Multiculturalism, cultural diversity, cultural pluralism: in the United States few causes have won such widespread enthusiasm. These phrases kick off a thousand speeches and articles; they appear in hundreds of essays and books. Government officials, college administrators, corporate executives, museum curators, high-school principals—to name just a few—declare their commitment to multiculturalism. One sign of the times: the American Council of Education published a guide to programmes and publications on cultural diversity that runs to four hundred pages.

Even conservatives, who might be expected to resist a liberal steamroller, often join in, confining their objections to fringe formations, not the thing itself. Publicly at least, they hesitate to protest a larger multiculturalism. To establish its credentials, a conservative foundation puts out a magazine called Diversity edited by an African-American with a Jewish name, David S. Bernstein.

These causes were not always so popular. Horace M. Kallen, who virtually copyrighted the term ‘cultural pluralism’, stated in 1924 that the idea was ‘popular nowhere in the United States’. He knew why. Vast immigration and the First World War aggravated fears of foreigners; Americanization and assimilation, not pluralism and diversity, became the watchwords. For Kallen the revived Ku Klux Klan exemplified a repressive American conformity: ‘The alternative before Americans is Kultur Klux Klan or Cultural Pluralism.’

Seventy years later everyone has joined Kallen in celebrating ‘cultural pluralism’. Why? Is this a case of victorious liberalism? Has a dissenting programme supported by Kallen and a few other intellectuals won over everyone? Has a new and varied immigration forced recognition of cultural diversity? Have Americans become more tolerant, liberal and cosmopolitan? Perhaps, but this is hardly the whole story—and perhaps none of it.

Let me put my cards on the table: multiculturalism and the kindred terms of cultural diversity and cultural pluralism are a new cant. Incessantly invoked, they signify anything and everything. This is not simply an example of sloppy terms; these phrases have become a new ideology. To put it provocatively: multiculturalism flourishes as a programme while it weakens as a reality. The drumbeat of cultural diversity covers an unwelcome truth: cultural differences are diminishing, not increasing. For better or worse only one culture thrives in the United States, the culture of business, work and consuming.

The difficulty of arguing, even stating this, derives from the confusion that besets the terms. ‘Multiculturalism’, ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘cultural pluralism’ all contain a protean word: culture. What is a culture? A small library could be assembled with books that address this question. If shelved by date, however, such books might roughly reflect a conceptual shift. In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a notion that ‘culture’ meant ‘cultivating’ art, philosophy and spirit dwindled. From Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869) to T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) some works sought to preserve ‘culture’ as the turf of education and art, contrasting it to a more material ‘civilization’. The effort was futile: liberals, Marxists, Freudians, anthropologists—among others—rejected as elitist and reactionary any distinction between the two concepts. Arnold’s book opened by quoting a liberal politician who denounced ‘culture’ as meaning ‘a smattering of the two dead languages of Greek and Latin’. This idea became common currency: culture reeked of aristocratic irrelevancies. Neither Marxists nor Freudians saw any justification in making a separation. ‘I scorn to distinguish between culture and civilization,’ stated Freud.

Yet it was less socialist or Freudian materialism than anthropological relativism which carried the day. In the name of liberalism, anthropologists effectively dispatched as prejudiced the idea of culture as learning or cultivation. The key work may have been a twentieth-century anthropological bestseller, Ruth Benedict’s 1934 Patterns of Culture. Benedict surveyed three peoples—the American Indians of the southwestern Pueblos and the Northwest Coast, and the Dobu of Melanesia—and argued succinctly not only against biological determinism, but for the relativity of cultural standards. ‘Social thinking at the present time,’ she concluded, ‘has no more important task before it than that of taking adequate account of cultural relativity.’