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Liberalism’s Self-Justifying Beliefs



David Mills - published on 07/15/15

Its opposition to discrimination diverts attention from problems that benefit them
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Being against discrimination “has become the almost exclusive criterion of political morality,” as one academic puts it. It sounds like a conservative judgment, but the source is the leftist professor Walter Benn Michaels, being interviewed in the socialist magazine Jacobin. The interview appeared in the magazine’s first issue three or four years ago (the web archives don’t include dates for the issues) but seems to have passed unnoticed because the readership was then so small and was limited to people who still identified themselves as socialists. The magazine recently tweeted the link, presumably to put the ideas into public debate.

Michaels teaches English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s caused a few academic controversies during his career and became a little famous in political circles in 2006 for his book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. It caused a stir because he condemned identity politics and did it from the left. (Here’s an article of his from The American Prospect that’s kind of a summary of the book.) To its credit, the New York Times asked a conservative writer, Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard, to review the book, and he mostly liked it.

In the interview, "Let Them Eat Diversity," Michaels argues that conservatives and liberals are two expressions of “neoliberalism,” an ideology completely committed to capitalism. Those he calls “the left neoliberals” hide this from themselves by stressing their opposition to discrimination. This emphasis on the evils of discrimination, he argues, actually supports capitalism, which doesn’t want any restrictions on who works where. It’s a point G. K. Chesterton argued, notably in his book What’s Wrong With the World. The more atomized a society is, and the weaker its mediating institutions, the better for its commercial enterprises. Michaels says a lot about how liberal academics actually agree with the corporations they criticize.

This is the way that ideological sleight of hand works. “If you get to the core of it,” he says, “American society today, both legally and politically, has a strong commitment to the idea that discrimination is the worst thing you can do, that paying somebody a pathetic salary isn’t too bad but paying somebody a pathetic salary because of his or her race or sex is unacceptable.” He mentions a study that showed that liberals weren’t so liberal as they thought they were, especially on economic matters. “As people get more wealthy,” he observes,

they tend to become less committed to the redistribution of wealth but there are lots of ways in which they become “more liberal” — with respect to gay rights, antiracism, with respect to all the so-called “social issues,” as long as these social issues are defined in such a way that they have nothing to do with decreasing the increased inequalities brought about by capitalism, which is to say, taking away rich liberals’ money.

Cynical, but not untrue. Academics and media liberals pursue their own self-interest as energetically as the big businessman of the stereotype, often at the same time they’re condemning the businessmen. In the universities, Michaels argues, “You have a vision of social justice in which it consists of nothing but basically non-discrimination and no university faculty is outraged by that.” Professors are “indifferent to the phenomenon of exploitation.” They

don’t really worry about any form of inequality that isn’t produced by discrimination. We worry a lot about whether women are treated fairly in math classes but we don’t worry at all about the salaries of the women who clean our offices. More often than not I would guess we feel like those salaries are what those women are worth.

A standard liberal argument is that conservatives react against anti-discrimination laws because they want to keep their status and power. The targets of this charge are most often affluent white males. Supposedly poor people threaten them, black and Latino people threaten them, and women especially threaten them. The interviewer brings this up to explain the Tea Party, but Michaels isn’t buying it. “People in the Tea Party movement have a problem that is realer than ‘white male status anxiety,’” he argues.

. . . No doubt some people may be unhappy because of loss of status, but many millions more are going to be unhappy because of the loss of actual money. So my point isn’t really to deny the phenomenon of status anxiety, it’s just to point out the extraordinary eagerness of American liberals to identify racism as the problem, so that anti-racism (rather than anti-capitalism) can be the solution.

In other words, they want a position that doesn’t cost them anything, but lets them feel they’re standing for equality, justice, and all other good things that Good People stand for and Bad People oppose.

In addressing the neoliberal uses of opposition to discrimination as a way of ignoring or hiding economic inequality, Michaels offers the standard leftist critique of liberalism, that it’s part of the system it claims to oppose but has mastered ways of diverting attention from its real interests, which has made it even more effective in advancing neoliberalism. There’s a reason Wall Street and Silicon Valley gave more money to Obama than they gave to McCain or Romney.

Often, I think, the claim that our politics is neither conservative nor liberal, that it transcends the division of right and left, that Catholicism offers a third way, is just a way of avoiding specific political and economic judgments — judgments the serious political thinker must make, which box you in and label you in a way many of us dislike. That said, because we have no earthly home and see human affairs in the light of eternity, we have some freedom in analyzing the real purpose of worldly political commitments. We can agree, as I do, with Walter Benn Michaels about the ideological and self-serving uses of anti-discrimination rhetoric.

Which means that Catholics can also more effectively oppose discrimination and inequality, by seeing both and holding them in balance or tension, and seeing both in relation to other problems. Not that we’ll necessarily do so, being creatures of our own self-interest and capable of inventing our own rationalizations, but we have the tools to do so. Ideological skepticism is the beginning of a Catholic politics.

David Mills,
former executive editor of First Things
, is a senior editor of 
The Stream, editorial director for 
Ethika Politika,
 and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is 
Discovering Mary.
Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.

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