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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
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Daniel Green
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Joseph Kugelmass
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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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Monday, October 02, 2006

Brad DeLong: Teaching California Teenagers About Ramadan

Posted by Brad DeLong, Guest Author, on 10/02/06 at 02:20 AM

A week or two ago, in preparation for the virtual drinking party at the Valve next week, I was thinking about this paragraph from Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity:

AMERICAN PROSPECT ONLINE: So with respect to race, the idea is not just that racism is a bad thing (which of course it is) but that race itself is a good thing. And what makes it a good thing is that it’s not class. We love race—we love identity—because we don’t love class. We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don’t have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it. A world where some of us are black and some of us are white—or bi-racial or Native American or transgendered—is a world where the differences between us present a solution: appreciating our diversity. So we like to talk about the differences we can appreciate, and we don’t like to talk about the ones we can’t...

At that moment the Daily Bulletin from the sixteen-year-old’s high school hit my inbox. It said, in part:

RAMADAN & YOM KIPPUR: Leadership is very interested in helping the students celebrate and/or observe the religious holidays of Yom Kippur and Ramadan. If you observe either of these and are interested, please stop by B-1 sometime and let Mr. Petrocco know. The hope is to set up some displays in the library. Be aware in the future the Leadership Class will be displaying other religious holiday materials as the holidays occur...

Now normally—in my usual mind—I am an enthusiastic supporter of what I take to be Walter Benn Michaels’s central point: that we have collectively gotten ourselves off balance because we are responding to the fact that celebrating diversity is easy and doing something about upward mobility and the intergenerational reproduction of economic and social inequality is hard.

When I am in my usual mind I grumble that the $400,000 a year that we at Berkeley are about to start spending on an Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity would be better spent hiring ten full-time outreach coordinators and on-campus tutors to make the idea of equality of opportunity less of a joke, and to make the population that does attend Berkeley a little bit more like the population that could benefit from attending Berkeley—if only things had broken right for them before they reached college age.

But I must be outside my usual mind. Because my reaction right now is that we love identity not just because we don’t like to think about economic and social class, but because loving identity is a genuinely good thing in a diverse world, especially for America and Americans if we are to become who we are.

Some of us are rich and some of us are poor. Some of us send our children to high schools where they will take two years of calculus. Some of us send our children to high schools where they will still be shaky on their multiplication tables when they leave. Some of us send our children to high schools where they teach five sections of AP European History to tenth graders. Some of us send our children to high schools where they don’t. And as a card-carrying child of Adam Smith and company, I think that is the most important polarizing dimension in America today.

But it is also true that some of us are black and some of us are white; some of us are Muslim and some of us are Mormon; some of us have grandparents who speak Spanish and some of us have grandparents who speak Cantonese. These dimensions of difference are important also, perhaps especially so because we as a nation are pretty good at dealing with them.

[Orignally posted on Brad DeLong’s Semi-Daily Journal, October 2, 2006.  Comments can also be found here.]


Comments

I’d grumble too, because that $400,000 is probably almost as much as an econ. professor makes…

By Jonathan Goodwin on 10/02/06 at 08:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alas, not. We had hopes when Columbia tried to lure Robert Barro from Harvard for $300K a year, but he didn’t take the bait…

By on 10/02/06 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeez ... in this company Michaels’ $175K is distinctly non-competitive. I wonder what Fish is getting in Florida?

By Bill Benzon on 10/02/06 at 10:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The $400K is $200K in vice-chancellor salary, and $200K in office space and administrative support…

By on 10/02/06 at 11:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t it just a little too bad that the first discussion in comments about this is about comparative salaries among the upper-middle class?

I haven’t yet read as much WBM as I should; I’ve been really busy this last few months.  But the general effect is similar to those of many rhetorical strategies I’ve seen, in which the rhetor takes something that everyone in the audience is likely to agree with—in this case, the desirability of actually changing society so that poor people aren’t as poor—and linking it to something that seems, at least at first, to be related only tangentially.  There is no intrinsic reason why it should be impossible to both work for greater income equality and celebrate Kwanzaa.  Saying that one is sort of a displacement device for worry about the other is unduly psychological, I think.  It’s not quite like the old-line Marxist arguments that charity was a direct way of encouraging people from doing anything towards actual income equality.

In a sense, I think that literary types like this style of argument because it flatters them that they truly understand something hidden behind politics.  That doesn’t make it likely to be true, though.  I don’t think that the “left”, however defined, would overcome the economic forces towards greater economic and educational inequality if they stopped focusing on multiculturalism.  I tend to think that has a lot more to do with American populism and localism—all those school boards, proudly independent, spending their local tax monies.

Of course, once again, I haven’t read enough WBM to really judge whether his detailed work provides support that his popular pieces do not.

By on 10/02/06 at 01:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Brad, isn’t this the point of the zero-sum game critique of WBM’s work? 

WBM is long on critique and short on history.  If you read the “multiculturalists” of the 60s-80s, you’ll see that most of them combined anti-racism with anti-capitalism.  Angela Davis’s article in *Mapping Multiculturalism* is a great example.  Long before WBM, critics were well aware of the corporate consumability of a certain vanilla form of multiculturalism. 

The key is that, for many years, ethnic differences were seen as a detriment to The Cause.  Activists fighting racist violence were not spending enough time unionizing widget makets.  Multiculturalism for many activists was a way of uniting anti-racism via tolerance with a critique of capitalism.

WBM is certainly right that those in power gave in to the diversity demands so that they could ignore the class demands.  And he’s right that too many multicultis allowed this to happen.  But his critique is also certainly old news.

By on 10/02/06 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I suppose one might ask whether or not this book is much more than yet another ceremonial gesture from the literary academic left. Not sure there’s any way to determine that other than looking for practical results.

By Bill Benzon on 10/02/06 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>But the general effect is similar to those of many rhetorical strategies I’ve seen, in which the rhetor takes something that everyone in the audience is likely to agree with—in this case, the desirability of actually changing society so that poor people aren’t as poor—and linking it to something that seems, at least at first, to be related only tangentially.  There is no intrinsic reason why it should be impossible to both work for greater income equality and celebrate Kwanzaa.  Saying that one is sort of a displacement device for worry about the other is unduly psychological, I think.

I agree.  Also the reason multiculturalism works in the political sphere is that people tend to vote along with the rest of their ethnic group so political appeals to specific ethnic groups make sense (but are not always effective).  Polititions ride in st patrick day parades.

The other reason multiculturalism works in the political sphere is that most people have decided that appeals to ethnic groups that you are not a member of is not a big threat. I hope WBM doesn’t want us to go back to wilson style attacks on hyphenated americans.

By on 10/02/06 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think Michaels is necessarily engaged in a psychological critique of cultural or academic leftists.  He is not saying they are engaged in displacement. 

What he is saying is that they have become lazy and cowardly.  They are willing to fight easy battles over multiculturalism and tolerance, but not willing to tackle more difficult problems over inequality, distribution, and economic justic. 

And to a certain extent, time, attention, and money are zero sum games.  The more effort that is expended on behalf of multiculturalizm and the like, the less effort that it being devoted toward economic issues. 

And I think Brad, to a certain extent, confirms Michaels’ point.  It is relatively easy to say, at least in certain parts of the country, that we should appreciate and tolerate everyone’s differences and unique backgrounds.  Most people can at least pretend to tolerate such things.  But threaten to raise somebody’s taxes, then you are asking for trouble.

By on 10/02/06 at 03:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not like academic or cultural leftists are Mighty Men of Might here, able to shape social being to our will. We’re not even able to shape social consciousness to our will. There are few college teachers who will argue that they ought to be free to give midterms on Yom Kippur. There are many more people who will argue that rising inequality is a good thing because it provides appropriate rewards to those judged worthy and deserving by the test of the market.

By on 10/02/06 at 06:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have just read the free chapter of Michaels’ book, so perhaps I am not qualified to comment.

But he does seem to be ignoring that there are benefits to tolerance of diversity.

Surely a gay man beaten for being gay has suffered an injury regardless of whether he makes $20,000 a year or $200,000?

Surely the African family who had insults hurled at them in public by white racists in Christchurch a few years ago suffered regardless of their income? I don’t recall any account where the skinheads enquired about the family’s economic wealth beforehand.

Am I not enriched by learning about other people’s cultures regardless of whether it affects my relative income? Does Michaels really believe that monetary income all that people should care about?

He also was rather sloppy in that chapter, saying that the solution to education is equalising funding, ignoring all the evidence that increases in funding has about zero impact on educational performance.

For example, in Kansas City “ a federal judge invited the Kansas City, Missouri, School District to come up with a cost-is-no-object educational plan and ordered local and state taxpayers to find the money to pay for it.

Kansas City spent as much as $11,700 per pupil--more money per pupil, on a cost of living adjusted basis, than any other of the 280 largest districts in the country. The money bought higher teachers’ salaries, 15 new schools, and such amenities as an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal. The student-teacher ratio was 12 or 13 to 1, the lowest of any major school district in the country.

The results were dismal. Test scores did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration. “
See http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-298.html

That chapter made me think that Michaels is not an impressive thinker.

By on 10/03/06 at 11:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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