Saturday, March 1, 2008

Multiculturalism Blinds Historians

Multiculturalism blinds historians. As we have traditionally been a culturist nation, the multiculturalist outlook strips us of our ability to appreciate or understand our past. Applying culturist insights to the book Translating Property by Maria E. Montoya provides examples in spades. This book discusses how we settled land disputes after our victory in the Mexican – American War. The importance of our relationship with Mexico makes it vital that historians and policy makers learn to address the history Montoya covers from a culturist perspective.

Mexico allowed government officials to make huge land grants to their cronies. In a quasi-feudal relationship, laborers were allowed to farm the land for payments in kind. The issue in Translating Property is how these land grants held up in United States Courts after the Mexican – American War resulted in our taking ownership of the current American Southwest. Montoya depicts in lively language and horror, the eviction of the laborers when the land is sold to Anglos. Montoya, as a multiculturalist, wants us to recognize Mexican property laws and relationships. But in Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case our government denies the validity of laborers’ claims based on traditional Mexican relationships.

Rejecting Mexican property relationships was done on culturist premises. Americans were appalled by large land grants. These feudal relationships were repeatedly decried as antithetical to our ideals of individual self-sustenance, property rights and republican virtue. But Montoya depicts all differences and discrimination based upon our values as irrational, arbitrary and unfair. She would have had our legislatures and courts be multiculturalists and translate, appreciate and incorporate Mexican-style peonage relationships. She derides our predecessor’s for not being “culturally neutral.” (181) She then goes one step further. She derides all of those who made distinctions based on culture as racist. Her editorial decisions are natural outcomes of using the multiculturalist perspective while doing history.

When it came to ejection and letting people stay on the land, the post-land grant owners favored Anglos over “Hispanos.” Montoya convinces us of this with lively writing style and great detail. A chart shows that Anglos have over thirty times the number of cattle that Hispanos had and four times the number of fenced area. Montoya calls this “racist” and the discrepancy gets attributed to Hispano’s lack of access to capital. It is a painful irony that multiculturalists do not take cultural diversity seriously. Montoya decries many incidents of Anglos attributing the difference in productivity to cultural distinctions. She calls it, for example, “prejudiced” and “condescending” when a manager accounts for his discrimination in land distribution being due to the Mexicans “following their usual and indifferent ways.” (143) To multiculturalists like Montoya it is inconceivable that culture could actually impact economic outcomes.

Montoya tries to follow the multicultural pattern of appreciating all cultures. As with other historians, this normative multiculturalist pattern is most jarring with her depictions of Native Americans. She tells us that the Jicarillas Apaches, who lived where the land grant she gives most attention to existed, viewed the land as a “spiritual home for themselves and their ancestors.” (21) Though there was mutual raiding, these Apache lived in “relatively peaceful coexistence” with others. (22) This does not sit well with the fact that the first time they are documented they were dancing over the scalp of a white man whose pregnant companion they had murdered. Local tribes she tells us capture women and children in raids and sell them as slaves. As usual, both of these cultural behaviors get blamed on European incursion. We cannot depict all non-Anglo cultures as naturally angelic and have historic accuracy. Apache and those around them were violent and barely survived.

The good news is that multiculturalist history allows us to consider viewpoints other than our own. Apache warfare and Mexican peonage relationships did have their own cultural integrity and virtue. But when American culture does not get accorded parallel respect, our expansion only seems destructive and our decisions arbitrary. Our land patterns were designed to create “urban rectilinearity.” (166) But our ways have also resulted in a much longer lifespan than achieved by either the Apaches or the Mexicans. Our ways have facilitated the greatest population boom in the history of mankind, democracy, sanitation, and electricity. Our Westward expansion was not just a bigoted tragedy. If one takes our perspective as seriously as multiculturalists take those of the Apaches and Mexicans, the expansion of the Western property arrangements and culture can be legitimately depicted as a successful culturist endeavor that resulted in creating an agreeable way of life.

Montoya does a service by showing that our legal decisions were “culturally contingent” and “turned as much on . . . [Supreme Court] perceptions of what constituted proper republican government as on the context of Mexican, Spanish or French Law.” Only respecting land deeds on the basis of written documentation was “a problem of ideology.” (176) But her take home message - that we are biased for not incorporating Mexican culture into our laws – asks for a neutrality that no self-respecting culture would accept. Montoya herself is biased. In a book that derides us for being ethnocentric, she never judges the fact that Mexican land grants are given with the stipulation that no land be sold to foreigners. Her feigned cultural neutrality ends up making Western expansionists who promote their own culture as abnormal and insensitive. But even Montoya’s book has a point of view. To judge historical figures as to whether they were neutral to their own agendas can only distort our appreciation of our culturist past.

In the index of Translating Property “racial prejudice” notes seventeen entries. Most of these entries refer to multiple pages. No corresponding entry for “cultural” or “culturist prejudice" exists. That reflects the fact that culturist analysis is no longer widely considered. Multiculturalism has a near monopoly in academic discourse. Accepting the fact that cultural bias is natural and normal can help replace the condemnation of our historic predecessors with appreciation. Considering our forefather’s culturist notion that cultures can have an economic and political impact will help us replace our depictions of them as wholly mean and irrational with portraits of them as somewhat reasonable and possibly farsighted. History thus taught can train our youth to consider the impact of their cultural choices on our collective destiny. And if culturist understandings once again gain credibility, perhaps our current politicians will also be able to consider the viability of American culture in policy without being seen as abnormally biased, callous and irrational.
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