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Thursday, October 05, 2006

What we like

Posted by Miriam Burstein on 10/05/06 at 03:36 PM

Early on, WBM tells us that "we love race--we love identity--because we don’t love class" (6).   His choice of verb proves to be a little odd, because this is not a book in which anyone loves much of anything, let alone "identity."  Instead, America turns out to be overpopulated by people who merely "like" things.  We like "the differences we can appreciate" (6), "the middle class" (6), "stories in which the big problem is whether or not you fit in" (9), "the idea of cultural equality" (17), and "being proud of our culture" (18).  And that’s just a non-exhaustive list from the introduction; the liking persists (tick-tock, tick-tock...) throughout the book.  Apparently, Americans don’t have the emotional capital to make a lasting commitment to differences, classes, ideas, or what-have-you.  We merely like them, as one might like chocolate ice cream or a moderately engaging daytime soap opera.  Of course, if we can shunt identity into the category of things we merely "like," not "love," then jettisoning identity itself becomes a matter of changing taste.

WBM’s frequent recourse to "like," with its decided overtones of superficiality, may be a minor tic--but it highlights the more puzzling elements of this book.  After all, WBM proposes what in effect amounts to a full social revolution, but neglects to inform us how we might go about doing such a thing.   Instead, we have a very English professor-y sort of book (I’m an English professor--I can say that without too much fear of reprisal, I think), in which changing the subject of our national conversation comes to bear the same weight as altering the Constitution [1]. Indeed, WBM’s claim that "our current notion of cultural diversity...in fact grew out of and perpetuates the very concepts it congratulates itself on having escaped" (7) itself grows out of and perpetuates a familiar interpretive strategy that it may or may not be congratulating itself on escaping.  ("Author X’s critique of gendered subjectivities actually deploys the heterosexist logic that it claims to subvert.")  More seriously, WBM’s critical faculties occasionally absent themselves when faced with other scholarly disciplines.  His argument about race, for example, overconfidently appropriates current genetic research as though both its conclusions and its implications are settled, instead of still under heated debate (something that quickly becomes apparent by searching MEDLINE).   Similarly, while he rightly  distinguishes between "disagreement" and "prejudice" when it comes to current religious controversies (178) [2], it is not reassuring to find him seriously arguing that conservative Christian attitudes to homosexuality boil down to cherrypicking from Leviticus (184).  Just because we don’t "like" those attitudes doesn’t mean that we get to ignore the actual intellectual history behind them (which is quite long and reasonably complex).  And, as commenters at this site have already pointed out, WBM makes only the skimpiest of attempts to engage with actual economists.  There’s certainly a point to this book, but some of us would like (or love) more of an argument for it.   

One more issue: I can’t help wondering about how WBM defines "American history."  How, he wonders, "is the Holocaust part of American history?" (53)  Is "American history" defined by a concrete geographical boundary, or does it matter that an event outside America, experienced by people who may have later become American citizens (and witnessed at the end by American soldiers), may have had some sort of impact on American culture?

[1] As someone who specializes in literature from the other side of the pond, I can’t quite see the connection between "loving" to talk about class and inequality and doing something about inequality.   

[2]  Except that Ophelia Benson has been making this point over and over again. 


what I take WBM to be suggesting with his use of “love” here is not entirely unreasonable.  It’s hard to come up with a simple affirmation of working-class identity in the American context, since such identity tends to get associated with poverty, which is seen as privative, a plight to be escaped en route to the dream....in that, fairly limited sense, we don’t “love” poverty:  nobody chants “Poor Is Beautiful!” [John Guillory made this point in _Cultural Capital_ as I recall....] At the same time, it’s a pretty limited point:  it hardly counts as an argument that there aren’t also intersections where identity and class-based politics might meet…

By on 10/06/06 at 12:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem, Nick, is that WBM’s ideas are more a “war on poverty” than a class war.  Health care, more money for public schools, banned private schools, estate taxes—these would alliviate some of the suffering of the very poor, but wouldn’t begin to even out the swells and troughs between rich and poor. 

The question is: to what extent is WBM’s vision of class basically an attempt to assuage his own obvious middle class guilt?  He explicitly states in the final, bat-shit-crazy chapter that he would like the homeless guy outside his window to just go away (not in a “round up the poor” way, but in a “no more homeless people” way).  He clearly wants to steal from the very richest and give to the very poorest.  But there’s no clear sense how he’d really even out the playing field for every American child—an idea that would require wholesale social engineering, maybe, removing children from parents, perhaps, raising them in “Equal Opportunity Training Camps” with individual trust funds for the future, so that rich and middle class kids have no unfair advantages and poor kids have no unfair burdens?

Then there’s the irony Alan Wolfe points out: WBM has made a career—and a huge salary—out of talking about race—even if, or especially if, his way of talking about race is to tell us constantly to stop talking about race.  He wants to deflate any possible ad hominem critique in that last chapter, but “Qui bono?” is *not* ad hominem.  WBM *knows* he’ll only sell books by talking about race, and good for him, because his basic message—we need to think much harder about class—is sorely needed.  But we’d certainly like *him* to start really talking about class too.  (And talking about high-powered female lawyers, Harvard admissions, and homeless people isn’t class—any more than Proust’s novels are about class—in each case, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, these thinkers run the gamut from A to B.)

By on 10/06/06 at 06:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"...wholesale social engineering, maybe, removing children from parents, perhaps, raising them in “Equal Opportunity Training Camps”...

So, Luther, I’m assuming your ‘socialism = putting children in concentration camps!’ argument isn’t actually lifted from WBM’s book?  That’s you extrapolating a possible policy/stategy from his premises, right?

By Adam Roberts on 10/06/06 at 12:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Miriam; there is a general problem with having a book that seems to be about politics that is written by an English professor.  That is, I think, the underlying reason why so many people who comment on this book wonder what positive political program is involved—and why people make up their own idea of what such a program would look like, either to support it or attack it.

One of my particular reasons for not liking Theory, in general, is that it flatters English profs, cultural studies profs, and so on into thinking that they know more about politics than plumbers or mechanics do.  But there really is no reason why they should.  For instance, there is no reason why WBM’s opinions about language diversity (if he were an expert on linguistics, which he isn’t) or cultural diversity (if he were an expert on sociology, which he isn’t) should have any actual connection to the causes or effects of multiculturalism within politics.  This is true for more than Theory, of course, it’s just that before Theory people seemed a little less eager to believe that literature was a model for reality, and that if you knew about literature, you knew about all of reality.

It’s the Gatsby syndrome.  If you can’t discuss class without bringing up _The Great Gatsby_, maybe you should think twice about what you’re doing and what it’s based on.

And all such literary critiques of politics tend to be negative.  The current political situation is analyzed as if it is a text, or discourse, and inconsistancies are pointed out.  Well, so what?

By on 10/06/06 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I was making a very localized and hypothetical point about, let’s call it the politics of affirmation--not a general defense of WBMs position. 

I basically agree with Rich’s point--until we get to this:  “before Theory people seemed a little less eager to believe that literature was a model for reality, and that if you knew about literature, you knew about all of reality...”

Whenever a nostalgic argument about the profession rears its head I get a little cautious.  Go back and read some of the claims made by the New Critics; substitute, say, “humanity” for “reality”, and I’d be they look pretty similar.
To put it more generally, “English” hasn’t been a coherent entity since its (pretty damn recent) formation.  This tends to make it a home for theoretical developments of all sorts that can’t find a place elsewhere.  At the level of the university, I’m pretty happy with this:  queer theory, eg, is something I want to see going on.  The fact that it goes on at the level of the English department is contingent, obviously, and maybe less than ideal…

WBM has been writing about how we think about the American self [I’ve read the two previous academic books, not this one], representations of which tend to appear in, ahem, literary texts; it’s hard to draw a line as to where this issue suddenly becomes one of politics rather than American studies.  I mean, what IS “the current political situation”?  Does it NOT include representations of American selfhood?  Whitman thought so…

By on 10/06/06 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, yes, it’s my reductio argument.  WBM argues—correctly, from an abstract POV—that no child deserves his or her poverty or poorness (or wealth).  So that if we truly believe in equality of opportunity, we should support a total leveling of the playing field.

Sounds good, but there’s no *there* there, no possible way of doing that short of removing children from their parents.  You can’t give children monthly checks, because there’s no way to stop the child or parent from wasting the money.  Better funded schools are fine, but The Coleman Report showed that there’s no clear link between money school funding and better school performance.  According to the Report, home culture is more important than school culture.  Health care will keep the poor healthy, but not make them much wealthier.  Banned private schools will dump the privileged into the public school system, but their advantages will remain because their home culture offers advantages that the home culture of the poor doesn’t often afford.  Estate taxes will skim money off the rich, but how to we get it to the poor in such a way as actually to increase their net worth? 

Better jobs is a sounder way, but notice how WBM (to my memory) never once mentions outsourcing, globalization, the dominance of the service industry, and so on.  A bunch of Harvard educated hourly wage workers at the call center won’t help matters much. 

WBM talks a lot of talk about “redistribution of wealth” as if a mantra will work.  Ultimately, to go back to Sean and Scott’s critique of the New Left’s “magic,” I don’t see much difference betweeen Allen Ginsberg chanting to levitate the Pentagon and WBM chanting to levitate the net worth of the world’s poor.

By on 10/06/06 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

nick: “I mean, what IS “the current political situation”?  Does it NOT include representations of American selfhood?  Whitman thought so…”

Well, this is sort of an example of what I mean.  Yes, representations of American selfhood are included in the current political situation, but a) they aren’t all of it, and b) analyzing the current political situation doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about how that situation can be changed.  That’s what I meant by my perception that these critiques tend to be essentially negative—literary studies people are good at finding things within a text, not so good at writing new texts.

With regard to the New Criticism, you’re probably mostly right, although I don’t think that the New Critics seemed to think that they were sociologists and philosophers of science and experts in political theory in the way that Theorists do.

By on 10/06/06 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, and I should add that I’m probably being unfair to Theory amidst the other components of the contemporary humanities.  What I’m talking about is a broader phenomenon.

By on 10/06/06 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The point is not to analyze the world, but to change it?  you want praxis from WBM?  fair enough--though few writers lately would avoid the sort of criticism you level.  For better or for worse, (mostly for the worse) I class his new book alongside Dinesh D’Souza, etc, etc.  It’s a mass-market airport-puchase polemic-jeremiad talking-point book [we need a single German compound noun for that...]

PS:  don’t forget the connection between the New Critical advocacy of lyric poetry and Agrarian political positions.  The link between Eng Lit departments and cultural critique is pretty longstanding, in part because the department is itself the location of definitional struggle…

By on 10/06/06 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I plan to come back at a later point to why I don’t think Michaels’s complaint against diversity talk is the same thing as the magical thinking Michael Szalay and I have complained about, though I see the point of your comparison and don’t think it’s entirely off base.

I’m struck, though, by the points you make and similar comments that you make elsewhere in this discussion.  You seem to think that there’s no public policy that can meaningfully affect the distribution of wealth.  That’s not entirely surprising coming from someone who, if I remember correctly, doesn’t think it matters which party controls all three branches of the federal government, and it would explain why you disagree so strongly with Michaels.  But, frankly, it really is a reduction to the absurd. Just take one of your examples: “Health care will keep the poor healthy, but not make them much wealthier.” I suppose it depends on what you mean by “much,” but unless it means “stupendously,” I can’t see how this is at all plausible.

By on 10/07/06 at 08:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Better jobs is a sounder way, but notice how WBM (to my memory) never once mentions outsourcing, globalization, the dominance of the service industry, and so on.

I believe that, in his language discussion, he suggests that, if the world economy should change drastically in the future, that Americans would want to learn Hindi so they can qualify for call-center jobs out-sourced from India.

By Bill Benzon on 10/07/06 at 09:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I would like to see Democrats behind the wheel, and I’d love to see free health care, better-funded public schools, progressive taxation, better social services, and so on.  I’ve said before that I’m basically a New Deal/Great Society Democrat.

But the truth is that the New Deal and Great Society didn’t really level-out the class differences at all.

And my point about health care is made by WBM himself when he criticizes feminist demands for equal wages.  He claims that wage parity would only make the difference of a couple thousand dollars to a Wal-Mart employee.  Well, Mr. Michaels, that’s all the difference that free health insurance would make to most employees.

My question still is: how do we make sure that those in jobs making $20,000 a year are given an extra $20,000 to lift them out of their class?  WBM has no ideas here, nor do I, beyond simplistic Robin-Hood policies.  Nor does he address the cultural issues that keep people from building wealth rather than wasting it. 

Let’s remember that WBM focuses on race, identity, gender, disability, language, and religion.  He might criticize such politics, but every one of his publications spends more time on them than on class.

I don’t disagree with WBM’s ideas, I disagree with his approach.  He presents himself as the only man with the balls to take on the culturalists in the name of class.  Meanwhile, thousands of marxian intellectuals and activists around the world are taking on the issue of class.  Why not write a book covering those folks, rather than one mocking Cornel West’s inability to catch a cab?

But the difference between criticizing race and celebrating class politics is the difference between a big cash advance and mainstream publication on the one hand and no money and an anarchist press on the other.  Qui bono? exactly.

By on 10/07/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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