Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Glenn Beck, Walter Benn Michaels, and a Vocabulary Lesson

Glenn Beck said something stupid. In making this statement I don't mean to criticize Beck for claiming that President Obama favored one group of Americans over another group (although that may be true too; I haven't really been paying attention to that aspect of the story, sorry)--rather, I mean to criticize Beck (and everyone else who has commented on this "news" story) for continuing to use an obsolete vocabulary. The primary problem with Beck calling Obama a racist is not one of prejudice; the primary problem with Beck calling Obama a racist is that "race" doesn't exist.

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology and the Human Genome Project, scientists have been able to look at every piece of DNA in people from a variety of racial backgrounds--and you know what they found? There is nothing--NOTHING--that biologically and consistently distinguishes one human being from another, regardless of the "race" that those two individuals belong to. Claiming kinship with other individuals on the basis of a common skin color makes no more sense than claiming kinship with individuals that share your height, hair color, or shoe size. Race is, or at least should be, dead.

Instead, race has been reinvented as culture--there is no such thing as an "African American race" but there is "African American culture" and "Native American culture" and "Jewish culture." This is a problem for a number of reasons, not least of which being the fact that "culture" is something that you can choose to claim or reject--not something that is inherently you. For this reason, we now have people who have adopted alternative identities--as a homosexual, as a Mormon, as a born-again Christian, etc.--as their culture, and they demand the same protections for those identities that we are accustomed to awarding people of different races (who we thought were biologically different).

Now, please note--I am not suggesting that African Americans and Native Americans don't have different skin tones than the rest of us, or that Jews and homosexuals and Mormons and born-again Christians don't have distinctive cultural practices that set them apart. They do. Some of the things that lead us to adopt cultural identities are genetic and some are a matter of choice; the cause of cultural distinctions is less important than the effect--the erasure of a common identity that we all share as human beings--as children of God. When we label ourselves, whether as a Jew or an African American or even as a Mormon, we subordinate all other aspects of ourselves to that identification, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

Do the following exercise mentally. How strongly do you identify with each of the following "identity" labels? Rank them 1-10. Which one would go at the top of your list?

resident of a geographical region (southerner, East-coast/West-coast, Yankee, etc)
religious affiliation/status
human being (as opposed to another biological species)
Child of God
national identity (American, Polish, Irish, Mexican)
sexual attraction
family status (single, married, father/mother, son/daughter, etc.)
racial identity
education level
occupation (doctor, lawyer, cop, teacher, etc.)

Identity is something we compile in layers, and it's really important that we are self-conscious in deciding which layers go on top and which can be subordinated--otherwise, we might end up prioritizing our national identity over our religious identity, or our occupation over our family status. This is why the "signature" of all my emails has two headings. First I give my home address with the title "Husband and Father" (and husband comes first for a reason). Then I give my school address with the title "Student and Teacher" (and student comes first for a reason). Those are four layers of my identity, and I've prioritized them publicly so that everyone I correspond with knows that I'm a husband first, father second, student (learner) third, and teacher fourth. This is why one of my professors has a picture of the world on his office door with the caption: "Homeland." His identity as a human being is more important to him than his identity as an American citizen.

I could write a lot more...but my wife is calling me for bed--so on to the second half of my post.

All of this has served (hopefully) as an introduction and a plug for a book I read recently: The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, by Walter Benn Michaels.

This is the best--and most important book--I have read since Supercapitalism. Michaels's basic argument is that because race is non-existent, we ought to replace it with more meaningful categories of identity (something I agree with him about). He suggests that we should prioritize class over race--essentially that affirmative action should be applied to poor people instead of to minorities, women, and people with other protected cultural identities (something I mostly agree with him about).

This book is superbly written and reasoned--a pleasure (and a quick pleasure at that) to read. READ IT! Here are some excerpts of the (many) sections that caused me to smile and think a little bit deeper about race and identity politics:

"An important issue of social justice hangs on not discriminating against people because of their hair color or their skin color or their sexuality. No issue of social justice hangs on appreciating hair color diversity; no issue of social justice hangs on appreciating racial or cultural diversity." (15)

"The American version of Sartre's 'the Jew is one whom others consider a Jew' was produced, as we have already noted, by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1940 when he wrote that 'the black man is a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia.' But the beliefs about race that underlay the Jim Crow laws have turned out to be mistaken; we no longer believe them, and we no longer have Jim Crow. So the true meaning of Du Bois's definition should now be clear; if a black man is a man who has to ride Jim Crow, there is no such thing as a black man. Or a white man either. There are people with different colors of skin, different textures of hair, different heights and different weights, different kinds of abilities and different kinds of disabilities. But there are no people of different races." (47-48)

"My main point here is not, however, that religious beliefs are mistaken. It is instead that disputes about religion--understood as the pope understands them, as disputes about what is universally true--are useful reminders that you can't exactly be for diversity of beliefs in the way that you can be for diversity of identities." (188)

"So where OMB (The Congressional Office of Management and Budget) says that you belong to whatever race you perceive yourself as belonging to, Bartlett thinks you belong to whatever class you perceive yourself as belonging to. [...] In fact, the social construction of class is even more useful than the social construction of race, since the social construction of race just enables you to ignore the difference between the rich and the poor while the social construction of class makes it possible to eliminate it. If you can really convince yourself that people belong to whatever class they thing they belong to and if you can get everybody (the rich and the poor) to think they belong to the middle class, then you've accomplished the trick of redistributing wealth without actually transferring any money. Marx used to describe religion as the opium of the people because it promised them in heaven what they couldn't get on earth. The American dream is more effective; it assures us that we don't have to wait for the afterlife. The poor already have what they haven't got, and the rich don't really have what they do. Everybody's happy." (196-97)

If those quotes don't make you rush to your local library, I don't know what will. Happy reading!


Jo Jo said...

This is so true. Appreciate learning those distinctions! You should forward most of this, to an op ed piece so every one else can learn.

Carl said...

I think that the cultural identity is very important fro to promote.. but, also I believe that all persons are equal, the unique difference is the form how to thinking each one.