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The politics of recognition



By George Will
(Published May 10, 1998)

SAN FRANCISCO--In this caricature by the bay there has been a ruckus over a requirement that high school students read works by "people of color." Nationally, there is an epidemic of "road rage"--aggressive drivers running red lights and venting high-speed hostility toward other drivers, the law and perhaps toward the hand that life has dealt.

What might a battle over books and motorized strife have in common? Perhaps both pertain to the politics of recognition.

A member of San Francisco's school board says: "We are now the first district in the nation to require the reading of nonwhite authors. We also voted for a requirement that writers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender be identified." The board, a nest of San Francisco moderates, rejected a proposal to require that 70 percent of the books be by nonwhite authors.

Supporters of the new requirement say it recognizes "marginalized" voices, and rebukes the unjust, such as Mark Twain, who allegedly was disrespectful toward African-Americans, and Chaucer, who sank to portraying people based on their socioeconomic class. The board's action was justified with reference to "diversity," as though diversity would be lacking in a syllabus covering, say, Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Thomas Mann. There also was much talk about the importance of readings that "reflect the culture" of the students, as though an Asian-American teen-ager born and raised here finds his or her culture reflected in a book written by an Asian in Asia.

When supporters of more color-conscious reading requirements explain their support, certain phrases recur. School reading lists should "validate who we are." "We are all here so we might as well have a voice." The 87 percent of San Francisco students who are not white "deserve recognition."

This is the language of identity politics, which defines individuals by the groups into which they can be lumped. The premise of identity politics is that most groups have been "marginalized" by whites who are no longer demographically dominant.

The language of this city's curriculum skirmish supports a thesis of a new book, "Speaking Respect, Respecting Speech." In it professor Richard Abel of UCLA law school argues "the centrality of the struggle for respect in contemporary political life."

But why has the competition for status become more intense, and become focused more on cultural affirmations--recognition--than on government-distributed material rewards? Abel suggests that the political parties have become "indistinguishable on bread-and-butter issues." Certainly the liberal party has turned from material redistribution to status politics, promising a new hierarchy of respect through the redistribution of esteem.

One of Abel's surmises seems exactly wrong. He suggests that as economic growth slows, "frustrated ambitions are rechanneled into status claims." But status politics--the allocation by government of honor and social standing--is intensifying as (has Abel noticed?) the economy soars. It is more likely that status anxieties are actually sharpened by affluence, which blurs old status symbols.

Joseph Schumpeter said the invention of nylon reduced the social distance, as measured by consumption, between the duchess who wore silk and the shop clerk who wore cotton. Time was, the upper crust rode in carriages, the lower orders walked. No such dramatic difference distinguishes the driver of a Porsche from the driver of a Pontiac. So "conspicuous consumption" has lost much saliency as a signal of status. And public policies--from San Francisco's affirmative action reading requirements, to apologies and other propitiations for various grievance groups--become the signalers.

This makes for rancid politics because status competition is fueled by envy, the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sinner even momentary pleasure. And what becomes of those whose status anxiety is not assuaged by participation in group entitlements to government-affirmed esteem? Some vent their resentments in road rage.

As material abundance grows, society's relative scarcity of recognition and prestige (ranging from mere victimhood to today's platinum bliss, celebrity) becomes an intensifying ache. That imbecile in the BMW, who just endangered his life and yours by running a red light in order to get to the next one, has been deranged by a shattering realization. He is not eligible for the recognition sweepstakes that increasingly define politics. And as a conferrer of derivative status, a BMW is not what it--let alone what a carriage and six horses--used to be.

His driving is a cry for help, the poor thing. Of course individuals craving esteem could stop waiting for someone or something to confer it. They could try earning it. Just an idea.

You may write to George Will c/o Washington Post Writers Group at 1150 15th Street, N. West Washington D.C., 20071.



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