WIFE SWAP CONSERVATISM

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels’ 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity. Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn’t convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing “identity politics” around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics. The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon’s argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact. It’s often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument. He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn’t engage with many pivotal ones – like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other – how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman. He calls Omi and Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States “certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race,” but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we’re left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard. In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that “Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you’ve given up on – or turned against – the idea of a strong labor movement.” Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who’ve worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart’s sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism’s threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear. Benn Michaels’ approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race). As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he’s echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement’s decline in the first place. Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement – blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

That said, we needn’t accept Benn Michael’s arguments about the irrelevance of race- and sex-based politics to appreciate the book’s critical insight: that the plutocrats triumph when poverty is understood as an identity to be respected rather than as a problem to be eliminated. Conservatives, as he argues, have masterfully reframed our class problem as being about the elitists who look down on poor people rather than about the robber barons, de-regulators, and union-busters who make them poor. Examples abound in conservative literature (Tom Wolfe comes in for some enjoyable criticism in The Trouble With Diversity), but Benn Michaels is right that seemingly liberal takes on class often suffer from the same problem. And he’s right that conservatives draw on the language we use to talk about race to pull this off.

I was reminded of People Like Us, a very engaging PBS documentary about class in America that explores a series of interesting situations – working-class folks fight with ex-hippies about what kind of supermarket to bring into their neighborhood; tensions within African-American communities about whether Jack and Jill clubs aimed at well-off Black kids are elitist; a daughter’s embarrassment about her “trailer park” mom – but all from the perspective of how different classes can get along, not how we can reduce or eliminate class differences. The least sympathetic characters in the movie are a bunch of snotty high school kids at a mixed-income public school talking in awful terms about why they wouldn’t talk to the poor kids they go to school with (“What would we talk to them about?”). It’s a good movie. But you could walk away with the sense that our class problems would be solved if the rich kids would befriend the poor kids. Which, as Benn Michaels would argue, would be much less expensive or destabilizing for the powers that be than making those kids’ families less poor. As Benn Michaels writes (in one of many paragraphs that makes you wish more political books were written by English professors) about an episode of Wife Swap:

At no time, apparently, did it occur to the makers of the show, the people in it or the people reviewing it, that what the show really demonstrates is how much better it is to be rich than to be poor. Or perhaps one should say not that the show ignores this point but that it is devoted to denying it, and that it succeeds so completely (this is its brilliance) that we find ourselves believing that run-down shacks in the woods are just as nice as Park Avenue apartments, especially if your husband remembers to thank you for chopping the wood when you get home from driving the bus. The idea the show likes is the one Tom Wolfe and company like: that the problem with being poor is not having less money than rich people but having rich people “look down” on you. And the rich husband is bad because he does indeed look down on the poor people, whereas the rich wife (the one who has never done a day’s work in her life and who begins the show by celebrating her “me time,” shopping, working out, etc.) turns out to be good because she comes to appreciate the poor and even to realize that she can learn from them. The fault here is not in being rich but in thinking that you have better taste – more generally, in thinking that…you are are a better person.

A CAMPAIGN ABOUT CHANGE VERSUS A CAMPAIGN ABOUT MCCAIN?

Reading Michael Crowley’s Mark Salter profile in TNR, you wonder how real McCainiacs can really keep a straight face while arguing that the Obama campaign is the one driven by a cult of personality built around a narcissist who feels he’s owed the presidency. Salter is apparently livid that Obama has stolen McCain’s themes of having matured out of a colorful childhood and been bettered by patriotism and commitment to public service. Did Mark Salter make it through his top perch in John McCain’s 2000 campaign without ever listening to a George W. Bush speech? Salter even jokes

“I often regret that we didn’t copyright ‘serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'” he cracks.

And Barack Obama is supposed to have an arrogance problem? Crowley also resurrects Mark Salter’s tirade against a college graduating class whose student speaker had the temerity to criticize McCain before he spoke:

Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

This isn’t some out of control staffer – this is the guy who survives every McCainland shake-up, ghost-writes everything, conceived, crafts, and protects the McCain mythology, etc. But his comments are striking in part because they echo the ethos that emanates from so much of McCain’s campaign: this sense that John McCain deserves the presidency, even if America isn’t good enough to deserve John McCain.

Who else would put up an internet ad about how the candidate as an elite boarding school student learned the honor code and committed to turn in other boys if they were cheating – and he’s applied those values ever since? Or one that just consists of speechifying by their guy and quotes from Teddy Roosevelt? Can you imagine if Barack Obama tried to pull that? Meanwhile McCain’s campaign brings up his POW experience at every conceivable opportunity while demanding he be recognized as too modest to talk about it – and how dare Wes Clark question whether it qualifies him to be president? (Remember the attacks on John Kerry for talking too much about his purple hearts)

Today Obama is predictably under attack from conservatives for the ostensible arrogance of giving a speech to a big crowd outside the United States. In that speech, Obama talks about his personal story and what he loves about America – echoing, though understandably not repeating his statement in his convention speech that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” This is the most common intersection of autobiography and patriotism in an Obama speech: America is a great country which has made so much possible for me. With McCain, the formulation is more often: I love America, and I’ve sacrificed for America my whole life.

McCain is of course entitled to tout his military service, which is certainly more admirable than what he’s done in the United States Senate. And his campaign’s steady emphasis on McCain’s story and character I’m sure is driven in part by recognition that more people cast their votes on such things – ethos rather than logos in Paul Waldman’s formulation. But – aside from Crowley’s observation that McCain’s character appeal seems more attuned to what voters wanted in 2000 than in 2008 – I have to hope that it’s not just we “base voters” who find his campaign’s sense of entitlement grating.

Everyone seems now to agree that McCain’s wasn’t helped by the speech he gave the night Obama clinched his delegate majority. But it wasn’t just the green background – McCain came off like John Lithgow’s disapproving father figure in Footloose warning America away from the dangers of Barack Obama’s dancing. Or like Gore Vidal’s character (the Democrat) lecturing the debate audience not to fall for the titular Republican in Bob Roberts. It seemed like the best case scenario is you walk away convinced that however exciting it would be to vote Obama, you’d really better vote for McCain (and eat your vegetables). That speech brought home a sense of McCain as the candidate of obligation. Salter’s screeds bring home the sense that we’re doubly obligated to vote for McCain:

First, because voting Obama is a risky indulgence. Second, because after all McCain’s done for us, we owe it to him.

Which came first: the mandate that we have to vote for John McCain, or the low level of enthusiasm (14% in a recent survey) among his supporters?

Which is more arrogant and presumptuous: “We are the ones we have been waiting for” or “The American president America has been waiting for”?

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Who knew that this site was one of the top Google hits for Paul Eastlund? Answer: Paul Eastlund knows.

Two and a half years ago (I know, weird – back when I was nineteen and I had my whole life ahead of me) I posted here about a troublingly unfunny counter-counter-counter-protest celebrated by the Cornell Review and linked approvingly by Jonah Goldberg. Basically, the protesters said we were violating people’s rights at Guantanamo, the counter-protesters said they deserved it, the counter-counter-protesters said the counter-protesters were racist, and the counter-counter-counter-protester stuck it to the counter-counter-protesters by saying racist things. Ironically. I made an attempt to lay the tableu out slightly more comprehensibly here.

At the time, Jonah Goldberg approvingly quoted a dispatch from Cornell Review Editor Paul Eastlund:

Nick is an uber-conservative who we’d never met before, but who hung out with us pretty much all day, and he is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met…Occasionally he shouted things like “Support the Middle East Glass-Making Program” and “They don’t deserve 3 meals a day, they deserve a bullet to the head.” At one point, a few hecklers decided to pretend they were with us, and shouted “All Muslims are terrorists!” and “Kill all Muslims!” Before we could insist that we weren’t saying anything of the sort, Nick responded by shouting “All Muslims are terrorists!” and “Kill all Muslims!” They were dumbfounded. It was pretty hilarious.

Now flash forward two and a half years. We lost an election. We won a community benefits agreement. Paul Simon, twenty years later than Art Garfunkel, fell prey to a sense of personal contentment that’s robbed his music of its pathos. My bright college years have come to an end, and now I go to synagogue and get excitedly referred to as part of the “Under 40” crowd. And now, as I sit hunched over my laptop trying to figure out when Aaron Sorkin’s new show airs on the West Coast, I find an e-mail sent from far away harking back to long ago. From Paul Eastlund. He asked me to pass the following along (emphasis all mine):

I’ve clearly come across as the sort of person I would despise, so let me try to clarify.

First of all, your post is dead-on: the story, as quoted, is quite indefensible. A handful of staffers and I threw the page describing the counter-protest, containing that anecdote, together in a bit of a hurry. At some point later, I reread it, noticed that anecdote, and reworded it, although the page has been long since deleted. Anyway, it has been too long since the protest for me to remember anything with exactitude, but here’s my explanation of the ‘joke’ that you brought up.

We were irked by a display that dramatized injustice to seemingly innocent prisoners at Guantanamo (the actors portraying prisoners were well-groomed, mild-mannered academics who spoke perfect English and had no idea why they had been imprisoned) and implied quite directly that they should be released. We countered with signs that cited favorable facts and quotes about prisoner conditions in Guantanamo, as well as having one of us dress up in a TNT vest and hold up a sign saying “Death to America! Death to the Great Satan! Do you really want me going free?” Plenty of people reacted positively — not necessarily agreeing with us, but taking the time to debate us civilly — but some insisted that our display was racist. This irked us because the other Review leadership and I had, amidst some opposition, specifically worked to avoid giving the impression that we were advocating intolerance toward any religion or ethnicity. After having received that sort of complaint for the first day, we had deliberately cast non-Arabs in the “terrorist” role to further distance our message from any sword of religion- or ethnicity-based prejudiced.

Regardless, we continued to hear accusations. Nick’s response was along the lines of: “No, if we were going to single out Islam, it would be more like this” — and then he proceeded to demonstrate, briefly. The point was to contrast our display with the sentiments they were accusing us of espousing.

Anyway, that’s how the story was supposed to have come across. I realize that, in the version you quoted, it didn’t, and I apologize for that. I have to agree with you that it’s a bit of an alarming oddity that, written as it was, it was palatable to Jonah Goldberg and the many well-wishers who wrote to us before it got changed online.

I just wanted to send you this note clarifying, and apologizing for, how it was written before. I’ve always tried to steer clear of the uglier, race-baiting side of conservatism — in fact, I was so unpalatably “socially liberal” during my stint at the Cornell Review that a chunk of the staff mutinied and broke off to form the more conservative Cornell American, which focused almost exclusively on issues of race and homosexuality — and I was alarmed to find myself and the Review indicted on your site for precisely the sort of sentiment I spent much of my career in Cornell politics opposing, and that the Cornell Review in general no longer embodies.

Like you, my first thought upon reading this e-mail was: Someone reads this site who I’m not related to? And my second was: Is it possible that I’m related to Paul Eastlund.

Even with Paul’s account, the whole episode remains less than savory. And while they may not all have been “well-groomed, mild-mannered academics who spoke perfect English” there were indeed plenty of people at Camp X-Ray with “no idea why they had been imprisoned.” But that said, I appreciate Paul’s gracious e-mail and I’m glad to see him rebuke the account celebrated on The Corner. I hope he’s shared his e-mail as well with Jonah Goldberg, who to my knowledge has said nothing in the intervening couple years to suggest that he sees responding to an accusation of racism by yelling “Kill all Muslims!” as anything other than hilarious.

BUSINESS CASUAL

I agree with Asheesh that the quality of university teaching by tenured professors would improve if the tenure process took teaching into greater consideration relative to research output. And based on my own college experience (reaching back to a good four months ago), I think the unstated faith that the folks who produce the best research will also produce the best teaching is a faith which dare not speak its name for good reason.

But considering which professors get tenure tells you a decreasing amount about the quality of undergraduate teaching, because less and less of it is done by tenured professors. The trend over the past years has been a shift of teaching hours away from tenured faculty and ladder faculty (those with a shot at tenure) and instead onto various forms of transient teachers: non-ladder faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, and graduate student teachers. The academy is being Wal-Mart-ized – labor is being shifted towards workers with less job security, more precarity, and less institutional support.

This trend poses three kinds of challenges to undergraduates concerned with the quality of their classroom education: First, to protect the presence of enough long-term secure faculty to provide effective mentorship and continuity. Second, to ensure sufficient economic and institutional support for transient teachers to allow them to provide the best teaching they can under the circumstances. And third, to foster progress, rather than backsliding, in the diversification of the academy even in the face of casualization and the coercive economic pressures it intensifies.

That’s part of why undergraduates have so much at stake in struggles like this one.

WHO’S BARRING WHOM?

Seeing Asheesh allude to his disagreement with “progressives who think military recruiters should be barred from targeting students on campus,” I have to ask: Who is barring military recruiters from targeting students on campus? Because if he’s referring to the legal battle between several universities and the Defense Department over the Solomon Amendment, it’s worth noting at the issue at stake is whether the federal government can force private universities receiving federal money to provide military recruiters with access to students as great or greater than that available to other recruiters. The question is not whether universities can bar military recruiters from the premises. The question is whether the federal government can force universities to invite military recruiters to university-sponsored career fairs.

While conservatives will tell you that these cases are all about communist academics purging institutions they don’t like (watch your back, Central Intelligence Agency), what kept the US military out of the rarified air of the college career fair was its unabashed policy of discrimination against gay people. It’s because of the military’s discrimination against a class protected by many universities’ non-discrimination policies that those universities have chosen not to invite them to use university-sponsored events to recruit only heterosexual students.

I can’t speak to other universities, but at Yale you can frequently spot recruiters in public spaces on campus. We get Jews for Jesus, too. On some occasions, recruiters have even set up shop in the same indoor space where friends of mine who were Yale students at the time were detained by the police for leafletting. They were not detained by the police.

Are other universities driving military recruiters off their streets?

Look, I know one or two people who were classmates of mine who believe that military recruiters should be physically barred from all university property. I think they’re wrong. And I think some of the left-of-center supporters of the Solomon Amendment are right to be concerned about the division between attendees of elite universities and enrollees in the US military. But it’s hard for me to see how forcing open the doors of college career fairs to military recruiters who will only consider heterosexual college students will spark an influx of those students into the service. If that’s the goal, forcing open the doors of the military to enrollees of all sexual orientations would be a good start.

COME ON

The Times reports that 72 Georgetown faculty, administrators, and graduate students have signed a letter protesting the school’s hiring of Douglas Feith for a two-year lectureship. Which of the 72 did Jason DeParle choose to interview? One is the author of the petition. The other

has appointments in anthropology and French and whose résumé lists several writings about French chocolate makers. (“From Master Chocolatiers Today: Bayonne and the Basque Coast.”) She complained that Mr. Feith’s appointment was “presented as a fait accompli.”

What better to reinforce a narrative which marginalizes critics of the neoconservative project as anti-American elitists than an anecdote about a French professor who studies “Master Chocolatiers”? That liberal media, at it again.

Incidentally, Professor Terrio has other research papers DeParle could have cited, like “New ‘Savages’ in the Suburbs: Criminalizing ‘Immigrant’ Youth in French Mass Media.” Or he could have talked to a professor like Judith Tucker, the historian who edits the International Journal of Middle East Studies. But that wouldn’t pack the same narrative punch.

STOP MY PARENTS BEFORE THEY VITIATE PRINCETON’S ALUMNI BODY AGAIN

If you didn’t know better, you might be concerned to learn that Samuel Alito touts his membership in a group which, based on its literature, seems to see the entrance of women and minority students into the academy as a threat to the university – at least if the university is Princeton:

“Currently alumni children comprise 14 percent of each entering class, compared with an 11 percent quota for blacks and Hispanics,” [Concerned Alumni of Princeton] wrote in a 1985 fund-raising letter sent to all Princeton graduates…”Is the issue the percentage of alumni children admitted or the percentage of minorities?” Jonathan Morgan, a conservative undergraduate working with the group, asked its board members that fall in an internal memorandum. “I don’t see the relevance in comparing the two, except in a racist context (i.e. why do we let in so many minorities and not alumni children?),” he continued.

…the group announced in an early fund-raising pamphlet that its goals included a less-liberal faculty and “a more traditional undergraduate population.” A pamphlet for parents suggested that “racial tensions” and loose oversight of campus social life were contributing to a spike in campus crime. A brochure for Princeton alumni warned, “The unannounced goal of the administration, now achieved, of a student population of approximately 40 percent women and minorities will largely vitiate the alumni body of the future.”…When the administration proposed a new system of residential colleges with their own dining halls, Prospect denounced the idea as a potential threat to the system of eating clubs. The magazine charged that, like affirmative action, the plan was “intended to create racial harmony.”

One might be taken aback that in applying for a promotion in the Reagan Administration, Alito offered as a conservative credential his membership in a group which see students from group traditionally excluded from Princeton (like my parents) as “vitiating” the “alumni body.” But lucky for Sam Alito, former Concerned Alumni of Princeton starlet turned conservative superstar Laura Ingraham is on hand to reassure us that any good conservative would see an influx of Blacks, Jews, and women as a threat to higher learning:

“Stop the presses!” she said. “Sam Alito, a conservative, was once a member of a conservative Princeton alumni group.”

Feel better yet?