Tuesday, February 7, 2023

This Is What Happens When Progressives Look the Other Way

Recent events in Florida—the “Stop WOKE” Act, the rejection of AP African American Studies, the hostile takeover of New College—and the publication of an excellent op-ed about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the Chronicle of Higher Education have me returning to a topic I blogged on several years ago, but in a new light.

It was obvious, and I mean Emperor’s New Clothes obvious, right from the outset that DEI ideology was predicated on the flimsiest of foundations.  The confusion of inequality and privilege, the epistemological mess known as standpoint theory, and the positive affect theory of human rights (all people, or at least people from historically oppressed groups, have a right to be free of psychic discomfort) are individually indefensible and collectively toxic.  Above all, they rest on an individualized, one-consciousness-at-a-time conception of social change that obscures any role for collective action, turning “the personal is political” into “the political is personal”.

My hope was that others who value genuine, on-the-ground egalitarianism would have the courage to face down this intrinsically reactionary and authoritarian—not to mention ignorant—“movement”.

No such luck.  With few exceptions, progressive people who shared my outlook looked away, at most grumbling quietly to each other.  We didn’t like it, but we figured it was not worth the nastiness it would stir up.

Well, it turns out that the culture-warrior Right has no such qualms and is happy to feast on the banquet DEI-ism has served them.  In most instances, the practices and ideologies they denounce are just as absurd and destructive as they say they are, but the attack comes from forces whose goal is to establish conservative political control over higher education, crushing progressive thinking wherever they find it.  Our side took a pass and now it’s not up to us any more.

This is a disaster of our own making.  I’m not saying people like DeSantis aren’t the dishonest opportunists they are, but billionaire donors will always find politicians like that.  (They will run on whatever polls best and then cut the taxes and pad the profits of the rich.)  It’s our fault for making it so easy for them.


Anonymous said...


The hard right's long-standing monopoly on condemning DEI ideology as a toxic, totalitarian, cesspit has been an incalculable own-goal for everyone who doesn't like the flavor of politics preached by people like DeSantis and Trump.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful essay and references; helpful in thinking about movements such as the Greens in Germany who are not only questionably green but surely wild rights otherwise. Also, the writer here is emeritus while a younger academic needs to be very wary of intolerance on campus. There is need for being self-protective.

I will think much more about this.

S Weil said...

I don't know about the current academic world, but my impression of DEI as practiced in the corporate sector is that it is pretty ad hoc and practical, and is not driven by any comprehensive ideology. Its effects are marginal, but probably positive. I agree with the basic point, and that to really attack inequality you need at least a Sander's type of social democratic push - DEI is obviously not that.

Aaron said...

@S Weil

The use by individuals doesn't necessarily, intentionally follow lock-step with an ideology, but the diffusion of ideas to those individuals definitely comes from specific ideological touch-points (mostly covered by the links in the article), and supported through pop culture efforts such as Robin Diangelo's consultation business. I dispute that the effects are positive--at best, it's harmless (but not necessarily beneficial, without bigger ideas to ground them in) to briefly introspect on points of empathy that you haven't considered in the past, but at worst, it is a way of explicitly deferring the possibility of action as a collective into small, individualized fights over pet issues, because the language and ideas around individual psyches containing unexamined levels of base racism are inherently accusatory paths toward remedying the real problems that underpin them. It transfers the subject of oppression from people who actually control things to neighbors and coworkers with "unexamined biases" performing "microaggressions", and gives HR departments a massive tool for removing "problematic" (read: profit-hurting) people from an organization.

Aaron said...

An addendum to the above, a big consequence of the ideology mentioned here is that "representation" becomes a very popular path to social change: We just need "different perspectives" in office, or in prominent display in the media, or in corporate boardrooms. But there are two assumptions inherent to that position: a) people with different "identities" have inherent differences in life experience that are impossible to just convey to someone with another identity (rather than people all simply being people with more-or-less the same goals and problems, and infinitely complex contexts for working toward those goals and experiencing those problems), and b) our society requires a rulership in which those "diverse" reprsentatives can participate. The first does not resolve the contradictions of bigotry--on the contrary, by essentializing peoples' differences, it reifies them. The latter is predicated on the maintenance of status quo, and preempts questioning it by substituting non-revolutionary reformism in the place of actual change.

Anonymous said...


The use by individuals doesn't necessarily, intentionally follow lock-step with an ideology...

[ I do not understand these comments at all. Do explain, since I am wondering whether I actually understood the post. ]

Anonymous said...

Post here: https://www.reddit.com/r/WayOfTheBern/comments/110jltm/have_progressive_cultural_and_electoral_leaders/?:

... extends the formulation, with DEI-ism replaced by hatred of Russia & love of Pfizer, which are similarly ill-founded, over-reaching, and politically suicidal positions of most self-described “Progressive” public figures, as follows:

* the Isolationist Right … is happy to feast on the oppo-target banquet which Maidan-cum-Russiagate-cum-Armageddonism has served them.

* the Medical Freedom Right … is happy to feast on the oppo-target banquet which deference to Big Pharma-bought authority has served them.

Anonymous said...

... extends the formulation, with DEI-ism replaced

[Sorry, but I am completely lost now and think I have never understood the post. Possibly a reader could "simply" explain the original post.]

Anonymous said...

To "lost" Anonymous posting at February 12, 2023 at 3:03 PM

Explanation/summary of original post:
The failure, by Progressives, to oppose and disassociate from stupid-cum-excessive identity obsessions has invited Rightists to monopolize the political benefits (elegantly phrased/formulated as "feast on ... a banquet") of opposing those obsessions and policies resulting from them.

Explanation/summary of the "Extension" linked by other Anonymous (me) posting at February 12, 2023 at 11:37 AM:
Analogously, Rightists have been invited to seize similar monopolies in the political benefits of opposing policies and rhetoric reflecting unbalanced (i) demonization of Russia, and (ii) faith in public health policies dominated by the profit-seeking of Big Pharma.

Anonymous said...

The failure, by Progressives, to oppose and disassociate...

Analogously, Rightists have been invited to seize similar monopolies...

[ Thank you so much for these fine explanatory passages. I now follow these explanations and understand how they fit the original post. The Russia and Pharma examples are perfect.

This effort was important to me. ]

Anonymous said...

Notice how a scholar can be intimidated:


A Russia Scholar’s Views

To the Editor:

“Russia Experts See Ranks Thin, and an Effect on U.S. Policy”: * I protest the way my views and I were characterized in your article. I am called the “dissenting villain” in today’s media commentary on Ukraine who presents a “perspective closer to that of Mr. Putin.” This may have the effect (intended or not) of stigmatizing me and discrediting my views.

For more than 40 years, I have taught thousands of undergraduates and trained scores of future Russia specialists at Princeton University and New York University. My many scholarly books, articles and media commentaries have been published in diverse mainstream places, including The New York Times many years ago. And my views are based on my years of study, not on what President Vladimir V. Putin or anyone else thinks.

Indeed, my current perspective is similar to what Henry A. Kissinger wrote ** in The Washington Post this month: “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”

I would go farther: The Ukrainian crisis, the worst and most fateful of the 21st century, is the outcome of Washington’s 20-year bipartisan policy toward post-Soviet Russia, spearheaded by NATO’s eastward expansion. I have been arguing this since the early 1990s, long before Mr. Putin appeared on the scene.

In this regard, I am a true patriot of American national security — perhaps a heretic, but certainly not the “villain.”

* http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/world/europe/american-experts-on-russia.html

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html

New York, March 7, 2014

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous posting at February 13, 2023 at 6:16 PM "This effort was important to me."

Re: the "extension" to Russia and Pharma examples, at https://www.reddit.com/r/WayOfTheBern/comments/110jltm/have_progressive_cultural_and_electoral_leaders/j8es3nk/,

You may find interesting the further analysis of the following question:

"Which of the following is the most true about the majority of self-described “Progressive” politicians (in or adjacent to the Democratic Party)?"

* too cowardly to win (per Dorman's EconoSpeak article)
* too stupid to win (per the initially linked "extension")
* not interested in winning (per Richard Kline in 2011, quoted below).

"‘progressives’ lose because they do not have it as a goal to win. Their principal concern is to criticize the moral failings of others in society, particularly the moral failings of those in power."

Anonymous said...

Which of the following is the most true about the majority of self-described “Progressive” politicians (in or adjacent to the Democratic Party)?

[ Looking to European Greens, I rather think the objective is to gain political influence under cover of a slogan, actual principles are a minor consideration. AOC, for instance, is no "progressive" but evidently only cares about catching trends. ]

Anonymous said...

This Is What Happens When Progressives Look the Other Way

[ Does this short essay explain why there is virtually no progressive emphasis on ending the war in Ukraine? I have tried to answer this question for myself, but to no avail. Where is the anti-war movement that has always been an American presence among liberals?

I would much appreciate any thoughts on the matter. ]