Monday, October 02, 2006
Some Notes on Equality and Diversity, Liberalism and ConservatismI’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.
In The Liberal Imagination (1950) Lionel Trilling writes about how and why Mill valued Coleridge’s conservative politics and metaphysics – despite his extreme disagreement with them – “because they were a poet’s, and he hoped that they might modify liberalism’s tendency to envisage the world in what he called a ‘prosaic’ way and recall liberals to a sense of variousness and possibility … He believed it to be an intellectual and political necessity” (LI, p. xi). Trilling goes on to say that, while in the abstract liberalism values ‘variousness and possibility’, in practice there is a tendency to organizational regimentation and rationalization that is inimical to it. Trilling calls this liberalism’s ‘characteristic paradox’.
In The Conservative Mind (1953) Russell Kirk seizes on this concession with characteristic over-vigorousness, alleging that Trilling himself admits liberalism is “gone all dry and hollow” (CM 476). “Subjecting the failure of twentieth-century American liberalism to close analysis would be breaking a butterfly upon the wheel” (CM 461). Whatever Kirk’s reasons for omitting close analysis of liberalism – which he certainly does omit - he rolls out every wheel he’s got. One of the biggest is the one Trilling hands over freely. Kirk’s second ‘canon of conservative thought’ (after ‘belief in a transcendent moral order’) is: “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems” (CM 8). Kirk urges scholars, in particular, “to renew the classical definition of justice, ‘to each his own’; to recognize diversity and variety, rather than standardization of life, as goals of the tolerable society” (CM 481, italics mine). By implication, liberals are incapable of granting ‘to each his own’, an embarrassing incapacity on the part of a philosophy that is supposed to be individualistic, if anything.
Looking back, it looks a bit odd. Conservatives as diversity cheerleaders? Liberals as indifferent to this value?
But it makes a certain sense, historically and – up to a point – philosophically. Edmund Burke was, after all, one of the first ‘mutliculturalists’, defending (at least when it wasn't too economically burdensome) the rights of local cultures to preserve their organic autonomy (autochthony) against rationalizing encroachments of European markets in goods and ideas.
A noteworthy feature of Kirk’s “proliferating variety and mystery” canon is that his value of diversity implies the negation of any strong value of negative liberty in any ‘liberal’ sense, i.e. freedom from external constraint, let alone freedom ‘to be you and me’. Kirk quite consciously defines freedom—freedom as value—as the privilege of the true aristocracy to do and dictate as it sees fit; the privilege of the rest to do as they are told. According to Kirk, it is the “natural right” of those who are not the elite, “to be restrained from meddling with political authority in a fashion for which they are unqualified” (CM 60). And so we arrive at his third ‘canon’ of conservatism: “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’” ‘Diversity’ turns out to be shorthand for a ‘my station and its duties’ theme. Seen through that end of the telescope, it’s not so strange that conservatives—of a certain sort—favor ‘diversity’. It is also perfectly obvious how 'diversity' could go with inequality. The two are defined as linked.
You don’t find so many frank affirmations of what is basically a feudal value system in modern American politics. Louis Hartz was not kidding when, in The Liberal Tradition In America (1955), he said what made American politics distinctive—over and against old Europe’s—was that here there was not any need even to struggle against feudalism. Hartz quotes Tocqueville: “The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so.” This is the same reason why, in “Why I Am Not A Conservative” (1960), Friedrich Hayek comments dryly on “the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.” He is staving off Kirk, and very bemused to find himself moving in the same circles as such an odd character as this. (The National Review was a rum old platform for ideas.)
This odd character does still rear its head at intervals and angles in American conservative discourse. I noted one such case in an old (rather famous, as these things go) post about devout Kirk follower David Frum’s book Dead Right (1996). My copy of Kirk's The Conservative Mind bears an effusive Frum blurb: ““[A] profound critique of contemporary mass society, and a vivid and poetic image – not a program, an image – of how that society might better itself … [Kirk] was an artist, a visionary, almost a prophet.” It's quite key that Kirk's whole argument is basically aesthetic, and Frum imitates him in this regard. The details of my argument about Frum are, of course, hardly irrelevant to the question of whether what I say about him is true. Nevertheless I'm not going to run through all that (read my old post if you want - and part II.) What is significant, for purposes of the discussion of diversity is that I ended up rounding off my first Frum post by quoting a bit of Empson from a chapter, "Proletarian Literature", in Some Versions of Pastoral.
As I write , the government has just brought out a poster giving the numbers of men back at work, with a large photograph of a skilled worker using a chisel. He is a stringy but tough, vital but not over-strong, Cockney type, with a great deal of the genuine but odd refinement of the English lower middle class. This is very strong Tory propaganda: one feels it is fair to take him as a type of the English skilled worker, and it cuts out the communist feelings about the worker merely to look at him. To accept the picture is to feel that the skilled worker’s interests are bound up with his place in the class system and the success of British foreign policy in finding markets. There is an unfortunate lack of a word here. To call such a picture a ‘symbol’, like a sign in mathematics, is to ignore the sources of its power; to call it a ‘myth’ is to make an offensive suggestion that the author is superior to common feeling. I do not mean to say that such pictures are nonsense becaused they are myths; the facts of the life of a nation, for instance the way public opinion swings round, are very strange indeed, and probably a half-magical idea is the quickest way to the truth. People who consider that the Worker group of sentiments is misleading in contemporary politics tend to use the word ‘romantic’ as a missile; unless they merely mean ‘false’ this is quite off the point; what they ought to do is to produce a rival myth, like the poster. In calling it mythical I mean that complex feelings, involving all kinds of distant matters, are put into it as a symbol, with an implication ‘this is the right worker to select and keep in mind as the type,’ and that among them is an obscure magical feeling ‘while he is like this he is Natural and that will induce Nature to make us prosperous.’ (p. ?)
What Frum gives us is an American version of that image. It's not Horatio Alger. Because the thought, seeing the worker, is NOT that he is sure to get rich quick. The thought is that it is fine - because natural - that he is sure to die lower middle-class.
Getting back to Trilling: given that he wouldn’t fall for Kirk, his concessions to conservatism on the diversity front might seem surprising. There is an explanation. He is a liberal in 1949, peering apprehensively into the now. Books like The Organization Man (1956), The Lonely Crowd (1953), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (book 1955, film 1956) are yet to appear, but discontent with conformist consensus manufacturing and professionalizing technocracy, etc., are there for perceptive critics to intuit. In 2007—with conservatism (or at least Republicanism) politically triumphant—it is hard to muster a sense of Trilling’s sense that a liberal consensus could be dangerously ascendent. But versions of this concern do go back to Mill. And Tocqueville expresses them strongly as well. Let me just sort of roll them together, courtesy of Isaiah Berlin. From "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life":
Mill's overmastering desire for variety and individuality for their own sakes emerges in many shapes. He notes that 'Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest' - an apparent 'truism' which nevetheless, he declares, 'stands ... opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice'. At other times he speaks in sharper terms. He remarks that it is the habit of his time to impose conformity to an 'approved standard', namely 'to desire nothing strongly. Its idea of character is to be without any marked character; to maim by compression, like a Chinese lady's foot, every part of human nature which stands out prominently, and tends to make the person markedly dissimilar in outline to commonplace humanity.' And again, 'The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented. But it was men of another stamp than this that made England what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline.'
The tone of this, if not the content, would have shocked Bentham; so indeed would this bitter echo of Tocqueville: 'Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them ... All the political changes of the age promote [this assimilation], since they all tend to raise the low and to lower the high. Every extension of education promotes it, because education brings people under common influences ... Improvements in the the means of communication promote it', as does 'the ascendancy of public opinion'. There is 'so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality' that 'In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.' We have come to such a pass that mere differences, resistance for its own sake, protest as such, is now enough. Conformity and intolerance which is its offensive and defensive arm, are for Mill always detestable, and peculiarly horrifying in an age which thinks itself enlightened; in which, nevertheless, a man can be sent to prison for twenty-one months for atheism; jurymen are rejected and foreigners denied justice because they hold no recognized religious beliefs; no public money is given for Hindu or Muslim schools because an 'imebecile display' is made by an Under-Secretary who declares that toleration is desirable only among Christians but not for unbelievers. It is no better when workers employ 'a moral police' to prevent some members of their trade union being paid higher wages earned by superior skill or industry than the wages paid to those who lack these attributes. (Liberty, pp. 239-40)
I quote at length because there is a lot going on, pulling in potentially different directions. On the one hand, nothing could be less amenable to Kirk/Frum-style kneadings - which are actuated, at bottom, by a distaste for negative liberty as an end in itself, or as a means to an end of non-confirmism as something close to an end in itself. In "Why I Am Not A Conservative", Hayek mourns, rather clinically, that the conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” For a liberal, “neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits … This may also explain why its seems to be so much easier for the repentant socialist to find a new spiritual home in the conservative fold than in the liberal.”
It seems to me, incidentally, that Michaels - in talking down diversity - may be doing too little to insulate the value of pluralism from his critique. The value of diversity and the value of pluralism seem linked but distinct, as shown by the fact that any 'my station and its duties' proponent values diversity - the king's ermine needs the peasant's rags to set it off to good aesthetic effect - but is not necessarily a pluralist. Pluralism is the more important value - the jewel in the crown of liberalism. (And one thing that pluralism gives us is, indeed diversity. It seems to me rather pointless to deny that, at least sometimes, we like diversity. Therefore it is good.) The identity politics that Michaels deplores may be be a matter of illiberally valuing diversity but not pluralism - since identities may be conceived as non-negotiable, yet may be mutually baffling, in political contexts. But this is a big issue, to say the least.
On the other hand, there is in Mill, Tocqueville and Trilling (how to put it?): not necessarily (or not always) an anti-egalitarianism, yet what must strike us today as a rather comically unprophetic over-concern with the threat of a mercilessly complete egalitarianism, paving the paradise of our diverse natures, putting up a parking-lot of mediocre conformism. (Maybe we'll need to do a spot of union busting, just to preserve our humanity!) Tocqueville, in particular, is often credited with profound prophetic powers. But, at least with 'all tend to raise the low and lower the high', he sure missed the 2007 boat.
Let me prove I've actually read at least the first paragraph of Michaels' TAP piece. He writes:
“The rich are different from you and me” is a famous remark supposedly made by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, although what made it famous -- or at least made Hemingway famously repeat it -- was not the remark itself but Hemingway’s reply: “Yes, they have more money.” In other words, to Hemingway, the rich really aren’t very different from you and me. Fitzgerald’s mistake, he thought, was that he mythologized or sentimentalized the rich, treating them as if they were a different kind of person instead of the same kind of person with more money. It was as if, according to Fitzgerald, what made rich people different was not what they had -- their money -- but what they were, “a special glamorous race.”
Now let me switch over to a passage from Off Center: the Republican Revolution & the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson (2005):
Surveys on tax issues reveal that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: the very rich are different - not just in their opinions but in their level of knowledge. In a poll conducted in 2003, for example, a majority of the richest 5 percent of American answered the knowledge questions correctly. Only a fifth of other Americans did, with knowledge lowest among the least affluent. Strikingly, only half of Americans even knew there had been a tax cut in 2001. (p. 67)
Hacker and Pierson basically argue that Tocqueville turned out to be very very wrong about 'raise the low and lower the high' - especially through the flow of information. We live in a society in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer in part because the rich know more and - what's more - it's a society in which politicians and the media are complicit or at least passively acquiescent in that arrangement. One of the blurbs for the book comes from Rick Perlstein, who writes that it "provides the missing piece from What's the Matter with Kansas?: how they committed the crime, and where they hid the bodies." Opening up my copy of Franks, I now remember his epigraph: "Oh, Kansas fools! Poor Kansas fools! The banker makes of you a tool!" (populist song, 1892). The trouble is, indeed, that Franks' "if you're so poor, why aren't you smarter?" exasperation at the way legitimate interest in economic equality gets lost in the fog of Culture War ... sometimes seems like a vague and therefore suspect false consciousness thesis. (If people really care more about culture, that's their business.) Hacker and Pierson try to put some flesh on the poor fools' bones. Continuing the passage above:
Conservative elites have developed sophisticated strategies to prey on such limitations in ordinary citizens' knowledge. And as the tax cuts show, these strategies have profound effects. In making policy choices whose effects were, in principle, quite knowable, politicians repeatedly chose to shower their largesse on the attentive and well off. Rather than respond to public sentiments, they exploited gaps in knowledge and used policy designs to create political pressures in favor of the ends they supported - ends that abandoned the middle and raced to the base.
Obviously you have to keep reading the book to get the whole gorey mess of a picture. But I've said enough for one post, and perhaps it is clear why I am suspicious that Michaels' focus on diversity is a only a part of the picture, and perhaps a relatively superstructural part.
And now I'm waving my copy of Michael Lind's Up From Conservatism, Why the Right is Wrong for America (1996) at the screen. What Lind calls National Liberalism (the radical center) sounds to me a lot like what Michaels wants. Lind, like Michaels, is impatient with 'diversity' as a concern. He has a tremendous nostalgia for the FDR-Truman-Johnson line. (He may be the last living human being who is profoundly nostalgic for Lyndon B. Johnson.) I would be curious to know what Michaels thinks of Lind. Anyway, the direct connection with the Hacker and Pierson is Lind's emphasis on the analytic importance of the notion of an 'overclass', a term first used by Gunnar Myrdal:
Though "overclass" is widely used, there is no consensus on its definition. Sometimes the term is used to refer to the affluent, sometimes to the skilled. I use the word "overclass" to refer not to the rich in general or the educated in general, but to a specific social group that is at once an elite and a quasi-hereditary socal class. The overclass is the credentialed manegerial-professional elite, consisting of Americnas with advanced degrees (MBA's, JD's, PhD's, MD's) and their spouses and children. (p. 34)
In short, we got the sort of managerial-professionalism that (say) Trilling feared would squash diversity. But he feared that it would do so through an excess of egalitarianism. Oops. Didn't quite work out like that.
Lind's thesis is basically that there is a 'freedom and groceries' center liberalism (Rick Perlstein likes 'freedom and groceries', I take it from him) which would,
favor race-neutral antidiscrimination law, and oppose affirmative action and multiculturalism; at the same time, the center left would support generous big-government social programs and oppose massive tax cuts for the rich. A center-left faction in the overclass would be th elite ally of the radical center, in the way that libertarin conservatism is the elite ally of far-right popular conservatism. Merely to describe this viewpoint is to realise that there is not a single politician in national life who will defend such old-fashioned, pre-multicultural liberalism in public (though some defend it in private.) (p. 42)
In short, there is no overclass sponsorship for this particular position. So it's a non-starter. Who would promote it? It offends the overclass left (which finds it socially conservative about issues like diversity). It offends the overclass right even more (because it wants to take its money.) Anyway, it seems in the same ballpark with Michaels, and it seems to me it might get the bigger picture a bit clearer. Again, I'm only judging from an article, but Michaels seems to see focus on diversity - as opposed to equality - as the cause. Lind sees it as a symptom of the problem, which is overclass dominance. And the likes of Jacob and Hacker and Franks and Rick Perlstein seem to me to be working the same area, roughly (although they go in less for the LBJ nostalgia. Although Perlstein's Goldwater nostalgia partakes of that, in some portion.)
Really, that's enough. I notice that Michael Lind has a new book that came out just today, The American Way of Strategy [amazon]. I'll bet it's interesting.
Not really a litblog post, is this? Well, I suppose I got enough Empson in up there. Read Empson!
I tried to come up with a cute Shakespeare joke for the title, but the closest I got was something like: "and more diversity of sounds, all horrible/ we were awaked; straightaway, at liberty." I think you'll agree that's a tetch obscure, even by my exacting standards.
A great, rambling, overstuffed piece John; many thanks for putting it together.
“Conservatives as diversity cheerleaders?Liberals as indifferent to this value?But it makes a certain sense, historically and--up to a point--philosophically.”
I think you’re correct. But it’s hard to say why in any clear way. What’s going on in your comments, and presumably in Michaels and Frank and others, and really in this whole deep argument about “conseravtism,” is problem with disentangling (if they can be disentangled) the affective aspects of both cultural diversity and economic/social diversity. Being rich (or poor) really does make you different, it really does shape your values and your worldview and your feelings--but how? And are those differences categorically comparable with other notions of diversity, those whose affect is usually tied to race, religion, ethnicity, etc.?
The real, deep, “right” conservatives do value diversity in a way that liberals do not. Not because they treat all diverse groups equally; that’s hardly the case! That position has always held that some groups are simply better than others; the natural aristocracy and all that. However, implicated in that hierarchical, unegalitarian belief, is the assumption that there really is a multiplicity of organically, historically, culturally realized communities out there, and those communities define the individual in important ways. Liberalism, being a philosophical individualism, is not prepared to grant identity that kind of rootedness, or if it does grant it, doesn’t respect its consequences, and wishes to eliminate or at least moderate them. (The right of “exit” from a community, etc.)
I think the great success of liberalism worried the Trillings and Tocquevilles of the world because they had a spot of this (necessarily aristocratic?) conservatism in them, and they worried about a world where all individuals can just make themselves and remake themselves over and over in the same old mediocre Millian ways, without regard to where one “belongs.” I think they had a point in such a concern. But that Millian “remaking” has become, in the post-industrial, knowledge-worker capitalist world of today, primarily a function of dollars; if identity and culture can be bought, and you can buy exactly as much as your own creativity and smarts allow you, then the conservative tradition has evolved into a dilemma--the new “aristocrats,” the wealthy knowledge-workers, are exactly the people most capable of freeing themselves as individuals from culture and community (and running off and making their own brand new, idiosyncratic, unique, mega-church, private-school supporting, gated communities, just as all good Millians should).
Hence you have figures like Christopher Lasch or other “left conservatives" arguing against liberals because they don’t see the importance of community, and against conservatives because, in today’s world, defending order and aristocracy and wealth and levels in society only ends up empowering a class of people that have no actual interest in and only the banal understandings of community. In attacking liberalism for its addiction to race, Michaels is arguably picking up on a little bit of this. Modern globalized captialism makes generating affective concern about stuff like race or culture, according to him, cheap. He wants to get back to the era of liberalism when class seriously grounded one’s consciousness of one’s community. He’s looking for economic solidarity, which is another kind of community; he doesn’t think you can really have equality or social justice, that you can really end poverty, without it. And he may be right. The question in my mind is, to what degree is Michaels correct that thinking about respect racial or religious or gender groups and identities and communities actually gets in the way of solidarity? He’s obviously correct that many of today’s “conservatives” have co-opted diversity as an individualistic (and profit-making) end in itself, and thus have turned conservative language and thought towards anything but historically “conservative” ends. But is he correct that somehow, in a post-colonial, post-civil rights movement world, “class” can still be as motivating of community feelings as it once was? I’d have to be convinced.
Thanks Russell. You know, I should probably read some Christopher Lasch. I tried a long time ago and never got anywhere with it. You write: “The question in my mind is, to what degree is Michaels correct that thinking about respect racial or religious or gender groups and identities and communities actually gets in the way of solidarity?” Yes, that probably is the question. Because it is quite clear that many times people have employed these pre-existing groupings as PROXIES in battles against inequality. There is a sense in which focusing on diversity was a PROXY attempt to fight inequality (plus feelings of historical guilt, of course, plus genuine feelings that better race relations were desirable.) It is a big step from saying that these proxy fights didn’t get close enough to what they REALLY wanted and saying they were actually a distraction from the real fight.
I’m curious whether he talks about species conservation in the book. Another case where legal fights that focus on ‘diversity’ have a somewhat deformed appearance. What people want is: the forest not clear-cut. The river not dammed. The way to do that is to find some ONE species that is threatened - spotted owl or some little rare fish. And then make the fight about that, since there is a legal angle to be worked. Of course people will then object: you care about owls more than workers. When actually the owl is just a diversity pretext. But a pretext on behalf of a genuine, serious attempt to preserve the forests and rivers. In a case like that - if the strategy doesn’t work - it wouldn’t be right to say ‘you got too obsessed with diversity’. The thing to say would be: you tried this proxy fight thing, but it didn’t work.
It now occurs to me a much better post title would have been, “Oh diverse fools, Oh diverse fools, the banker makes of you a tool!” (non-existent populist song, 2007)
I think it would clarify your post if you talked more explicitly about segregation. You seem (to me) to be dancing around it (e.g. your comment about Feudalism), but not to hit it. Why is Kirk, an American conservative, defending ‘diversity’ in the early 1950’s? It seems pretty clearly to be code—at least in part—for ‘State’s rights’. And we all know what that’s code for.
Anyway, I think that if we’re going to go back past 1965 on this topic, we need to talk explicitly about this. The positions that Michaels talks about (in the article—I haven’t read the book) are all explicitly post-65. Pre-65, things were very different; we should be explict about it.
That’s an interesting suggestion, Stephen. I don’t doubt that Kirk was in favor of segregation. But I don’t think it’s right to say that “The Conservative Mind” is a crypto-segregationist tract. And, since I think that Trilling and Mill and Tocqueville are worried about ‘diversity’ in somewhat the sense that Kirk has in mind - and I don’t think all that they say about it is crypto-segregationism. You are right that, once we go back BEFORE the 60’s, we are juggling so many complications that it is reasonable to suspect I am just dropping too many balls in a post like this. That is, I should have brought segregation in (and some other things, too.) But I don’t think it’s actually MORE key than the other things that I did manage to drag in. I think Kirk really is a Feudalist in the sense that he’s just vaguely nostalgic for a world in which he can live an aristocratic life, and deference relations will be ... oh, like they would have been for a Southern gentleman. Well, ok. But I think there’s MORE than that going on here.
It is a big step from saying that these proxy fights didn’t get close enough to what they REALLY wanted and saying they were actually a distraction from the real fight.
Yes. It’s not clear to me just what Michaels is saying. I can see an argument that says, “back in the day, the focus on diversty WAS a way of combatting inequality, but sometime during the last two decades diversity has been co-opted into obscuring inequality.” Michaels might be arguing that, but I can’t tell. You’d need a more detailed historical case to make that kind of argument. If I were a historian of contemporary American politics I’d think that an interesting thesis to explore.