Benn There, Done That

Recently I have had (or at least taken) several opportunities to mention a new book by Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity, that criticizes the new fetish for “diversity,” and its sibling, multiculturalism, from the left. (See here, here, and here.)

Michaels’s book is getting, and is likely to continue to get, so much attention, however, that I should probably say a few more things about it. (See, for example, here and here). First, since Michaels is no dummy, many of his critiques of “diversity” are quite cogent. Consider, for example, these comments from an article in The American Prospect adapted from the introduction to his book. After Bakke introduced us to “diversity” as a rationale for discrimination, Michaels notes that two things happened:

First, even though the concept of diversity was not originally connected with race (universities had long sought diverse student bodies without worrying about race at all), the two now came to be firmly associated. When universities publish their diversity statistics today, they’re not talking about how many kids come from Oregon. My university — the University of Illinois at Chicago — is ranked as one of the most diverse in the country, but well over half the students in it come from Chicago. What the rankings measure is the number of African Americans and Asian Americans and Latinos we have, not the number of Chicagoans.

And, second, even though the concept of diversity was introduced as a kind of end run around the historical problem of racism (the whole point was that you could argue for the desirability of a diverse student body without appealing to the history of discrimination against blacks and so without getting accused by people like Alan Bakke of reverse discrimination against whites), the commitment to diversity became deeply associated with the struggle against racism. Indeed, the goal of overcoming racism — of creating a “color-blind” society — was now reconceived as the goal of creating a diverse, that is, a color-conscious, society. Instead of trying to treat people as if their race didn’t matter, we would not only recognize but celebrate racial identity. Indeed, race has turned out to be a gateway drug for all kinds of identities, cultural, religious, sexual, even medical. To take what may seem like an extreme case, advocates for the disabled now urge us to stop thinking of disability as a condition to be “cured” or “eliminated” and to start thinking of it instead on the model of race: We don’t think black people should want to stop being black; why do we assume the deaf want to hear?

Michaels is perceptive enough to notice that “diversity” enshrines rather than minimizes race.

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. The American love affair with race — especially when you can dress race up as culture — has continued and even intensified. Almost everything we say about culture (that the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that our cultural heritages should be perpetuated, that there’s a value in making sure that different cultures survive) seems to me mistaken. We must shift our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American intellectual life

As this last paragraph makes clear, Michaels’s real objection to “diversity” is that it diverts us from the more important task of redistributing wealth. What makes race “a good thing,” he says, “is that it’s not class.”

We love race — we love identity — because we don’t love class. We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don’t have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it. A world where some of us are black and some of us are white — or bi-racial or Native American or transgendered — is a world where the differences between us present a solution: appreciating our diversity. So we like to talk about the differences we can appreciate, and we don’t like to talk about the ones we can’t….

Here the reliably liberal Inside Higher Ed, almost visibly shocked at academia being attacked from the left on a cultural-political matter, makes the same point about Michaels’s openly leftist motivation for dropping “diversity”:

There are moments when he sounds very much like a paleo-Marxist — one who had discovered the dark secret that multiculturalism is a plot by the extremely wealthy to befuddle everyone else. “The commitment to diversity,” Michaels writes, “has turned liberalism into a program for making rich people of different skin colors and sexual orientations more ‘comfortable’ while leaving intact the thing that makes them the most comfortable of all: their wealth.”


“We would much rather get rid of racism,” he writes, “than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.”

But it’s hard even for those who would like to reject Michaels to deny the force of much of what he says. Thus Inside Higher Ed continues:

To a large degree, Michaels says in his new book, “culture is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity.” It seems difficult to dispute this point. (“The multi in multiculturalism,” as he puts it, “has nothing to do with some people liking Mozart and other people liking the Strokes.”)

For his part, Michaels will have none of this repackaging of racist pseudoscience as “anti-racist” cultural relativism. He draws a hard line: “Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences,” he writes, “or there is no such thing as race, whatever it’s called.”

Hard, perhaps, but not impossible, as Scott McLemee, strains to demonstrate:

… when Michaels throws out a passing reference to living “in a world where most of us are not racist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racism is rare but that it is extinct),” it is hard not to wonder if the man gets off campus much.


Whatever the faults, distractions, and bad faith associated with multiculturalism, it is not some obstacle to pursuing the real politics of social justice. The capacity to respect groups very different from one’s own is not just a form of politeness. Michaels’s book is provocative, and I hope it helps revitalize the emergence of economic populism in this country. If that does happen, though, multiculturalism will not be a dispensible luxury, but rather an absolute prerequisite.

Although Michaels’s desire to dump “diversity,” multiculturalism, and identity politics in favor of purely economic, redistributionist class politics may sound novel, even somewhat “exhilarating” as it shocks current academic sensibilities, it is really not new at all. Indeed, Michaels’s argument both in general and in particular is for the most part little more than garden variety 1930s Marxist rhetoric, updated only in its vocabulary. Even his arch villain, “neo-liberalism,” is not that different from Marxist targets in the 1930s, nor does his view that concern with black rights or women’s rights amounts to a deviationst diversion from true progressive politics differ from the 1930s Marxists, who regarded women and blacks as simply workers with breasts or black skins.

Michaels even retains much of the Marxist “socialist realism” aesthetic, dismissing the argument, for example, that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a great novel because of its politics. As an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted:

Talk to him about Ms. Morrison’s novel Beloved, for instance — which The New York Times Book Review recently declared the best American novel of the past 25 years — and he will tell you that “if there ever were a neoliberal novel, Beloved is it.” Why? Because it valorizes identity and choice, “precisely the two things that matter most to neoliberalism.”

Beloved may or may not be a great novel, but whether it is or not is not determined by whether or not it is “neoliberal.” (For what it’s worth, my quarrel here is not with the judgment on Beloved but with the criteria used to evaluate it. Moreover, this may be a good place to note that American political discourse could be much improved by simply banning all comment — most of which comes from literature professors — by anyone who turns nouns into verbs like “valorizes.”)

When one gets down to what sort of class policies Michaels proposes, his argument tends to decline from the pretentious to the predictable, and predictably silly. Consider, for example (from the American Prospect article linked earlier):

…. The entire U.S. school system, from pre-K up, is structured from the very start to enable the rich to out-compete the poor, which is to say, the race is fixed. And the kinds of solutions that might actually make a difference — financing every school district equally, abolishing private schools, making high-quality child care available to every family — are treated as if they were positively un-American.

Every school district in the entire country? Rural along with urban? Would “high quality child care” really promote equality? Wouldn’t the children return to unequal homes after all that quality care during the day? Surely abolishing private schools wouldn’t accomplish much equalizing unless private tutoring were also abolished. What about the private ownership of books? Wouldn’t allowing that luxury give rich people an enormous advantage over those who can’t afford, or choose not to buy, their own books?

Perhaps all such concerns could be left to the apparatchiks to work out after the revolution. Still, for someone with such a wide-ranging indictment of our ignoring what really matters, there seems to be precious little here in the way of concrete suggestions — and, perhaps even more surprising, even a theoretical incoherence.

Despite all the criticism of “diversity,” for example, there seems to be (so far I’ve read only articles, not the book) little concern with what, for lack of a more modern term, we used to call individual rights. True, Michaels does argue — incorrectly, as it happens — that a supposed virtue of “diversity” is that somehow it prevented “people like Alan Bakke” from complaining of “reverse discrimination.” Of course, it didn’t, and shouldn’t, because being penalized because of one’s race is being penalized because of one’s race whether the penalty is imposed to compensate someone else for wrongs suffered by his ancestors or provide “diversity” to others. This observation, however, confirms that Michaels, like his friend and colleague Stanley Fish, has little use for the supposed right of an individual to be free from racial discrimination.

How curious, then, that in his Chronicle interview he throws out rather nonchalantly that, although abortion has nothing to do with truly progressive politics, of course he believes “that no woman should be deprived of the right to have an abortion.”

“Right”? Does Michaels believe in any other individual rights? If so, what are they? Where do they come from? What is the nature of the “right” to an abortion, and where is that “right” located? If one believed in such bourgeois notions as rights, principles, etc., one could easily argue, as many have, that that “right” is embedded, somewhere, in the Constitution, and thus that democratically elected majorities are prevented from tampering with it. But, based on the evidence I’ve seen, I don’t see how Michaels can argue in such a manner. Or maybe he’s just borrowing a page from Fish’s manual (see here, here, here, among others) and arguing not from principle but from convenience.

Say What? (1)

  1. Anita September 25, 2006 at 11:15 am | | Reply

    Michaels writes: A world where some of us don’t have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it.

    How much money is enough money? Since Michaels is referring to the US, where the poor have mp3 players and spend $50 to $100 or more getting hair done (I know, because the poor are my relations) how much more money should they get. And from whom should it be taken? And then what if the poor insist on using the money to go to the Bahamas. Should they be punished? If I spent my youth working and studying should my money be given to my cousin who spent her youth partying? we both now have the rewards of our past behavior. I have more money because I worked for it. On the other hand she has had more experiences, and probably more fun that I have had. I don’t think I should be robbed to benefit her. The defects of the present system are preferable to the defects of the enforced equality Michaels would like to bring about.

Say What?