Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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It's not clear whether Joan Walsh's What's the Matter with White People? Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was is an attempt to shore up MSNBC watchers, get the last word in a family argument, or disguise an autobiography as journalistic sociology. Book Review No. 10 will explain each of those assertions.

I will confess to purchasing the book with the first purpose in mind.  Regular readers will recognize that I have repeatedly referred to The America That Worked(TM), and I was hoping to find some defense of the so-called "progressive social change" that wrecked it.  That's usually why the ancient Irishmen on MSNBC bring Ms Walsh on, after all.  No joy there, although I did find an intriguing line on page 85. "In New York, the growing African American Teachers' Association was openly rejecting what it saw as the [United Federation of Teachers'] cultural chauvinism in pushing 'white middle class values' on black kids."  That's part of a longer reflection on the events of 1966, all part of the growing-up traumas that schoolchildren who observed their teachers and parents reacting to the Kennedy assassination went through.  That the reforms of the urban public schools in the years that followed did nothing to improve academic achievement must be material for a different book.  Perhaps, though, we have material for the third purpose, to which I will return in time.

The second purpose is clear throughout the book.  In Ms Walsh's family are more than a few first responders, business owners, and traditional moms, many of whom experienced those same events in the 1960s, but reacted differently to them.  The arguments will be familiar to readers my age, who have lived them for the past half century or so, and responded predictably or unpredictably thereto.  Her family, though, is more homogeneously Irish than my heterogeneous kin, and she attempts to respond to some of the cruder arguments about government handouts and prejudice from that era by explaining who, exactly, invented the ward-heeler politician relying on the continued existence of desperate constituents as a way of staying in office in the first place.  Thus the title of my post, and thus, a transition to the third purpose.

Ms Walsh attended the University of Wisconsin about the same time my younger sister did.  At that time, it was easy enough to conflate Democrat cliches with course outline items in some classes.  I doubt that my sister ever picked up the message that Things Will Get Better If The Right Democrat Becomes President, but Ms Walsh's autobiography is all about working on this campaign or that.  Carter.  Mondale.  Dukakis. Obama or Hillary!?  But Bill was trailer trash to the Washington Establishment (p. 148).  Hint:  the snobbery of the Washington Liberal Establishment did not begin with Bill Clinton.

What then, about the journalistic sociology?  The other part of the autobiography is Ms Walsh's discontent with identity politics.  As long as it's practiced by oppressed minorities, fine, but don't let's have any Angry White Guys (or Traditional Suburban Wives) celebrating their norms.  OK, let's have some norms everyone can accept, but let's have norms.  That's too much heavy lifting for Ms Walsh, who hasn't quite thought through the latest challenge to Democrat commonplaces (p. 151).  "[O]ur historic civil-rights model didn't entirely make sense anymore in a world where Latinos and Asians were the fastest-growing minorities."

To get an idea where identity politics, broadly conceived, might go, turn to Sean Trende in Real Clear Politics.

Our politics haven’t always been driven by a liberal/conservative divide. That is a fairly recent innovation; ethnic and sectional divisions are more the norm. If the country does end up minority-majority by 2050, the Democratic Party will likely be supermajority-minority by that point; no one can predict with any certainty what effects that will have on the overall political cleavages in the country.

The troubles for the traditional civil-rights model proliferate.

So where are we today with the Democrats’ coalition? In theory, a grouping of blacks, Hispanics, some working-class whites, suburbanites, and urban liberals seems a powerful, ascendant force. In practice, it is exceedingly fragile, as the interests of these groups will frequently collide once the party is handed the reins of power.

It's going to get even more interesting, with a larger fraction of the U.S. population neither descended from the Pilgrims and the Founders nor from slaves, and with ethnic diversity clustering by neighborhood and house prices (compare and contrast a Rockford grade school class with the same grade in Naperville).  Whatever historic antagonisms might remain between black and white people today, in another fifty years they're going to be irrelevant.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: autobiography, politics, unimpressed

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