Essayist Richard Rodriguez, best known for his 1982 book Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, is usually classified as an iconoclastic Mexican American writer with little patience for political correctness. The description is accurate but incomplete. He is, more broadly, a student of America--a subtle and perceptive observer of the tension between individual and community, self and culture, optimism and pessimism, in contemporary life. He is also deeply ambivalent, especially in his more-recent work, including last year's Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father. In that book, Rodriguez struggles with the loss of optimism, both his and California's, since his youth in -the 1 950s--the discovery of what Thomas Sowell might call "the constrained vision," the knowledge that "much in life is failure or compromise," just as his Mexican father said. For Rodriguez, though, this sense of life's limits is wedded to an appreciation for its possibilities. Editor Virginia Postrel and Assistant Editor Nick Gillespie talked with Rodriguez in Los Angeles in late April.
Reason: You became famous in the early 1980s for opposing bilingual education and affirmative action--specifically for turning down jobs as an English professor that you thought you were offered on the basis of your ethnicity. Have you changed your mind about that?
Richard Rodriguez: No, I guess I haven't. Although I miss teaching. I go back to the university campuses today with some reluctance.
Reason: Why is that?
Rodriguez: For example. I was at CSUN [Cal State, Northridge] a few months ago. and I had to pass through some kind of approval of the Chicano studies program for my visit to be sanctioned. And it just becomes too tiresome. There is some etiquette--that I have to meet with the Chicano students to defuse whatever their anger is.
Reason: And what are those meetings like?
Rodriguez: Well, they're usually tedious. At Northridge there was a long speech where I was harangued by a woman from the history department, but clearly Chicano studies also. about my misunderstanding of Mexicans, about how Mexico has come to terms with it its Indian identity. There have been a few times-- for example. at U.C.-San Diego last year-- where I did lose control of the audience. There were a number of students who were so disruptive that it was difficult to go on.
Reason: What do you make of that sort of attitude among college students?
Rodriguez: As it applies to me, I find it curious. I think of myself as left of center. I'm horrified that the left in America is as intolerant as it is these days. The level of incivility among people who are otherwise engaged in discussion of ideas also is surprising to me.
Reason: Where do you think it comes from?
Rodriguez: If you ask me about these individual students, I think they are required to think of themselves as representing a cause. Their admission is in the name of a larger population for whom they feel responsible, and they do claim to have a kind of communal voice to speak in the name of the people. If you have e a different opinion, then you are not of the people.
Multiculturalism, as it is expressed in the platitudes of the American campus, is not multiculturalism. It is an idea about culture that has a specific genesis, a specific history, and a specific politics. What people mean by multiculturalism is different hues of them- selves. They don't mean Islamic fundamentalists or skinheads. They mean other brown and black students who share opinions like theirs. It isn't diversity. It's a pretense to diversity. And this is an exposure of it--they can't even tolerate my paltry opinion.
Reason: Days of Obligation got a friendlier response than Hunger of Memory, partly because it was more Mexican.
Rodriguez: I think of it as more Catholic rather than more Mexican. An older man is writing this book. I thought of my earlier book as a more deeply Protestant book: my objection to the popular ideology of that time: my insistence that I am this man, contrary to what you want to make me: my declaration of myself, of my profession--political and personal; my defiance of my mother's wishes in publishing this memoir. It seemed to me very Protestant and very self-assertive--in the best sense.
This later book is much more Catholic and much more troubled. I'm much more interested in the intervention of the tragic in my life now. The AIDS epidemic has been a large part of that, but that isn't the only aspect. I quite clearly live in a California that has lost its charm, in a place that no longer quite believes in a future.