Arts » Arts Etc.

Skin Deep


When an ordinary term becomes a catchphrase, it is time to examine what or who is being caught

By Walter Benn Michaels
$23, 256 pages
When an ordinary term becomes a catchphrase, it is time to examine what or who is being caught. “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” proclaimed John F. Kennedy, replacing Woodrow Wilson’s quixotic goal of making the world safe for democracy with a new orthodoxy — the belief that heterodoxy is not only desirable but essential. Across the political spectrum, Americans in diverse ways worship diversity. In thousands of corporations, colleges, nonprofit organizations, and government institutions, diversity officers, like salaried Noahs, strive to shelter every kind. “We honor diversity in this country,” George W. Bush announced at a prayer breakfast. “We respect people’s deep convictions.”

Walter Benn Michaels is deeply convinced that obsession with diversity distracts us from recognizing and dealing with the most urgent social injustice — economic inequality. While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, most are too busy savoring curry in the cafeteria and Hispanics in the board room to pay much attention. A professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose student body (21 percent Asian, 13 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American) is ranked among the 10 most “diverse” in the nation, Michaels notes that race lacks any basis in biology. Nevertheless, transmuted into cultural identity, it remains the focus of public conversation. With racism discredited almost universally, the strategy of the left is to respect racial differences and the strategy of the right to ignore them. “Either way,” says Michaels in his provocative new book, The Trouble with Diversity, “economic inequality is absolutely untouched.” Assigning everyone to an ethnic category and treating every category as equally worthy of respect is, he insists, fundamentally reactionary. Michaels complains that “the least important thing about us — our identity — is the thing we have become most committed to talking about.”

The cult of diversity has, according to Michaels, reduced politics to mere etiquette — paying due deference to ethnic, religious, and sexual groupings. Unlike George Allen and Kinky Friedman, someone trained in the protocols of diversity knows not to give offense. Yet what Michaels has to say will offend professional sectarians of all sorts (Nor will his call for the abolition of private schools delight alumni of Christian academies or Stanford University). Presuming that the principal goal of social policy ought to be narrowing the huge and growing gap in wealth, he complains that affirmative-action programs have nothing to do with economic justice. In 2004, Morgan Stanley lost a sexual-discrimination case brought by an employee whose male colleagues surpassed her annual income of more than $1 million. The $12 million settlement she received surely pleased the plaintiff, but it was cold comfort to the millions of workers — female, male, of every ethnic category — whose wages are inadequate. While corporations boast about the diversity of a workforce paid $10 an hour, their CEOs make off with $50 million a year.

How to remedy the discrepancy? A commitment to equality cannot mean equality of outcome. No one opposes a (fair) disparity between the salaries of a burger flipper and a neurosurgeon. However, if inferior schooling, health care, nutrition, and housing force someone into a life of flipping burgers, then equality of opportunity is denied. Tallying the census of middle-class blacks and Latinos at Harvard creates the illusion of meritocracy, while millions of youngsters in disadvantaged households and neighborhoods are never able to develop and demonstrate their merits.

Using the dubious argument that all languages serve the needs of their speakers equally well, Michaels dismisses linguistic diversity as a worthy goal. Yet needs are not wants, and if, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” why would Michaels want to limit the world to a single tongue? In addition, he argues that class diversity is not the same kind of thing as ethnic diversity, since poverty, unlike negritude, is not something to be revered. However, his confusion of class with wealth would mean that a lettuce picker who wins the lottery automatically catapults into the upper class, a Vanderbilt who squanders an inheritance plummets into hoi polloi. However, he is right to note that respect for “the culture of poverty” is misplaced. It is an affectation of those who need never worry about finding their next plate of arugula.

Michaels, a polemicist who does not suffer fools gladly or from excessive humility, is understandably uncomfortable about venerating diversity of beliefs. “We can be plausibly urged to appreciate and even celebrate difference,” he writes, “but no one thinks we should appreciate mistakenness.” It seems civilized to accord equal respect to Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Islam, and atheism, but the beliefs of one negate the beliefs of the others. We might respect the right of individuals to hold spurious beliefs, but if we truly respect one religion, philosophy, or ideology we cannot accord equal respect to another religion, philosophy, or ideology whose tenets are opposed. While denying that all thoughts are worthy of equal respect, Michaels makes a rankling contribution to the diversity of contemporary thought.

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