demands a politics of recognition, not a politics of group-blindness.

(The use of numbers has been added here for convenience of reference).

The issues and the arguments that Aleinikoff raised in his article almost twenty years ago are of course very relevant for the situation and the debate that we have in Europe today, and not least in Sweden. Additional pages on this website will add to the overview of past debate contributions, as well as some remarks of our own.

References and links

pan-2988    Essay: A Multicultural Nationalism?.
T. Aleinikoff i The American Prospect, 1998.

pan-3031    Nationalisme et multiculturalisme.
Daniel Sabbagh i Critique internationale, 2004.

    Erik Sandewall



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