Friday, October 06, 2006
The Trouble With Diversity: Eric Rauchway
[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:
Like the idea of diversity itself, history functions at best as a distraction from present injustices and at worst as a way of perpetuating them.
Now, we know Michaels doesn’t mean that history at best functions this way. How do we know? Because he begins the very next chapter by talking about incidents in 1892 and 1977 so he can construct his core argument about race and identity; Michaels knows perfectly well that history at best functions as a support for arguments about how to understand and perhaps improve present circumstances. But he evidently prefers the pugnacious mode.
He is equally pugnacious on many other subjects, and toward people—like disability activists—who will doubtlessly get much more annoyed than I. But this is my innings, and I’d like to devote it to the suggestion that Michaels has the right problem but the wrong solution.
As Michaels sees it, the dominant ideological force in the world today is neoliberalism, the collage of free-market beliefs supporting the unfettered international movement of capital, labor, and goods; beliefs usually taken to have institutional homes in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and to have a friendly press in The Economist. Michaels isn’t fighting neoliberalism directly, though: he’s fighting proponents of cultural diversity for enabling it: a left that “strives to achieve equality by celebrating diversity.... has ended up playing a useful if no doubt unintended role, the role of supplying the right with just the kind of left it wants.” (109) So long as Americans do not object to economic inequality, but only to discrimination, an awful lot of us will remain poor—certainly many more than, in justice, should.
So far as this goes, Michaels is surely correct. So what do we do? The only claim I’m sure he’s making is, we should stop talking so much about diversity and we should especially stop short of the idea—which apparently has some real support—that “poor” is a kind of culture to be appreciated, rather than a misfortune to be alleviated.
Which tells us what we should stop doing. But what should we start doing? It’s not clear. Given that the book itself is an argument against focusing on diversity instead of focusing on inequality, the assumption appears to be that if we focus on inequality instead of diversity, we will do right by each other. Simply shifting the emphasis in the national conversation away from an appreciation of cultural identity and toward a critique of inequality will work.
I do not think this is true: merely rational argument tends not to persuade Americans to oppose inequality. What does persuade? Appeals to identity.
An earlier generation of Americans beset by global open markets also experienced rising inequality and responded with good policies—but not because they did not focus on their cultural identity; rather the opposite. Americans of the early twentieth century spent a great deal of money on education and public health in response to immigration. In retrospect, we can say that these policies almost surely helped reduce inequality, contributing to the “great leveling” of the middle twentieth century in America.
But that’s not why citizens supported them at the time. They supported the growth of public education because, nervous about the foreign threat to their culture, they wanted to Americanize immigrants. As Michael Katz writes,
social commentators proved unable or unwilling to connect the problem they thought they saw around them with its structural basis, and they consequently ... retreated to an explanation which traced the source of a social problem to a ... set of foreign and inferior cultural traditions.¹
They supported the growth of municipal health budgets because, nervous about the foreign threat to their well-being, they wanted to clean up immigrant—and other racially different—neighborhoods. As one southern newspaper pointed out, you had to have better public health, even with segregation, because “from that segregated district, negro nurses would still emerge from diseased homes, to come into our homes, and hold our children in their arms...."²
In short, identity politics—frankly, racist identity politics—supported policies, both in the area of health and of education, that appear to have contributed to a substantial reduction of inequality.
Contrariwise, in a much more successful and, to us, acceptable phase of the twentieth-century campaign against inequality, a different form of identity politics proved useful. When Franklin Roosevelt wanted an estate tax, what did he say? “The transmission from generation to generation of vast fortunes by will, inheritance, or gift is not consistent with the ideals and sentiments of the American people.” When he wanted to challenge Americans to support a war on inequality, even though the worst of the depression had lifted, what did he say? “If I know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen to Comfort, Opportunism, and Timidity. We will carry on.” Roosevelt constructed an American identity and an American history that disapproved of inequality. If it was a “civic nationalism” Roosevelt relied on, one to which immigrants and other diverse ethnicities could aspire, it was not less nationalism, nor less a form of cultural identity, as Gary Gerstle points out.
In this period, a pro-diversity left made its case for multiculturalism, often while also making a case against inequality. One might look to Jane Addams, or to Randolph Bourne, who managed both in ways that appear rigorous today. The two campaigns have not proved mutually exclusive.
In fine I am not persuaded that history gives us good reason to believe that we would or could focus better on the problem of inequality by dispensing altogether with identity. I don’t much care for the first kind of identity politics I cited; what Americans might therefore use is an idea of American identity with which too much inequality is incompatible. Michaels might even agree with this proposition; in his section on Bolivian national identity he hints that he knows identity politics are quite useful. But he is so good at tearing things down he scarcely stops to tell us what he wants to put in their place.
¹Michael B. Katz, “The Origins of Public Education: A Reassessment,” The History of Education Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1974): 381-407; esp. 394.
²Cited in Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America (New York: Hill & Wang, 2006), 99.
. . . merely rational argument tends not to persuade Americans to oppose inequality. What does persuade? Appeals to identity. ?
As another somewhat different example, consider Philip A. Klinkner and Rogers M. Smith, The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equiality in America (Chicago 1999). Klinkner and Smith argue the blacks have made the most social progress during periods large-scale war requiring extensive social, political and economic mobilization. This happened during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II and the subsequent Cold War. During these periods (typically American) ideals of equality and justice were invoked to justify and inspire war efforts, thus bringing about global changes in the national psyche. These changes were favorable to blacks and permitted political and social progress toward equality. As a footnote to this general point, in Swing Changes David Stowe argues that jazz became journalistically annointed as typically American during the 30s, when it was recruited to serve as an example in anti-Nazi propaganda.
So, we’ve got racist identity politics in times of peace, anti-racist identity politics in times of war.
I think that a national-identity policy would fit very poorly with globalism and neoliberalism. Whenever you start to say that the American government should favor Americans, you’re at risk of being accused of chauvinism.
Over at DeLong’s there are two arguments going on—one about how globalism is so great, and another about how American wages are stagnant, above all in the lower third of the income distribution. I suspect a connection, but that’s not talked about by Brad; there’s a tendency to flat denial.