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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Archives | Trouble With Diversity

Monday, October 02, 2006

Some Notes on Equality and Diversity, Liberalism and Conservatism

Posted by John Holbo on 10/02/06 at 12:44 PM

I’m planning to do my part, contributing to our Michaels book event but – unfortunately – my book never showed in the mail. Thus I am obliged to write about material available elsewhere. If at any point I am unfair to Michaels, or repeat points he makes as if they are my own, I am sure – surrounded, as I am, by those who have read his book – my post will be duly updated.

My impression, derived primarily from the TAP sample chapter, is that academia looms large in Michaels' account. He uses it as his template for understanding American politics generally. Scott McLemee - who has actually read the whole book - seems to agree:

Just as puzzling [as certain curiously categorical dismissals of race as a contemporary problem] is what Michaels means by “the left” — which, in his telling, greatly loves cultural identity and tacitly ignores economic inequality. It appears that he means “the academic left,” for the most part. Certainly the book is lacking in any reference to the labor movement, or neighborhood activism, or other forms of political engagement not carried on in the pages of Critical Inquiry.

I'm not going to bother to speculate further until I've read the book. But I would be curious to hear from others on this subject. 

Let me basically just write up some of my own notes on the not-so-recent history of liberal/conservative debates back-and-forth on ‘diversity’. (I am working up some new material, rewriting some old, if some of this starts to sound vaguely familiar.) Then I'll noodle around in what I hope is a purposeful way.

Continue reading "Some Notes on Equality and Diversity, Liberalism and Conservatism"

The Trouble With Diversity: Becoming Armenian, or, Egoyan’s Crowbar

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/02/06 at 08:13 PM

For Walter Benn Michaels, “culture” is a comforting fiction based on an unscientific racial logic, an incoherent theory of historical transmission, and a discredited linguistic essentialism.  I’ll leave the last of those arguments to the experts who will show up later this week; I’ll address the first two today—albeit obliquely, through a reading of the Atom Egoyan film Next of Kin (1984).  Egoyan seems the perfect foil for Michaels’ account of identity—born in Egypt, raised in Canada, proudly Armenian—and yet, with the notable exception of Ararat (2002), his identitarian commitments never drift into uncritical sentimentality.  His obsession with cultural transmission, in particular, his probing of the means by which memories intrude into the present moment, prevents such drift. 

No critic of Egoyan, academic or otherwise, has failed to notice how “films-within-films populate [his] works, glimpses of guilt or pleasure captured on tape and then twisted out of shape by a subsequent perspective."[1] Nor should they.  Egoyan directed the only watchable short in the Beckett on Film (2003) collection; his unostentatious Krapp’s Last Tape showcases his preoccupation with inaccurate, illegitimate transmission of racial/cultural/historical memories.  Like Beckett in Krapp’s Last Tape, Egoyan typically stages the interaction of individual and mechanical memory as a conflict between an event, the cherished memory of it, an initial reencounter with that memory, then all the subsequent ones.  All these “reencounters” are mediated—Krapp’s by his tape-recorder, Egoyan’s characters’ through home-movies (their own and others)—by contraptions far less abstract and direct than the “ghosts of historicism” Michaels discusses in The Shape of Signifier:

From Sethe’s standpoint, [Denver’s claim that “nothing ever dies"] is, of course, a kind of threat; she and her contemporaries are, as one critic has put it, “haunted by memories they seek to avoid.” But if Beloved‘s characters want to forget something that happened to them, its readers—"black people,” “white people,” Morrison herself—are to supposed to remember something that didn’t happen to them ... For Morrison’s race ... provides the mechanism as well as the meaning of the conversion of history into memory.  [Greg Bear’s] Blood Music requires weird science to explain how people can “remember stuff” they haven’t “even lived through” (197) ... Beloved needs only race.[2]

Continue reading "The Trouble With Diversity: Becoming Armenian, or, Egoyan’s Crowbar"

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?

Posted by Guest Author, Guest Author, on 10/03/06 at 07:25 AM

[Laura has a Ph.D. in political science and can be read at 11DComments can also be found here.]

Walter Benn Michaels writes that our devotion to diversity has enabled liberals and conservatives alike to ignore our country’s larger problem of class. He points to the American university which now brags about its multi-cultural student body – this part white, that part black, that part Asian, with a dash of some other groups. We pat ourselves on the back for mixing this cocktail perfectly and then walk away from the bar. The problem with the martini is that the liquor is all top shelf. Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?

According to Michaels, we’ve brought in the different races, as if there really is such a thing as race, renamed it as culture, and not touched the economic imbalance that exists in our country.

Our devotion to diversity, especially at the university level, has its absurdities, and Michael deserves credit for pointing out its hollowness. For me, its silliness came home last spring, when an op-ed writer in Times wrote that universities were excluding women in order to keep a proper ratio of men and women at campuses. Now men were the beneficiaries of Affirmative Action.

Sure, it’s nice that colleges want a 50/50 gender split on campuses. After all, part of the purpose of college is to find an economically compatible spouse, along with all the learnin’ stuff. It’s also nice to have different groups in class. The rich black kids add a lot to the mix, as do the other rich ethnicities and sexual identities. Wouldn’t it also be nice if there was a diversity of ages, IQ, and political ideology in the classroom? The diversity principle can be quickly taken to the absurd.

The diversity principle doesn’t even achieve what it was intended to achieve, since poor students don’t have the SAT scores to get into Swanky School. Diversity doesn’t lead to the social revolution that Michael desires and in fact, may be a distraction from dealing with the real problems.

Well, Affirmative-Action wasn’t really aimed at bringing about a full scale social revolution. It was aimed at overcoming discrimination. It tried to bring in the black guy with the same or slightly lesser scores into the university and do an end-run around the racist on the admission board. Michael seems to think we’re in a post-racist, post-sexist, post-anti-Semitic society. I don’t know for sure if overt discrimination is a thing of the past or not, but I do know that race and gender are not independent of class. After all, the face of poverty is highly likely to be a single black, poorly educated woman with a couple of children in tow.

Continue reading "The Trouble With Diversity: Where’s the Colt 45 and the Jack Daniels?"

The Trouble With Diversity: Alan Wolfe & With All Due Respect…

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/03/06 at 05:37 PM

Today in Slate, Alan Wolfe writes a classic “with all due respect” review of The Trouble With Diversity:

Michaels pictures himself as the tough guy willing to take on the hard issues of class while everyone else opts for warm and fuzzy bromides promising cultural and racial diversity. Indeed, he argues, so prevalent is this superficial desire to bring everyone together that Americans apply ideas of tolerance and acceptance to areas where they do not belong, especially the area of religion. “Only someone who doesn’t believe in any religion can take the view that all religions may plausibly be considered equal and that their differences can be appreciated,” Michaels writes.  (I am one of the people he has in mind here.) Like his colleague Stanley Fish, he insists that “if you believe that Jesus is the way and I don’t believe Jesus is the way, one of us must be wrong.” Believers, including nonbelievers, have no choice but to fight it out. Convincing each other is futile; converting each other is our only option.

With all due respect, Michaels has no idea what he is talking about.

Wolfe continues:

He writes about religion without distinguishing between religions. Hence, you would never know that some religions do indeed look for converts, while others actually place barriers in front of those who would join. Nor do all religions assign the same priority to belief as evangelical Christians do; observance, for some, is more important than belief, and so long as a society allows them to keep their strict observance, they can easily live together with others of different convictions. And even those who believe that Jesus is the way have come to accept that others can find God in other ways. Since Nostra Aetate (1965), the Vatican has worked assiduously to recognize the validity of Judaism to Jews, and the great bulk of American evangelicals, for all their talk of witnessing the faith, do not routinely tell their Hindu co-workers that they will burn in hell. In a world in which intermarriage is a fact of life and switching congregations hardly worthy of notice, religious diversity is an inescapable fact, not a logical impossibility.

With all due respect, I think Wolfe misses Michaels’ point here.  It’s not that believers should “fight it out,” but that their beliefs should have a normative force which flies in the face of religious diversity.  As he writes:

The point about the Ten Commandments, as Neuhaus reminds us, is that they are commandments: “They are not, as has been said, Ten Suggestions or Ten Significant Moral Insights, to be more or less appreciated according to one’s subjective disposition.” What it means to be a believer in the Ten Commandments is to believe that it is in fact wrong to do the things they enjoin against, and that anybody who does not believe in the Ten Commandments is mistaken, and that anyone who does not follow them is behaving wrongly. (186)

As Michaels demonstrates, once these beliefs have been subsumed by identity, confusion follows.  Beliefs anchored in incompatible worldviews shouldn’t partake of a live-and-let-live philosophy; when they do, you end with nonsensical notions like “people are prejudiced against fundamentalist Christians.” No, they aren’t.  Some people disagree with fundamentalist Christians, but that’s a disagreement; it is not, as some fundamentalists would have it, an irrational prejudice like racism.  When treated as such, it leads to the idea that some beliefs ought to be respected simply because people hold them.  If you want to see ID taught in high school biology classes and I don’t, you can claim I’m prejudiced against you, when in fact I merely disagree.  Confuse this fact too often, and you’ll have school boards in Kansas debating teaching Creationism again…

...wait, what?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Aspirin for a Gaping Chest Wound

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/06 at 08:58 AM

From Beyond Madison Avenue—a blog devoted to advertising and marketing professionals—a link to an interview with Walter Benn Michaels

The Trouble With Diversity: What is “Culture” in Multiculturalism?

Posted by John Emerson, Guest Author, on 10/04/06 at 07:28 PM

[John Emerson—frequent commenter, worthy foil—collects his scholarship at Idiocentrism.]

I haven’t been able to get Michaels’ book yet (it’s on the truck!), but I’ve read scattered writings of his on the internet. Some of the below may seem self-evident or simple-minded, but I think that the some of the basic issues are hidden at a deep level too obvious for most people to bother with. Under other circumstances I could write something about what’s good in multiculturalism, because I’m not a sworn enemy in every respect.  But by and large I think that there’s a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “culture” in multiculturalism, and I think that the problem arises from a folk confusion between two different ways of defining “culture”.

The social-science meaning of “culture” is something like “All human traits and social structures which are learned and not strictly innate”. In general non-innate traits are assumed to be variable from one society to the next, giving us multiple cultures. But the traditional meaning of culture was “high culture”—the various things that make someone into a finer sort of person. Good manners, a taste for classical music, and so on.

Continue reading "The Trouble With Diversity: What is “Culture” in Multiculturalism?"

The Trouble With Diversity: Cultural or Neurolinguistic Uniqueness?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/04/06 at 09:46 PM

[Post inspired by a recent exchange on Unfogged.]

I. Preserving Cultural Uniqueness

On its face, the most salient criticism of Michaels’ discussion of language extinction invokes the idea that every language offers a unique perspective on the world—a perspective which is, if lost, irrevocably so.  The weak form of this criticism insists that categories embedded in a given language tell us something about the ideology of its speakers.  The most common example comes not from an endangered language, however, but from one spoken by 75,500,000 people: Javenese.  Theoretically, Javanese speakers move between these registers based on their social status relative to that of their interlocutor.[1] If Javanese died, so too would intimate knowledge of the worldview it afforded its speakers.  Despite myself, I’m sympathetic to this argument: linguists can learn more about a living language and its relation to the society of its speakers than they can infer from a dead one. 

But once a language has been thoroughly studied, what necessary investment should anyone have in keeping it alive?  Many would answer “Because its life entails the cultural life of its speakers and their unique way of looking at the world.” Fair enough.  Only what if we find its uniqueness morally repugnant?  What if the perspective it preserves is violently misogynistic?  I take this to be the point of Michaels’ hypothetical culture of American segregationists:

Continue reading "The Trouble With Diversity: Cultural or Neurolinguistic Uniqueness?"

Friday, October 06, 2006

Politics Beyond the Personal: Diversity, Identitarian Rhetoric, and Equality

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/06/06 at 10:24 AM

Prelude: Shantytowns

Back in April one Tylor Cowan published an article in Slate suggesting that shantytowns be constructed in post-Katrina New Orleans:

Since so many homes were destroyed, the natural inclination is to build safer or perhaps impregnable structures. But that is the wrong response. No one should or will rebuild or insure expensive homes on vulnerable ground, such as the devastated Ninth Ward. And it is impossible to make homes perfectly safe against every conceivable act of nature.

Instead, the city should help create cheap housing by reducing legal restrictions on building quality, building safety, and required insurance. This means the Ninth Ward need not remain empty. Once the current ruined structures are razed, governmental authorities should make it possible for entrepreneurs to put up less-expensive buildings. Many of these will be serviceable, but not all will be pretty. We could call them structures with expected lives of less than 50 years. Or we could call them shacks.

I haven’t given the matter much thought but, on the face of it, the suggestion seems worth considering. Cowan made the curious mistake, however, of concluding that piece with this fairytale:

To be sure, the shantytowns could bring socioeconomic costs. Yet crime, lack of safety, and racial tension were all features of New Orleans ex ante. The city has long thrived as more dangerous than average, more multicultural than average, and more precarious than average for the United States. And people who decide the cheap housing isn’t safe enough will be free to look elsewhere-or remain in Utah with their insurance checks.

Shantytowns might well be more creative than a dead city core. Some of the best Brazilian music came from the favelas of Salvador and Rio. The slums of Kingston, Jamaica, bred reggae. New Orleans experienced its greatest cultural blossoming in the early 20th century, when it was full of shanties. Low rents make it possible to live on a shoestring, while the population density blends cultural influences. Cheap real estate could make the city a desirable place for struggling artists to live. The cultural heyday of New Orleans lies in the past. Katrina rebuilding gives the city a chance to become an innovator once again.

While it is true that remarkable creative activity has managed to survive in unfortunate physical circumstances, I would think the proper view of this relationship is that creativity thus survived in spite of those circumstances, not because of them.

Cowan’s disingenuous praise of creativity among the poor is an example of the kind of thinking that Walter Benn Michaels eviscerates in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. The cultural creativity that sometimes manages to flourish amid poverty is, in Cowan’s view, somehow supposed to compensate for that poverty or to demonstrate somehow that poverty really isn’t such a bad thing. In Michaels’s view such thinking is self-serving rationalization. He is right to critique it.

However, I’m not going to concentrate on the book’s main argument; I’ll leave that to my fellow bloggers. I am concerned about the book’s very odd conclusion, which is about Michaels himself. In some entirely reasonable scheme of things, that conclusion is irrelevant to the argument - Michaels himself says so - but still, it is there, 12 pages all about Walter Benn Michaels in a 203 page book. Why?

Continue reading "Politics Beyond the Personal: Diversity, Identitarian Rhetoric, and Equality"

The Trouble With Diversity: Eric Rauchway

Posted by Eric Rauchway, Guest Author, on 10/06/06 at 10:52 AM

[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at UC Davis, and can be read on The New Republic‘s Open University.]

This Catherine wheel of a book whirls swiftly through its arguments, emitting epigrams every page or so. Here are a few:

American universities are propaganda machines that might as well have been designed to ensure that the class structure of American society remains unchallenged. (17)

Here’s another name for rich people’s malls—universities[.] (80)

... the politics of diversity—which is to say, the goal of making students and lawyers more comfortable.... (91)

[S]chools have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty. (97)

[W]e might ... plausibly describe contemporary politics and contemporary political argument as nothing but a dispute between our reactionaries and our conservatives. (106)

[A]pologizing for something you didn’t do to people to whom you didn’t do it (in fact, to people to whom it wasn’t done) is something of a growth industry. (122)

Many epigrams are just wisecracks in smart clothes, and some of these are those. And like a lot of people who crack wise, Michaels looks like he’s trying to pick a fight. In so doing, he’s annoying his potential allies as much as his intended antagonists.

I admit I’m among the annoyed because, although people like me are predisposed to agree that arguments for cultural diversity obscure arguments against economic inequality, Michaels starts out the book by trying to annoy people like me—i.e., historians. On page 18, he says: 

Continue reading "The Trouble With Diversity: Eric Rauchway"

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: This Will Have Been a Valve Book Event

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/09/06 at 07:42 PM

Although posts on other topics will begin appearing now, The Trouble With Diversity event it not quite finished yet.  We still have a few contributors whose choked schedules have prevented them from participating.  Also, as noted previously, Walter Benn Michaels will be responding to the posts and comments in the coming weeks. 

But I wanted to take the opportunity to thank everyone who participated—contributors and commenters alike—before other posts pushed them down-screen, and to encourage you to continue posting and commenting as the mood strikes you.  (The event’s formal close is no reason not to leave comments—or posts, for that matter—like the one Kyler Kuehn left this afternoon.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: Walter Benn Michaels Responds

Posted by Guest Author, Guest Author, on 10/12/06 at 07:47 AM

I want to start by thanking Scott for organizing and the Valve for hosting this event. I’ve been an occasional reader of the Valve for some time now and I admire the spirit of contention it fosters (even if sometimes the fostering just consists of throwing my name and a little blood into the water). Lots of substantive issues have been raised here, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about them and to respond.

I should also say that I’m not going to try to deal with everything that’s been said. Partly this is because I’ve been traveling and reading things in bits and pieces so I’m a little disorganized and pressed for time. It’s also because some of the things people have been interested in criticizing—especially my views on language and culture—are much more central to and thoroughly expressed in Our America and The Shape of the Signifier (just out in paper! with a wonderful blurb from Lindsay Waters!) than they are in The Trouble With Diversity. So I think it makes more sense to leave them aside for now. And, finally, I’m not going to say anything about the chapter on religious tolerance and belief that so annoyed Alan Wolfe, since I think lots of people on the Valve understand my views much better than he does.

What follows, then, is an effort to hit the high points, beginning with the claim that

we can do both

diversity and equality. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true—they’re not logically contradictory. But the point is that we aren’t doing both (diversity’s been increasing while equality’s been declining) and that, historically, this has been pretty much a zero-sum game. This is only partly because the money schools like Berkeley provide for diversity, as DeLong’s first post suggests, is not going into the kinds of programs needed to educate the people who can’t go there, indeed who don’t go to college at all. It’s also, more importantly, that the commitment to diversity in general has taken the place of the commitment to equality. Which is possible because, just as diversity and equality are not contradictory, diversity and inequality are also not contradictory. And which many have found desirable because diversity and anti-racism actually make neoliberalism more efficient.

Hence corporations, which have no interest whatsoever in economic equality, can be—and increasingly are—completely committed to diversity.  Just to take an obvious example, two of the four criteria the American Lawyer uses in compiling its “A-List” of top law firms are diversity and revenue per lawyer. They understand perfectly well that there’s no tension between these criteria (and that the first might even help to enhance the second. Diversity and anti-racism pose no threat in principle (and precious little in practice) to economic inequality.

Thus I don’t accept what Rich Puchalsky calls the “common criticism of WBM’s proposals,” that I “would take away current affirmative action-style programs without having any concrete alternate form of income redistribution in place.” The problem with race-based affirmative action is not that it’s too weak a form of income redistribution; the problem is that it has nothing to do with income redistribution. If liberals were arguing today for class-based affirmative action, then we might worry about whether or not it was enough. But they’re not. No university has even contemplated the idea of seeking to achieve economic proportionality as well as racial proportionality. None of the diversity- and justice-loving students, faculty, parents, administrators or whoever at Harvard or Berkeley or, for that matter, UIC is looking to create a student body half of whom come from households with an income under $47,000. And as long as racial rather than economic proportionality is the goal, affirmative action is every bit as conservative as I say it is, as are the liberals to whom it matters so much.

shoddy functionalism (in addition to what Sean said)

My view on the above is not altered by DeLong’s accusation of shoddy functionalism. Foucault has a memorably relevant remark in this regard about people knowing what they do and why they do what they do but not knowing what what they do does. By now, it’s pretty clear what affirmative action does and therefore it should be pretty clear what continued commitment to it means—the production of a more diverse and hence more legitimate elite. And the point of legitimation is precisely that it reassures people. It tells them they deserve their elite status, thus enabling the rich white kids and their rich moms and dads to (DeLong to the contrary notwithstanding) “sleep more soundly.”

Of course, making elites more comfortable wouldn’t be a bad thing if it really made them more open and I agree that getting rid of affirmative action won’t help much now—an elite of upper middle class white people and Asians isn’t an improvement over an elite of upper middle class whites, Asians and blacks. At the same time however, insofar as the message affirmative action sends is that universities care about your color rather than your poverty, getting rid at least of the professions of virtue that accompany it might be useful in pacifying the vast majority (i.e. virtually every student who doesn’t come from the upper-middle class) who doesn’t benefit from it. But, from a liberal perspective, we shouldn’t want these people pacified, either by affirmative action or even by the efforts to help poorer students pay their tuition at Harvard. I mean, when Harvard gets to the point of deciding to give tuition breaks to their “middle income” group of families earning $110,000 to $160,000 a year, that vast tax-free endowment is functioning entirely as welfare for the rich (welfare for the rich is its purpose). And it’s now Berkeley’s purpose too. Public universities give all their students the tuition break that Harvard gives only a few. (And since the students at public universities are increasingly coming from already wealthy families, we are getting some redistribution of wealth—upward.)

the good life

I plead completely guilty to the charge of not articulating any account of what a good life would be. The point of my account of Wife Swap is not meant to be that Jodi is happier than Lynn but that Jodi’s opportunities are much greater than Lynn’s, and that in a more just society, their opportunities would be more equal. Our society doesn’t owe either one of them happiness, but it does owe Lynn opportunities that she doesn’t have. This is obviously not to say that rich people are necessarily happy (have we read no novels?) or that it isn’t possible for poor people to be happier—either despite their poverty or even because of their poverty. I was on a talk show the other night where a caller (trying, like all the other callers, to show that I was mistaken about decreasing social mobility in the U.S.) described himself as dropping out of Yale and floating like a leaf through the American class system until he landed somewhere near the bottom. Since whenever I talk about social mobility I customarily find myself surrounded by self-made, risen from the ranks, men and women, I had to give the guy credit for originality. But his real point (enthusiastically embraced by the other panelist, a self-described Burkean conservative) was not just that he was poor but that he was happy, which I have no doubt he was. I don’t see, however, why the fact that some people will prove to be indifferent to their opportunities (or even eager to reject them), counts as an argument that they shouldn’t have them.

about the author

Bill Benzon thoughtfully reproduces University Diarist’s indignation about what she calls the self-flattering, KISS ME I’M HONEST revelations about my salary, etc. in the conclusion. I was struck by this because I remembered reading UD herself commenting on the egalitarian sentiments expressed in an article by E.J. Dionne and saying that

It would have been far more honest - and probably politically more productive—for Dionne to have ended this piece with a little honesty and a little introspection ["In another big home sale, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and wife Mary T. Boyle bought a shingle-and-stone Colonial in Bethesda’s Glen Echo Heights for $1.6 million. The 2004 house has ten-foot ceilings on the first floor, three fireplaces, and an elevator."], as in we have met the enemy, and he is us.

I agree at least with the spirit of that remark but not, as Benzon recognizes, because it’s important to foreground the importance of the subject position. My point is, just the opposite, its irrelevance. The question of whether what I say is true has nothing to do with the question of whether I myself am rich or poor or a good person. I do think, however, it matters that people understand whether they are rich or poor so a large part of the Conclusion is taken up with describing people’s (including my own) difficulty in recognizing what position they occupy in the American class system and the relation between that and their wealth relative to everyone else in the U.S. Rich Americans tend not to recognize their wealth and, perhaps more important, poor people tend not to recognize their poverty, or, at least, its consequences—they think they’re on their way to becoming rich. And this matters to my argument because, if you mistakenly think you have a real opportunity to succeed, you may also mistakenly think that our class system is fairer and more flexible than it actually is. So if one point of “About the Author” is that the truth of political arguments has nothing to do with the subject position of the person making them, another point is that people’s interest in hearing those arguments may well depend upon their understanding what their own subject position really is.

All this is put a lot more provokingly in the chapter itself, and because it’s put provokingly, I am not surprised that people are provoked. UD’s also being provoked by the dedication, however, I can’t explain. Maybe it’s because she literally misread it  (she says it’s to “my wife” but it never mentions “my wife”). Maybe it’s because she doesn’t recognize that “so necessary” is an allusion and hence doesn’t see that it involves a certain amount of irony. But as to where her coital death fantasies come from, I’ve got nothing.   

English teachers’ books

Finally, I should say something about the idea that because The Trouble with Diversity doesn’t make lots of policy recommendations, it’s an “English professors book” that can’t possibly make any difference. Suppose—just sticking to universities—that people became convinced that diversity initiatives like affirmative action were actually at this moment deeply anti-egalitarian; suppose they were convinced more broadly that universities, instead of being hotbeds of leftism, were actually passthroughs for privilege, whose professors not only helped bestow the privilege but confirmed the privileged in their sense of merit. Suppose then that universities became controversial not because they were the site of empty debates over individual ability versus racial identity but because they were the sites of debate over class privilege, and Harvard professors were up in arms not because their President cast aspersions on women’s potential to do math but because he or she cheerfully participated in a system that made the math potential of most of the American population invisible. Suppose further that liberals, devoted to thinking through the entailments of their commitment to equality of opportunity, focused also on making conservatives justify their acceptance of inequality of opportunity so that you didn’t get to be conservative just by saying that white people should be treated as fairly as black people, you had to explain instead why poor people should not be treated as fairly as rich people. Suppose...

My point, of course, is not that The Trouble with Diversity is likely to bring about those results, although, if it somehow did become an airport book—from “Luther Blissert’s” lips (if there is a “Luther Blissert”) to God’s ears (if there is a God)—who knows?  My point is that the conversation I’ve begun to outline above would be very different from the conversation we’ve been having.  And better.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Michaels & Religion: Can’t We All Get Along?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/17/06 at 12:49 PM

Now that we’re going hot and heavy on religion, I’d like to take another look at Michaels, who devotes his 6th and penultimate chapter to “Religion in Politics: The Good News.” The news is good because, Michaels says, at last he has found something that cannot be assimilated to the identity engine.

I don’t have a well-formed argument in mind. I just want to raise some issues. 

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Meaning of this Moment

Posted by Guest Editor, Guest Author, on 09/03/08 at 12:01 PM

Miriam Burstein is Associate Professor of English at SUNY Brockport and a regular contributor to The Valve.  She is the author of Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902.


One of the continuities between Trilling’s only published novel, The Middle of the Journey, and what has been titled The Journey Abandoned is how Trilling’s characters converse.  It’s tempting to put down Trilling’s handling of dialogue to the influence of Henry James, but there’s not much Jamesian about exchanges like this:

Kramer, [sic] said, “Vincent, you look tired.” His tone was admonitory, even querulous, and Vincent knew that in this way he expressed and masked the affection he was feeling.

“Do I?” The interest of his friend and former teacher made Vincent feel young and heroic.  “I was working late last night.”

“On the book?” Kramer asked.  “Is it going again?” He spoke in an almost hushed voice and Vincent knew that Kramer was seeing the lonely light in the little room and was hearing the intermitted rattle of the typewriter.  He knew that Kramer was having a vision of his young friend “wrestling” with his work, for only in this way could Kramer imagine the process of thought and creation.

At this moment, Kramer would have liked to say that no idea of material gain, no glimpse of mere popular success must intrude to spoil the purity of the work.  He wanted to utter his belief that Vincent’s long months of sterility and despair were the marks of the virtue of his enterprise.  He did not say what he believed, but his feminine solicitude shone from his face.  All he said was, “I’m glad you’ve broken through again.  That’s bound to happen—the ideas find their place.” (29)

Trilling’s characters do not, to borrow a Jamesian turn of phrase, speak “quite wonderfully.” Usually, they speak quite normally; in fact, as in this excerpt, they often speak in banalities.  Dialogue is subservient to the “true” intellectual play of mutual interpretation and misinterpretation—which, thanks to the narrator, is fully available only to the reader and not to the characters.  The characters’ fictional depths and shallows are well wadded up in their verbal stupidity; if they manage to connect, it seems almost an accident.  Trilling’s constant cuts away from one character’s speech to another character’s interpretation of the unspoken suggests an impatience with dialogue, perhaps even James’ dialogue.  Either the nuts-and-bolts of everyday speech produce the effect of psychological depth (characters may or may not connect by realizing what the other “really” means) or they prove absolutely adequate to the character’s shallowness (because s/he is adequately summed up in his/her speech). 

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