To The Campus Left, With Love


George Scialabba

In late November the New York Times reported on a trending tweet. A law professor had posted three paragraphs from Richard Rorty’s 1997 Massey Lectures at Harvard, published as Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, that seemed remarkably prescient:

[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

And where was the American left while these developments were brewing? Disenchanted by the Indochina war and labor’s willing enlistment in the Cold War, leftists in the Sixties, Rorty claimed, found new causes and new constituents: women, minorities, and homosexuals, all of them objects of regular hostility and sadism. Much was achieved: “the adoption of attitudes which the right sneers at as ‘politically correct’ has made America a far more civilized society” than it was at mid-century. At the same time, much ground was lost: “Leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate. They are spending energy which should be directed at proposing new laws on discussing topics very remote from their country’s needs.” David Bromwich voiced similar concerns in Politics By Other Means, lamenting that while left-wing students in earlier decades “would have seized any occasion to throw their weight on the liberal side of struggles in real communities,” more recently “the activist tone in scholarship has been found compatible with a restriction of politics to the universities themselves.” Ten years ago, in The Trouble with Diversity, Walter Benn Michaels expanded these insights into a devastating critique of identity politics: focusing on culture rather than class, Michaels concluded, “gives us what we might call the fantasy rather than the reality of a left politics.” Even Stanley Fish piled on in Professional Correctness: “If you want to do political work in the ‘real world’ sense, there are (or should be) better tools in your kit than readings of poems or cultural texts or even cultures.”

Theoretically sophisticated readers will perhaps have cocked an eyebrow at so many invocations of the “real.” Surely Rorty, Fish, Bromwich, and Michaels are not … essentialists? It may be time to look further at the word with an example from life. Long before I encountered any of these books, I came across an account by Jonathan Kozol of a conversation with an inner-city black parent. Kozol described to her the then-current controversy over community control of schools, and in particular over whether the principal of a majority-black school should also be black. She responded emphatically: “I don’t give a damn whether my kids’ school has a white principal or a black principal. I just want it to have textbooks and heat in the winter.”

It is hard to imagine a person more worthy of the American left’s attention and support than that woman. And indeed, over the last few decades the left has proven itself more than willing to show her respect, by celebrating her and her ancestors’ culture and by insisting that a greater proportion of school principals as well as CEOs, political officeholders, and students at elite colleges share her ethnicity and culture. Respect is not, however, what that woman was after. She wanted material improvements in her children’s daily life, improvements that would inevitably have meant taxing the members of the business, political, and professional elites rather than merely changing their ethnic and sexual composition. I suspect that woman – or by now, her daughter – is still waiting.

Am I suggesting that that woman’s situation has not been affected by the successes, such as they are, of identity politics? No, I’m suggesting that they have probably made her situation worse. To begin with, if she lived in a school district without textbooks or heat, there’s a fair chance she was poor enough to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But Aid to Families with Dependent Children no longer exists. It was abolished by President Bill Clinton, with the support of First Lady Hillary Clinton, as a demonstration of the Democratic Party’s recognition that “the era of Big Government is over.” Needless to say, Clinton did not mean that the era of colossal defense budgets was over. Nor did he mean that the era of government-enforced race- and gender-based affirmative action was over. He meant that the era of government-administered redistribution of wealth was over. The government’s job, according to the newly DLC (Democratic Leadership Council)-dominated Democratic Party, was no longer to override the results of unrestricted competition by taxing and spending, but instead to make the competition fairer by opening it up to all, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Instead of presuming to correct the market, the Democratic Party humbly acknowledged the market’s ineffable wisdom.

Identity politics are an essential component of neoliberalism, the extension of market relations across borders and into all spheres of life. If American capitalism is to be thus turbocharged, it must run on the highest-quality fuel. Discrimination is irrational – a waste of talent no society can afford. When rewards are assigned efficiently in proportion to merit, then not only is total output maximized, but the winners need feel no qualms about the plight of the losers. That poor black woman complaining about her local schools’ lack of resources can be assured that it’s nothing personal – why, the President is a black man! and a huge majority of voters just chose a woman for President! (oops – better luck next time, American electorate!) – and encouraged, since schools are financed by property taxes, to move to an expensive suburb with high property taxes, where the schools are bound to be better. When she protests that she cannot afford to do that, she will be gently reminded that we all want things we cannot afford but that the market knows best.

Perhaps some intersectional leftists, having recently read Randall Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates, will plead eloquently with the state legislature that, slavery and subsequent discrimination having kept the means of moving to a richer school district out of this woman’s reach, some extra money should be appropriated for her school district as – to put it as unprovocatively as possible – a gesture of good will.

Unfortunately, there is very little good will left. Somehow the majority of citizens have convinced themselves (with a great deal of help from the Republican, Fox News, and alt-right propaganda machines) that they have been all too generous to this woman and her like. “At the moment, we have identity politics for everyone except white men,” wrote an alt-rightist recently. In her recent Strangers in Their Own Land, a more serious observer, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, draws on her field work among beleaguered working-class whites to formulate a parable or “deep story” with a powerful hold on them. They see themselves patiently waiting in line for job and educational opportunities, while government officials and diversity bureaucrats usher minorities and immigrants into line ahead of them. Americans born after 1950, she points out, are the first downwardly mobile generation in this country’s history: the first to earn less at every stage of the life cycle than those born ten years earlier. “At some point,” they tell Hochschild, “you have to close the borders to human sympathy” – especially if no one has shown much sympathy for you.

And so black inner-city kids still have sub-standard schools, perhaps now with heat and textbooks but probably also with armed guards and metal detectors. Rural Louisiana whites (Hochschild’s main interlocutors) have toxic fish gumbo and reduced unemployment benefits. Rust Belt ex-factory workers currently stacking shelves at Wal-Mart voted for Trump in sufficient numbers to elect (in combination with an archaic and undemocratic electoral system and extensive voter suppression by Republicans) a President who will at least treat them all equally, which is to say, badly.

How much blame do identity politics and its most enthusiastic champions, the campus left, deserve for this debacle? It’s tempting to imitate the spiteful liberals who blamed Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 on Ralph Nader. But then as now, blame should fall primarily on the Republicans, whom minimal honesty would have impelled to campaign as the One Percent Party, and secondarily on the Democrats, who with steadfast pusillanimity have all along refrained from pointing that out. (In fact the Democrats, as Thomas Frank demonstrates in his latest book, Listen, Liberal, ought to call themselves the Two Through Ten Percent Party, since they now cater chiefly to affluent though not super-rich professionals.) Far behind, in third and last place, slouches the academic left, increasingly impotent except to serve the demagogues of the right as examples of the present danger to the republic’s civic and moral health.

Right-wing demagogues we will always have with us. But need we make it so easy for them? Every indigestible morsel of outlandish jargon, every Twitterstorm in a teacup over some unintentional and infinitesimal insensitivity, every reflexive exhortation to check one’s privilege, is apt to be a distraction from what ought really to matter. Perhaps a bit of comradely advice from a sympathetic observer with one foot inside and one outside academe will help.

No slogans: As I sat outdoors with a friend in Harvard Square recently, a procession swung into view. A mixed group of students and dining hall workers, led by someone with a bullhorn, were chanting. I’ve forgotten the words, but the rhythm and meter were all too familiar: “Hey hey, ho ho; Something-something’s got to go” and “Hey Harvard, you can’t hide; Something-something-something –ide.” My friend and I winced at each other, as if to say: “Did we sound like that fifty years ago?” Indeed we did, and the local burghers looked equally unimpressed today. I wish the group had instead stopped at each street corner and stood with simple dignity while the speaker said: “Harvard’s dining hall workers average $30,000 a year. University president Drew Faust makes $900,000, plus $300,000 for sitting on the board of Staples, a University supplier. And right there” – pointing to the gargantuan construction project that has inflicted nightmarish chaos on the Square for two years – “the University is spending $100 million on a state-of-the-art student center for the benefit of undergraduates, three-quarters of whom come from households earning more than $100,000 a year.” I suspect the University would have caved immediately to any well-drafted set of demands.

No epithets: A great deal of shrewd advice masquerades as homely counsels of virtue. Honesty generally is the best policy (though its efficacy is diminished when dealing with those who are cognitively disabled from recognizing truth, e.g., Republican politicians). Another pious maxim that actually works is “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” The near-invariable effect of being called a racist or sexist or bigot is to make everything else the speaker says inaudible. Rigorous social-scientific research has shown that the probability of being conscience-stricken and experiencing a change of heart after being targeted with some such epithet is .0000001. If you must use “racist,” “homophobic,” etc., employ them only as adjectives, applied to acts or opinions, not people. And perhaps you don’t, in fact, need to use them. What’s bad about prejudice, after all, is that it’s unfair and unkind. “Unfair” and “unkind” are words that actually resonate with Americans, even Trump voters. Give them a try, and give “racist,” “sexist,” “heteronormative,” etc. a rest.

Ask, then listen: Dale Carnegie had it right. People like more than anything else to talk about themselves; and they hold opinions they’ve talked themselves into much more firmly than opinions others have talked them into. As anyone from all those rural counties that voted for Trump would tell you, you can’t just drop a seed any old place on the ground and expect it to grow. You’ve got to know your soil.

Lose arguments: It’s a really efficient way to learn things. And it leads to a very useful habit: not caring who’s right. There’s nothing more persuasive in an argument than noticing that the other person doesn’t care who’s right, only what’s right.

Take half a loaf: The founder of quantum physics, Max Planck, remarked: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” So does liberation.

Check your privilege: Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But I don’t mean apologize for your whiteness, maleness, straightness, Europeanness, etc. I mean remember that if you’re part of the campus left, you’ll probably wind up in the top 10 or 20 percent of the national income distribution – comparatively rich, whether or not you feel like it. Richesse oblige – the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility to the inhabitants of those “real communities” eloquently evoked by David Bromwich, “where people spend more than a few years, where they are compelled to live and to die.”