Friday, February 09, 2007

Group Dialogue on Diversity and Equality

To Larry Greenfield and Ken Dean,

I would like to know you think about this book. It articulates clearly some ideas I have had for a long time but never saw the issue with this kind of precision and clarity. I suspect some overstatement. The standard question is why can't we work on both economic equality and diversity. I don't think he answers that sufficiently, but I think his main point is that liberals have substituted diversity (racial, gender, and cultural equality) for economic equality and have allowed the former to embrace and eclipse the latter. Liberals want respect for the poor but are mainly unconcerned about making them unpoor. He is convincing on that one as far as many liberals (I call them cultural liberals are concerned) are concerned. I take the faculty I worked with, especially the younger ones in the later years of my tenure, as a prime example of the truth of his main thesis.

The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Benn Michaels

Book Description (publishers review)
“A brilliant assault on our obsession with every difference except the one that really matters—the difference between rich and poor.

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s the value of diversity. Our corporations vie for slots in the Diversity Top 50, our universities brag about minority recruiting, and every month is Somebody’s History Month. But in this provocative new book, Walter Benn Michaels argues that our enthusiastic celebration of “difference” masks our neglect of America’s vast and growing economic divide. Affirmative action in schools has not made them more open, it’s just guaranteed that the rich kids come in the appropriate colors. Diversity training in the workplace has not raised anybody’s salary (except maybe the diversity trainers’) but it has guaranteed that when your job is outsourced, your culture will be treated with respect.

With lacerating prose and exhilarating wit, Michaels takes on the many manifestations of our devotion to diversity, from companies apologizing for slavery, to a college president explaining why there aren’t more women math professors, to the codes of conduct in the new “humane corporations.” Looking at the books we read, the TV shows we watch, and the lawsuits we bring, Michaels shows that diversity has become everyone’s sacred cow precisely because it offers a false vision of social justice, one that conveniently costs us nothing. The Trouble with Diversity urges us to start thinking about real justice, about equality instead of diversity. Attacking both the right and the left, it will be the most controversial political book of the year.”

Ken Cauthen
To Ken Cauthen,
From Ken Dean

Cynic, cynic, cynic. Of course there is truth in what this book says. I compare everything to what the situation was in 1965. Today, I went to Emory Hospital for some tests. The men who greeted me and took my car to be parker were Black. The woman on the desk in the entrance was Black. The secretary in the Nuclear Medicine Department where I was treated was Black. The professional who did my nuclear test( it lasted over three hours and required a specially trained technician) is Black. Her colleague is a woman Jew from Georgia (meaning Russia). Her boss, the doctor who heads up Nuclear Medicine Department is Black. The receptionist who handled my business in the Medical Records Department is Black. A special question I asked in that department was answered by a White, a woman. All this happened in a Methodist hospital which 40 years ago probably would not have welcomed a Black patient much less have had a staff this is simply as Black as it is White. And a Russian Jew; we were trying to have these people imprisoned in the 1960s.

We ain't where we ought to be, but we sure as hell ain't where we were. And, then there is your daughter and other two children. Each of them living life styles that were not permitted in the 1960s. I hope all this has something to do with process theology (which I do not claim to understand), but in it all I see more of the revelation of the good than I have ever known to characterize the world, East or West.

So, I think that we keep up identifying where we are coming up short, but that we not let this totally dominate the scene. As we age, we see things more clearly and this certainly justifies a strong dose of cynicism ( and I agree with the current Catholic Theologian who describes Jesus as a cynic---which is not exactly like what we mean by a cynic, but which is not all that different either when we are talking about ones world view), but I have some hope out of the progress I see being made. I agree that justice is found in economic opportunity and attainment, but not just at that level or just in that quarter. For me justice is equality in community.

Peace, teacher, peace, and thanks,

Kenneth Dean
To Ken Dean,
From Ken Cauthen
You do agree that Democrats and cultural liberals generally have been very quiet on making the poor unpoor but loud on diversity except when compared to Republicans, who want a lot of poor people as cheap labor. That is the point I took away. Of course, diversity counts and I rejoice as you do in all the progress made for blacks, women, and gays. But (cultural) liberals seem to think that is enough. The young faculty that inspired me to retire early did not give a damn about economic equality but they were hot on racial and cultural diversity and seemed to think that was enough. In fact they did not like poor people (and non-poor working class and labor union whites), very much unless they were black or female or needed an abortion because the poor were culturally backward on race and gender and sexual orientation, which they were, but they were poor and don’t need to be in this rich land. I don't think that that is cynicism. I think that is realism. We need to be cultural liberals and economic liberals, like me
Ken Cauthen
To both Kens,
From Larry Greenfield

I guess I have a different take on this conflict between diversity and inequality. I certainly agree with the author that economic inequality has taken a back seat to diversity for most political, socio-cultural and theological liberals; I regret that even though I'm deeply committed to diversity for biblical and civic reasons. But, like KC, I don't understand why one has to be sacrificed for the other, especially when economic inequality has become so chronic (built into systems).

I'd want to add one other feature into the mix of diversity and inequality, however, and that is a truncated view of economic freedom. It seems to me that political and socio-political liberals have championed a position in economics that emphasizes individual preference over against some notion of the common good--and, therefore, have joined with the neo-liberals in a kind of individualism that is destructive of social bonds. (Many, though not all, of the neo-liberals argue for that social bond in terms of a "values" or "family values" agenda, without giving a sh*t about basic economic well-being, while liberals have eschewed both, in my humble judgment.)

What is largely absent from the public conversation, then, is a view that argues for what I would call
"mutuality" in economics, politics, and social and cultural policies. This isn't strictly a point of view
that gives top priority to equality or to diversity, and yet sees both as key elements of the good society. The good society, that is, is one that strives to encourage and establish a sense of the different components (persons and peoples and nature) all contributing to and receiving from one another in such ways that all flourish.

I'm indebted to my friend Chris Gamwell for developing this insight. But the more I have worked with it, the more I recognize that it is central to the biblical witness, to the best of America's democratic polity, and to MLK's notion of the beloved community (although recently I've tried to argue that even that notion--beloved community--has its roots in John 15:15). (In another recent effort I've substituted the notion of the "matrix of God" for this community of mutuality so as to make it more possible to think of "nature" having standing in the efforts to promote flourishing.

KC, I hope I haven't taken the discussion off-track by some misunderstanding on my part of what is in question. If so, please put me back on track.

All the best to both of you.

To Larry Greenfield and Ken Dean
From Ken Cauthen
Larry, I agree with your philosophical premises. I have said for a long time that the creation of wealth is a social product with organic features not the sum total of individual efforts, thus negating the views of Robert Nozick. I have also urged in two books that the just and good society will maximize freedom, equality, and social (common) good within the constraints each puts on the others. This is a rough and ready formula that is a general guide not a set of rules. Most views of justice have too many rules, make things too neat, whereas I think real life is messy, complicated, and requires a lot of phronesis, practical wisdom with much ad hoc muddling through contextually. I am a pragmatist with guiding principles.

There are some good signs like the ones you mentioned. Also, John Edwards has the best economic platform as he did in 04. That might be his undoing, but he is out there with a strong message on the war and the economy.,

Thank you both for your responses.


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