Identity politics

Disclaimer, or maybe cowardly defensive whine, first: With a professional mother and wife, and two daughters, I hope I’ve got at least some feminist inclinations. With a minority-Anglo customer base (I teach at Berkeley), similarly about race. (I am also familiar with the humbling lessons of implicit-association research, hence “at least some”.) The two sensitivities are definitely not any kind of equal players in society: I heard someone on a radio talk show offer this deafening “click” moment and never forgot it: “We think nothing of a schoolteacher saying ‘Good morning, boys and girls’ but ‘Good morning, white children and black children’ would be appalling.” Same with addressing a group as “Ladies and gentlemen” but not “My dear white voters and voters of color”.

So: an email discussion list I subscribe to has been fulminating all morning about a column in the WaPo by Linda Hirshman, about Hillary’s slide among educated women implying that they have abandoned less fortunate women, and another by Charlotte Allen rapping women for being ditzy and then getting far over her head about things like brain size differences . The level of vitriol was remarkable (with almost no men daring to put a word in either way, pity), which is itself data; there was cancelling of WaPo subscriptions, and really mean language. As far as I can tell, the fundamental outrage is that for women to write such things is simply treacherous, and for the Post to publish it is unforgivable. (I have no brief for the columns themselves; this is about the basis on which, implicitly, they and their authors were attacked.)

To make such accusations meaningful requires a lot of projecting models and assuming. Here are a few that ought to be examined a little more, because there’s a lot of leaning on them in political discussion generally:

(1) The category in which you put yourself, when different ones lead to different actions, are traits you should perceive, not a choice on your part. Pundits and political leaders have the right to tell Dr. Flora Hernandez to think of herself as highly educated professional elite, a woman, hispanic, lactose-intolerant, a Red Sox fan, or – not and – (etc), and she has a duty to comply.

(2) Things like voting and writing op-eds should (this is a moral duty) be acted out according to category; for example, it’s argued by serious people that women “should” be supporting Hillary (and by others that black women should be voting for Obama). Well, argued, not so much; let’s say asserted, with vigorous whipped cream and a pugnacious cherry on top.

(3) A elected official in a category will advance the aggregate overall interest of people in that category.

(4) People in a category understand their interests, so their preferences indicate what’s good for them.

(5) The arrow of cause appropriately points from identification and ideology to choices. For example, it’s unexceptionable speech among my students, and others, to say “Being a [liberal/conservative/etc] I think we should have [more/less] subsidized child care.”

(6) One should, in general, vote one’s self-interest.

(7) The big issues are zero-sum games between categories.

I hope these all, stated baldly, are as obviously nuts as they seem to me. If not:

(1) doesn’t merit a reply; it’s just repulsive.

(2) similarly, or it’s a wrong inference from (3-7).

(3) This one collapses in the face of all the counterexamples, domestically and around the world. What a good deal Kibaki has been for the Kenyan Kikuyu…and Hoover for the American business class.

(4) So does this one, especially when the issues are technically complex, and there’s lots of real research that undermines it on a personal, psychological level. Auto workers didn’t do themselves any good at all with legislated protection against Japanese cars. One of my favorite, though arcane, examples is the wide support of artists for “resale royalties” legislation assuring them a fraction of future appreciation of work they sell. This droit de suite scheme transfers money from the poor to the rich, and risk from the rich to the poor; could anything be more nuts from the perspective of (usually poor) artists?

(5) This can only make sense if you have stopped thinking for yourself. An ideology is a summary, best assessed by others, of a pattern in choices you’ve made one-by-one on the basis of real principles. “I’m a conservative” is not a real principle but an excuse to ignore them.

(6) This one struck me only late in life when two friends reported that their fathers, both wealthy, said they were voting Republican because “a Republican administration will be good for me” meaning “help me get even richer”. It was a sentiment I can imagine someone having but not being shameless enough to admit to; if there’s a lot of it around, I guess all that Christianity we’re seeing hasn’t done much for American morality. It is certainly asymmetric: for a poor person to vote for the candidate who will help the poor is not at all the same, but that’s a matter of “what’s just” happening to match “what’s good for me”.

(7) Some are, but some assuredly are not. What is the distinctively feminist, or blue-collar worker, position on global warming (see (4) wrt Republican denialism)?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.