Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why Some Groups Matter

This is a passage from the late, great Wilson Carey McWilliams - who taught me much but from whom I learned far too little - in a wonderful essay entitled "Politics" (American Quarterly, v. 35, Spring/Summer 1983, v. 1&2, p. 27):

"Notably, the groups that [liberal reformers] recognize are all defined by biology. In liberal theory, where our 'nature' means our bodies, these are 'natural' groups opposed to 'artificial' bonds like communities of work and culture. This does not mean that liberalism values these 'natural' groups. Quite the contrary: since liberal political society reflects the effort to overcome or master nature, liberalism argues that 'merely natural' differences ought not to be held against us. We ought not to be held back by qualities we did not choose and that do not reflect our individual efforts and abilities. [Reformers] recognize women, racial minorities, and the young only in order to free individuals from 'suspect classifications.'

"Class and culture are different. People are part of ethnic communities or the working class because they chose not to pursue individual success and assimilation into the dominant, middle-class culture, or because they were unable to succeed. Liberal theory values individuals who go their own way, and by the same token, it esteems those who succeed in that quest more highly than individuals who do not. Ethnicity and class, consequently, are marks of shame in liberal theory, and whatever discrimination people suffer is, in some sense, their 'own fault.' We may feel compassion for the failures, but they have no just cause for equal representation, unlike individuals who suffer discrimination for 'no fault of their own.'"

The logic of liberal group representation is to further our individuation and dissolve community. For this reason these groups are admitted and valorized as particularly deserving of protection, although it could be argued that, today, it is our lower "class" communities that are among the hardest hit in the nation.

(Incidentally, this analysis helps to make sense why it was possible for the current Interim Dean of Georgetown to reject one's Catholic faith as legitimate and desirable consideration for faculty hiring while the university remains ardently committed to hiring of groups which are demarcated by biology. Any departure from this current understanding of legitimate group considerations would constitute a departure from "academic excellence," which rests extensively on deep assumptions provided by liberalism - including especially the goal of the mastery and conquest of nature. Curiously, it is Catholicism that could argue against just the sorts of liberal and individualistic presuppositions that underlie modern group preferences - and, for that reason, must be rejected as a basis for special consideration.)

Is it possible that this moment makes it possible to consider a political configuration in which such alternative understanding of the worth of groups - based in communities of work and culture - could become newly relevant and viable? Could it manifest itself now as something other than angry and destructive mass outrage against privilege - or are there spokesmen who can give it discipline and direction? Images of mass unrest overseas are worrisome; still, there at least was a tradition here of democratic populism that drew on deeper sources than mere disruption, though they are doubtless deeply attenuated and perhaps too frayed to be readily available, perhaps those sources can be rekindled by the right understanding and articulation. Perhaps.

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