Friday, January 26, 2007

Leftists Against Diversity

Via A&L Daily comes a polemic against the happy talk of diversitarianism. Walter Benn Michaels' The Trouble With Diversity apparently examines how racial concerns have overshadowed economic ones among the progressive set:

But as Mr. Michaels notes in his sharply argued polemic The Trouble with Diversity, that tends to be the very point of the jargon of diversity: It allows us not to talk about the increasingly rigid partition of our society along class lines. For as we enthusiastically fine-tune our sensibilities about how cultural or racial groupings can best be spoken about or symbolized, most social goods in our country—health care, affordable housing and higher education, income support, a living wage—drift further and further out of reach for many ordinary Americans. This is far from accidental, Mr. Michaels says; the marketing of cultural diversity as a social desideratum has crowded out any clear understanding—especially on the left end of the political spectrum—of how class privilege operates in America today.

Examples abound, but Mr. Michaels correctly focuses on the fetishizing of racial difference—a tic shared among partisans of every ideological persuasion—as the key factor in the flight from a class-based politics. Mr. Michaels doesn’t deny the persistence of racism, but notes that it’s been significantly downgraded: "Racism has been privatized," he writes, "converted from a political position into a personal failing." And Americans romance nothing quite so ardently as remedies for a personal failing: The mandate to appreciate the anodyne ideal of "cultural diversity"—itself a labored euphemism for the defeat of structural racism—"gives us a vision of difference without equality," since all cultures in this view of things are equally worthy of respect. And this central reverie, Mr. Michaels argues, means that "the political commitment to equality involves not creating it (by, say, redistributing wealth) but just insisting that it’s already there."


In reality, of course, the whole notion of encouraging economic diversity is farcical: A sane view of social justice involves decreasing the number of poor people, and hence reducing economic diversity. "Indeed," Mr. Michaels writes, "since economic diversity is just another name for economic inequality, it’s hard to see why we would want to promote it."

During my college years, I always felt the superficiality in the ever-present encomia to diversity. My aloofness from the celebrations derived in part from my disdain for its collapse of particular ethnicity into a vague racial "Whiteness." I also chafed at the unsubtle religiously-blind secularism of diversity-boosters.

In hindsight, the absence of complaint about economic divisions becomes more notable. Most everyone on a college campus, the maintenance staff excepted, is a part of or well on their way to becoming part of the professional class, and the poorer students are too busy working multiple jobs to seek attention. Perhaps a latent meritocratic disdain for the uncredentialed, the feeling of being above the herd in the "top twenty percent" of the educated, affects even the most sensitive activist souls.

However great the ineptitude of progressive economic policy, diverse platitudes hinder it from the dignity of popular consideration, not to mention refutation.

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