The Individualist: An Interview with Anne Wortham
JANUARY 20, 2014 by THE FREEMAN
Anne Wortham is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois State University. She is a rare voice in the liberty movement—a scholar and rogue academic. She wrote her first piece for The Freeman in 1966. And we are happy she has agreed to offer her voice to these pages once again.
The Freeman: We have seen Bill Moyers’s interview with you (part 1, part 2). (It was clear he considered you odd.) In that video, you suggest some of the ways the civil rights movement had gone down the wrong path since overturning Jim Crow. It’s now 20-plus years since the Moyers interview. Do you think the civil rights movement has made any positive course corrections? Is there anything you have revised in your thinking since that interview?
Wortham: Odd, indeed. After the two-hour session with Moyers, he said to me: “You know, you are dangerous.” I think he was facetiously referring to the fact that views like mine jeopardized the wish of black leaders to have the public believe that the black community was of one mind regarding their political and economic interests and their view of black history and race relations.
Throughout the twentieth century blacks have had the opportunity to present their demand for civil rights in a way that would move Americans and their government toward a greater appreciation for individual rights. However, in every instance, black and white civil rights advocates have reinterpreted the Constitution as protecting group rights to justify and expand the welfare state. Rather than liberating blacks from their dependency on the state that began with the New Deal, and respecting them by insisting that they take responsibility for their freedom, civil rights leaders, politicians, and the American people proceeded to expand New Deal policies with Great Society policies that have cultivated the American people’s expectation that the costs of an individual’s risky behavior will be borne not by the individual but by a pool of people—by taxpayers in general, by “the rich” in particular, by society at large.
Blacks are now a mature one-party interest group, led by a civil rights industry with its own Congressional caucus that uses the victimization of blacks in the past as justification for preferential treatment of blacks in the present. The black establishment’s racialization of politics has been so successful that a black person who criticizes President Obama is condemned as a traitor and a white critic is vilified as a racist. While the motives and character of whites are openly questioned, and their mobility is seen as the privilege of being white, explaining the plight of disadvantaged blacks in terms of attitudes, values, and resulting behavior is construed as “blaming the victim.” Thus, racial dialogue relies on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools, and bad housing. As sociologist Orlando Patterson argues, academics who are “allergic to cultural explanations” are unable to explain why so many young unemployed black men have children whom they cannot support, or why they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths. Neither can they explain how “good kids” emerge from bad neighborhoods.
The Freeman: And media spectacles seem to reopen old wounds.
Wortham: Whenever there is a crisis that is defined as exacerbating the wound of racism, the air is filled with the ritualistic cry for a “conversation on race.” The problem with the call for a conversation is that it requires that whites and blacks lie to each other. The conversation is stymied by two pathologies: the self-indictment of whites who were raised to believe that acknowledgment of collective guilt is a badge of honor, and the self-indictment of minorities who were raised to believe that collective victimhood is a badge of moral superiority. With such irrational sentiments on the part of both whites and blacks at their disposal, “diversity” merchants and political race hustlers can play their deuces wild in perpetuating the lies that all whites are variously racist, and that black race consciousness is a rational response to inherent white racism, and should therefore be tolerated.
Another sorry consequence of the civil rights movement was the equation of "American" with "white" or “gringo.” Doing so makes it impossible for nonwhites to assert their American identity without the fear of being stigmatized as “Uncle Toms,” “Aunt Jemimas,” “Oreos,” “Twinkies,” “coconuts,” or “apples,” and basic sellouts to “the enemy.” On the other hand, whites who assert the primacy of their American identity risk being accused of using their patriotism to cover up their alleged racism and are seen as basically hostile opponents to the interests of minorities. The racialization of the idea of America particularizes it to the extent that even commemorative activities such as Fourth of July parades are seen as celebrations of racial dominance and ritual weapons of class domination. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are seen as blown-up images of “white” virtues. Recently, I was stunned to learn that black students in one of my courses believe that the American Dream is meant for white people. That any black child has inculcated this racialization of aspiration is truly a tragic failure of black parents and the civil rights establishment.
The Freeman: The movement for individual liberty has improved in many great respects. One such respect is that there are a lot more women and ethnic minorities who have become inspired by our ideas. This diversity is good for our movement in an important sense. And yet there is a sense of “diversity” against which you bristle. Can you tell our readers the difference between healthy diversity and the sort of “diversity” agenda you see being inculcated on your campus?
Wortham: It’s good that individuals who happen to be women and members of ethnic minorities are inspired by the movement for individual liberty. However, it is not good to make the validity of the ideas of liberty or the legitimacy of the movement dependent on the number of women and minorities involved. Making the number of adherents or their background the test of the truth of a set of ideas is a grave logical fallacy, and advocates of liberty would be gravely mistaken to be defensive about the racial and gender composition of their movement. Doing so would contradict the causal linkage of a free society and free minds, and thereby call into question the integrity of their advocacy, which is what their opponents desire. The true movement of liberty is a movement of ideas, not of blood and sex, and those involved must know that they cannot defend their cause by employing the same pre-modern concrete-bound reasoning that guides their opponents.
I must tell you, I very much resent being viewed as a source of validation by virtue of my racial and gender categories. It evades the fact that I represent myself, that my commitment to the principles of liberty rejects the equation of individuals with statistical categories. It is bad enough that race-conscious collectivists portray my defense of liberty as a cover for the rejection of my race. But it would be doubly insulting and ludicrous for white advocates of liberty to view my presence among them as proof that they are not racists—as though they allowed me to their ranks. It is also disturbing when white freedom supporters judge the validity of their ideas by what pro-freedom black writers, politicians, and pundits say. Their thinking is: “If Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, or Dr. Ben Carson says it, it’s okay for me to say so as well.” My response to this attitude is: Assume ownership of your own thinking.
You ask about my view of diversity. Many people think diversity is just another term for the pluralistic ideal of joining unity with diversity as suggested by the motto of the United States, e pluribus unum. Thus, most Americans, including many advocates of individual liberty, are reluctant to question the validity of diversity or the policies and programs established in its name. But diversity and pluralism are not synonymous. As the Pluralism Project at Harvard University points out, diversity is given; pluralism is a response to diversity. Pluralism joins a common society with diversity through engagement among diverse groups, tolerance, the encounter of different commitments, and give-and-take dialogue that reveals shared understandings and differences. Other historical responses to diversity are exclusion and assimilation. The exclusionist response is to shut the door to “alien” outsiders. Assimilationists, on the other hand, demand that newcomers conform to the dominant culture and discard the particulars of their cultures of origin.
Advocates of diversity and multiculturalism view their movement as replacing assimilation with government-subsidized preservation of particular subcultures; they promote the mistaken notion that American society depends on the right of groups to preserve ethnic differences and maintain collective cultural identity and solidarity. Their widely shared assumption that the nation derives strength from the diversity of its population fails to see that diversity and its resulting pluralism are consequences of a free and open society, not its essential defining attributes. An open society is distinguished by the guarantee of the right of individuals to choose the associations they wish to form or join, not the right of their membership groups to survive.
I would not use the term “healthy” to describe diversity or pluralism because it suggests that society is equivalent to or analogous to an organism, which it isn’t. One could use the terms “functional” or “dysfunctional” to describe diversity in terms of its consequences for the stability and integration of society. I make the distinction between individualist and collectivist pluralism based on their different perspectives of human nature and the rights that are the conditions for nonviolent social interaction and relationships. A parallel distinction is between unplanned and engineered pluralism.
The Freeman: So pluralism for you is an individualist project?
Wortham: Yes. Individualist pluralism envisions the United States as a unified nation composed of native-born citizens and candidates for citizenship of diverse beliefs, interests, group affiliations, lifestyles, and cultural backgrounds. Cultural differences are tolerated and voluntarily preserved within the larger framework of the protection of individual rights that legitimize the nation’s social, political, and economic institutions. It is based on the freedom of individuals to adopt the values, beliefs, or practices of any culture they wish, and to voluntarily form and maintain groups through which to pursue goals that do not require the violation of individual rights. It depends on a political system that prohibits the use of state power to preserve a group by keeping members inside or preventing outsiders from joining, or to alter a group by forcing the inclusion of outsiders.
Collectivist pluralism views the United States as a nation whose citizens are viewed not as the individuals they are but as statistical representations of competing interest groups, the most salient of which are ethnic groups. It denies the proposition that persons from different backgrounds can be united by their legal status as citizens possessing individual rights and by ideas and values that transcend the interests, beliefs, and norms of particular groups and subcultures. Instead of promoting interpersonal and intergroup relations based on universalistic criteria such as individual responsibility, rationality, self-determined development of character, and individual rights, corporate pluralism reinforces cultural particularism, which deals with people as the embodiment of their particular cultural group. It is less interested in preserving individual liberty than in preserving specific cultures and ethnic groups by recovering and reinforcing historical and traditional groups and communities. In its least coercive form, it is premised on the expectation that individuals will wish to maintain a majority of their primary relations within their ethnic subcultures. But even in this form, it seeks to regulate factors, such as education, that may influence an individual's choice of affiliation. It seeks to reinforce the boundaries that divide hereditary groups and to promote solidarity within those groups without regard for what individual group members may desire.
Diversity advocates say they are opposed to the assimilationist ideal of a homogeneous superculture; however, this stated intention obscures the fact that the actual targets of their opposition, whether recognized or not, are the trans-ethnic orientation of voluntary pluralism and the individual rights on which it depends. Their corporate pluralism not only fosters the preservation of ethnic differences, but is employed as the basis for the distribution of social and economic resources. Whereas individualist pluralism restricts the principle of equality to equality of individuals before the law, corporate pluralism demands political, social, and economic equality for groups designated as underrepresented in various contexts. Rather than encourage the tolerance of differences among individuals, it stresses differences among groups of people and promotes intolerance of differences within groups. The efforts of the multicultural education movement to impose “representative diversity” in the classroom and in the curriculum is fueled by this particularistic approach.
The Freeman: Can you give an example?
Wortham: According to the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), which bills itself as “Advocates for Educational Equity and Social Justice,” the academic achievement of students depends on their development of a positive self-concept which is dependent on their knowledge of the histories, cultures, and contributions of diverse groups. NAME believes that such education prepares students “to work actively toward structural equality in organizations and institutions by providing the knowledge, dispositions, and skills for the redistribution of power and income among diverse groups. Thus, school curricula must directly address issues of racism, sexism, classism, linguicism, ablism, ageism, heterosexism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia.” The scheme amounts to indoctrination in collective guilt and victimhood. But NAME expects to get “structural equality” out of such irrationality and attitudinal pathology. Incredible!
The diversity agenda of collectivist pluralism is alive at ISU [Illinois State University]. Among numerous registered student organizations (RSOs) there are organizations for African students, Asian-Pacific, Latin American, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese. There are several black organizations, including the Black Student Union. The Dean of Students Office has a unit called Diversity Advocacy that “provides service and support for historically underrepresented, GLBT, first generation, and/or low income students." There are scholarships for historically underrepresented and GLBT students as well as a “Safe Zone” that provides “safe spaces” on campus for GLBT persons. ISU Media Relations publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Identity: Valuing Our Diversity, that features news of university programs and events that center on race, ethnicity, and the LGBTQ community. The diversity environment is reinforced by organizations that share with them a progressive view of human nature and society and the statist solution to social problems.
Students learn from each other and the university should permit the formation of groups around shared interests and experiences. But the university should not provide funds for groups based on ascriptive categories. The university is a community of learners, and thus should be a place for the gathering of minds, not the gathering of tribes. Its prime mission should be intellectual—training the mind to exercise reason and develop the habit of reasonableness in values and beliefs. It should emphasize achievement, encourage fellowship, and do nothing to foster the illogic that an educated person’s ideas are predictable from his economic background, race, ethnicity, religion, or gender. It should not foster the development of ghettos of “underrepresented groups” with little interaction between them. It should institutionalize the fact that the individual must be the source of his or her own relationships, and unburdened by the labels of “majority” and “historically underrepresented.” That is how things stand in my classroom.
The Freeman: In your encounters with people, what have you found to be the most effective way to disabuse them of crude collectivist identifications like those based on tribe, class, race or country?
Wortham: Although I am committed to explicating and promoting ideas of freedom, I gave up trying to disabuse people of their collectivism long ago, and I don’t look for like minds at ISU. My silent nonconformity to tribal expectations of me as a black female does not create a context in which I can participate in a discourse on the validity of those expectations. My lack of engagement is statement enough. During my visit to the university as a candidate for hire, the sociology department held a reception for me and invited members of the Association of Black Academic Employees (ABAE). Apparently, they wanted either to impress me with this show of racial diversity, or they wanted to provide me with the comfort of knowing there were people on campus who looked like me. Of course little did they know that since my days in the Peace Corps I had worked comfortably in environments in which I was the only black person or one of two. After I joined the faculty, ABAE added my name to its mailing list; I receive notices of meetings and other activities, but I do not respond. I am sure my lack of participation is noticed, but no one has pressured me to join. Becoming a member would require me to agree with ABAE’s members that the organization is necessary, and I cannot do that.
One might think that given my philosophy, political ideology, and social science methodology, I am continually in debates with colleagues. In fact, I rarely engage in debates about my political views or sociological approach. The only face-to-face debate of significance I’ve participated in was at the 1992 convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. I debated the merits of multicultural education and the Afrocentric curriculum with Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chairperson of the department of African-American studies at Temple University and a prominent advocate of Afrocentrism in education.
Every hour I spend in the classroom is an encounter with the collectivist mindset of the majority of my students. One of my saddest teaching experiences is to witness black students in a course perk up whenever I say anything pertaining to the black community. It is truly tragic that their race consciousness is so intense that for many of them a topic is of little interest unless it can be shown to have relevance to their experiences as blacks. Of course I do not teach to the ethnicity of students, but they do learn that as a factor in social ranking, race consciousness is not unique to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The class consciousness of students is another blockage to learning that I encounter. They learn from the courses taught by my colleagues that capitalist class is exploitative and that its investment assets are unearned, and they simply block out anything I say to the contrary. One student told me that despite her understanding of the flaw in Marx’s labor theory of value, and in his predictions of a worker’s revolution and the establishment of a communist utopia, she is still inspired by the vision in Communist Manifesto and reads it regularly.
My discourse with ISU colleagues does not involve a defense of my views. When I joined the sociology department some faculty members viewed the tapes of the Moyers interview, but only one person told me what he thought about it. Although I have written critical analyses of multiculturalism, the stigmatization of white males, the ideology of victimhood, denials of black mobility and assimilation, and Obama’s conception of social justice, I have not had conversations about these issues with my department colleagues. Generally, our exchanges are limited to life experiences, teaching issues, brown bag seminar presentations of faculty members’ scholarly research, and university governance. So far, only a couple of my colleagues have indicated any interest in my ideas. One of my colleagues who is a very good friend and shares my interest in NASCAR is a joy to be with, but I can’t recall that we’ve had one conversation about our differing politics in 20 years!
Ever since graduate school my communication with philosophical comrades has been primarily through correspondence, and the occasional opportunity to participate in seminars and conferences convened by pro-liberty organizations. When I made a presentation on social justice at the Philadelphia Society conference earlier this year, it had been over three years since I had vocally shared my ideas of liberty with anyone. It was quite intriguing and exhilarating to be in conversation with conferees, and to enjoy the intellectual visibility that came from reciprocity of our engagement.
[Part two of this interview is forthcoming.]