Sunday, December 29, 2013

You Can't Eat Respect

Noah Smith has a recent blog post reflecting on the differences between Japanese and US society and their conceptions of equality and liberty. In particular, the difference between Japanese notions of respect, and personal and social conservatism regarding overt displays of wealth, contrasted with America's, admittedly, more egalitarian (using the American habit of addressing people by their first names as an example) traditions  that lack an overall conception of "respect". Smith places this idea of "respect" as a fourth pillar of equality to add toward's Smith's descriptions of American conceptions of equality: equality of outcome, attributed to "true" communists and socialists; equality of opportunity, championed by centrist liberals; and equal rights under the law, championed by conservatives and libertarians.

"Equality of respect" in this assemblage of rights can ameliorate the dissatisfaction of those at the lower ends of society by demonstrating that they are, well, respected and, in turn, valued. The use of honorifics in communicating with a humble sushi chef demonstrate that his or her work is valued and their skill recognized. Smith admits to lacking evidence of a respect gap in US culture and politics, but nonetheless attempts to make the case that both conservative/libertarian and progressive/radical critics erode the idea of respect that rests at the core of American ideals. According to Smith, conservatives have too often insisted upon the intrusion of market institutions to guide social life and sponsored a hyper-competitiveness that makes many service workers embarrassed of their jobs while progressive and radical critics have focused too narrowly on income measures of welfare that overplays material inequity absent other cultural aspects, namely "respect".

In fairness, Smith recognizes the vagueness of these thoughts and one cannot expect a fully formed political theory in a blog post of a few hundred words. But I think it necessary to address some of these preliminary thoughts now such that we can move beyond a discussion that, I feel at least, will not benefit our understanding of history, politics, or equality. I'll try to address my concerns in three areas: the first is Smith's characterization of respect as a potentially lost or fading attribute of American society has little basis in US history; second,  focusing upon moving away from material measures of equality risks reifying unequal social relations and political institutions as well as blunting analytical space for examining inequality in any useful way; and third, Smith's utter indifference to towards race makes for an unnecessarily confusing and sloppy bit of analysis.

Smith's lament over the loss of a more casual egalitarian US as embodied in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and  the raucous inaugural party of Andrew Jackson rest in a history that stands as a testament to profound inequity. Succinctly, America has never been as egalitarian as it thinks it is and it is arguable that America is somehow less egalitarian now than it was in the 1830s! The abolition of slavery, the destruction of Jim Crow, women's suffrage, and queer rights are all testaments to a growing egalitarianism and respect under the law. To somehow posit that Americans from the 1830s until the last 30 years or so were more egalitarian, as in all human beings are afforded the same moral status (as defined by Gray in Liberalism), than they are now is profoundly ahistorical. America has never really had a good run of such a pure egalitarianism even in its early years. Jefferson may have espoused the virtues of the yeoman farmer, but he also helped to better develop the immense plantation system in the deep south that not only further stitched slavery into American society, but also redoubled inequality between a small, yet immensely powerful, white plantation ruling class and poorer white farmer/laborer class. Thus one can see that particularly American paradox where the poor and ethnic minorities, in particular black Americans, where material well being improved with industrialization and urbanization, but egalitarianism, as in being perceived as equal in moral status to everyone else, remained static. The passage of the Civil Rights Acts may truly where we may legitimately start to speak of an egalitarian age in the US not in the streets of Philadelphia in the 1760s and certainly not in the raucous quarters of the White House in the 1830s to a slave-owning president responsible for the Trail of Tears.

The critique that progressives focus upon material inequity, particularly income or wealth inequality, to the detriment of other values that in turns reinforces a kind of crass cultural materialism is a contradictory and fundamentally conservative position that Smith can't even keep straight himself. This confusion comes from a refusal to recognize social and economic inequality manifest themselves in many material ways that often end up doing real harm to people. This is where Smith could have fruitfully used Japan as a comparative case to show that while Japan may have higher income inequality than some European countries (though less than the US) it is also has a bevy of social programs designed to blunt the negative material consequences of economic inequity. In particular, Japan has had universal healthcare since the 1930s. Considering the massive health disparities in this country, largely tied to income inequality, such a comparison would have added an interesting aspect to his observations. But in trying to separate economic inequality from other forms of material inequity, the most dramatic of which includes black American infant mortality rates as twice that of whites, and the disparity persists even when controlling for income. Such an issue would seem to partially support Smiths contention that income is not the only factor when discussing issues of disparity and inequity, but he entirely ignores the need for greater redistributive policies and the obliteration of racism and instead stands upon this idea of "respect" and a shallow egalitarianism.

Smith, ultimately, does not seem all that interested in thinking deeply about inequality as a real force in peoples' lives nor is he interested in theorizing what it means for such stark material inequality and disparity to be essential parts of the organizing logic of our country. This gap speaks to either a relatively shallow understanding of what income and social inequality mean for those at the bottom of society or it speaks to how many self-described liberals are seemingly incapable of seriously contemplating questions of social justice in contemporary contexts.

Finally, Smith could have avoided much of the muddled reasoning on this if he seriously considered the existence of black people in the US. The history of slavery, abolition, civil rights and ongoing battles for racial justice and fairness under the law place the material, social, and political effects of income inequality and racism in stark relief. If we are to critique progressive critics for primarily focusing upon income inequality, then the proper critique is not to say that progressives should demand more "respect" from economic elites, but to show how other social factors like race, gender, and sexual orientation all interact to reinforce and exacerbate social injustice.

To conclude, Smith misrepresents American history in order to claim the US has become less egalitarian, in terms of a potential loss of "respect", even as the past 240 odd years of this country's history has been a slow, bloody, unsteady march towards greater egalitarianism. Second, Smith's inability to connect social inequality to greater material disparity leaves a confused reasoning that does not leave space for demands for greater social justice and potential redistribution because of an inability or unwillingness to connect inequality to real disparities in life outcomes or to connect continued to inequality to directly to the lack of "respect" he claims to care about. Ultimately, this is part of a popular project of seemingly reasonable, progressively oriented folks who worry about inequality but are profoundly uninterested in actually substantively transforming material benefit in our society. It is a politics devoid of any substantive positions of dealing with injustice outside of wishing for some greater cultural transformation that simply seeks to mollify those at the bottom of the social pyramid.

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