This past weekend, I was watching news of the happenings in Senate District 60 (NE Minneapolis) where DFL Representative Phyllis Kahn was engaged in another endorsement battle against representatives of the Somali community. If you’re a Kahn supporter, you say she successfully fought off a challenge led by Somali delegates. If you were a Ilhan Omar supporter, you say she denied a 44 year incumbent the endorsement of her own party, and held a majority of the delegates throughout the day. Mohamed Noor was there too, but appeared to stay in mostly for spoiler effect. I was told his delegates stuck around even after the progressive drop rules kicked him out of the contest, just to vote "no endorsement" and prevent the endorsement from going to Omar. That's old-school ward-heeler politics right there - what we in the party call "internecine warfare." Usually happens when things get particularly nasty.
I’ve known Phyllis now for 13 years. She’s a smart woman, if not always consistent. She has a strong record of actively supporting women candidates for office because they are underrepresented, which is, of course, true; however, the fact that her professed support for diversity seems focused on gender (from which she benefits) and much less on race (from which she doesn’t benefit) exposes a latent hypocrisy from which we all suffer. And by “all” I mean not just white people.
As human beings, we cite to universal principles when it suits our motives, but we tend to ignore those principles when they’re inconvenient. That usually happens when we have forgotten about the values underlying those principles. April is political convention season and, at least on the DFL side, that means it’s time for the storied DFL Affirmative Action Statement. DFL Party rules mandate that the statement be read, verbatim, “at the beginning of precinct caucuses, party conventions, and other meetings where elections or nominations occur.” The statement reads as follows:
“The DFL seeks to end discrimination and bigotry in all its forms and to inspire broad participation in our party. As part of our commitment to outreach and inclusion, we will take affirmative steps to increase the participation of members of all underrepresented communities. When you vote today, remember this commitment includes electing members of underrepresented communities to positions both within the DFL party and in public office.”
I’ve been active in the DFL party for 20 years now and, for as long as I can recall, this same statement has faithfully been read wherever two or more DFLers are gathered. After the reading, we all pat ourselves on the back, then turn to congratulate each other on how welcoming we are yet, after decades of reading it, rarely do we turn to see anyone other than another white person, in most districts. Of course, Minnesota remains about 85% white, so in most districts that’s to be expected, but what about in the urban core?
Last weekend, at the Senate District 66 DFL Convention, I spoke to a room of folks from Saint Paul, Roseville, and Falcon Heights. The room was 98% white people. My half of the district, 66B, is all Saint Paul. It includes the neighborhoods of Hamline-Midway, Como Park, the North End, and the near East Side. The delegates from my half were about (by an unscientific eyeball poll) 95% white. The official demographics of my district population, as a whole, say it is 52% White, 25% Asian, 15% Black, 10% Latino. When we read the affirmative action statement, we were reading it to almost all white people. Alice Hausman’s district, 66A, much more closely resembles the statewide number of 85% white, but there remained a relative paucity of color on her half as well, certainly nowhere close to 15%. Now, I do not think of myself as a “guilty white” person. I’m not walking around in a burlap sack and striking myself with a reed lamenting the scourge of the white man. And, like Phyllis Kahn, I’m not resigning my seat just because an underrepresented person files against me. But, at the same time, I am wondering why we cannot gain greater political participation from the folks I see on the street, but do not see as much in the convention hall – the very hall where we make the rules that some say perpetuate a system which disenfranchises non-white folks. I am not wondering this for ideological reasons, but for very practical reasons, which I’ll get into next.
When I talk to other white liberals about the lack of proportional representation, they inevitably speak about “commitment to diversity.” And, I must confess, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Being committed to diversity is as meaningless as being committed to world peace if you do not understand your reasons for it – just ask any Miss America candidate in the last 50 years. I am concerned about this because I think we, as a nation, have largely forgotten about the benefits of diversity. Both sides have done this – conservatives, because most of them are afraid of anyone not like them, and liberals, because congratulating yourself on your commitment to diversity means never having to say you’re sorry, or to actually do anything about it. So, time for a historical primer.
The United States of America began as a nation of Native Americans, very sparsely populated, across the land. The arrival of Europeans, the first non-Native Americans to successfully colonize territory here in 20,000 years, led to rapid population of non-native cultures over the next 300 years. It was, specifically, the policies of the United States which led to this – both in encouragement of immigration, and in its active policies against Native American culture. Speaking nothing of the atrocities against native populations common in those days, the United States remains relatively unique in the diversity of populations which immigrated, and in how it treated them. It forced the founders to recognize the diversity of arriving talent and not to favor any single one culture’s talent, as compared to common national practices of the time. Consider 1st Amendment prohibitions against an official religion, and the conspicuous absence of an official language in the United States. You want English as an official language? You can have it in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, India, and the Philippines, but not in the United States. The founders’ philosophy not to actively suppress this incoming diversity of ideas, and of talent, directly contributed to the emergence of the United States as a world power and then, because of the legacy of these traditions, THE world power. Simple coincidence, you say? Consider the only other world power to have as widely dominated the culture, commerce, and ideas of its time, for as lengthy a time: Rome.
In 400 B.C., Rome was the red-headed stepchild of the Italian peninsula. While neighboring city states warred against each other, Rome was the only one who took on their cast-offs, their rejects, their banished souls, and whose societal principles rewarded the diversity of thought and ideas that sprang from this array of traditions. With this diversity enshrined in Rome’s republican form of government, her accordant ability to flex, and adapt, to the rapidly changing milieu awarded it dominance on the peninsula and, ultimately, throughout the known world.
So if diversity of ideas is necessary for the aggregation of national influence, what has the opposite effect? Homogeneity - the state of increasing cultural conformity. Common sense reveals this. It’s why a diverse urban area is referred to as “cosmopolitan” (a positive word) and why people make fun of the Bible Belt for being gullible (a negative word). It’s why Paris is “sophisticated” and Appalachia is “backward.” Inflexibility of thought is why the USSR was destined to lose the Cold War, and the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal in Hockey. It’s why the citizens of Germany in the 1930s failed to halt obvious atrocities (and embraced the infamous "Nuremburg Defense"), and why people who get all their information from Fox News are actually dumber than if they watched nothing at all.
The phrase, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee,” recognizes the inherent fault in forcing diverse thoughts through a culturally restricted bottleneck – you usually end up with an inferior product. Committees, just like societies which place barriers before new ideas, are designed to produce lowest-common-denominator results. Novel, forward-thinking ideas are rarely embraced by groups of policy makers, because to do so requires an inordinate amout of effort to convice people of the value of an idea with which they are unfamiliar. Of course, there are often very good reasons to restrict diversity of ideas. The majesty of the Pyramids could never have been accomplished without oppressive slave labor, but that doesn’t mean we allow slavery. Likewise, many scientific breakthroughs were the product of highly unethical medical experiments, but that does not mean we enable such experiments. History is regarded through the lens of our current morality. But, in general, the most successful societies are those which have valued, and enabled, freedom of thought.
This brings me back to diversity. In the United States, "diversity" usually means ethnic diversity. Ethnic diversity does not guarantee diversity of thought. Just because you have a room full of people with different skin colors, eye shapes, nose sizes, and hair texture does not mean they’ll produce a superior product. What it does do is reduce the likelihood that they’ll produce a bad product. A group of the same people, with the same backgrounds, thinking the same way, is sure to get along better, but is also prone to doing stupid things. Think Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs advisors, the Taliban’s policies in Afghanistan, or ISIS in Syria. The pop culture term for this is “Groupthink.” Everyone who knows what it is thinks they’re invulnerable to it, but science proves them wrong. There are exceptions. The American Founding Fathers certainly hit several balls out of the park, despite their common culture and socioeconomic status, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile. Seriously, though, the rule is general, and it merely reduces the Groupthink failure rate over time, it does not preclude common groups fomenting genius (like the Founding Fathers), nor does it mean diverse groups won't fail (like the United Nations).
One thing which has always bothered me is that so many of the people who complain loudest about immigration (They took our jobs!”), are also the least likely to self-improve through education/retraining, or to relocate to find work. I realize that in some situations this is impracticable, but in those where it’s not, laziness and whining seem to be correlated. Some of the most entitled people I know are Republicans who think the government is a waste of resources, yet they’ll swallow every scrap of benefit they get, and complain when the gravy train is a day late. It is these people, not the immigrants, who are the real oxygen thieves in our midst. We ought to deport lazy conservatives on the government teet. At least the immigrants are earning their keep. They don’t feel entitled, they work for peanuts, they inject life back into abandoned commercial/residential properties, and they innovate. If we are going to invest resources into a promising group of folks, it is, by all objective accounts, the enterprising immigrants, not the self-pitying Fox News junkies who don’t produce results.
This is what makes the benefits of diversity so obvious. Nearly every culture which has embraced it has risen, and nearly every culture which rejected it has stagnated, and/or been absorbed. Immigration has always been the strength of America, the source of its greatest hope. Entitled, 3rd generation, white men have usually been its greatest liability. Yes, I fall into that second category, but I like to think that as long as I am open to diversity of thought, I may still add value, that I am not a prisoner of my circumstances.
Next time you cite to some universal principle to buttress your position, be it for diversity or world peace or saving the planet, take a second to think about if you really know why. If you do, your position will be much stronger than if you do not. And if your reasons for it are grounded in values which are reflected by the life you live, then your position will be stronger still.
Every day I hope I can live up to these words I profess, because if I do, then I needn’t every worry about being unceremoniously dispatched from office by voters who realize I have overstayed my welcome. Murica.