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.

FAMILY MATTERS

This article, one of the last by the recently-deceased Ellen Willis, is one of the more articulate, accurate, and biting critiques I’ve come across of Thomas Frank and What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book many pundits make reference to and few do justice.

Willis takes on what I think is the most glaring weakness of Frank’s latest book, one which goes totally unaddressed in the full-length reviews and tangential digs bashing him for his supposed elitism: Frank argues that Republicans elected on the basis of their social conservatism don’t actually deliver socially conservative policy. As we say in Yiddish, “Halvai” – if only. As Willis notes, conservatives have successfully used the powers of their offices all too successfully to reshape the country’s “social policy” more faithful to their dogma – including making it prohibitively difficult for women in large swathes of the country to exercise freedom of choice. Frank is of course right to recognize the Federal Marriage Act as a stunt and a sop, but the unfortunate truth is that many of the right’s sops to social conservative activists pack a real punch in diminishing the freedom of the rest of us to access contraception, access knowledge, and access partnership rights.

Rejecting Frank’s insistence that the social conservative legislative agenda is a chimera doesn’t much damage the rest of his argument though. Frank is right to argue that conservatives build a base for right-wing policy based on classed appeals to stick it to elites by fighting social liberalsim, and that that base make possible policies that make elites that much more decadent. And he’s right that a progressive politics that speaks to class and is willling to condemn George Bush’s congratulating a woman working three jobs as a mark of elitism would do something to sap the power that right-wing aesthetic class warfare has in the absence of the materialist class warfare Lee Attwater rightly rued could bring the left back into electoral power.

Willis is right to suggest that that won’t be enough, and that progressives need to speak with strength and candor in the culture war rather than simply feinting or punting (and she speaks perceptively to the way we project our owjn ambivalences onto the electorate, which then reflects them). But she’s wrong to lump Frank in with Michaels (say, Lind and Tomasky) who are set on shutting feminists up.

And of all the charges to level at Thomas Frank, excessive loyalty to the Democratic Party is one of the more inane ones Willis could have chosen. That said, it’s a compelling read.

Zichronah livrachah.

MIKE’S MATH

Michael Tomasky chooses a very strange approach to claim some quantitative heft for his otherwise well-stated case that the Democratic Senate Caucus will continue to represent a range of views whether it includes Joe Lieberman or not:

You start with their National Journal numbers — specifically, their liberal support score for 2005. This score is defined in this way: If Senator X has a liberal support score of 90, it means she is more liberal than 90 percent of her Senate colleagues..So, off the top of your head: How many of the 44 Democratic senators have a 90 or better? Nine? Ten? Try four…

If this sounds like a meaningful measure of how liberal Senate Democrats are, or how broad the range of ideologies among Senate Dems are, then go back and read that second sentence again. According to Tomasky’s description, the National Journal rating (yes, that’s the same one that gave us that silly talking point about Kerry and Edwards being the 1st and 4th most liberal senators) is a stanine (remember standardized tests?). It measures how liberal a given senator is as compared to the other 99 senators (the system must be more complicated than Tomasky’s describing it, because it’s physically impossible for Ted Kennedy to be more liberal than exactly 96.7 other Senators). Which (lest our friends at the National Journal take offense) may be useful to know in evaluating a particular Senator, or even a few of them. But in terms of looking at a 44-member caucus, it’s less useful. It could tell us (assuming we accept the rubric for the calculations, which Tomasky goes on to say he doesn’t) whether there’s any overlap along the scale between the two caucuses – that is, whether Lincoln Chafee is more or less liberal than Ben Nelson. It could even tell us something about how the senators are spaced along the ideological spectrum they represent.

But knowing that the Democrats have four Senators in the 90s and “a passel of B’s”, while the Republicans have

have just three 90’s: Jeff Sessions, Wayne Allard, and Tom Coburn. But they do have more in the 80’s

sheds precious little light on the question Tomasky is trying to answer: How ideologically diverse is the Democratic caucus (rather than how the Democratic Senators are spaced along the ideological territory of the caucus). Maybe there’s an argument to be made about how the ideological breadth of one caucus skews the distribution of the other caucus along the spectrum of all 100 senators, but I don’t think Tomasky is making it.

His argument seems to be that if the Senate Democratic Caucus were really full of Ted Kennedys, you’d see more of its members scoring in the 90s. But if the Caucus were full of Ted Kennedys, it would become that much harder for Ted Kennedy to eke out a 90. Because, as they say, it’s all relative.

If you took a snapshot of the current distribution of Senators along the National Journal scale, on the other hand, you would have a tough time (unless you were, say, Jacob Hacker) telling from looking at it whether you were looking at the Senate circa 2006, 1936, or 1846 – because changes in the ideological breadth of the Senate would only translate indirectly into changes in the spacing of the Senators along that breadth. And you’d be no closer to figuring out how the ideologies represented by the folks in the Senate compare to the breakdown of America, or even Connecticut.

That is, if I understand the National Journal ratings correctly. If I’m confused, then forget it. If not, then Tomasky’s parallel universe of Democrats who all score in the 90’s bares a strong resemblance to Garrison Keillor’s apocryphal town in which “all of the children are above average.”

One of the more interesting moments I caught in the Iowa Debate was the Kucinich-Dean exchange on single-payer universal healthcare. Dean, to his credit, was up front in stating that voters whose primary issue was single-payer should vote for Kucinich, and then touted the virtues of his plan which, Kucinich rightly argued, would maintain the strangehold of the insurance industry on the practice and policy of healthcare. What perhaps was most surprising about Dean’s defense of his plan, however, was its central argument that it was simply the best the Democrats could get away with – that his plan “was written to pass Congress.” Dean cited the failures of the Carter and Clinton healthcare plans to buttress his claim.

I think Michael Tomasky, in Left for Dead, offers a more convincing reading of the Clinton healthcare failure:

…the A.M.A. and the insurance lobbies fought the Clinton proposal with the same intensity they’d have have brought to a fight against single-payer. A political calculation to trim the sails is useful and defensible if, without sacrificing too much in the way of principle, it gets you more votes. The Clinton calculation did not do that. And in this instance, given the number of co-sponsors single-payeralready had in the House of Representatives and the appeal of the plan’s salient features, it may actually have been the case that a single-payer system could have been sold to the public. The seller, though, had to be willing to confront one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies – something the Clintons weren’t up to; but this, too, is something people clearly say they want their leaders to do more of.

Among the people calling on their leaders to do more of that? Howard Dean. Kucinich was right to ask him who, if not the President of the United States, would be in a position to stand up to the insurance industry. Dean, unfortunately for those of us drawn by the strength of his organizing and the clarity of his alternative vision, was left looking not for the first time like what he’s referred to rightly as “the Republican wing of the Democratic party.”