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Going to hear Walter Benn Michaels during a convention of the Modern Language Association is an unusual experience. I'm not sure I can do it justice. There are sessions one attends with, so the speak, a pair of toothpicks in hand -- one to prop each eye open. Not so in the case of Michaels, who is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He generates some kind of force field. The audience will include students and admirers, of course, but the effect is not quite that of the aura surrounding the big-name celebrity mystagogues of literary studies. Enraptured awe is the least of it. Much of the ozone crackling in the air comes, I suppose, from the electrified brains of audience members who are arguing with him in their heads as he speaks.

Many arrive pre-provoked. For a quarter century now, Michaels has been staking out positions in literary scholarship it would be somewhat trivializing to call "contrarian," but which certainly have had the effect of catalyzing discussion. In the early 1980s, he was co-author, with Steven Knapp, of a major statement called "Against Theory." It was not polemical, exactly, at least not in tone. Rather, it offered a rather painstaking challenge to various (then-new) approaches that defined literary scholarship in terms of processes or structures unrelated to authorial intention.

The tenor of the essay was rather low-key. But the authors went about their argument in a way that seemed exhaustive -- almost aggressively so. It left the people engaged in "doing theory" with an obligation to respond. Which they did, of course, at some length. The effect of "Against Theory" proved rather paradoxical. Somehow it both defied the "turn to theory" and reinforced it at the same time.

There was something paradoxical in the effect of Michaels's own criticism, as well. Paying attention to authorial intention did not mean endorsing it on the author's own terms. Analyzing late 19th and early 20th century American literature, Michaels contended that authors who seemed to be criticizing elements of U.S. society (its commercialism, racism, provincialism etc.) were actually tying themselves all the more tightly to its deepest presuppositions.

It was not the kind of work likely to appeal, say, to the literary neoconservatives over at The New Criterion, who in general prefer the "now let us speak of the pleasures of reading Longfellow" sort of commentary. At the same time, Michaels's work seemed to be making a broad hint about the academic left -- that, however fortified with critical theories, however committed to challenging the dominant order, professors might end up reinforcing the status quo, in ways they never wanted.

You can see how that would provoke some people. But not (let's be clear) the general public. Carefully argued advocacy of neopragmatist literary theory -- or close readings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- do not reach Oprah's ears, let alone her audience.

That could change with the publication by Metropolitan Books, early next month, of The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. It is meant for a broad readership, with the clear intention (for authorial intention must be factored in) to stimulate serious thought via cogent argument and profound irritation. Parts of it are brilliant. Other parts make you wonder what planet Walter Benn Michaels lives on.

The Trouble With Diversity is a short and snappy book. It is also quite repetitious. That combination may be a virtue: The ability to make the same point a dozen different ways has its uses in public life. While complaints about multiculturalism are a standard part of the culture wars, they usually come from the right wing. Michaels's critique of diversity-mindedness is quite different. His way of cycling through his argument over and over again may be strategic -- an effort to avoid occupying other people's foxholes by digging his own trench.

There are moments when he sounds very much like a paleo-Marxist -- one who had discovered the dark secret that multiculturalism is a plot by the extremely wealthy to befuddle everyone else. "The commitment to diversity," Michaels writes, "has turned liberalism into a program for making rich people of different skin colors and sexual orientations more 'comfortable' while leaving intact the thing that makes them the most comfortable of all: their wealth."

The belief that cultural diversity, as such, is a valuable thing has taken hold in American society over the past two or three decades -- precisely at the time economic inequality has not just increased, but accelerated its growth. In 1982, according to one study Michaels cites, the ratio between the income of a CEO and that of a worker was 42 to 1. By 2003, it was 301 to 1. A year after that, it was 431 to 1. "If the federal minimum wage had grown at the same rate as CEO pay," he notes, "it would have been $23.03 in 2004, instead of $5.15."

Such realities do not get discussed very much, however. Instead, there is an unrelenting emphasis on what is usually called "cultural difference" -- which in Michaels's reading is for all practical purposes just another name for race. (A concern with diversity also normally attends to differences in gender and sexuality. But racial distinction, he argues, serves as something like a template for how other categories of difference are understood.)

In his more scholarly work, Michaels has examined how, sometime after the First World War, a shift took place in American public life that de-legitimized the old-fashioned racist doctrine of biological distinctions between groups. But the belief in fundamental differences did not go away: It was now seen as a matter, not of genetics, but of each group having a distinct "culture" -- which proved just as powerfully determinate as biology had once seemed.

To a large degree, Michaels says in his new book, " culture is now being used as a virtual synonym for racial identity." It seems difficult to dispute this point. ("The multi in multiculturalism," as he puts it, "has nothing to do with some people liking Mozart and other people liking the Strokes.")

For his part, Michaels will have none of this repackaging of racist pseudoscience as "anti-racist" cultural relativism. He draws a hard line: "Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences," he writes, "or there is no such thing as race, whatever it's called."

If one chooses the second option -- as Michaels does -- then the unrelenting American emphasis on race as a fundamental basis for defining identity begins to look very strange. The belief that each "cultural identity" should be defended, respected, and celebrated rests, in that case, on a more or less accidental association between certain traits or cultural artifacts, on the one hand, with certain genetic phenotypes, on the other. And the reality is that an awful lot of "cultural identity" gets transferred, or played with, by other groups. (Michaels might have bolstered his case here by quoting Chris Rock's profession of astonishment at the implications of Tiger Woods and Eminem: What's happening in America when the best golfer is black and the best rapper is white?) 

By setting up a stark dichotomy -- treating "cultural identity" as either (1) a fancy name for hard-wired biological differences or (2) a socially constructed yet meaningless phenomenon with no objective status whatsoever -- Michaels has arguably taken a rhetorical short cut. There are other ways of framing the issue. (See, for instance, the work of Paula Moya or Linda Martin Alcoff.)

But what Michaels sees as a more or less arbitrary emphasis on cultural differences is no accident. "We would much rather get rid of racism," he writes, "than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality."

We honor the range of cultural identities, the better to ignore the realities of class. An emphasis on diversity makes it easier to pretend that our institutions (particularly our educational institutions) are meritocratic in nature.

And a belief in meritocracy, in turn, makes it easier to accept the neoliberal economic order - the arrangement in which social resources are allocated according to the demands of the market. After all, if different cultural groups are equally honored and diversity prevails, then extremes of wealth and poverty are, in some sense, just the unfortunate byproduct of an otherwise fair system.

But it really isn't fair at all -- nor can all the Kwanzaa cards and Gay Pride floats in the world hide that reality. Class society is not a meritocracy: It rewards people who have the good sense to be born to affluent parents.

"The entire U.S. school system, from pre-K up, is structured from the very start to enable the rich to outcompete the poor," writes Michaels, "which is to say, the race is fixed. And the kinds of solutions that might actually make a difference -- financing every school district equally, abolishing private schools, making high quality child care available to every family -- are treated as if they were positively un-American."

The virtual impossibility of raising such policies now, even for discussion, is quietly reinforced in countless subtle ways. Michaels returns repeatedly to the idea that the left is as much to blame for that as the right -- perhaps more so.

For it is the left that has made diversity and multiculturalism into the measures of progress toward a just world: "Its commitment to the idea that the victims of social injustice today are the victims of racism, sexism, and heterosexism (the victims of discrimination rather than exploitation, of intolerance rather than oppression, or of oppression in the form of intolerance) is a commitment to the essential justice of the market."

You may not think so, as you assign your students the collected works of bell hooks and use the phrase "white capitalist patriarchy" on every suitable occasion. But that -- in Walter Benn Michaels's view -- is what you are doing in any case.

That is the argument, then, in broad outline. (For a sample of it in purer form, check out this excerpt   in the liberal political magazine "The American Prospect.")

It is stimulating, and it is bewildering. To anyone who has ever been irritated by the purely obligatory reference to class in the famous "race, class, and gender" trinity, there may be something exhilarating about the whole performance.

But when Michaels throws out a passing reference to living "in a world where most of us are not racist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racism is rare but that it is extinct)," it is hard not to wonder if the man gets off campus much.

No doubt his peers are every bit as bien pensant in racial matters as Michaels thinks. But it would be interesting to know how many minority faculty or graduate students believe that racism is "extinct" among their colleagues. I suspect there is room for disagreement. Just as puzzling is what Michaels means by "the left" -- which, in his telling, greatly loves cultural identity and tacitly ignores economic inequality. It appears that he means "the academic left," for the most part. Certainly the book is lacking in any reference to the labor movement, or neighborhood activism, or other forms of political engagement not carried on in the pages of Critical Inquiry.

In consequence, a reader who didn't know better might get the impression that there was some big meeting - possibly around the time Ronald Reagan came into office - where people on the left said: "Well, sure, we could talk about economic inequality. But let's push this multiculturalism thing, instead."

The reality (alas) is that such either/or distinctions tend to have more force in rhetoric than on the ground.

Once upon a time, the American left was single-minded about economic equality. It talked about little else. And what form did that yearning for justice sometimes take? Well, let's just say that questions of "cultural difference" would indeed come up. The "egalitarian" rhetoric sometimes included the demand that a worker enjoy a standard of living "worthy of a white man" (unlike those servile Chinese immigrants or lowly black sharecroppers, who presumably deserved what they got).

Whatever the faults, distractions, and bad faith associated with multiculturalism, it is not some obstacle to pursuing the real politics of social justice. The capacity to respect groups very different from one's own is not just a form of politeness. Michaels's book is provocative, and I hope it helps revitalize the emergence of economic populism in this country. If that does happen, though, multiculturalism will not be a dispensible luxury, but rather an absolute prerequisite.

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