Sunday, November 23, 2008

Diversity Troubles

The Trouble with Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels is one of the most infuriating books that I have read recently. What makes it particularly infuriating is that I agree with so much of its basic premises.

Michaels believes that we have been ignoring inequality and that diversity is being used as a way to divert attention from inequality. He points out how easy it is for corporations, colleges, and the wealthy to be in favor of diversity, since it costs so little, especially compared to what even beginning to rectify inequality would cost. Especially cheap are the apologies corporations make for their participation in slavery--and the benefits they can reap from acting contrite.

He points out the ambiguity of race and the motley interconnections of race and culture. More importantly, he points out the problem with treating class as a diversity issue--you end up talking about the contributions of poor and working class people instead of talking about changing the class system. Imagining a society where rich and poor are both respected is a liberal dream. Imagining a society without rich or poor is a more radical vision.

In all this, I agree with him. The problem is that instead of simply saying diversity is used sometimes as a smokescreen, in this book Michaels attacks diversity. He blames diversity for subverting attempts at equality, claims that if one culture is as good as another than no culture is worthwhile, states that cultural identity is meaningless, and believes that it doesn't matter if the entire world speaks only one language in the future and all other languages are forgotten (and he doesn't care which language it is).

All this reminds me of the song from the sixties that wanted to make the world into a big melting pot "...turning out coffee colored people by the score." Everyone the same color, speaking the same language, dressed identically... sure it makes equality easier, but it's not my vision of a better society.

In an early post I discussed the various radical groups that each believed that their focus was the only one possible, including Marxists who thought everything could be reduced down to economics. I'm not sure that Walter Benn Michaels is a Marxist, but he certainly seems to act as if economics were the essential thing. While diversity can be used to mask economic inequality, looking at the importance of cultural and gender differences is as much a part of social change as the elimination of class. It's not an either/or proposition, but about going for both/and.

He gets so worked up about people who talk about race instead of class that in one of his notes he singles out Betsy Leondar-Wright for talking about a "racial wealth divide" in a report about Hurricane Katrina. He says: "It's not the wealth divide that Leondar-Wright sees as the problem; it's the fact that it's racial." The trouble is that it's not true. Betsy Leondar-Wright is the author of the book Class Matters and has worked with United for a Fair Economy to "help build social movements for greater equality." She definitely sees the class divide as a problem for everyone.

Michaels likes religion, ideology, and other belief systems because they don't simply talk about differences, they think that what they believe is right and what others believe is wrong. He is, for this reason, particularly critical of 'religious diversity'. I get the sense that Mr. Michaels likes conflict. The final chapter of this book is entitled "Religion in Politics: The Good News" and, as far as I could see, the good news is that people are fighting about religion. How this helps reduce inequality is something I can't figure out.

He ends the book with a section analyzing himself in the third person ("Conclusion: About the Author"), which while making some valid points, is a bit too cute for my comfort. I mostly agree, however, with his final couple of sentences: "When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural difference but on reducing the reality of economic difference. That is the heart of a progressive politics." Unfortunately, nowhere in this book does he describe a program for "reducing the reality of economic difference".

Lisa Duggan has written a book that addresses the same issues, but she doesn't set diversity and identity politics in opposition to economic equality. I will review it in my next post.

Quote of the day: "Where the (neoliberal) [sic] right likes status instead of class, the (neoliberal) left likes culture and the diversity version of respect the poor is respect the Other. ... That's why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management tool ... in about ten minutes and without having to make the slightest adjustment." - Walter Benn Michaels
Word (or phrase) of the day: Chapstick Lesbian
Hero(es) of the day: Gregory Bateson

1 comment:

CrackerLilo said...

When you look at the corporate treatment of diversity, all you have to do is follow the money. They understand that all kinds of people have it, and that people are more likely to give it if they feel the company respects people like them, BFL. That or they need to attract and retain a wider variety of talent...that is, employees. I'm no Marxist, but I also know that corporate executives do the right thing for the right reason. When they do the right thing, it's for their reasons, and benefits for others are a happy little garnish on the plate.

May have to check out that book.