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.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.