Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Précis of book review I would have written were it not for the fact…

Walter Benn Michaels' The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006)

It seems that many left progressives seem to be stuck on the concept of identity politics as it has been complicated by diversity initiatives or, worse, as they've come to understand the concept of identity politics from their armchairs. These narratives usually involve a “controversial” book with vision and myopic people of color who demand inclusion through guilt and liberal sympathy but leave the status quo and inequality largely untouched, and intellectually unexamined.

Within the expressed constraints of this academic subgenre, the protagonist (usually an English professor) is endowed with a spell-breaking and “visionary” acumen that enables him (the protagonist is usually male) to blame diversity, identity politics and political correctness for “true” inequality and the ensuing emergence of an extremely popular and literal conservatism that ultimately separates us all. Astoundingly, these modern day Delphic oracles pretend to be unaware of the ammunition they are providing to conservatives of all colors (as might be gleaned from the current banter that passes for political critique in the related video below.)

Most often, the expressed truth-bearing qualities of such exercises neglect to consider, much less ask, “people of color,” especially those whose lived and theoretical sophistication comes from direct community engagement, how the practice of "equality of opportunity" is experienced on various fronts. The self-proclaimed Delphic oracles are like Dostoyevskian leftists: they love humanity abstractly but presume to know the other better than she knows herself. In so doing, they avoid a series of ethical questions that would otherwise move them to consider the conditions under which the subaltern can speak and even talk back.

And so I propose a new subgenre of the review that refuses easy identifications with authors who claim to be saving democracy or liberating the working classes from the people of color who implicitly don’t know any better and who are coddled by the spineless sympathizers who should know better; the ones who, through their largesse, purportedly allow it all to happen.

(Also see: The Twilight of Affirmative Action or the Trappings of the WSJ's Rhetorical Storehouse of Editorials?)

And now, as promised, to the banter that attempts to pass for political critique...