Sunday, October 5, 2008

More on "Against Diversity"

Prompted by T's post on "Against Diversity" below, I decided I'd check out the article in question myself, hoping it couldn't possibly be as bad as T framed it. After all, it's the New Left Review! Well, it's maybe even worse than I thought. And while T's monstrous post was a delightful tear-down of this non sense, there were a couple more gems from the article I thought everyone should be aware of. And well, to be honest, we could probably each write about 300 pages about what is wrong with this article. So, I decided that in homage to my beloved English professors, I'd perform a close reading of just the first paragraph (trust me, it alone has much to offer) to get at just what's wrong with BM's (thanks for the nickname T, ha!) world view.
The importance of race and gender in the current us presidential campaign has, of course, been a function of the salience of racism and sexism—which is to say, discrimination—in American society; a fact that was emphasized by post-primary stories like the New York Times’s ‘Age Becomes the New Race and Gender’.1 It is no doubt difficult to see ageism as a precise equivalent—after all, part of what is wrong with racism and sexism is that they supposedly perpetuate false stereotypes whereas, as someone who has just turned 60, I can attest that a certain number of the stereotypes that constitute ageism are true. But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.

Okay, first sentence itself pisses me off, because it's so flip about racism and sexism as such: "the current function of racism and sexism--which is to say discrimination." Uh, no. Back up, guy. One says racism and sexism to address particular systems of oppression and hegemony, because they're specific and different systems of oppression which warrant, not only their own names, but a lot of thought and a lot of unpacking. If one intends to say, simply, "discrimination" one ought to say discrimination, which means something entirely different and does not have the same history of decades and decades of serious thought from activists fighting the very specific systems of oppression which are racism and sexism.

Okay, next sentence, where suddenly he's grouped not only discrimination and sexism and racism and false stereotypes and ageism into one big umbrella of what he'll come to note as the plague of diversity. Notice how he has to bring another form of discrimination in just to show you how exhausting this whole diversity and not believing false stereotypes can be on a person? Kind of him, of course, to note that it's hard to say ageism is a "precise equivalent" to racism and sexism. Notice again, that he apparently thinks racism and sexism themselves are precisely equivalent. They aren't. If other systems of oppression like ageism, or homophobia, or classism, or hey, neoliberalism, were precisely equivalent to racism and/or sexism, we'd simply call them racism and sexism. But they aren't. So we don't. If they could all just be reduced to "discrimination," we'd call them discrimination. But they can't, so we don't. Good. Glad we've established that.

Now, let's skip his charming little personal insight about how now as an old white dude he too has started to see how unfair some stereotypes are, and let's move onto his last point in this opening paragraph.

But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.
First of all, uh, this sentence is really difficult to follow. It's honestly so poorly constructed I had to read it a few times to get an idea of his point. But here's what I've got: He's saying that because people claim there's ageism in America while he has seen stereotypes about old people to be true, this is evidence that discrimination is now central to our models of injustice in the world, which he will then spend the remainder of the article supposedly showing to be a bad model of injustice. False premises much? Can someone diagram the logic here? Because I can't. That's not what sexism and racism are and that's not what feminism and anti-racism are about.

And just because talk of discrimination has been central to the dialogue on the presidential campaigns doesn't mean it's central to anything else in the world. No seriously, what the fuck? To whom is it implausible that the main problem with being old is prejudice? Whose model of injustice? To me? To The New York Times'? Implausible to the entire American population? Honestly, just who the fuck is he talking about. I don't think there's any model of justice dominant in U.S. minds. But I can certainly tell him that as a feminist and someone who cares about racial justice, fighting discrimination is no more central to my model of justice than is fighting for equality in all forms, absolutely including economic equality and a fight against neoliberalism. Oh, see how fighting inequality and neoliberalism and sexism and racism and even discrimination as such are not mutually exclusive?

But he really doesn't see that. Look at this sentence later on, "Why? Because it is exploitation, not discrimination, that is the primary producer of inequality today. It is neoliberalism, not racism or sexism (or homophobia or ageism) that creates the inequalities that matter most in American society;"

Oh, right, because sexism and racism have NOTHING to do with exploitation, huh? And neoliberalism has nothing to do with racism or sexism or homophobia or ageism. He's not just wrong, he's ignorant. It's as if The Feminine Mystique were the only piece of feminist literature he ever read, and he doesn't know anything about the connections feminists have been making between exploitation and sexism for the past few decades now. Don't mind the race and gender disparities folks, there's nothing but exploitation at work here!

Note to Ben Walter Michaels:

UGHHHHHHHHHH. These arguments have been made before. Smarter people have pointed out why this thinking is so flawed and that it is based on many misinterpretations feminism and anti-racism. The literature is out there for you to read it, so you can catch yourself up on what's already been said about what sexism is, what racism is, and what people are doing to fight it. And then, STOP WRITING THESE ARTICLES THAT CRITICIZE SOCIAL JUSTICE ACTIVISTS FOR ERRORS THEY AREN'T COMMITTING AND SUGGESTING OUR MODELS NEED TO CHANGE WHEN YOU'VE MADE NO EFFORT TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT THE MODELS WE USE!



Zenobia said...

I like how he thinks the worst problem about ageing is the actual infirmities, rather than the fact that older people aren't considered as important as the rest of us because they're no longer economically active, so no one thinks they need to live on more than spam and tinned spaghetti and lottery tickets, or need to heat their houses, or get decent medical treatment, or access to public transport wherever they need it. Like, they're an expense on us younger folks and they're going to die soon anyway. And how older women can't get decent treatment from people they go to for help because they're considered to be a bit crazy. I'm sure he'd protest that he hasn't had any of these problems, but he's one of the privileged few if that's the case.

I could almost see where he was coming from, but actually I think he's trying to work up a left-wing equivalent of decrying 'political correctness gone mad'.

T said...

As far as Leftist literature, and the fact that this is in NLR, I think we should be careful about drawing quick conclusions about either from the mere existence of this article.

NLR has an impressive amount of feminist scholarship and writing to its name. It's also probably relevant in some way that it's EIC is a woman. I dont think Benn Michaels's regressive polemic expresses any sort of consensus of belief among the "usual suspects" who write for NLR nor for the editorial committee. But still, how did this stupid piece get published?

It doesn't really seem to fit in, aside from its stated hostility to neoliberalism, with most of what you expect to find in NLR.

The last two pieces I read in NLR about US Politics were by Mike Davis and Robert Brenner, and they were awesome.

Arvilla said...

Well, I agree that the New Left Review has had a lot of great feminist content in the past, and I know that even as a non-subscriber. But don't you think it's fair that even one strike can be somewhat alienating?

I mean, I'm not saying I'm writing it off. But that the editors of the NLR thought this trash was even worthy of publishing, even if they disagree with it, means they're coming from a framework very different than mine. And yeah, that's somewhat alienating.

I would say leftist literature as such can be viewed the same way. I can find a lot of great work and thought in a lot of it, and still, a few outliers are bound to alienate me. Is that too sensitive a standard? Maybe. But alienation is all about impression, and I can't really talk myself out of that.

T said...

I agree that it is alienating. I am at a loss... I don't really understand why NLR would publish shit like that.

But, I think we should be weary of inferring too much about the frameworks of those running the publication... we know nothing about the details of the decision to print it. Perhaps, like we know from having been there, they thought it would be one thing, but it ended up being another and deadlines ended up deciding yea or nay. But perhaps that had nothing to do with it. I mean, shitty articles got printed while I was associated with publications.

I would be interested to know what the process was for selecting that article.

T said...

It's also worth mentioning that even the length, quality of writing and format of the article fail to meet the standards of most of what one finds in NLR. They don't usually have frivolous polemical trash like that... leave that for the Op/Eds in the daily rags.

Arvilla said...

Good point about deadlines and last-minute pieces. I should think more about that when I judge publications, having dealt with it myself...

Let's hope we don't see pieces like this ever again in the NLR and we can call it a fluke.