Thursday, May 17, 2007

Examining the new Pangloss

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, liberal philosophy, class, race, wealth, poverty, diversity

The book is The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Benn Michaels

I'll start with some Quotes:

The 3 goals of the book:
(1) " show how our current notion of cultural diversity—trumpeted as the repudiation of racism and biological essentialism—in fact grew out of and perpetuates the very concepts it congratulates itself on having escaped."
(2) " show how and why the American love affair with race—especially when you can dress up race as culture—has continued and even intensified."
(3) " shifting our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality—to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life." (p 7)

Ch 1, "The Trouble With Race": "Learning how to rap doesn't make you a black person; it just makes you a rapper." (p 43)

Ch 2, "Our Favorite Victims": "The only inequalities we're prepared to do anything about are the ones that interfere with the free market." (p 78)

Ch 3, "Richer, Not Better": "...the politics of the neoliberal imagination involves [sic] respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth." (p 110)

Ch 4, "Just and Unjust Rewards": "...our efforts to solve the problem of not so much a contribution to justice as it is a way of accepting injustice." (p 116)
"...the rich people would like a broader experience of life, but they can't get it without having some poor people around." (p 120)
"...a world in which everyone was required to finish the race at the same time would be very different from a world in which everyone was required to start it at the same time." (p 134)

Ch 5, "Who Are We? Why Should We Care?": "...when we clash with others, it's usually because we think we're right, not because we're defending our identity." (p 157)

Ch 6, "Religion in Politics: The Good News": "The trouble with diversity, then, is not just that it won't solve the problem of economic inequality; it's that it makes it hard for us even to see the problem." (p 172)
Same page: "Of the 37 million poor people [in America] in 2004, almost 17 million (45.6% of the total) were white. These people are not the victims of discrimination past or present."
"We should be color-blind because color has nothing to do with beliefs. We shouldn't be religion-blind because religion has everything to do with beliefs." (p 179)
"...disputes about religion—understood as the pope [sic: Pope] understands them, as disputes about what is universally true—are indeed useful reminders that you can't exactly be for diversity of beliefs in the way that you can be for diversity of identities." (p 188)

Epilog, "Conclusion: About the Author": "The unfairness is not in people making fun of your choices; the unfairness is in your not getting to make those choices."

Vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker (not quoted in the book): "I've been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better."

When I first read the title, I thought "Identity" referred to the concept of making everyone identical, something like "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut...or perhaps "outcome-based education", as hijacked for social engineering purposes (OK, I'll stop there, I promise).

No, it refers to "cultural identity" or "ethnicity". When you get right down to it, in case the quotes above didn't make it clear, the author's thesis is simply "poverty isn't an ethnicity, it is a problem we must address, but 'diversity' has blinded us to it."

The author is an irritating fellow. That made the book hard for me to read, but it certainly makes him a valuable gadfly. So, it may be awful, but somebody has to do it. Yet, I found myself wondering, is it possible to make everyone happy. Here are a few reasons why not:

  • Some people are never happy with anything.
  • Some are chronically depressed—and some of them are unaffected by every antidepressant so far invented.
  • Some are simply cynical, and the happiest they get is when they see their cynicism is justified; sadly, the event always makes someone else unhappy.
  • Some are too inwardly focused to be helped. They may be unhappy, but they're "least unhappy" when left alone.
  • Some people are only made happy by winning a zero-sum game; someone else has to lose.
  • Some are only made happy by causing unhappiness, harm, or death.
  • Some are too angry, about everything, all the time, to have a happy thought.
  • Some cling to a "dearest wish" that will not, cannot, ever be satisfied.
Still, it is my observation that "the greatest good for the greatest number" arises from democracy and freedom.

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