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The national backbone is broke, says New York Times reporter Richard Bernstein, who presents his book Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future as an X-ray. The American spine chipped, crumbled, and snapped gradually, he argues, as the government, academia, and the business world bent every which way over the last 30 years to accommodate the shakedown artists of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is more a buzzword than a genuine ism, Bernstein writes, because it lacks a “kind of consistent or coherent set of ideas.” Like its brother buzzwords, “diversity” and “inclusion,” multiculturalism is mostly invoked by gays, ethnic minorities, and feminists in order to stifle debate, terrorize the open-minded, and capture the high political ground. The respected author of a book on French culture, Fragile Glory, Bernstein draws on that expertise to invoke a buzzword of his own—dérapage—to rebut the multiculturalists.Dérapage is the word the French use to describe the skid into fanaticism and dogmatism that Robespierre’s excesses encouraged. Just as the zealous pursuit of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity and general good intentions during the French Revolution led to the guillotine and kangaroo courts, Bernstein believes a similar 20th-century crusade for justice has engendered a modern dérapage. “Indeed,” he writes, “a single-sentence summation of my theme would be this: multiculturalism as it is commonly formulated and practiced is the dérapage of the civil rights movement.”

Assuming the rhetoric and high moral ground of the civil rights movement, the multiculturalists have created a permanent scapegoat in the form of the straight, white male, whose identity is “synonymous with the hunger for power, with imperialism, with ruthless capitalist exploitation, while all others belong to the camp of the meek and the beautiful,” he writes. “The white male is the symbol of inclusion, while all others are, by definition, seeking to be included against white-male resistance.”

Never mind that not all white males are created or nutured equally (does a Portuguese immigrant have the same natural advantage as a scion from the WASP elite?, Bernstein asks). Their preponderance in positions of power makes them an excellent leverage point from which the multicultis can push off.

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Focusing his reportorial eye primarily on college campuses and local school systems, Bernstein finds a virulent dérapage infection in Queens, where “diverse” educators, Mayor David Dinkins, and Chancellor Joseph Fernandez attempted in 1992 to foist onto parents and students a 443-page guide to multicultural education, Children of the Rainbow Curriculum. Several local school boards in Queens rejected the guide because it called on teachers to “include references to lesbians/gay people in all curricular areas” starting in the first grade, and to instill respect for homosexuals in young students. But it wasn’t just the Archie Bunkers of Queens who were outraged by Children of the Rainbow Curriculum; the guide attracted some of its heaviest flak from the school board in District 24, Queens’ most ethnically diverse sector, where 83 different languages are spoken. When District 24 and neighboring District 28 rejected the curriculum guide, Chancellor Fernandez retaliated by suspending them.

Bernstein also uncovers American dérapage at the University of Pennsylvania, where a women’s center excludes pro-life women. As one student dissident puts it, “If you’re not pro-lesbian and pro-choice, resentful of men and career oriented, you’re not really a woman by their lights.” Meanwhile, at nearby Temple University, African-American studies Chairman Molefi Kete Asante shepherds an Afrocentric movement that overstates black African achievement in the name of fostering black pride. Asante’s misguided scholarship has taken root at urban school systems around the country, where curriculum—and historical truths—are now based on the race of the students. This is a dubious method of building self-esteem, and a disastrous way to build scholars.

Since most schools and governments are already captive of liberals with multicultural leanings, those institutions are easy marks for the compulsory “diver sity training” movement that cleans es straights, males, and whites of their “prejudices.” But Bernstein’s book fails to ask why the skeptics of corporate America have fallen for the diversity shill. Surely it is because executives are weary of race- and gender-based lawsuits and government investigations, and regard a few correct-think seminars as cheap insurance against civil suits charging homophobia, sexism, and racism in the workplace. Such examples abound, had Bernstein only looked: Last year, Pepco settled a discrimination suit with cash and a promise to put all 4,800 of its employees through “mandatory cultural diversity training,” according to Pepco spokeswoman Nancy Moses.

The immediate target of the multiculturalists may be our schools, governments, and workplaces, but the ultimate target, Bernstein argues, is les lieux de mémoire, the “places of memory” that help a nation define itself. America is vulnerable to dérapage precisely because it has “no common racial or religious bonds, no common origins or ancestry” to hold it together, he writes. (It is also one of the world’s most innately tolerant places for the same reason.) Bernstein uncovers the multiculturalists’ agenda when he points out that they know exactly what they’re doing when they caricature Christopher Columbus as a genocidal maniac and praise all Amerindians as peace lovers; when they hype bogus statistics that claim a rise in hate crimes; or when they denounce Western thought as the propaganda tool of white supremacists. Their intent is to destroy the old places of memory and build new ones, and make everyone subscribe to their narrow views of race and culture.

Yet the multicultural agenda is unstable, vulnerable to attack not only from cultural conservatives but from its purported allies in the multicultural community, as Bernstein illustrates with the curriculum saga in Queens. The movement will never convince Muslims of the value of gay rights, nor dissuade some African-Americans from their separatist views. When push really comes to shove—and the multicultis assault anything but the entrenched straight, white, male world—their rhetoric and pretensions fizzle.

But that doesn’t mean the multicultural movement is harmless; Bernstein takes as an extremely bad sign that President Clinton has essentially endorsed multiculturalism by appointing Sheldon Hackney to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), part of the federal machine that fashions les lieux de mémoire with public television, exhibitions, research grants, and documentaries. As president of the University of Pennsylvania, self-hating white guy Hackney was a containable evil, limited to persecuting the now-famous student who called a clamorous group of black women students “water buffalo.” Now, with $150 million of NEH money to dispense per year, Hackney can inflict his censorious view of the world on all of us.

Not many of the stories collected by Bernstein have happy endings. The teachers and students who face down the multiculturalists’ unfair accusations of racism, homophobia, and sexism are often rewarded with ostracism, unemployment, depression, and legal bills. But given enough courage, Bernstein predicts that the “inspiring notion of greatness” will triumph over “the tepid concept of representativeness,” and that reason will defeat rage. As the original civil rights movement taught us, defending enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality is an end in itself.