Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Extension AND Displacement: Identity and Class in the American Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Intellectual History on June 16, 2013 at 10:36 am

A powerful opinion piece appeared in today’s New York Times, written by Stephanie Coontz, a justly celebrated historian with impeccable credentials in the American left. Building on an argument from a book of hers from the early 1990’s she counsels the American intelligentsia to avoid the nostalgia trap. As she rightly suggests, “you can’t just stroll through the past, picking the things you like and skipping the ones you don’t, as if historical eras were menus.” She worries that we are beginning to forget the atrocities of the past and the value of hard-won advances in social policy achieved by feminists and civil rights and disability activists among others in a context of surging economic inequality. But as she inoculates us to the threats of nostalgia, she may also be blinding us to the challenge of our time: to blend arguments for what Nancy Fraser calls recognition and redistribution in a progressive social vision. Let me explain.

Looking back to early 1960s, it easy to see how the elderly, women, the disabled, and black people, among members of other groups, would look to opportunities they enjoy today, preferring them to what they would have enjoyed back then. As Coontz says, for many, the good old days were not so good. In that sense we have unambiguously extended social rights in favor of a broader conception of justice. But for various, complicated reasons the balance between capital and community seems also to have tilted in favor of the former over that same period. Most of us have seen the objective numbers of economic and wealth disparities, but what is most striking about this are not the features of the objective situation but rather of the moral case. Over the last thirty-five years (I pick 1978 as my mark for empirical reasons I discuss elsewhere) we seem to have lost the ability to see this transformation in unambiguously moral terms. As a political community, we are no longer in the habit of condemning the destructive effects of the market. There remain some unapologetic pockets of comradeship that once powered the Nader fringe, but as I demonstrate in my study of mainstream political talk on Meet the Press, outrage in the face of abusive class power is largely a thing of the past. Thought of in terms of conventional mindshare, class has been displaced by identity. If you care about how we once articulated outrage about economic inequality, you will have to risk the nostalgia label and look to the past, because few powerful examples are on display today.

As we imagine the bridge narrative of the future, it is no more nostalgic to look back at what we have lost in our capacity to imagine abusive power over the last half century than it is to look back to the horrors of slavery, Read the rest of this entry »

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From Pollutant to Purifier: Identity Politics and the Class Comeback

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics on May 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

2593-Niall Ferguson (internet)

I’m not sure if you noticed, but last week the famous conservative historian, Niall Ferguson, made some offensive remarks about John Maynard Keynes at “the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors.” The gist of what he said was that because Keynes was a homosexual, he had no generative commitments to coming generations and he therefore cared little how they would suffer under his feckless policies. I don’t intend to pile on Ferguson and have nothing to add about his cultural views (nor do I know if Keynes was, in fact, gay), but I think Ferguson’s widely publicized PR implosion is a signal of what may be the most profound transition in symbolic politics that we will live through together.

Let me explain. As you must know by now if you have heard of my book, The Eclipse of Equality, I believe that we are in a moment of axiological transition, in which the values based on countering the abusive power of concentrated wealth—class values—have been eclipsed by libertarian values on the right and multicultural values on the left. I think that, under pressure of non-ignorable circumstances, class values are poised to make some kind of comeback. The comeback may play out on either the Democratic or Republican side, but either way, it will fill the vacuum we now experience.

This eclipse and the need for a class comeback was produced by a conjuncture of historical events that enabled opportunistic elites to downplay concerns about their economic power and its occasionally adverse influence on middle class livelihoods by exploiting cultural, racial and sub-cultural bigotry through the Nixon era to our own to promote anti-public sector, anti-labor, pro-business policies. In essence, lifestyles that had been positioned outside of the mainstream—black, youth, poor, feminist, gay, etc.—could be tagged or foisted onto progressive economic policies, “polluting” those once popular policies in the process with negative moral and symbolic associations. In this way, programs that benefitted the non-wealthy and economically exposed like old age and medical insurance, collective bargaining, Keynesian economic stimulus, and especially temporary assistance (aka welfare) were marketed as misguided, anti-American, and even immoral. Read the rest of this entry »

Greed is a Grievance: Hate, Greed and the Meaning of Equality in the 21st Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Tolerance on April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

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As you must know by now, I’ve just written a book about public struggles over the meaning of a just society with an intriguing title, The Eclipse of Equality. The title is catchy, but it also a bit misleading. I know that many in my audience will gravitate toward or be repulsed by it based on our collective tendency to think about equality in the ways that we typically do, but there is an irony embedded in this title that I ought to explain or you will miss the whole point.

First, the standard story. What you likely imagine when I say that we have lived through an eclipse of equality is a story about the career of hatred in the modern world and the ways that dominant groups have used their hatred infused privilege to exploit and dominate others, even to the present day. Anticipating my turn to conversations about the economy, you might therefore expect that my book is about the enduring structural and systemic legacies of that hatred and our collective failure to address them. It is that book, in part, but the thesis also plays on a level beneath that common reading that qualifies and reframes the standard interpretation.

I argue that at the same time that we have become increasingly clever in recognizing the abusive powers of white, male, Christian, straight, abled privilege, we have forgotten how to think, feel and argue well about economic inequality thought of in its own terms. To suggest that there are enticing alternatives to be explored in comparative capitalisms comes off as odd and distracting in too many of our conversations. We have lived through an eclipse of the moral category of equality and this means that we have lost the ability to creatively imagine the world of material scarcity.

Consider this a family intervention: we need to face that we as a society no longer care much about economic equality. In fact, we’re kind of cool with the way things are playing out. Of course, we think we care about equality, but the way we talk about it proves that we really care about is just about anything but. When we speak about equality today, we always inflect it with other clarifying words that show where our red lines are drawn: tolerance, inclusion, identity and diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

Analyzing Discourse: A Methodological Note

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Eclipse of Equality

As part of the celebration of the release of my new book The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I thought it might be helpful to share in broad outline how I put together the analysis there, something the space requirements of the manuscript did not allow in the book itself. I won’t go into great detail, but I hope this will be helpful to any of my students who have an interest in cobbling together some similar an analysis in their own work.

Step 1: The Puzzle Trap

The first priority in a journey of this kind is to find a coherent stream of discourse that you would like to analyze—some discursive arena on which to set your attention. For me, this came easily. In all of my political work on the United States, and throughout my academic career, I have found it necessary to keep myself grounded by watching the Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, Face the Nation etc. At first, I didn’t think much about why these shows were so important in grounding my perspectives on survey work or for my teaching, but it was always true.

I remember in one of my early job interviews talking about how I anchored the codes for my dissertation work (a massive content analysis on the association of open-ended themes and Presidential party vote in the National Election Studies (NES)) in the Sunday morning debates. The literature in the top journals was essential to getting a bead on what mattered in American politics, but what that kind of immersion provided me was what I would now call a set of puzzles that were relevant from the point of view of the scholars rather than a set of problems that real people were confronting in their lives as practical politicians.

This contrast between the puzzles we spin and the problems our subjects manage is the first methodological insight. If you want actionable results in your social science, you can’t rely on the way you and your colleagues frame the problems (in terms of puzzles in the literature), but rather an immediate sense of how the participants frame them as problems they themselves confront, and they frame them in their own rhetorical forms. When you take these forms seriously, you find that the boundary between pure and applied research begins to dissolve and the relevance of your work increases immensely, this at the expense of veering close to the social science/journalism boundary.

This puzzle/problem distinction is a fine point, but it is easiest to see if you have had any experience in framing a survey question. Read the rest of this entry »

Equal Protection and the Politics of Difference

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Tolerance on February 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

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In preparation for the release of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I have decided to return to the blogging business. The central claim of that book is that we have lived through a temporary shift in political emphases in which equality, one of the canonical categories of the moral imagination, has been allowed to atrophy. When we speak about equality today, we tend not to speak about equality itself, understood in non-ascriptive and universalistic terms, but rather about tolerance, inclusion and diversity in terms of their points of intersection with equality per se–hence the vogue of intersectionality. Equality and tolerance are related principles, but they differ in relation to the abusive power they were designed to oppose. My book is worth a read, because this confusion of categories leaves us unprepared to deal with our most pressing problems like uncivil communication, democratic gridlock and soaring rates of inequality.

Let me explain what I mean with a story. Back when I was in graduate training to become a professional sociologist, I used to suggest to my students that they would soon live through the rise of the LGBT movement as the central civil rights cause of our day. Even liberal sociology students back then were typically skeptical of my claim and we often politely moved on to other topics. In my personal life, I thought that people ought to be more aware of the centrality of this cause and so, when I was invited to join the Human Rights Campaign some time around 2002, whose logo you see rotated above, I put the sticker they gave me up on a kitchen door just as you see it represented there. Perhaps I was thinking of 9/11 or maybe I just didn’t like being bothered with swag, but this logo hung orthogonal to its meaning in my house for some time. It never occurred to me to rotate it and read the message as equality for gay people, even though my major field of study was the study of inequality. The problem struck me not as one of a inequality, read class, but one of intolerance. I thought what was needed was something like tolerance for religious difference–safeguards against state establishment of heterosexuality and the prohibition of free exercise of alternative sexualities.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Racial Reductionism: Let’s talk about race.

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

Remember back in 2008 when Colin Powell went on Meet the Press and made huge news in endorsing the first African American Presidential nominee from a major American political party? It was a much bigger deal than when he did it again the other day. His comments in 2008 were powerful. Among them were the following:

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” he said. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

In other words he was outraged that the Republican Party was demonizing the guy with coded language that not only was incorrect, but also toxic for civil peace and economic prosperity. Part of why General Powell supported the president was that he was different from other people and it was important to stand with when that basis of difference was attacked in coded or direct language.

Fast forward to last Thursday and we have John Sununu attacking Powell’s 2012 endorsement because he said it could be explained, in part, by his reflexive support for a race comrade. As Charles Blow put it in the New York Times this Saturday, this has all the hallmarks of race coded language and smacks of what he calls racial reductionism. I totally get what Blow is trying to do with this piece and I am sympathetic to it. With his unique position at the Times, he is in a better position than anyone else to denounce race baiting attacks in the public sphere and to match these comments with clarifying data that provide the educated reader with statistical support of an unorthodox kind for the argument. Read the rest of this entry »

Correctness is in the Eye of the Beholder: What we really can and can’t say

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on April 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I had a fascinating experience tonight in which I did a radio show that was based on a paper I had written two years ago about professors and politics. The title of the paper was “Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution, and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy” and despite the seemingly reactionary title, this is probably my favorite piece among those I have written. The argument is ironic and the methods are complicated, but I put a lot into the article that still sits well with me.

The story behind the article is fairly complicated and I will not rehearse it here, but the gist is that I wrote this in anticipation of a volume that was to come out of the American Enterprise Institute called Reforming the Politically Correct University, based on a conference that was held there.

After having attended the conference (well perhaps really long before), I became suspicious about the use of this concept, Political Correctness. It seemed that panelists were using it willy-nilly to suit whatever attack on academic liberals they pleased. What appeared to unite the critics was a sense that a politics of difference or multiculturalism was driving university worldviews and corrupting scholarship, and this left them cold. Their arguments would blend appeals to the first amendment in which a scholar or activist might condemn university speech codes or discriminatory practices with the core theme of contempt for identity politics.  In response, I decided to use data from a survey I had produced on faculty attitudes and was able to show that PC was basically what I had surmised from my position in the audience and that its effects seemed much less pernicious than pessimistic views would attest.

In some way that I did not explore, a radio station in Minnesota became familiar with my paper and wanted to have me on to discuss political correctness in America more generally. The host was a very nice and competent woman Read the rest of this entry »