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Monday, October 02, 2006

Especially for America

Posted by Sean McCann on 10/02/06 at 02:52 PM

Walter Benn Michaels makes some harsh comments about “liberalism” and says still worse about “neoliberalism.” But he doesn’t belabor a definition of terms.  More significantly, he doesn’t go to great lengths to clarify the connection that everyone rightly recognizes as his central contention—and the one most open to challenge: that there’s a fundamental trade-off between an interest in diversity and an interest in economic justice.  What’s the connection?  Does Michaels think there’s a necessary and fundamental conflict here?  Is it merely an unhappy coincidence of recent or even longer term history?  Or is there an inevitable tension between the good of tolerance and the good of equality that has been exacerbated in recent years by a number of causes—including bad actors, well intentioned bloviators, and structural changes in the economy. 

Michaels doesn’t resolve this, or other, hard questions--the book is a polemic after all—which gives the rest of us the chance to fill in some answers.  (I don’t think, pace Scott McLemee that Michaels’s view requires him to be nostalgic for the racisms of past leftists, and I’m certain, pace John that he’s not a Lind ally.) I hadn’t planned on adding my own two cents, since I’ve probably said more than enough on the topic for anyone’s tastes.  But Brad’s comments--which I’ve unfairly plundered for my title--inspired me to propose my own framework for clarifying the problem I think Michaels is getting at.

Maybe it’s only because it suits my preferences, but I don’t believe Michaels’s real target is liberalism or even neoliberalism.  I think what he’s actually highlighting is a central creed in the secular belief system of American nationalism.  I refer to the deep rooted conviction that, in its ideals, the United States is the last best hope of democracy--and perforce that the many ways in which the U.S. has failed to be a just or even decent society can all be traced to its failures to live up to its vaunted convictions. 

I don’t think there are many serious liberal thinkers who actually believe that liberalism alone can ever produce a utopian world of happiness, harmony, and social justice.  In fact, I doubt that there are many among the classic liberal thinkers who haven’t emphasized that liberalism is an imperfect system for managing social conflict and constraining the powers of the state to harm citizens.  On the other hand, I do think the civic religion of American nationalism encourages the belief that the U.S. is prevented from becoming an ideal society only by the insufficiency of its citizens’ commitment to the national purpose.  (Hence, the resonance of a title like Rorty’s Achieving Our Country.)

I for one wouldn’t want to say that this civic religion has only bad consequences.  But I think it’s evident that it can have some very bad consequences indeed.  I take Michaels to be pointing to one salient example.  Nearly every decent person now recognizes that slavery and racism were, as Gunnar Myrdal suggested, the great contradiction of the beliefs enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  (There’s much less consensus, I think, on the conquest and displacement of Native Americans or on American imperialism.) One effect of that recognition, however, has been the implicit suggestion that by working to overcome the lingering force of that contradiction, and by meditating on its significance for our collective life, we come closer to realizing our shared purpose as an ideal nation. 

It seems to me that Michaels points toward two problems with this assumption.  One, is that focusing on the failures of the U. S. to be its best self doesn’t at all harm the assumption that, as its best self, the U.S. would be the best of all possible worlds.  What he’s pointing toward, in other words, is a version of the American jeremiad, in which racism and intolerance have assumed the position once occupied by sin and slothfulness.  From this angle, an emphasis on the blot on the American character is appealing because it reminds us of our special destiny and brings us that much closer to our ideal condition. 

The other, of course, is that even if the U.S ever did become a purely tolerant and non-racist society, terrible injustices would remain.  Those injustices, however, are made difficult to conceive by a widely shared narrative that doesn’t cast them as a sinful exception to the nation’s natural goodness—that is, in fact, slanted toward seeing them as ephemeral, unintended, unavoidable.  Yes, as everyone notes, it’s surely true that there’s no absolute and necessary conflict between economic justice and multiculturalism—just as there’s historical evidence for the fact that many defenders of multiculturalism have also been concerned with economic inequality.  (That evidence, though, has to be considered alongside the many examples of corporate diversity-speak that Michaels gleefully points out.) But it may also be true that some of the currently familiar ways of talking about these matters don’t just emphasize one issue at the relative cost of the other, but, more seriously, fit with a story about America and its signal failings that relegates class to the deep background. 

This is pretty clearly what Michaels is getting at when he says that Americans love to talk about race—that white Americans once loved to talk about it as racists and that many now love to talk about it as antiracists and defenders of tolerance.  (Racists once claimed that the fact that the U.S. was not a monoethnic society was the central sin of the nation’s history, and the source of its other injustices.  Contemporary anti-racists sometimes suggest almost the inverse, that the history of racism and a current failure to accept and glory in diversity is the great sin of American society and the ultimate source of social injustice.) I think it’s clear that Michaels thinks racism has been a great evil in American history, that he believes it continues, and that it would be a better world if there were less of it.  Likewise, that he thinks, all other things considered, tolerance is not a bad thing.  What he objects to, I believe, is a story about America that--because it’s a story about America and not a systemic effort to think about injustice—encourages us, in feeling bad about some problems, to feel good about ourselves and not to conceive other problems. 


Sean, Greil Marcus’s newest, *Shape of Things to Come*, offers an excellent example of a jeremiad about jeremiads that manages the rather easy cognitive task of thinking anti-racism and anti-labor-exploitation simultaneously.  It’s a flawed book in many ways, but it does a fine job of using the American Creed to renew faith in the perfectability of the nation (and inevitable impossibility of perfection)—a reformism based more in class than in race.

But one reason why a certain American mythos works for culture/race more than class is to be found in the founding documents of the nation.  The Constitution provides legal support for anti-racism while providing absolutely no legal support for the redistribution of wealth.

By on 10/02/06 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The Constitution provides legal support for anti-racism while providing absolutely no legal support for the redistribution of wealth.”

Excellent point, Luther.  So do you think Michaels simply ignores this?  Or is he campaigning for constitutional amendment?

By on 10/03/06 at 02:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know, Luther.  I think the framer’s Constitution provided plenty of support for racism, as did the amended Constitution for a long time.  It’s amazing how quickly and thoroughly the Constitutional framework can appear to change.  So, while I’d be very surprised if it happened, I don’t think it would be completely impossible that some day people would find in, e.g., the guarantee clause or the equal protection amendment an encouragement for the redistribution of wealth. though, of course, that would only be significant for citizens of the U.S.--a good thing, but not the same as justice or perfection. 

I probably wasn’t clear enough, though.  I don’t favor renewing faith in the perfectability of the nation, myself.  I think it’s a dangerous attitude.

By on 10/03/06 at 06:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A good post, Sean.  What I haven’t really seen in my brief skim of WBM so far is a discussion of how culturalism is a reflection of nationalism.  When people talk about Irish culture, or something, surely the fact that there is an Irish nation reinforces this as a category in ways that some kind of belief in biological race does not.  And there is a shift, for many groups within the U.S. that used to be considered biological races, to associate them with nations, or at least physical areas.

With regard to American exceptionalism / the belief in the perfectability of the American nation, I think that recent events have shown just how dangerous this belief can be.  We do all sorts of things that we would condemn if others did them because we think that America is innately good, or at least innately on a path towards good.  I’m sure that all nations do this to some degree, but America has an especially virulent form of it.

There is perhaps a distant cognate of the WBM argument about race vs class in current torture politics.  People who are against the U.S. use of torture often say something like “America doesn’t do this!” as an expression that the practise goes against our ideals.  I always feel like retorting that America has always tortured, from the slave era to the Phillipines to Central America to Vietnam to Iraq to the ordinary prisoners in our jails, and that maybe we should no longer use a strategy predicated on denial and just say that torture is wrong and we should stop doing it.  If we use American exceptionalism against torture, it’s swept under the rug, because the same exceptionalism ensures that it will reappear.  At the same time, whenever I say something like this, people seem to think that I’m saying that America is uniquely bad—which is just exceptionalism in reverse, and no better.

By on 10/03/06 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Complaining about the so-called American jeremiad has got to be the most self-defeating activity in all of cultural studies.

On a related note, while this essay doesn’t deal specifically with jeremiads, it answers better than I could any of the usual charges made against the genre.

By on 10/03/06 at 09:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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