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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Privilege, class, and diversity

I like this essay from the Hedgehog Review.  The three final paragraphs are the best:

 The concept of diversity first germinated in the corporate world, and was quickly seized upon by academia in the 1990s. It arrived just in the nick of time. The previous two decades had seen the traditional mission of the university undermined, if not abandoned, under pressure from a highly politicized turn in the humanities that made its case in epistemic terms, essentially debunking the very idea of knowledge. The role that the upper-tier university soon discovered for itself, upon the collapse of ideals of liberal learning, was no longer that of training citizens for humane self-government, but rather that of supplying a cadre to staff the corporations, the NGOs, and the foundations. That is, the main function of elite schools is to supply the personnel required to run things in an economy that has become more managerial than entrepreneurial.
The institutional desideratum—the political antipode to hated “privilege”—is no longer equality, but diversity. This greatly eases the contradiction Furet identified, shielding the system from democratic pressure. It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity. Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat). We eventually reached a point where this was more weight than our electoral system could take, as the election of 2016 revealed. Whether one regards that event as a catastrophe or as a rupture that promises the possibility of glasnost, its immediate effect has been panic in every precinct where the new class accommodations have been functioning smoothly, and a doubling down on the moralizing that previously secured them against popular anger. We’ll see how that goes. 
The term shibboleth is interesting. Its definitions include “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons” and “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” It is a random Hebrew word that acquired its present meaning when it was used by the Gileadites as a test to identify members of an enemy tribe, the Ephraimites, as they attempted to flee across the Jordan River. Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6). I think it is fair to say that one’s ability to pronounce the word diversity with a straight face, indeed with sincerity made scrupulously evident, serves as a shibboleth in this original sense. It answers the question of whether one wants to continue as a member in good standing of those institutions that secure one’s position in the upper middle class.

It's all about legitimizing the status quo while dismissing class.  An upper class can be diverse in terms of gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc., but by definition it cannot be diverse in terms of class, nor can it be equal to other classes. (And if you're confused about why I would separately list sex, sexuality, and gender in the previous sentence, that just points to another shibboleth that you can't pronounce, you heretic.)

I think it's particularly interesting how diversity is now the concept placed in tension with privilege, instead of equality.  When I was a kid, the privileged kids had affluent parents.  Now the white lower-middle class is deemed privileged, and the men of that class especially so.  That's quite a rhetorical trick.  Equality (whether economic, or of opportunity, or whatever) got pushed aside somewhere along the line, replacing solidarity with celebration of difference.  I'm not a Marxist, but on this one I see their point.  Yes, there are very valid points about the differences in the life experiences of men and women, or white people and people of color, but it's quite remarkable that the word we used to use for rich kids got co-opted to frame those very valid points.  The word may have a new denotation, but it still carries old connotations that sit uneasily with the new usage.

Also, I think there's a very important point in there about the difference between a managerial economy and an entrepreneurial one.  Founders/owners of privately-held businesses (or even businesses that have gone public but still have a very strong Founder presence) are often quite different from people who climbed corporate ladders.  They aren't always self-made people who rose from nothing (Trump built his empire on inherited wealth) but they are people who spent most of their careers making their own decisions (sometimes appropriately bold decisions, sometimes risky follies) rather than answering to a boss.

Corporate managers aren't fans of the regulatory state, but they can often make compromises (even lucrative compromises) with the regulatory state more easily than an entrepreneur can.  A corporate manager has spent his career answering to people, and following rules written by higher-ups who may be several time zones away.  This leads to a different demeanor and ideology than men who didn't have bosses.  And while privately-held companies typically face most of the same PR and HR issues as corporations of similar size, the quirks of founders play can play more of a role in how they respond to those issues (though more on that below), so they may have more room for managerial liberals (with all of their diversity talk) than a company still dominated by an entrepreneur.

One interesting exception to this dichotomy is Silicon Valley.  Large tech companies are mostly young (at least in comparison with other corporations of similar size, though Google just entered its third decade), but they are, for the most part, very socially liberal.  Mind you, I have no doubt that there are plenty of Google and Facebook managers who hate taxes and regulations, but the prevailing cultures of those places are famously liberal (at least on social issues) and unabashedly pro-diversity (unlike most of the right-wing billionaires who rose to power in the pre-internet era).  This has helped them make peace with the same cultural and regulatory issues as older corporations.

So, Trump is, on the one hand, a rich guy who has ripped off many ordinary people, and treated many workers like shit.  On the other hand, in this economy dominated by corporate managerial types (often liberal, at least in their acceptance of rules and certain PR and HR imperatives) rather than entrepreneurial types (who are often right-wing), Trump is an exception, a rich man who doesn't talk like a corporate manager.  That helps me to understand why he has appeal among some (not all) middle class white voters.  It's not the only factor, of course, but it's among them, and helps to make sense of why they see him as different from the other rich guys.

Finally, let's return to this line:
It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity.
This helps me understand why so many academic administrators honestly see themselves as "change agents", even while repeating the same slogans and buzzwords as every other administrator out there, and diligently following in the templates taught to them at workshops.  It explains to me why academic administrators from families of administrators see themselves and their advancement as bold and progressive rather than the fulfillment of a status quo destiny laid upon them when sperm met egg.  It helps explain why I, from a family that has grown more educated with each generation, a family that still circulates stories of immigrant roots, feel old-fashioned and traditional rather than progressive in academia:  Because the born insiders are all proclaiming their progressivity, leaving tradition as the only refuge of the outsider.

My only dissent from the above-quoted observation is that I don't see this as a uniquely contemporary thing, an artifact of a new liberalism that replaces economic class solidarity with diversity.  Hofstadter noted that Dewey's disciples, all managerial types, were desperate to find a way to institutionalize anti-institutional ideology.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.