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Interview with Walter Benn Michaels: Is celebrating all the stripes in the rainbow enough? [March 2007]

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I knew the man as well as any of the other commuters. He stood outside the Chicago “el” station, selling copies of StreetWise, the weekly city paper written by homeless people who sell copies on the streets for a dollar each. They get to keep a percentage of the price, and the idea is that you give a homeless person a chance at learning skills that they might use to get jobs.

My finances changed when I became a freelancer, and I struggled to pay my bills. I was now hard-pressed to spare that dollar. Yet, I persisted in guiltily handing him one every time, paying for something I could not afford. I never saw myself like the man outside the el. My education and sundry other factors-- like the roof over my head-- meant I could never see myself as poor like him.

And then one day he made what seemed like a nasty personal comment – not salacious or creepy-- just mean. That comment now became my reason to stop buying the paper. Even then, for the longest time, I couldn’t just walk by and simply not buy a paper. Instead, I skulked up another, and much longer, ramp out of the station. Finally, I decided to walk by without buying. He’s long since stopped trying to attract my attention.

My real reason for not engaging in our usual transaction was that I couldn’t afford it. But acknowledging that would have meant acknowledging that I shared a class identity, of sorts, with him. Instead, I chose to take the path of offense-- I wasn’t paying him for a paper because he wasn’t nice to me. The truth is that I just didn’t want to admit to my poverty.

This is how inequality and poverty are lived in the US. Nobody claims “poor” as an identity, despite the fact that there are larger numbers of us every year and that the gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider. Forty-seven million in the US, the world’s largest industrial and military power, live – and often die too early – without health care. As Walter Benn Michaels puts it in his new and important book, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books, $23), the gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater. Americans today work more for less than ever before, leaving many of us perennially exhausted in multiple dead-end, often part-time jobs, with no benefits.

Suck on this

But comfort beckons in the form of identity. You can claim any number of racial, gendered, sexual, and ethnic identities when job hunting, but you can never simply state that you’re either a) poor, b) really poor, c) in deep financial hell, or d) desperately hoping you’ll win the lottery or American Idol and quickly leap out of your penury. All of which might actually be better reasons for wanting a job in the first place.

Sure, we might proudly celebrate the culture of the “working class,” as is the wont in some political and academic circles. We might emphasize the dignity, hard work, values, the saltiness and saintliness of the working class. (We’re less likely to refer to them as “lower class”-- horrors, there are no hierarchies here!) Reading Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina might be sufficient proof that you know what it’s like to be poor and queer.

In the US, diversity mandates have proliferated to the extent that there is an entire industry around “diversity training” – you can hire people to come to your expensive law firm or school and teach you and your employees how to be nicer and more sensitive to people of color, the disabled, women, queers, and so on. Create a world without prejudice, we are told, and we can approach something like “full” equality for all.

Rumblings in identity paradise

Walter Benn Michaels isn’t buying that argument. Instead, he demonstrates that the rise in economic inequality in the US parallels a rise in the discourse of diversity. The Trouble with Diversity lays out the ways in which economic disenfranchisement has not only been obscured by the commitment to diversity, but actively enabled by it.

Even talk about class has become another way to turn the stark economic differences between people into factors of identity, avoiding any analysis of the systemic inequality that divides them. The sheer genius of the US-based mandate to diversify is that it turns even class inequality into an identity category.

Michaels writes about the New York Times series “Class Matters,” which “started treating class not as an issue to be addressed in addition to... race but as itself a version of race, as if the rich and the poor really were... different races, and so as if the occasional marriage between them were a kind of interracial marriage.”

Katrina was supposed to have opened our eyes to inequality, and it did show us the immense racialization of poverty in the US. But besides the occasional story about the victims not getting their money or their houses back, it’s a story whose real implications have vanished. In fact, it’s far more likely that the eyes of people in Toronto, Calcutta, or Jakarta were opened to the depth of inequality in the US, while ours have remained shut to it. Meanwhile, we’ve persisted in thinking that race was the primary problem in Katrina, not poverty.

Kanye West said to the cameras at a telethon following the disaster, “George Bush hates black people.” Actually, there’s little evidence for that; his is in fact the most diverse cabinet in history. Some of Bush’s best friends seem to be people of color; but they are certainly not poor people. As Michaels writes, “We like blaming racism [for Katrina], but the truth is there weren’t too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so.... This doesn’t mean, of course, that racism didn’t play a role in New Orleans. It just means that in a society without any racial discrimination, there would still have been poor people who couldn’t find their way out.” Whereas, he argues, in a society without poor people (even a racist one), there wouldn’t have been.

Marrying up

In contemporary American gay politics, nothing signifies inequality more than the inability to get married. The problem with gay marriage as a monomaniacal focus of organizing in the US is that it so blatantly affirms that those who choose not to marry-- or are in civil unions, or domestic partnerships-- simply don’t deserve the right to health care or benefits. Or, as one snippy young dyke once said to me at a party, “Why shouldn’t I be rewarded for my commitment to my life partner?” Her arrogance took my breath away.

So, when the gay marriage movement people go on endlessly about how Canadians and assorted Scandinavians and, oh yes, Spain, have gay-marriage rights, and that this is proof of their advancement, they miss the point. If you’re a Canadian queer who gets divorced, you don’t lose your health care. If you’re a queer in the US whose loving life-partner suddenly takes a shine to the prettier, younger thing she met at the bar while you were taking care of your baby, you’re up shit creek without health care, benefits, money, or possibly even a roof over your head. Take heed, snippy young dyke.

Consider a country where the gay marriage problem is solved. In South Africa, gays now have the right to marry and queers everywhere rejoiced. But 40 percent of South Africans live in dire poverty (and the rest are not exactly well off). Thirty percent of pregnant women in South Africa have HIV/AIDS. Nearly 30 percent of its citizens, male and female, have HIV/AIDS. “In 2006, 900 people died every day of AIDS-related illnesses because they did not have access to antiretroviral medicines,” writes Zackie Achmat, South Africa’s most prominent AIDS activist, who has refused to take antiretrovirals to treat his own AIDS until they were made available to the general public.

The South African constitution does not guarantee health care and access to free or affordable medications. In this context, giving queers the right to marriage means, well, nothing, given the scale of economic and medical inequality.

In fact, the disconnect between the symbolic generosity of the state toward inevitably middle – and upper-class queers and its material stinginess to the poor has fuelled resentment against gays among ordinary South Africans.

And that’s the trouble with diversity –it’s often a social, cultural, and emotional response to economic problems which allows us to live in blissful ignorance of the inequality that surrounds us. It allows us to believe that expunging bigotry or prejudice, or granting extra access to a few, encompasses the entire field of social justice.

Homeless begone

Walter Benn Michaels may well meet the StreetWise vendor more often than I do. From 2000 – 2003, I was a lecturer in the English department of the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC); Michaels joined the faculty in 2001 and is currently department head. In the last chapter of The Trouble with Diversity, he writes about spending a summer writing this book about inequality, in his study with a window that gave him a daily view of a homeless man living under a railroad underpass. Michaels makes $175,000 a year. Despite his relative wealth – and the weight of the book’s topic—Michaels felt no liberal guilt at the sight of the homeless man, and no desire to feed or clothe him but, “Mainly... wished the man would go away.”

So what’s Walter Benn Michaels, with his kind of income, doing writing a book about inequality? And why isn’t he nicer to the homeless?

Critics have asked these questions about The Trouble with Diversity. And they haven’t known where to place the author politically: he is simultaneously, it seems, a leftist, a right-wing conservative, some kind of radical. He’s well known for his academic work in literary theory but this book is his first foray into public discourse. It argues that neoliberal policies on race and culture provide social panaceas that abet the growth of inequality and the attrition of any real and lasting vision of social justice.

Unclassy

The book grew out of an article he wrote for the New York Times in April 2004, “Diversity’s False Solace.” Michaels, who had previously taught at elite institutions like Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, found himself at UIC with a student body very different from any he had previously encountered. The university has historically been home to what some euphemistically refer to as “first-generation students”— either the children of recent immigrants or from the economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, or students with the kinds of test scores that keep them out of more elite Chicago schools like Northwestern or the University of Chicago. UIC’s biggest selling point to prospective students has been its ethnic and racial diversity, and this frequently obscured the lack of resources in an institution that was, like many others, facing budget shortfalls.

Or as Michaels put it, “The bad news about our current condition is that you may be jammed into a classroom so full that you can’t find a place to sit. But the good news is that 46 percent of the people jammed in there with you will be Caucasian, 21 percent will be Asian, 13 percent will be Hispanic and 9 percent will be African-American.”

What impelled Michaels to think and write about diversity was not the fact his students spoke proudly of their diverse cultural and racial/ethnic origins, but that they could not or would not talk about their class identifications; despite their economic origins, none of them would identify as poor or working class.

Similarly, students he taught at Harvard were willing to admit that their UIC peers might be more culturally diverse, but did not see that they were also less wealthy. The Trouble with Diversity is girded by a deep sense that much of the potential for guaranteeing a rich and productive life for everyone in this country has been woefully lost by an overcommitment to diversity.

Michaels’s career has been in academia and he places much of the blame for this woeful state of affairs at its feet; during an interview, he characterized it as the “Human Resources Department of neoliberalism.”

But while academia and the waning support for publicly-funded schooling are certainly part of the problem with inequality, Michaels does not stop there. The Trouble with Diversity considers the emphasis on diversity and identity made explicit by institutions like the Holocaust Museum-- which, he notes, marks an event that never happened in American history but which was erected long before any such memorial to slavery, which was a truly American phenomenon that speaks enduringly to economic inequality between blacks and whites.

Michaels considers pop-culture as well as institutions. In a section on the reality show “Wife Swap,” he writes about Lynn, a working-class woman, exchanging households with the rich and pampered Jodi. He wryly observes that at the end of the episode, what participants and viewers seemed to take away was not that poverty could make you miserable, or that it might be better to be rich than poor-- but that it’s important to respect those who have less than you. It’s a lesson hammered home when Jodi’s husband, Stephen, is berated by everyone for being a “snob” towards Lynn. It’s this ability to locate the trouble with diversity in a range of texts and impulses that makes the book a funny and absorbing read.

I talked with Michaels in his office.

Yasmin Nair: After several academic works, this is your first book aimed at general readers. Why this platform?

Walter Benn Michaels: The point in writing the book was simply to start an argument, to provoke people into seeing the degree to which the rhetoric of diversity was completely compatible with the class stratification of neoliberalism. And then to see that real political change in the US was never going to follow from the success of diversity. The point was to emphasize the ways in which the discourses of race and culture were in fact hindrances to producing actual social justice in the US.

YN: Several critics have insisted that your analysis is nothing new, and that there’s already been a consciousness about class issues. But it seems your book distinguishes between class and inequality-- the two are not the same.

WBM: That’s an important distinction. Because that says a lot about class consciousness and what it means to turn class into an identity. The goal of a discussion of class should be to eliminate the conditions which produce class. And it’s perfectly true that there’s a long, Left discourse on class; I don’t claim originality here. But in the contemporary context, class is placed on the back burner in relation to diversity. And class itself turned into a diversity category. The point of the book is that it’s not just that you have to add class on to the racial, cultural, ethnic groups-- the point is that class fundamentally works by a different logic. And that liberalism has forgotten that.

YN: You’ve been defined in terms of every ideology under the sun: a leftist, a right-wing conservative, a socialist, a communist. I’m not so much asking you to define yourself but interested in what this apparent inability to classify you ideologically suggests.

WBM: On left-wing, liberal talk shows, I’m seen as a racist and on right-wing talk shows, I’m a communist. The right-wing shows are closer to the truth. American politics has become so deeply defined around a politics of identity that it means that if you’re skeptical of identity, people think you’re right-wing. Even right-wing people think that. I have lots of reviews from right-wingers who start by saying, “Oh, this is great, he’s making fun of diversity.” And then, they get to the economic equality part, and that’s where they draw the line, “Oh, my God, this is insane communist egalitarianism.”

So the Right thinks you’re on their side because you’re skeptical of identity, and the Left thinks you’re completely against them because you’re skeptical of identity.

What that actually means is that both the Left and the Right in this country have succeeded in defining the center of politics as how you feel about identity. And as long as that’s true, that means the Right always wins. Because even when they’re losing the identity war, they’re winning the thing that makes them really the Right, which is economic inequality.

What I’d love is a world where being on the Right in America didn’t just mean being skeptical of affirmative action and being skeptical of diversity, but meant defending the legitimacy of economic inequality. And being on the Left didn’t mean saying, “Wait a minute, there aren’t enough gays and blacks in these institutions.” Instead being on the Left meant saying, “No, it’s economic inequality itself that’s wrong, and we have to be addressing that.”

First of all, it would be a lot harder then to be on the Right. You couldn’t just make fun of the extremes of multiculturalism. You’d have to be there saying, “Yeah, the fact that some people are rich and some people are poor, or are more likely in the US to remain poor-- that’s okay!” It’s not that now people don’t talk about economic inequality, but they completely subordinate it to these identity issues.

YN: There’s been a great deal of public discussion recently about inequality. But there seem to be a number of different and sometimes contradictory approaches about what to do about it. In both the straight and the queer communities, one strategy seems to be of “socially conscious philanthropy,” the kind espoused by Bill Gates.

WBM: It’s a good thing in that people do clever things with their money to help the poor. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with a vision of a just society, which requires the best we can do towards equality of opportunity right from the start. That’s not a radical demand; most Americans already believe that we should have equality of opportunity. But that’s possible only through state intervention.

Here’s the opposite of philanthropy: John Edwards actually proposed a raise in taxes two days ago. It’s designed to make universal health care possible. Raising the taxes of the rich is very different from hoping that they will give to progressive causes. It’s nice that they sometimes do, but I’m arguing for the intervention of the state here. And that has nothing to do with philanthropy, the voluntary transfer of wealth by some rich people in whatever amounts they choose to whatever things they choose. It is the involuntary transfer of wealth from rich people to poor people for purposes that are judged appropriate by the body politic as a whole, and not by the rich people in question. And that’s a very different process. It’s one which is public and political in a way that philanthropy is not.

What I’m arguing for is something a lot closer to socialism. It involves the state to begin to minimize the gap between rich and poor.

YN: The mainstream gay community is increasingly invested in working through foundations. Instead of organizing street protests, they’re likelier to give to charities that, for instance, get queer kids off the streets. Doesn’t this create a structure whereby the gay community can now define itself as a privileged class identity?

WBM: It’s precisely a way of defining itself as not a class, of defining identity in a way that makes class irrelevant. Because you have a moment in which gay philanthropy can replicate the structure of straight philanthropy, with the difference that it’s specifically attached to people who are gay. So, if you’re queer, you want to get queer youth off the streets. It’s good to get people off the streets, whether they’re gay or straight; it’s good to get anybody off the streets. There’s nothing intrinsically Left about getting gay kids off the street, as opposed to getting straight kids off the street. And there’s nothing intrinsically Left about any philanthropy at all insofar as it involves just people using the money they’ve got to do some good things as opposed to doing bad things.

What I’m arguing for is the acceptance of the responsibility of society as a whole to keep all kids off the street. And that has nothing to do with individuals’ desire to do what they want with their money. It has to do with the responsibility to transcend the individual and make it the state’s responsibility.

YN: Hate crimes...

WBM: Complete bullshit.

YN: You write in your book, “The preferred crimes of neoliberalism are always hate crimes; when our favorite victims are the victims of prejudice, we are all neoliberals.” What do you mean?

WBM: You and others have analyzed the various practical ways in which hate crimes laws perpetrate or extend inequalities that already exist. I think that analysis is totally convincing. But my own opposition is somewhat more primitive: that hate crimes are precisely defined as crimes of identity.

The biggest of all hate crimes in our culture is the Holocaust. The point of course is not to defend the Holocaust but to suggest that the murder of six million people is sufficient unto itself as a crime.

The first point is that it’s not as if we want to legitimate these crimes. The second point is that insofar as we make hate crimes foundational for us, we end up imagining the just society as a society without hatred, without prejudice. My argument is not for prejudice; only that the elimination of prejudice has nothing to do with the elimination of exploitation. And that insofar as we focus on the idea of social justice as the elimination of prejudice, with hate crimes being a kind of ne plus ultra of that form, what we are doing is focusing on something which, even if we should succeed, would make no difference whatsoever in the principal inequalities that currently confront us.

Now you and others have argued that not only does it make no difference, but it can extenuate the inequality. And it’s interesting-- I only have anecdotal evidence for this-- that when you read about hate crimes, it’s extraordinary how often the perpetrators of hate crimes are people for whom the categories of victimhood were invented in the first place.

YN: It’s also true that poor white people are often held as the most phobic and hate-prone.

WBM: Let’s say for the sake of argument that poor white people are more characteristically racist and homophobic than middle-class white people. Let’s say for the sake of argument it’s true. The argument here is not to defend their homophobia, or their racism; it’s not defensible. But my deeper argument is that they are not the enemy. That is to say, if you turned the world into a world where the elimination of prejudice is the sole desideratum then you’ve got a face-off. Between the upper-middle class, committed to its own sense of virtue, which is completely tolerant of the inequalities which make poor white people poor and completely intolerant of the racism and sexism that poor whites exemplify. The liberal elite that conservatives criticize really does exist. It’s an elite whose liberalism consists in its opposition to discrimination, in its cultivation of identity, and in complete indifference to economic inequality. So, for the liberal elites, the poor whites are the people they love to hate. And the liberal elites are the people the poor whites love to hate. If the liberal elite began to think of its liberalism as a challenge to its elitism, we would have a different world. A world where the goal was not to diversify the elite but to eliminate elites. Whereas now we’re just diversifying the elite.

YN: Let’s talk about the notion of sexual culture or heritage. Some might perceive a split in the gay community, between a “gay left” and a “gay right.” And it might seem the struggle between the two sides is over whether or not we should define ourselves by our complete access to, say, public sex and sexual freedom, or if we should define ourselves by more normative standards of behavior-- the “good gay” syndrome.

WBM: First of all, the question of whether you should sleep with lots of people or just one or two people is a completely uninteresting political question. My book takes no position on how many people you should sleep with. But I will say this: people who think it’s somehow radical to sleep with lots of people are deeply mistaken about what political radicalism consists of. So, from my standpoint, the very idea of defining “Left gayness” or “Right gayness” in these terms is just a complete mistake. There’s nothing intrinsically conservative about being for gay marriage or against gay marriage. So if you’re for gay marriage but you’re primarily committed to socialism, then you count for me as someone on the Left. If you are against gay marriage but you’re really just trying to open a store and make a lot of money on Christopher Street, you count for me as somebody who’s on the Right.

YN: On the question of sentiment and affect -- or really, the lack thereof in your book. You seem committed to a high level of abstraction.

WBM: Somebody wrote about my book, “He writes as if he believes that people had no psyches.” I get that people do have psyches, that they have certain complicated emotions about this.

But, first of all, I’m very skeptical about the kind of argument that’s been made for identity. Which is the argument that, well, even if there aren’t such things as races, isn’t it useful to organize people around the idea that there are such things as races because it helps get them emotionally committed and all that? But I say no, I think it’s our job to say there aren’t such things as races because there aren’t such things as races, and let their emotions take care of themselves.

Originally published in The Guide, March 2007


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