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Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
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Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.

On Gay Male Subjectivity: Considering David Halperin’s Theory of Abjection 29 March 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Culture, HIV/AIDS, Literature, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
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This is a somewhat unpolished, meandering piece that comes out of some serious thinking I’ve been doing lately about the implications of my own research for current gay male culture and queer politics generally. Apologies for the disjointed and wandering nature of my writing here; I hope that the ideas come through despite that.

When I wrote the conclusion to The Meaning of Gay (1) back in the fall of 2009, I was coming from having worked for nearly 8 years to try to understand gay male subjectivity in the 1960s, but without calling it subjectivity. I had described gay male desire by working from within the symbolic interactionist framework—building on the assumptions of a Deweyan notion of the subject and of experience as a radically contextualized activity-undergoing; and on a Meadian notion of the social constitution of the subject and of subjectivity as an emergent process of interaction. Gay desire had manifested itself during the period between 1961 and 1972 in a dynamic range between two poles that only existed because of their social-historical context: one pole was the desire to minimize, reduce, even to disappear gayness in favor of other aspects of subjective life (e.g., career identities, family roles, etc.); the other pole sought maximization, an expansion or extension of gayness into a pervasive and omnipresent aspect of life’s activity-undergoing. In my work, I had self-consciously avoided the language of identity, because I wanted, as much as possible, to avoid the individualizing tendency of identity discourse and instead to insist upon the social constitution of selves, communities and of gayness itself.

In the conclusion, I argued that the way forward for “gayness” would be to reduce as much as possible the normative, evaluative stances gay men take against each other across the spectrum between those two poles, which push them to situate themselves vis-a-vis what other gay men, elsewhere along the spectrum, are doing wrong; and instead to move toward an ongoing democratization of gayness that would seek to maintain the gay social spaces and other contexts within which gay men could continue to have the arguments between the minimized and expansive gaynesses they embraced with minimal intrusion from the dominant culture.

Over the past year since the book’s publication, I’ve come to see my conclusions as somewhat incomplete. I failed to account for the powerful normalizing forces both within and without the gay community (which I define at length in the book in their context in the past) and the effect those forces have on the possibilities for outlaw pleasure and subjectivity, indeed, the danger normativity poses for anyone whose experience of gayness tends to the expansive pole. Further, in my book, one of my goals was to deflate the importance historically of the “gay libbers,” as they have been often valorized unhistorically as the origin of liberation politics and because in their actions and values, they were often as problematically normative and as anti-queer (if my historian friends will excuse a bit of presentism) as the “assimilated” and “merely liberal” gays of the period. But as I live through the extended death throes of the Castro, and the gradual, ongoing assimilation of queer culture into the massified mainstream, and the constant exertion of hetero-privilege in formerly gay spaces, I have come to a re-invigorated critique of the normal, especially as it expresses among gay men themselves.

As a matter of full disclosure (confession?) here, my own desires lean to an expansive and resistant gayness, whereas my sexual desires float around in the undeniably vanilla and conventional, that is, I find that I want a sexually exclusive life-long partnership and I want to parent. This contradiction between, on one hand, desiring and taking immense pleasure in all kinds of queering, in your face, fuck you culture of drag, S/M, risky, defiant, unabashed queerness, and on the other hand my desire for a somewhat quiet, average, unexciting home sex life causes me no small consternation. In the irritating words of the current vernacular, it is what it is.

David Halperin’s recent book, What Do Gay Men Want? (2), explores the possibilities of a re-theorization of gay subjectivity in opposition to the psychological questions raised by the putative rise in gay men’s increasingly risky sexual behavior. Let me summarize very briefly: Halperin argues that the moralizing public conversation about “barebacking” slides easily and quickly into a psychologically (re)pathologizing discourse that locates gay male subjectivity in the perverse, abnormal, dieased, self-hating, etc.–the very discourses gay men and women have been working to overthrow since at least the 1960s.(3) Halperin explains the rise in risky behavior in signifantly different terms, seeing gay men as ongoing agent-negotiators-resisters who opt for safer strategies of risk reduction to maximize or maintain access to pleasure; he uses epidemiological and sociological research to demonstrate the rationality (as opposed to pathology, but not in a rational choice sense of the word) of gay men’s sexual choices in the face of what is known about HIV transmission, and moves to an etended engagement with an essay by Michael Warner from a 1994 Village Voice in which Warner discloses his own risky behavior and calls for an explanation and engagement with gay male subjectivity on its own terms. The essay is of great importance to those working in public health in HIV prevention among men who have sex with men, but I’m going to leave aside those issues for my purposes here in talking about the implications of Halperin’s emergent theory of gay male subjectivity (4) and what it ma reveal about the gay men I studied and the normative conclusions I drew from my research.

What struck me as most significant in my ongoing thinking is Halperin’s extended development of abjection as one feature of gay male subjectivity and as, perhaps, a possible way out of the psychologization of gay men’s motives. Moving from Warner to Jean Genet, Halperin builds an notion of abjection that rejects the search for intentionality (a psychological category), evades pathologization, and which becomes a survival or life-affirming social strategy for the abjected. Because abjection is an effect of social interaction (see note 4 below), it eschews the easy psychologization of gay male behavior and foregrounds gay male behavior is emergent in social contexts. Yes and yes.

Halperin’s insights are manifold in this rich section of the book. Here I list those that were most salient to me as I read. First, Warner points to and Halperin fleshes out how the insistence on “Gay Pride” can actually serve to deepen the shame gay men feel about their desires and practices, by re-relegating them to the closet in contra-distinction to an out-and-proud gay-maleness. Second, Halperin turns to a right-wing French writer, Marcel Jouhandeau, who extolled the virtues of social abjection and, in particular, humiliation at being different: Jouhandeau (and later, Genet) turn abjection on its head, into a kind of sacrilization of abjection. To tease this out, thirdly, Halperin explicates two scenes from Jean Genet’s opus, in which Genet depicts social abjection, humiliation, as a process and where the abjected, humiliated subject responds by resignifying the abjection as either a source of pleasure or as the signifying source of his difference. In Halperin’s interpretation, Genet’s narrators find freedom precisely by identifying with their abjection and embracing it, refusing its deleterious effects and instead creating for themselves a re-signifying and life-affirming defiance. The more they are humiliated, the more defiant and ecstatic the narrators become. Genet’s narrative insists that loving someone who is humiliated (socially abject) requires the loving of their abjection itself.

In my research on the 1960s, I found a significant amount of what Halperin calls the “glorification” or “saintliness” of abjection. I encountered gay men in the mid-1960s who were intensely frustrated with the growing gay publicity, as it encroached on their own pleasure in abjection, their reversal and refusal of abjection in the seeking out of sexual encounters in parks, public restrooms, and rest stops. These gay men loved and cherished their furtive, secretive, stealthy sex lives; and they found in them a meaningful gayness that was being shut down (at least in San Francisco) by the publicity forming gay rights movement. I also found it in the writings of drag queens and leather daddies who were resisting the gay libbers’, who argued (and protested) against them, claiming that to do drag or dig leather and bondage was to live in false-consciousness and self-hatred.

But what can abjection add to the conclusion of my book? What can the idea that one possible piece of gay male subjectivity may still be, even in the 21st century, the embracing of abjection do to the struggles among gay men to control the signification of gayness? In Halperin’s description of the ways that gay men respond to abjection by intensified defiance, I find today the femme-y gay kid in high school who resists his tormentors by becoming even more gay at an even higher pitch; I find the pleasure that ex-gays find in their furtive, deeply secret rendez-vous at “de-gaying camp”; I find the professor who makes explicit sexual metaphors a part of every-day classroom analysis and takes pleasure in the shock but refuses normalizing efforts to curb his/her discourse. But defiance alone may give us nothing more than an individualized, and contextually specific gay response, and not a notion of gay communal relationships, that is, the relationship of gay men to each other as a group.

One possible reading is that, if abjection arises out of subordinated and dominated social positions of gay men vis-a-vis the larger society, then the gradual equalization of gay men institutionally and the concommitant gradual acceptance of gay men in public as such may in fact be the end of abjection, the end of what has been for decades one feature of gay male subjectivity. Indeed, this is perhaps what those gay men feared in the 1960s about gay publicity, the loss of their subjectivity. To say this differently, and in the terms I raised at the end of my book, it is possible and maybe even probable that the equalization of gays within the institutions of the society (i.e., in the law) as sought by gay publicity since the mid-1950s actually forecloses the possibility of an expansive gayness. I’m not saying anything particularly new here, as Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal (5) covers similar ground. But I do think that the social view that Halperin argues, combined with the interactionist view that I offer, suggests something a bit more profound than a political choice to not be normal (with apologies to Warner for my severe oversimplification here).

The problem is that gay publicity in the past 16 years since protease inhibitors has been overwhelmingly normalized. The cost of equality is a required public face that reproduces as closely as possible a de-sexualized gay-maleness that is coupled, monogamous, married, and perhaps child-rearing. The largest resistance to gay equality right now is nearly exclusively from Christians who refuse the normalization of gay-maleness (not to mention lesbianness, bi-ness and trans-ness). The social context wherein resistance is in the form of retrograde Christians’ insistence that gayness cannot be, by definition, “normal” has pushed gay politics to insist all the more vehemently that it is indeed and in fact normal.

This produces an intensification of a dynamic that we’ve seen since at least the 1960s, where gay men (and queers generally) judge each other according to their presentability as “normal” to the watchful mainstream gaze. Gender nonconformity and any kind of femminess in gay men (or butchness in lesbians), sexual “promiscuity”, risky sex, kinky sex, group sex, anonymous hookups, public sex, leather, bondage, S/M, drag, etc., are all dangers to the normalization of gay-maleness and by extension to our equality.

One possible interpretation of this current social context I see (without, admittedly, doing any research here) is that the turn to internet cruising and hook-ups, bemoaned by many as the end of gay community, might actually be read as a resurgence of abjection within the context of intensified normalization. Internet hook-ups allow you to maintain the veneer of normality while embracing a dirty, promiscuous, abjected sexuality through the anonymity of the internet in the privacy of your own home, which allows a constant flow of disembodied cocks and assholes across one’s computer screen and, if you’re lucky, in yours or someone else’s bed later that night. Indeed, Craigslist and Manhunt are perhaps as secretive and shameful—and therefore as pleasurable—today as cruising the restrooms in the park was 50 years ago.

Another possible analysis is that today’s abjection is as much produced by gay men themselves upon each other, in their own social groups, where certain practices and desires are de-valued (or valued) in proportion to how much they resist normalization. I hesitate to go where Halperin so carefully wants to avoid going—to blaming gay men for their social subordination. Yet I think it is important to examine gay men’s own social behavior as part of the social world that produces gay male subjectivity. And I can’t help but see around me in my own association with gay men various levels of disciplining normativity at work, as gay men from across the spectrum between the poles I’ve theorized (minimization and expansion) work to assert and sometimes impose their positions on other gay men.

Whereas in my book’s conclusion I called for a kind of democratic move, a move to a gay community that fosters that debate; now I think that I would have to add a sharp accounting for and confrontation with the forces of normalization as they are created by our increasing institutional equality (which I am ambivalently in favor of, for the record, even as I criticize its costs) and by the dynamics that gay publicity now imposes on us to play the part of Normal as the price of our equalization. Although I would still argue for the maintenance of social spaces where we can work out our gaynesses with each other (and with minimized input from the dominant culture, to the extent that’s even possible), I would echo Warner’s call for a renewed emphasis on the pleasure of the abject, the abnormal, the resistant, the defiant, and I would argue for a communal ethic that recognizes the privilege attained by the visibly “normalized” gays (in contrast to what they might desire and do in darkness and secret, through the internet, or “business trips” to circuit parties, porn habits, sexual practices, etc.). The current state of gay (and LGBT writ large) institutional equalization gives the visibly normal a privilege that must be accounted for among gay men; and to some degree, the “normals'” secret acts and desires must be made explicit as we work out the meaning of gay going forward.

As a final note, I want to make it clear that I do not wish to romanticize or idealize a kind of abjected gay-maleness from the past. Reading about Genet’s early life in Halperin’s book only made me intensely glad that I didn’t have to live through that kind of abjection. But I do personally take great pleasure, really a thrill that sometimes literally brings tears to my eyes, when a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence passes me on the street, or when the leather daddy who lives in the apartment below me leaves his apartment in full regalia with a suitcase full of dangerous implements of degrading pleasure, or when two of the men I love the most in my gay life recount their sexual exploits in a threesome or in making a new porn video. These are all parts of gay-maleness that seem to me to be more than aesthetic and sexual throw-backs; but are pieces of our collective ongoing glorification of the abjection that comes now not from our social exclusion, but from our social normalization.


(1) J. Todd Ormsbee. The Meaning of Gay: Interaction, Publicity, and Community among Homosexual Men in 1960s San Francisco. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

(2) David Halperin. What Do Gay Men Want: An Essay on Sex Risk, and Subjectivity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007.

(3) I would actually trace it back even earlier than that, maybe even to the 1920s in the U.S. and as early as the 1890s in Germany, but the evidence is scarse for such an assertion.

(4) I have a small but important disciplinary quibble with Halperin. Early in his essay, he mentions in passing the importance of social psychology in undermining the normalizing effect of psychological discourses, but then ignores the social psychological research into gay men throughout his essay. In the sociological side of social psych, particularly in the symbolic interactionist tradition, researchers and theorists have been working out interactionist models of abjection and subordinated subjectivities for decades. Many of Halperin’s conclusions in the essay were arrived at by symbolic interactionists as early as the 1962 in Goffman’s Stigma. I do not wish to undermine or devalue Halperin’s contributions here; but rather to point to a much-needed dialogue between queer theory and the symbolic interactionist literature, especially about socially “spoiled” individuals (i.e., subordinate) and their strategies of negotiating social spaces of inferiority and abjection. I think such intellectual cross-fertilization can only enrich queer theorization. That said, as a dyed-in-the-wool interactionist myself, I’m fully aware that I have a vested interest in such a dialogue, so my critique is not neutral.

(5) Michael Warner. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Big Think 22 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity.
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Big Think is doing a series on African American heritage this month, and I just spent the morning listening to every segment by Princeton Professor Harris-Lacewell. One of the most important contemporary thinkers about race and gender, Prof. Harris-Lacewell offers summaries of her work on African American attitudes and perceptions and culture. I can’t recommend both her work and these Big Think interviewlets highly enough.   My favorite was her explanation of “what’s really going on” behind our attitudes about racial inequality today.

The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
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NOTE: This is one of those moments when I’m definitely weilding my “hammer”; but I want it clear that I’m thinking out loud. I know that this can be highly charged and controversial; I’m hoping to invite thoughtful and detailed consideration and dialgue about this issue. As an educator, it is of vital importance to me. Edited for clarity, March 1, 2008.

As a university teacher, I often find students resisting me not at an intellectual level, but at the level of identity. Can I, a gay white male, possibly be an effective mentor or teacher to a Mexican American? An African American? An immigrant from India? A straight man? A Christian? A Republican? Are our identities so incommensurate as to dehumanize us beyond mutual understanding, compassion, trust, sharing, and simple interaction?

Sociologically, I have been trying to understand the racial and ethnic dynamics of identity in California since i moved here, mainly because my own values on the topic are from a typical multicultural perspective: celebrate and respect differences. But I’m also of the first Sesame Street generation, so my mulitculturalism is more liberal than radical, and I find myself saddened that what I experience in here in California isn’t the integrated world I was promised by Bob and Susan when I was a child. Now, everyone’s hybrid/creole/mestizo/mixed, but pretending they’re not, and drawing what feel like ever-tightening boundaries around their various communities, reifying differences (in some cases inventing them) for the sake of difference itself.

I have questioned the practice of multiculturalism on this blog in the past, if not its values; and continue to struggle with the lived effects of multiculturalism as it is practiced here in day-to-day life, and that I see in California’s political, social, and educational life. I wonder if there isn’t a need to revisit the ideas of having a shared identity in addition to all these others, in order for a democratic state to function well and for real communities (with caring, sharing, trust, and participation) to form. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with the huge caveat that I’m saying all of this already assuming for a knowledge of the past, the racism and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government and the travesties of the dominant culture; meaning to say that I’m not naive. I also understand social privilege and white privilege and how it might be informing my position here.

As a sociologist, I can step back and see California’s ethnic identity intensification relatively dispassionately as a confluence of a) a massive proportion of the population of CA is immigrant; b) immigrants already feel beseiged in their receiving countries; and c) American culture’s reification of cultural differences and fetishization of identity. These three factors have produced since the late 1960s–in addition to the old-style “white flight” (not to mention middle-class of color flight) we’re all used to–an intensification of self-ghettoization of immigrant communities, where living in ethnic enclaves has become the desired norm. Californians, when polled, often prefer it (I’m trying to hunt down the cite for this; it’s been a couple years since I read it); Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception). Nearly 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live in California, that is, nearly 1/2 of all people born outside of the U.S. who now live in the U.S. live in CA. [This number was from before 2005, the first year that the majority of Mexican immigrants went to destinations outside of California; I don’t know what the current proportion of total immigrants to the U.S. living in CA is now.]

Immigrants in the past also lived in enclaves, but they were smaller, not constantly fed by new arrivals (in increasing numbers) and they pushed their children to succede in American culture. Most of the civil rights battles of Latinos and Chinese Americans, for example, here in CA before 1970, were about having equal access to the institutions, fair and equal treatment under the law, and about becoming Californian. Now the cultural emphasis is really different: Parents want their children to stay in the enclaves and ‘be’ something else. The civil rights battles seem to have shifted to the right to stay separate, culturally and socially (e.g., the current battles in San Jose over what to name the new “Vietnamese” district). On one hand, I think democratically that the right to free association gives people the right to form enclaves if they want; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the best decision to make; and I’m pretty sure at this point that it serves to reproduce racist discourses by reifying the racist identifications with cultural identities and communal associations, rather than undercutting and eliminating racism, which in my opinion should be our goal.

This gets even more complicated when you look empirically at how the children of immigrants live. In the past, COIs were “bicultural” and could move easily in “American” contexts. The key here is that all indicators are that this trend continues, even in the larger, more permanent enclaves of today. In other words, COIs still integrate into larger American culture. The one differences researchers are noting is that it may take a bit longer and that COIs retain much more of their parents’ native culture, not because of their parents, but because the enclaves are constantly being fed new immigrants with whom they interact. So I see a contradiction in our insistence on cultural difference and identification with those differences, and the empirical realities that the COIs and 3rd gen are relatively completely integrated into American society. What do we get from the values having shifted to emphasizing the identity difference rather than social justice; or to say it a different way, what are the consequences of this shift, where the right to identify as different seems to have supplanted all other older arguments for real social justice in the law, education, housing, etc.

As an illustration: I have many COI students who grew up in an enclave of (pick an) immigrant community, but who listen to the same music as most American kids, speak English with that irritating California terminal upspeak, are mostly secular, follow American sports, watch American Idol, etc.; but when asked if they are American, they wrinkle their noses and say no. They are filipino/mexicano/vietnamese/chinese/etc. So empirically, they are living lives similar to most Americans of their age, but they refuse the identity.

As a teacher, I often see this manifested in a really destructive way among some of my Latino students, for example, who in the privacy of my office have confided that they are going it alone, because their friends and sometimes even their families think that going to college is “acting white” and that they are betraying their heritage by getting an education.

As an educator, these are symptoms of a problem that is troubling to me. If we are at all concerned about the COIs being able to succeed in American society at school and in the workplace and becoming fully participating members of the American democratic sphere, then it seems we need to revisit how we are doing “identity”. Perhaps the model we adopted from the early 1970s, which has gone uninterrogated for the past 35 years, is no longer adequate or working.** I’m not suggesting anything particularly radical here, just that in addition to our identifications with ethnicities, religions and cultures of our immigrant ancestors, we should also be thinking about what we have in common. The fetishization of difference to the exclusion of what we share has made it increasingly difficult for a more desirable kind of multiculturalism to develop.

Because of our (bad) history of ethnic inequality here in California, we are very touchy about “assimilation” and the dynamics of assimilation, so no one wants to talk about how this might be handicapping the children of immigrants. In a freaky (ironic?) sort of way, we have ended up back in segregation land, but through different social dynamics from the segregation of the past. [And this leaves aside the whole issue of social cohesion so necessary in a democracy (see Robert Putnam’s research from last year on how diversity increases social distrust, depresses social/communal participation, and reduces democratic dialogue).] And so how do we re-theorize this new kind of segregation, where racism is still a factor, but a much more complex and multi-directional racism (i.e., not a simply white v. black racism of 50 years ago); and how do we think about where we want to go from here? Is separatism really the only answer, the only way for people of color and COIs to find meaningful identities in America? Is America really that far beyond redemption? Is the Sesame Street (and for that matter, Barak Obama) version of mutliculturalism really just a lie?

**In a larger sense, and too big for this discussion here, I often find that our theories of race and gender are still based on assumptions that worked well in the 1950s and 60s when they were formulated, but don’t match the world we live in now. I think it’s time for a rethinking of our theories of social inequality and stratification writ large.

Canadian “Human Rights” Tribunal 14 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Islam, Journalism, Judaism.
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The more I read the opinions of Ezra Levant, former editor of Canada’s conservative magazine Western Standard (à la Weekly Standard…get it?), the more I disagree with him and nearly all of his wrong-headed politics. However, I stand with him on the issue of freedom of speech, expression, and conscience as foundational to a liberal society and to a functioning cultural democracy. Even if I conclude that he had unethical motives for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed from the Danish magazine, his intention should have no bearing on whether or not he should be free to publish them. The more I see Canada’s ridiculous “hate speech laws” in action (not to mention England’s and Denmark’s and Holland’s), the more convinced than ever I am that this kind of  multiculturalism, although perhaps well-intentioned, when taken in the wrong direction can be a grave threat to liberal democratic values and, ironically enough, cultural diversity itself. Here’s Levant’s opening statement to Canada’s sham of a “human rights” commission in Alberta Canada from last week. Hear! Hear!

Does pop culture unify or fragment us culturally? 5 January 2008

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Pop Culture.
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On another forum, I’ve been having a brief discussion with some cyber-acquaintances about whether or not pop culture is a barrier between generations. I was arguing that most pop culture references are time specific and therefore generation markers, not unifiers. Of course it’s complex and my friends pointed out that technology has made older pop cultural forms available again today and another friend pointed out that pop culture unifies us as we move from region to region, all of which I agree with. But I think the way pop culture works is more nuanced than that.

I’d love to hear what other people think about this. I’m really interested in the affect that consumer culture writ large has on democracy, which requires a minimum of social cohesion to function well; I think that we’ve replaced true freedom with the mirage of consumer freedom. This discussion is a small corner of my thinking on that wider issue.

1) “pop” in front of “culture” is only a denigration when uttered with a sneer by an urban hipster or a old-skool blue-haired opera goer. In social sciences it denotes a particular mode of producing and consuming culture (a subset of mass culture) as distinguished from pre-industrial cultural production and from local culture, and does not denote a de facto denigration. No one in my field at least doesn’t begin with the assumption that pop culture *is* culture; it is however significantly different in the way it’s produced and the way it’s consumed, necessitating a categorical distinction.

2) as in all things in a huge post-fordist society, pop culture and the technology that distributes it creates multiple contradictory effects, one of which has been the *availability* of pop cultural forms from history, so that younger people have direct access to the pop culture of yore. (all of which is relatively new, historically speaking). That means that you might meet young people with exposure the pop culture you consumed in your youth.

3) However, the mere availability of older forms does not make someone fluent in a cultural milieu, in fact, different segments consume pop cultural differently, ascribing it different meanings. That is one of the characteristics of mass produced culture: In order to sell it to as many consumers as possible (production of pop culture is big business), it has to be accessible by multiple cultural standpoints and open enough semiotically to have whatever meanings ascribed to it a given community wants to (there are, obviously, limits to the plasticity of the meanings that *can* be ascribed, but they are extremely wide in pop/mass culture). This is one of the reasons I study pop culture: It is an incredibly fluid and versatile mode of meaning formation that forms the raw materials out of which Americans seem to form their identities and group affiliations.

4) Since I spend my entire working life with 20 year olds, my anecdotal experience is that while they have often heard of things (usually through retro-campy-nostalgia shows like “I love the 70s” on VH1), they don’t have an actual cultural grasp, just a passing knowledge of pop culture past.

5) That one can find people who bond on common pop culture consumption is evidence of the way mass culture works, not that it works across generations. Namely, starting in the post-WWII era, consumer capitalism developed by an ever increasing segmentation of the cultural market, first by marketing cultural products specifically to “youth”, then to “children” then to “women” then by race and ethnicity by the mid-1960s. (Marketing for different classes began in the auto industry in the late 1920s, and got more complex and integrated in the 1950s-60s). If your experience is typical of an American, you work and associate with people who are of a similar or overlapping market segment that you grew up in, thus when you meet new people, you are able to “bond” over a shared cultural experience of the pop culture you consume(d) in your lifetime. The further outside your particular segment that you cross, the more evident it becomes that you do not share pop cultural commonalities.

Also, consumers tend to be unpredictable (another fun thing about pop culture studies) so unintended consumers will latch onto and consume products intended for entirely different segments and make them their own (think: urban white teenagers consuming black R&B in the early 1950s). The meaning of pop culture ultimately cannot be controlled by its producers, neither the corporations that fund the production nor the artists that create it.

6) That said, there are some huge pop culture phenoms that span across market segments, such as “Star Wars” that can be society-wide cultural unifiers. But most often they are usually, again, generationally inflected and the way you use a piece of pop culture serves to identify your class, race, gender, ethnicity and age.

Rant against Naive Relativism 27 December 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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1) All ideas (including religions) are not equal, either in their truth content or in their consequences in the real world. For example, to believe that one must “respect” Mormons, because it’s their religion is naive relativism at its worst, and assumes that mormonism’s truth claims are equal in value — merely because someone believes them — to the evidence that disproves them. Hogwash.

1a) Social scientific relativism is a useful and ethical requirement in doing research, but it is far narrower than commonly understood: In order to fully understand someone else’s culture, one must, to the extent possible, lay aside and/or suspend one’s own values and world view. Notice that this says nothing of the value of either your own culture or the culture you are trying to understand. Naive relativism is the misapprehension that social scientific relativism means that all cultures are of equal value. [As a side note, I would argue that social scientists doing descriptive work must stop short of the evaluation stage of analysis; however, I do think there’s a place for evaluation in scholarly work, if it is done correclty and in the right contexts.]

1b) In the real world, we must — I repeat for emphasis, must — judge among competing values and world views. In fact, our world would grind to a halt if we actually lived as if all world views and values were equal. Why? First, our brains aren’t set up to function without values to guide our actions. But more importantly, because competing values and cultures and world views do not impact the world in equal ways. We choose among values and world views on an individual level as we assemble the collection of values that work for us; but socially, we must do this collectively to ensure that society moves forward in a way that maximizes our ability to choose our personal values and world views [insert long discussion about democracy here].

2) Making a truth claim or a value proposition is ethically neutral and a normal part of being a human being. It is not unethical or problematic to do so. However, I would argue that there are better and worse ways to make truth claims (i.e., scientific method) and value propositions (i.e., solid argumentation with reasons and evidence). Further and related, to evaluate a value proposition or a truth claim is ethically necessary: Not to do so is to be complicit in the consequences of such, good or bad.

3) The best way to make evaluations of others’ value propositions and truth claims is to require they be made with adequate reasons to support them and adequate evidence to support the reasons (basic argumentation/logic). Then, if the argumentation is solid up front, the consequences, real or probable (not just possible), of adopting the value proposition and/or believe the truth claim must be evaluated.

3a) If both the argumentation and the consequences are acceptable, rock on. Adopt it or leave it be as your heart desires or as is necessary in your situation or society.

3b) If the argumentation is faulty but the consequences are acceptable, beat the shit out of the argument, but leave the believers their freedom to believe their idiocy (insert again long discussion of democracy and the harm principle). But do not renege your ethical responsibility to the truth to undermine wrong ideas, even if the consequences are acceptable.

3c) If the argumentation is solid, but the consequences are unacceptable, organize socially to stop a value system from being put into place that would have undesireable consequences, even if the argument behind that value proposition are solid. (I have a hard time thinking of a good truth claim that would have unacceptable negative consequences, although many Hollywood political scenarios seem to present true information to the public would somehow harm them.)

4) All truth claims and value propositions should be approached as provisional, as ends-in-view rather than ends-in-themselves, so that at any juncture, with any new information, they may be revised as necessary.

Therefore 5) Although you may have an ethical responsibility to treat believers in false ideas or bad values nicely, you are under no ethical obligation to treat their faulty, untrue, baseless beliefs and values nicely, nor to excuse or ignore the consequences of their beliefs in the real world.

Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, American Democracy, and de Toqueville 16 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democracy, Democratic Theory, History, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Reviews, War & Terrorism.
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[This is Part One of Three entries considering Claus Offe, Reflections on America: Tocqueville, Weber & Adorno in the United States, trans. by Patrick Camiller (Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2005 [2004]).]

In a world dominated by the United States, many people around the world, scholars and laymen alike, are trying to understand what America means, why it behaves as it does, and how its actions in the world can be controlled or mitigated in some way. To this end, Claus Offe goes back to three key European sociologists, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Theodor Adorno, who visited the United States and wrote analyses of American society, culture, and politics. Offe creates a kind of four-way rubric to judge where a European critique of the United States may come from. Basically, it can either see America as a kind of avant-garde of democracy and democratic social organizer, the experimenter that allows the European to look into its future; or it can see America as a “latecomer society,” as under- or undeveloped, immature. Either of these views can then be given a positive or negative moral value.(1)

Starting with de Tocqueville (hereafter dT), Offe seeks to explain American society in the 21st century and especially the actions of its federal state in the global arena since 9/11. Are there characteristics that dT observed in the 1830 that could explain the War in Iraq, the hostility toward state-sponsored social programs, and the U.S. domination of international economics? Offe argues that for the most part, dT saw America in the first vein, as an avant-garde of what was to come in other democratizing countries in Europe. DT spent much time in his two-volume Democracy in America comparing the U.S. to France and Europe in general; dT’s primary focus was perhaps more about understanding Europe than America.

Although he had a broad view of the multiple causes of American social outcomes, dT concluded that the key to the relative stability of American society lie in customs, or as Offe refers to them, referring to Belah’s now famous turn of phrase, “habits of the heart.” For dT, it was the particular aspects of American life and experience that created a taken-for-granted, or unconscious way of being in American interaction that produced the stability of the society. Mainly, Americans believe that they are all free and equal (dT does address the contradictions of Indians and Slaves as well); they are accustomed to a cacophony of divergent opinions and ideologies, but they settle upon a sort of general consensus that they treat as provisional; and they set up their country to allow a constant “learning by experience” in the government, where if something doesn’t work, they tweak it. All of these allow the American society to flow relatively smoothly and foster a deep kind of liberty, or self-government without hereditary hierarchies or powers. (11-18)

Offe focuses on a handful of key parts of dT’s argument to show the fundamental argument that he made in 1835: The greatest threat to American democracy is from possessive individualism, a particular kind of ‘equality’ that Americans embrace and live for: economic equality. Offe makes the careful distinction between actual economic equality and the American cultural notion of equality, which is that you may be rich today, but you could be poor tomorrow; and I may be poor today, but tomorrow I could be richer than you. Or to put it another way, Americans believe in the possibility of economic equality and accept the capriciousness of markets, making and breaking fortunes, as a matter of fact.

For dT, the lack of hereditary hierarchy leads to a generalized greed in the American consciousness, where the possibility of of gaining economic advantage over your neighbor becomes a kind of passion for equality, governing American life. Because this passion for equality occurs in an unpredictable market with uncontrolled upward and downward mobility, it is infused with fear, creating what Offe calls a “micro-tyranny,” or a self-imposed internalized tyranny, where personal decisions in the market slowly begin to overshadow all other kinds of freedom and all other social actions. (19-20)

A drawback of commercial activity based on possessive individualism is the monotony o flife, the melancholy and ‘strange unrest’ of business people, who cannot enjoy what they have earned, and the loss of republican virtues. (21)

In this context, political liberty becomes a burden, so that the drive for ‘economic equality’ ultimately leads to a gradual relinquishing of political and social power to the state. But because the state is set up to respond to the majority’s will (based on what is “most” rather than what is “best”), the state will ultimately focus its attention on the market as well, being primarily an instrument of the pecuniary interests of the misplaced equality. In this way, America was set up in 1835 for its people to literally chose despotism in order to live in their economic environment of possible economic equality. For dT, this creates an America of undifferentiated individuals who are, in fact, actually conformists in the market, and who have no care for their past or their future, nor for their social relationships in the present. All that matters is their economic lives. (22)

Most problematic for dT is that the rule of the majority ultimately means that culture and politics, the realm of values, ideas, and intellect, is subject to the a flattening, a dumbing down, a forced conformity to the will of the majority (whom he presciently calls the ‘middle class’). One hundred years before Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, dT was theorizing the “culture industry”; and several years before Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, he predicted the concentration of capital and the dehumanization of the workers in America. (23)

His theory of the culture industry foresee’s Adorno’s in stunning accuracy: equality in possessive individualism leads to cultural conformity. Artists produce for the market or for bosses rather than for art’s sake. Utility outstrips aesthetics or meaning as the motivation for artistic production. The democratic aesthetic sense is reduced from the “great” to the merely “pleasant or pretty.” His theory of the concentration of capital simply sees workers native abilities and desires subordinated to the will of their employers; and the concentration of economic power transforming the state to the protection of the wealth of the owners. In this situation, the newly wealthy class have no social obligation to the rest of America, and act out of the socially acceptable possessive individualism. Ultimately, the majority are wage workers who are dependent upon employers for the livelihood and social status. (24-28)

DT argued that American culture had one major counter-valing force that prevented the demise of the democratic society: its “habits of the heart” as produced in religious communities and in voluntary associations. Simply put, dT believed that without centralized government, Americans were forced to interact with each other in voluntary associations; but that these associations were incredibly flexible, forming around the changing needs and opinions of their members. This, combined with the voluntary nature of American Christianity, acted as an ethical check to the worst possible effects of “equality”: possessive individualism and the passion for equality (29-34).

Offe’s critique of dT and his theorizing from the present (eminent critique) arises from a world quite different from that of 1835, wherein the United States dominates the political and economic scene for the entire globe. For Offe, dT could not have seen some key historical developments in American society, especially in the 20th century. First, Americans have gradually lost their attachment to voluntary association; Offe gestures to the large and growing body of communalist sociology, which documents and often bemoans the loss of community in American life. So the primary check on “equality” is eroding or, by some alarmist accounts, actually already gone. Second, Offe argues that associations in American society are, as often as not, instruments of social control and enforced conformity. In other words, associations can be used to counter-democratic ends as easily as they can uphold and undergird democratic societies. And third, Offe points to the actual structure of American democracy, where power is vertically diffused among state and local agents and agencies, such that the federal state lacks the power necessary to integrate the society as a whole. Offe says that the American state is blocked by communitarian localism: that is, local associations are communal, but rather than undergirding the democratic society, the serve to fragment it. (34-35)

Offe’s assessment of American cultural trends underlying the state are breathtaking in their clarity: American cultural history began with a distrust of the state, and from its founding in the Constitution, American institutions have had as their modus operandi protection of the individual from the state (rather than from other individuals). For Offe, this led to a misplacement of community in religion, where religion became historically the locus of lasting American communities. The mistrust of the state combined with the necessity of having a state led to what Offe calls “nation-building without state-building.” If nothing else, Americans are as a lot anti-state. Offe points to the frontier history and colonization as the sources of these mindsets, where people had to live together and survive without the presence of a state. (37-8)

The federal institutions (state-building) — as Madison, et al., created them — strip power from the federal government necessary for social integration (nation-building). The social and cultural powers left up primarily to local authorities or more commonly left out of the law at all, gives huge power to the courts who must arbitrate social interaction with only a minimum of actual law to guide them (hence the huge body of case law in American jurisprudence). So both the legislative and executive are left only with regulating the economy and dealing with foreign affairs and conflicts. Offe argues that the location of American community in religion and voluntary associations created a society where the government must effect social integration but lacks the necessary powers to do so. (38-40)

And so, Offe argues, the executive and legislative seek enemies outside the boundaries of the United States, extending the frontier of yesteryear out into the global scene. To say it another way, because the American state is so feeble domestically, it must exert itself outward on the non-American world.

But Offe goes a step further to argue that because American religion, the locus not only of community but of social morality, is outside the purview of the state, it exists pre-reflexively. That is, morality of the American society is literally a habit of mind, a self-evident truth; so that in the foreign policy sphere, unexamined moralities are enacted upon the world with America as missionary, savior, democratic hero. There are no social formations set up for society-wide discussions of morality, for critical examination of social morality and collective argument. All such arguments happen in local communities (usually but not exclusively religious) and are then enacted unexmained in the public sphere.

As current developments since 11 September 2001 have illustrated, in all these projects this dominant power proceeds in its (now for the first time structurally unendable) war against ‘evil’ and for ‘good,’ not by rule-bound but by decision-bound principles, not in the framework of recognized international law and human rights norms, but unilaterally, even if supported at the time by an alleged ‘coalition of the wililng’ of individual staes. This policy of voluntaristic coalition-building may be understood as precisely a resurrection of the spirit of voluntary sects and local associations on the plane of international politics. (41)

Connecting ‘habits of the heart’ or customs of a society to the behaviors of its federal state and its government is a tricky endeavor. Inevitably the generalizations can serve to overwhelm the specificity and, especially in America, the diversity and conflict among competing ideas. On one hand, I found myself nodding in amazement at Offe’s analysis: yes, dT saw the possible weakness or tendency toward despotism (loss of liberty) in American ‘equality’ but his antidote was too weak. But something about Offe’s focus on religious community is bothersome to me. Indeed, in what I wrote above, I’ve already gone beyond Offe’s actual argument and expanded it in ways that move past religious communities in terms of the location of morality-formation. What I suppose bothers me is the tenuous connection between the religious communities and voluntary associations and the enactment of that morality. It seems particularly clear in George W. Bush that he is uncritically enacting quasi-religious moralities in his conceptions of America’s role in the world. And while I agree with Offe that American electorate likes (for the moment) its religiosity in the Executive, I also think this represents a particular historical moment in American history, post 1973.

Obviously, the American state lacks the power to enact major social programs that would or could serve to integrate the society; and its legislature and executive are limited in ways that are regressive from a European perspective. But equally obviously, at the empirical level, the kinds of moralities that get enacted in the government are hotly contested. Even GWB’s war on terror, though initially immensely popular, was contested from the beginning. While the system may allow someone like GWB to emerge, I’m not sure that it necessarily would have led to those particular values.

On the other hand, I can see the frontier mentality and Manifest Destiny enacted throughout American foreign policy since the 1850s, leading to America’s particular kind of imperialism, a kind of indirect empire. And I definitely see the values Offe critiques (i.e., America as missionary of democracy, as the scion of ‘the good’) as having been continually enacted for 150 years now–but never unilaterally and always with a great deal of controversy and cultural battles, beginning with the Mexican War and coming all the way forward to the War in Iraq.

Ultimately Offe’s theory fails to explain why, despite the massive resistance from the people (often the majority of people, as in the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Vietnam), those particular values get enacted by the government. In other words, it doesn’t explain why the American executive behaves as Offe accurately describes, despite the fact the morals arising out of the people don’t necessarily match or support its action. Yes, we have the habit of the heart of our voluntary association, yes that leaves a void where social integration is concerned; but why did one particular set of values become the dominant one expressed in the foreign policy of the American state, even in the face of opposition from its people?

On Human Categories 21 December 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Ethics.
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[This is in response to comments made on the Problems with Pluralism post made be C.L. and -e-. I thought it was an interesting enough converesation to merit its own post.]

I think there are some real cognitive problems that need to be addressed in both C.L.’s and e’s comments. First, our brains are set up to think in categories, indeed, without categories, thought isn’t even possible. The mental categories that we create are largely learned and largely linguistic, but not entirely. In fact, human categories are highly plastic and change and transform over time and among groups as their experience of the world changes and evolves. It helps to think of categories as “tools” that our brain uses to categorize its knowledge of the world.Secondly, I’m not convinced that categorization is in and of itself unethical or problematic. Categorization of people enables as much good as it perpetrates “evil”. For example, categorization allows people to group together to fight oppression; to educate themselves and others; to create communities. The real ethical questions should not revolve around whether or not an individual or a group creates a category; indeed, that is not possible given the evolution and structure of the human brain. Rather, the ethical questions should arise in the specific effects or consequences of a specific act or practice of categorization.

Finally, because of the plasticisty of human categories and because of the continual change of the environment (that is, it is constantly moving and changing, beyond our control), that means that creating, rejecting, maintaining, and tweaking categories, as well as the constant monitoring of the effects of the categories we use, are ongoing, neverending processes.

The Trouble with Diversity (Review) 11 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Capitalism & Economy, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Inequality & Stratification, Race & Ethnicity, Religion, Reviews.
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[This post has been getting a lot of traffic this week, so I’ve bumped it back to the top of the blog for people looking for it.]

Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

A young Mexican-American couple live on the ground floor of my building with their baby boy, in a studio apartment. Neither speak English well enough to have a conversation with, although I try to be friendly and helpful when I can (last week I helped them move a couch out of their apartment, which was lots of fun accompanied by the broad grins and hand gestures of people working together who do not share a language). But ultimately, how much does it help this struggling couple for me to be friendly to them, to “respect” their differences as immigrants from Mexico? When I go into my apartment, they are still poor and struggling, whether I was ethnocentric or kind. What is the real disparity between me and them? What is the real inequality? And how exactly do we deal with it? Is multiculturalism enough?

When I started teaching a required undergraduate course on inequality in the United States, I came up against some kinds of resistance I hadn’t expected, not in my students, but in myself. I’d been educated in race and ethnic relationships, in cultural diversity and multiculturalism even as an undergraduate. In fact, these are pretty much the dominant culture of America today. But I kept feeling like something was missing or had gone terribly awry in the way we do multiculturalism. I have spoken at length about this here on my blog already, so I won’t go into details again.

Briefly, I find the multicultural obsession with difference to lead to some odd results: We tend to think of ethnic identities as being cohesive, consistent things that are easily identifiable and knowable; and we tend to create out of that notions of authenticity, that is, that there is such a thing as a real latino or a real black person. I object to this on two levels. First, it’s not empirically true. Ethnicities are social constructs that are inherently fluid and contradictory and change over time and from person to person. They are observable effects of social interaction, but they aren’t material or genetic or even heritable in any easy way. In short, there can be no ‘authentic’ qualities or aspects of an ethnicity, empirically; so to treat ethnicities as if they were real in that way is to enter into a world of make believe. Second, as a cultural sociologist, I’m inclined to want to describe who people actually live, what they actually do, and what they actually believe. Real people mix and match cultures (at least they do in pluralist societies) and move freely around and among them, and end up fully hybrid peoples. At the same time, they tend to, in our current way of doing multiculturalism, see themselves as being or having an ethnicity. Indeed, it’s more than a question of perception: it’s a deeply felt and experienced thing, down in the bones. Tell an individual who thinks of himself as “irish” that empirically, he lives like every other American middle class person, and you’ll have an empassioned battle on your hands.

Surely, in a democracy people must have the right to create the kinds of identities they want to; and in an immigrant nation, our culture is always-already hybrid and blended, and new generations of immigrants will have new relations to the cultures of their parents’ sending nations. Surely, in a democracy, we must tolerate those kinds of differences.

One of the fundamental tenets of multiculturalism is the inherent equality among cultures, that is, that no culture is better or worse than another. This kind of equality seems like a no brainer to me, ethically, in terms of creating a democratic society where people of multiple cultural origins and blended cultural configurations can blend and work together and participate in the society. Benn Michaels sees the problem (and I agree) here: that if all cultures are equal in value, then none should be privileged over the other.

For me, the logical conclusion of a multicultural ethical structure is that there is then nothing wrong with people abandoning their culture or creating new cultures to fit their experiences or of blending, mixing and matching as they see fit. But problems arise when the diversity becomes an end in itself; or to say it another way, if maintaining the diversity becomes the purpose of the democracy, then you may have a problem. First, you have to decide what counts as the ‘culture’ you are trying to protect, and then you have to have rules about which people, practices, objects, and beliefs count. And then you end up drawing lines around cultures, which empirically cannot work. Human beings’ cultural interactions are far more complex than that. And so your left with the question of what the relationship to a democracy should be to the culturally plural lives of its citizens.

So I agree with Benn Michaels that seeing diversity as an end in itself creates major problems for the democracy, but I would criticize him for giving such short shrift to the ethical purposes of multiculturalism in the first place, which is as a mechanism for teaching tolerance. Where he and I agree, however, is that tolerance and respect do not mean the same thing in a democracy, and shouldn’t. Indeed, all cultures aren’t equal, and there are cultural beliefs and practices that are repugnant in a democracy working toward freedom and equality.

But Benn Michaels goes further than I have in my critiques of multiculturalism. Whereas I have seen the empirical contradictions of multiculturalism and the problematics within a democratic pluralism, Benn Michaels sees the effects of multiculturalism systematically as being the cultural mechanism whereby we let ourselves off the hook for the suffering around us.

In a nutshell, Benn Michaels argues that multiculturalism has done two problematic things: 1) it has located and reduced all social problems to questions of respect, so that 2) we think all that is necessary to fix social problems is to learn to respect people who are different from us. The problem here is that the real suffering in American culture today arises out of economic inequality, out of that great hiss and byword of American culture, class, not in our racial and ethnic difference. (I would say that Benn Michaels needed to more carefully connect the racism of the past with his argument, because race and class have been so intricately linked in American history and because there still are inequalities based on racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc.).

In America, he argues, we pretend like there are no real differences between being rich and being poor; we excuse ourselves from seeing the real differences by thinking of them as cultural differences that we must respect. In one of the most mordant passages in the book, Benn Michaels asks how exactly it helps a poor person to respect their culture, as if poverty were just another among many equal cultures. Says he, “I love what you’ve done with your shack!” In reality, our focus and obsession with diversity and difference has benefited the right wing (we no longer talk about economic inequality) and the left (who are off the hook for fixing it). In other words, multiculturalism in its effect serves to allow the right wing to ignore real inequality and suffering by covering themselves with their ‘inclusiveness’ or their ‘respect for diversity.’ (Think of all the companies who have diversity programs, for example.) And it serves to salve the conscience of a nation living with 45 million poor people, the highest infant mortality rate in the industrialized world (not to mention poverty, access to health care, homelessness, etc.).

Finally, Benn Michaels makes a vitally necessary plea to resist the urge to think of religions as analagous to ethnicities. He argues that religions are beliefs, not cultures, and that religions by their very nature are making truth claims. Truth claims by their very nature, in a democratic society, are to be debated and vetted publicly. So Benn Michaels argues not that we should exclude or preclude religious discourse from public dialogue, but rather that it must be stricken from our notions of ‘respect’ and that it must be engaged as any other faulty truth claim in debate in the public sphere.

If it’s not obvious by now, Benn Michaels was preaching to the choir in me as a reader. But with his wry humor and good logic, he got me over my objections (mainly, I wanted a lot more substantive evidence for his positions, but that’s just me being a sociologist) to go along with his general thesis, which frankly, is so obvious I don’t know why i hadn’t seen it before, especially someone like me who is still a subconscious marxist. I will probably adopt this book next semester in my inequalities class and see how my very diverse bunch of Bay Area students will react to his arguments.