from “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Interest,” by Michael Walzer

51u+2xHneTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Reading Walzer’s essay, I kept having to remind myself that this book was published nearly twenty years ago. There’s a lot about what he says that makes sense to me, but I found myself wondering if things have changed. Religious community is of course very different than ethnic, racial, or even national community. Religious communities share a culture, in the sense of a set of values, in ways that people of the same ethnicity, race, or nation–despite their many similarities–might not. And it would seem to me that the communal self-interests generated by this commonality, which (in theory anyway) transcends, or at least potentially transcends many other differences,  makes certain kinds of communal organizing much easier. Anyway, here’s an excerpt:

In multicultural politics it is an advantage to be injured. Every injury, every act of discrimination or disrespect, every heedless, invidious, or malicious word is a kind of political entitlement, if not to reparation then at least to recognition. So one has to cultivate, as it were, a thin skin; it is important to be sensitive, irritable, touchy. But perhaps there is some deeper utility here. Thin skins are useful precisely because the cultural identities over which they are stretched don’t have any very definite or substantive character. People are right to be worried about cultural loss. And because identity is so precarious in modern or postmodern America, because we are so often so uncertain about who we are, we may well fail to register expressions of hostility, prejudice, or disfavor. Thin skin is the best protection: it provides the earliest possible signal of insults delivered and threats on the way. Like other early warning systems, of course, it also transmits false signals–and then a lot of time has to be spent in explanation and reassurance. But this too is part of the process of negotiating a difficult coexistence in a world where difference is nervously possessed and therefore often aggressively displayed.

Despite all the misunderstandings generated by the mix of nervous groups and thin-skinned individuals, there is something right about all this. Social peace should not be purchased at the price of fear, deference, passivity, and self-dislike–the feelings that standardly accompanied minority status in the past. The old left wanted to substitute anger at economic injustice for all these, but it is at least understandable that the actual substitute is the resentment of social insult. We want to be able and we ought to be able to live openly in the world, as we are, with dignity and confidence, without being demeaned or degraded in our everyday encounters. It may even be that dignity and confidence are the preconditions for the fight against injustice.

So it is worth taking offense–I am not sure it is always worth feeling hurt–when demeaning and malicious things are said or done. But a permanent state of suspicion that demanding and malicious things are about to be said or done is self-defeating. And it is probably also self-defeating to imagine that the long-term goal of recognition and respect is best reached directly, by aiming at and insisting on respect itself. (Indeed, the insistence is comic; Rodney Dangerfield has made a career out of it.)….People do not win respect by insisting they are not respected enough. (89-90)

The experience of American Jews may be of some help here, though their extraordinary economic success requires me to be very cautious about setting them up as a useful example. Certainly, they have been sensitive to insult, as the early founding of the Anti-Defamation League (1913) suggests, and they are still quick to feel insulted and injured in cases like that of the Farrakhan invitation. But they are not today the main protagonists of identity politics and their history suggests an alternative (indirect) political strategy….

What is it that gave the Jews place and standing in American society? First, a strong internal organizational life, communal solidarity reflected in institutions: synagogues, schools, welfare and mutual aid associations, defense leagues, fraternal and sororal societies, a great variety of cultural and political organizations, Yiddishism, Zionist, laborite, and so on. But an intensively organized Jewry can along, historically has gone along, with isolation and fear vis-a-vis the larger non-Jewish community. It has coexisted with the politics of deference, passivity, and accommodation which is suggested by the image of the “court Jew,” an ambassador from the weak to the powerful, who often found himself begging for favors. Something more is needed if Jews are to live with confidence among the “others.”

So, second, Jews sought and won legal protections in the form anti discrimination laws (the end of restrictive covenants and quota systems) and political protection in the form of friendly politicians and “balanced tickets” and equal access to public funds–which allows, in turn, for the strengthening of Jewish organizational life. Winning these protections required a politics of interest rather than a politics of identity, even though the interests at stake were those of men and women who were similar identified (rather than similar situated, say, vis-a-vis the means of production). The leaders of this politics of interest spoke from positions of strength–from a mobilized electoral base and a mobilized socioeconomic base–and their “demands” were highly specific and detailed. Dignity and confidence were achieved not by pursuing them directly but by acting in the world in pursuit of individual rights and collective advance.

The result provides a model of what I will call “meat and potatoes multiculturalism.” This Jewish achievement is paralleled by that of other religious groups, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Baptists among others (who mostly didn’t need to win the same kind of political battles). Thus far, only religious groups have been able to deliver the meat and potatoes, although these groups often have ethnic subsets: Irish Catholics, German Lutherans, black Baptists. These are the chief protagonists of a concrete multiculturalism. Purely ethnic and racial groups, by contrast, though some of their representatives are leading defenders of the multicultural idea, have had greater difficulty putting it into practice–or at least into the specific kind of practice that I now want to describe. They don’t have organizational histories comparable to those of the mainstream religions. (91-92)

One more thing: When I finished reading Walzer’s essay, I started thinking about my son, whom we sent on the weekends to a Persian language school until he was in fifth or sixth grade. I know he is glad to speak Persian as well as he does, if only because it allows him to speak to relatives and acquaintances who either don’t speak English or whose English is not so great; and I know that he proud of the Persian part of his heritage. I am sure, in other words, that, in the long run, he does not regret having given up his Saturday mornings to learn Persian. Nonetheless, I doubt very much, should he have children, that he will send his children to learn the language; and I doubt as well that any of his cousins, who have two parents from Iran, will be sending their kids to that school either. Then I contrast that with my experience in the Jewish community, where people have been sending their kids for however minimal a Jewish education for generations. My son’s Jewish education, for example, is partial and fragmentary. Nonetheless, I can see him sending his children to the same Jewish sleep away camp we have sent him to, in part so that they would get the kind of identity-building experience that he had there.

I could, of course, be wrong, and I’m not really trying to make an argument here. It just seems to me, though I’m not entirely sure how, that this example speaks to the politics of interest Welzer is talking about, and the way religious groups seem to have developed this kind of politics far more effectively than most racial, ethnic, or national-origin groups.

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4 Responses to from “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Interest,” by Michael Walzer

  1. 1
    Lirael says:

    Jews often disagree on issues of religion, though, and many Jews (including myself) aren’t theists at all (there’s a reason that in some surveys “Jews of no religion” is a category that people can choose to identify with). And yet, secular/atheist Jews still typically engage with Jewish culture and feel themselves part of it. Jews are an ethnoreligious and cultural group (or closely related set of groups), not merely a religious one.

    I also find it a rather peculiar idea that the Jewish experience described here is not paralleled among racial or national origin or other groups. Other groups sought and won (and are seeking and winning) anti-discrimination protections. Other groups have specific demands, mobilize their electoral bases, elect friendly politicians. I would say that the Black community has done all of these things, though I may be on thin ice here as I’m not part of it. The LGBTQ community, which I am part of, has done these things.

    There’s also a lot of weird Model Minority characterization going on in many of the excerpts you’ve quoted, which I think is a problem because it erases subgroups that are not at the same stereotypically high socioeconomic level and because of the other stuff described in the “Effects of the stereotype” section here. And as one can see reading through that article, the Model Minority stereotype exists for many different ethnic groups all over the world.

  2. 2
    LTL FTC says:

    Wow, that’s quite a broadside!

    Do you know how this was received by the campus multicultural establishment when it was published?

    Accusing other groups of “cultivat[ing] … thin skin” to make a better case for special pleading – and that doing so is self-defeating – would be enough to get you a local firestorm and a petition calling for your head in 2015. It even sounds a bit like George Will’s claim that victimhood had its privileges.

    Walzer even taught a class where he debated Robert Nozick, a radical capitalist-anarchist who said that there is no reason to forbid enslavement contracts if they were made fairly between the parties. Nozick would obviously be no-platformed, and Walzer would probably get shouted down at every opportunity for enabling. Even for a guy so clearly committed to social justice, this reeks of the kind of heterodoxy considered “problematic.”

    Even though this book came out at the same time as, and as a reaction to, the last identity politics flare-up, it seems like a far more dangerous opinion to have today, at least if you’re in his world. Fascinating.

  3. LTL FTC: I actually have no idea how this particular essay was received. At some point laster in the piece, Walzer says that he has purposefully used a kind of in-your-face rhetoric in order to make his point—but I am not where the book is right now, so I can’t look it up.


    I also find it a rather peculiar idea that the Jewish experience described here is not paralleled among racial or national origin or other groups. Other groups sought and won (and are seeking and winning) anti-discrimination protections. Other groups have specific demands, mobilize their electoral bases, elect friendly politicians. I would say that the Black community has done all of these things, though I may be on thin ice here as I’m not part of it. The LGBTQ community, which I am part of, has done these things.

    I think Walzer’s point about the Black community would be that their gains have come primarily through—or perhaps “were driven by” would be a more accurate way of putting it—religious institutions, not through “Black cultural organization” per se. I’m not saying I agree with him, because I don’t know that I have enough information to know for sure, but I think that would be his point. And while the LGBTQ community has certainly organized, Walzer was writing specifically about multiculturalism, and I don’t think the LGBTQ community would have been included under that umbrella in the 1990s—and I am wondering if it’s included there now. Again, my own ignorance may be the issue here.

    As to your point about model minority rhetoric, I confess I just don’t see it, but that may be because I have read the essays I’ve excerpted in their entirety and so see a context that you don’t.

  4. 4
    Duncan says:

    Walzer makes a good point, but I take some issue with his remark about multiculturalism and being “thin-skinned” — it reminds me, though it may not have been his intent, of people who accuse critics of mainstream bigotry of “looking for opportunities to be offended.” As though opportunities for offense didn’t come looking for us!

    But then, who is as “thin-skinned,” as quick to take offense at real and imagined slights, as a white straight Christian male American? That is perhaps the main flaw with Walzer’s argument here. If minorities develop thin skins, maybe that’s part of the process of assimilation to majority attitudes.

    I don’t put a lot of stress on offense myself. The First Amendent (and the principle of free speech/expression in general) guarantees everyone’s right to be offended. I object to, say, official prayer in government events not because it offends me (it doesn’t, particularly), but because it violates the separation of religion and government that is also a founding principle of our system; and that wall of separation was not built to protect people from offense (it really has the opposite effect), but to try to prevent the oppression and violence that had characterized established religion in Europe for centuries.