The Twilight of Common Dreams

Multiculturalism, political correctness, identity politics: Despite their academic tone, these concepts are not confined to college classrooms or scholarly journals. Instead, they are the terms used by increasing numbers of progressive and conservative Americans to define their interests and debate the common good. In THE TWILIGHT OF COMMON DREAMS: WHY AMERICA IS WRACKED BY CULTURE WARS, Gitlin traces the historical antecedents and contemporary uses of these concepts in order to make a critical evaluation of their impact on current American politics.

Since the nation’s beginnings, Gitlin argues, Americans have asked “Who are we?” The question of an American identity is recurrently significant because it involves the intertwined ideals of individual rights and equality. Until recently, answers to the question of an American identity stressed commonality. By contrast, with the current emphasis on multiculturalism, Americans increasingly identify themselves in terms of difference, as “hyphenated Americans.” Gitlin explains this “obsession with group differences” as the (unintended) legacy of the progressive social movements of the 1960’s, which operated on the principle of separate organization on behalf of distinct interests, rather than a universal principle of equality.

The results are twofold. First, instead of multiculturalism, there is the “creation of parallel monocultures.” Second, the positions of the Left and the Right have undergone “a curious reversal:” The Left—once the champion of universal equality—now affirms distinct cultures and particular identities, whereas the Right—long associated with privileged interests—now claims to defend the common good. The impact of this reversal is negative, Gitlin argues, because it emphasizes the ideal of individual rights to the exclusion of the ideal of equality. He warns that, if this emphasis goes unchecked, Americans will endure a “soft apocalypse” of increasing social—and, especially, economic—inequality. In opposition, Gitlin advocates a “culture of commonality,” championed by a revitalized Left and based on the faith that, despite significant differences that cannot be ignored, the great variety of Americans can hope to understand one another’s thoughts and experiences and thus to realize their collective identity and aspirations.