Wit and Sharp Argument Skewer a Damaging Euphemism

The last decade and more of American public life will be remembered, among other things, for the triumph of euphemism. Not only did bellicosity become “moral clarity” and military invasion turn into the promotion of freedom, but many issues on the domestic front were strategically rebranded as well: Religious charities became “faith-based initiatives,” netting in the process hundreds of millions in government grants, and schemes to privatize Social Security won the inoffensive moniker of “retirement-savings accounts.”

It’s fitting, then, that an English professor, Walter Benn Michaels, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, should be taking full aim at one of our age’s most characteristic—and most troubling—shifty linguistic turns: the bid to recast racial-cum-cultural conflict as a struggle to achieve “diversity.” A sweeping, unobjectionable and ultimately bland social ideal, diversity has smoothly supplanted more politically charged notions of equity and justice in debates over the material deficits in American racial and ethnic life. Nowhere was this elision more plain than in the symbolic crusade to diversify the racial and linguistic ranks of federal officialdom, initiated by the Clinton-era pledge to have a cabinet that “looked more like America”—an aim whose hollowness was promptly exposed by the Bush administration, which appointed a yet more racially diverse group of senior advisors to preside over far more divisive policies of malign economic neglect. What we want is not for cabinets to resemble the nation they serve, but rather for them to make that nation fairer, more equitable and less economically cruel.

But as Mr. Michaels notes in his sharply argued polemic The Trouble with Diversity, that tends to be the very point of the jargon of diversity: It allows us not to talk about the increasingly rigid partition of our society along class lines. For as we enthusiastically fine-tune our sensibilities about how cultural or racial groupings can best be spoken about or symbolized, most social goods in our country—health care, affordable housing and higher education, income support, a living wage—drift further and further out of reach for many ordinary Americans. This is far from accidental, Mr. Michaels says; the marketing of cultural diversity as a social desideratum has crowded out any clear understanding—especially on the left end of the political spectrum—of how class privilege operates in America today.

Examples abound, but Mr. Michaels correctly focuses on the fetishizing of racial difference—a tic shared among partisans of every ideological persuasion—as the key factor in the flight from a class-based politics. Mr. Michaels doesn’t deny the persistence of racism, but notes that it’s been significantly downgraded: “Racism has been privatized,” he writes, “converted from a political position into a personal failing.” And Americans romance nothing quite so ardently as remedies for a personal failing: The mandate to appreciate the anodyne ideal of “cultural diversity”—itself a labored euphemism for the defeat of structural racism—“gives us a vision of difference without equality,” since all cultures in this view of things are equally worthy of respect. And this central reverie, Mr. Michaels argues, means that “the political commitment to equality involves not creating it (by, say, redistributing wealth) but just insisting that it’s already there.”

This brazen lie has permitted the extravagant trade in corporate-sponsored diversity appreciation to flourish. Mr. Michaels notes, for example, that a former president of Dartmouth has used his office to sponsor anti-hate rallies on campus, and that a clutch of “heritage management firms” have set up shop to research older companies’ past racial transgressions and help manage the public-apology strategies for same. This is to say nothing of still crasser undertakings, like the “Show Me the Money Diversity Venture Capital Conference” and—yes—the “Diversity Rocks Classic Thong,” which permits its user both to “show your support for multiculturalism” and “put an end to panty lines.”

Perhaps if such excesses were simply exercises in commodifying one’s beliefs, they would be fairly unobjectionable—encouraging signs of progress, even, since one can only successfully market on a mass scale ideas that have decisively joined the mainstream. But as Mr. Michaels observes, diversity-speak does its greatest mischief when misapplied to social inequality. By adopting the passive tolerance preached by diversity consultants to matters of economic opportunity, we confuse the fundamental issue: “[W]e have started to treat economic difference as if it were cultural difference,” Mr. Michaels writes. “So now we’re urged to be more respectful of poor people and to stop thinking of them as victims, since to treat them as victims is condescending—it denies them their ‘agency.’ And if we stop thinking of the poor as people who have too little money and start thinking of them instead as people who have too little respect, then it’s our attitude toward the poor, not their poverty, that becomes the problem to be solved, and we can focus our efforts of reform not on getting rid of classes but on getting rid of what we like to call classism.”

(I should add that Mr. Michaels kindly acknowledges in a footnote some of my own published criticisms of the “classist” fallacy.)

In reality, of course, the whole notion of encouraging economic diversity is farcical: A sane view of social justice involves decreasing the number of poor people, and hence reducing economic diversity. “Indeed,” Mr. Michaels writes, “since economic diversity is just another name for economic inequality, it’s hard to see why we would want to promote it.”

And yet that’s precisely what much of the American left seems content to do—or at least to continue flogging the inert social facts of cultural diversity over and against any universalist view of economic justice. The diversity crusade—together with its gender-sensitive variants—has turned the American left into “something like the human resources department of the right,” Mr. Michaels argues. Instead of accepting the standard vision of a bitterly polarized right-and-left political landscape, he suggests that “we might more plausibly describe contemporary politics and contemporary political argument as nothing but a dispute between our reactionaries and our conservatives. The reactionaries are the ones who attack diversity, the conservatives are the ones who defend it; the reactionaries are the ones who think our inequalities are justified, the conservatives are the ones who think we don’t have any, or, more precisely, that the ones we do have are the products of prejudice, of treating people as if they were worse than we are.”

Such sentiments are bound to anger many bien-pensant liberals, who cleave to diversity rhetoric because it provides much the same powerful rush that “moral certainty” grants to propagandists for the war on terror. As Mr. Michaels puts it: “What American liberals want is for our conservatives to be racists …. We want a fictional George Bush who doesn’t care about black people rather than the George Bush we’ve actually got, one who doesn’t care about poor people.”

At times, Mr. Michaels does let his rhetoric run away with his argument, as when, inveighing against the idolatry of racial heritage for its own sake, he approvingly quotes Henry Ford’s toweringly smug maxim, “History is bunk.” (Of course, Mr. Michaels—a pillar of the “new historicist” school of literary criticism—cannot hew completely to Ford’s presentist nay-saying; he criticizes, for example, the counterfactual flourishes in Philip Roth’s recent fantasia of American anti-Semitism, The Plot Against America.) Still, he has produced that rarity in the present idea-starved forum of American political debate: a closely reasoned, genuinely impassioned call to revive a left politics of economic justice. Perhaps if enough people heed it, we can trade in the managed sensitivity of the human-resources department for a robust political movement that can at last start calling greed, privilege and class prerogative by their true names.

Chris Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult. Wit and Sharp Argument  Skewer a Damaging Euphemism