The Plot Against Equality | The Nation


The Plot Against Equality

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By lumping together the categories of race, class and gender--the holy trinity of academic cultural studies--and treating them as different but equal identities, we have decided to manage inequality rather than reduce, much less eradicate, it. For Michaels, this conceptual sleight of hand is nothing less than a crime.

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton
Robert S. Boynton, head of the Magazine Writing Program at New York University, is the author of The New New Journalism...

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The Trouble With Diversity is the most recent product of the movement the late cultural critic Ellen Willis dubbed "economic majoritarianism." Readers of Thomas Frank, Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty and others will be familiar with the thesis, according to which identity politics has led the left astray, miring it in endless cultural debates that sap the will and sacrifice elections. Only a renewed commitment to economic justice, the majoritarians argue, can revive it (a strategy vindicated, some argue, by the results of the midterm elections). Even literary critic Terry Eagleton has joined the anti-identity crowd, concluding his book After Theory (2003) with the charge that "cultural theory...cannot afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender."

Michaels's approach is more philosophical than that of these politically minded critics. Where they cautiously distance themselves from divisive ideological positions, he embraces them: He calls for redistributing wealth, abolishing inheritance and doing away with race-based affirmative action. He doesn't care about rallying a particular party or crusading for the underclass ("I'm not writing this book out of a passionate sense of identification with the poor," he told The Chronicle of Higher Education), and he confesses that even his $175,000 salary isn't enough to stifle his envy of the truly rich. His strategy is to reveal the flawed foundation on which the concepts of race and identity rest, in the hope that we therefore stop caring about them. "Treating race as a social fact amounts to nothing more than acknowledging that we were mistaken to think of it as a biological fact and then insisting that we ought to keep making the mistake," he writes. "Maybe instead we ought to stop making the mistake."

You don't have to be a black person from the slums or a Native American raised on a reservation to recognize the naïveté of this "sophisticated" analysis--resting, as it does, on the premise that a logical deconstruction of a concept can neutralize the power with which history has invested it. Michaels isn't a reactionary, but his quixotic faith in abstract reason is, as Orwell once wrote, "the sort of nonsense only an intellectual could believe." In a sense, The Trouble With Diversity is really two books in one. The first is a smart, unsentimental polemic that thinks nothing of declaring the death of a language (like American Sign Language) or a culture (like Bolivia's Aymara Indians) a "victimless crime." Coupled with that is a second book that resembles one of those yearly late-night conversations in which freshman philosophy majors scrutinize, and swiftly "solve," the problems of the world. Michaels is as right about the conceptual incoherence of racial/identity politics as he is wrong and facile about how one might go about alleviating them.

Michaels's fondness for all-or-nothing reasoning first appeared in "Against Theory," the 1982 essay he wrote with Steven Knapp. Theory had come to dominate literary studies, they complained, leading critics to view themselves as working with the kind of foundational, transcendental principles commonly associated with science or certain branches of philosophy. As an alternative, they advocated more practical, if less precise, approaches, such as New Historicism. No school of thought was exempt from their wrath. "If we are right," they wrote, "then the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned."

In The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987), Michaels solidified his reputation as one of the leading scholars of American culture with innovative readings of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novelists like Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris and Nathaniel Hawthorne. With Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995), he rehearsed the ideas that come to fruition in The Trouble With Diversity. Our America is essentially a genealogy of American multiculturalism, beginning with the story of how authors of the 1920s--William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather--contributed to a racial (and racist) basis for American identity. Whereas these authors conceived of their work as shifting from a racial to a cultural conception of identity--from stultifying superiority to a liberating diversity, in which all identities are equal--Michaels showed how their project was not as progressive as it seemed, and in fact lent itself to racial thinking of a kind they would have abhorred. At one point, even the Ku Klux Klan adopted the phrase "Difference Not Inferiority" as a slogan.

Furthermore, Michaels accused contemporary champions of postidentity theory--those who envisage identity as contingent, performative and fluid--of employing the very racial essentialism they oppose. The more we emphasize culture and diversity, he scolded, the more we become mired in race. We inevitably answer the question "What should we do?" in terms of "who we are"--an appeal to racial/ethnic identity. The quest for identity is a vicious circle in which one can never escape the nineteenth-century notion of race. "For racial identity to become a project, it must turn to culture; for cultural identity to become a project, it must turn to race," he wrote.

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