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.