Friday, February 02, 2007

Academia: A letter from the front lines

If you listen to any conservative pundit these days, you won't have to wait very long before you here the standard claim that the left is mired in relativism and has completely lost its moral compass. It is tempting to laugh at such comments--if for no other reason than because they usually come out of the mouths of complete assholes, like the yucky Mark Steyn Indeed, it's frustrating that conservatives criticize the fetishizing of culture, while simultaneously indulging in it. I had a friend in college, for instance, who attacked multiculturalism, although he saw nothing odd about the fact that he proclaimed quite often that he would "never marry a gentile." In other words, he continued to find meaning in his own culture (for no other reason than because it was his own), but he denied that culture had any value in itself. It is very frustrating to try to talk about this issue with people who can't see that multiculturalism and this sort of privileging of culture for its own sake are intimately connected.

Leaving all that aside, however, this progressive is ready to admit that, to a certain extent, reactionary critics are right (even if for the wrong reasons): the left--and especially, but not exclusively, the academic left--is morally bankrupt, and the fetishization of cultures is very much to blame. There are many reasons why multiculturalism has been a sinister force in the progressive movement, probably the most important of which is articulated in Walter Benn Michael's stunningly brilliant The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, which argues that the American left's obsession with multiculturalism has distracted us from our mission to close America's income gap. (Those who find this hard to believe only need look at the hard data: while the "diversity gap" is closing rapidly in America, the income gap continues to widen. Didn't notice that? That's the point...) Neo-liberals, argues Michaels, champion diversity in order to find a rationale for the free market. While traditional liberals would say, the free market is wrong because it leaves behind the poor, a neo-liberal says, the free market is right, as long as those getting rich are from a myriad of cultures (and those staying poor are, too).

But even if you don't buy this argument (shame on you), there are other reasons to hate multiculturalism. After all, the main problem with the modern love of identities is far more obvious: by re-describing any problem as a difference, multiculturalism makes impossible to talk about fixing things. The most obvious examples of this are in the relatively new field of disability studies. According, for instance, to scholars of "fat studies" (an offshoot of the disability studies), fatness is not a problem, but a difference, and for a society to shun and marginalize fatness is, in essence, bigotry. Now, no one is denying that is wrong to discriminate against fat people, and I would be the first to agree that Westerners tend to over-glamorize thiness. But when all is said and done, fatness IS a problem in America, and to call it an "identity" is, I think, terribly immoral. One only needs to read about some of the recent books in fat studies before one begins to get queasy. In one anthology called Bodies Out of Bounds, for instance, a selection of essayists "consider ways in which "objective" medical and psychological discourses about fat people and food hide larger agendas. By illustrating how fat is a malleable construct that can be used to serve dominant economic and cultural interests, Bodies Out of Bounds stakes new claims for those whose body size does not adhere to society's confining standards. "

My favorite part of the above quote is how the word "objective" is in square quotes. We can only imagine how these essays deconstruct the notion of "objective" medical conclusions that fatness is "unhealthy," followed by some Foucault-inspired rant about how pharmaceutical companies have constructed the disease of "fatness." Obviously, it is true that the a society's notion of a healthy weight are not universal, but it does not follow that fatness is not an objective medical problem. Of course, some people are fat for reasons beyond their control (be they genetic, economic, social, etc.) and, if fat people are discriminated against, that should be corrected. But, by the same token, it seems to me necessary that we work towards ELIMINATING fatness; and if we think of fatness as an identity, that becomes a lot harder. Why? Because people don't want their identities to be eliminated. Ask any jewish or african american or queer studies professor (or ask any Jewish parent, who demands their children marry other jews lest the race "die out"). But fatness should die out, and if fatness is an identity, it's one people should be trying to lose--fast. The 60 million obese americans (a shockingly large number of which are kids) should not be told to embrace the identity of fatness, or pretty soon they will also be embracing some other identities: diabetes, heart disease, and death. To re-describe something bad (yes, it's bad to be fat, and good to not be fat--just like it's bad to have cancer, and good to not have it) as an identity is the first step toward giving up on the problem. And why is it that us on the left like so much to relish in our problems?

By the way, in case you think this is only a phenomenon in academia, do some searching on Amazon. You'll find some amazing stuff.

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