Culture War, The Diversity Ethic, and Nike

I’m going to talk about what’s left of the culture war. What do I mean by “culture war” and what do I mean by “what’s left of the culture war?” The culture war was originally a set of liberal vs conservative battles over pre-marital sex, abortion, school prayer, and gays in the military but morphed into struggles over fundamental things like American national identity, the status of science, the male-female binary, and the relative value of religion. To make a long story short, the left won on pretty much all counts. Following up on the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964, official discourses emphasize the equal value of black people, women, gay people, religious diversity, and the whole range of national origins. Gay marriage is now accepted by significant majorities. Values like individual uniqueness and pioneering spirit are represented by fictional figures like the adolescent Moana and gay marriage is supported by a large majority. Because of black and feminist critics, the struggle against white supremacy is now viewed as a central drama of American history while sexual violence is now at the forefront of American understandings of gender. The left used to be understood in terms of white liberals and the labor movement but is now more accurately portrayed as the multicultural left.

Enter Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson is a white conservative from a wealthy background who has been a media figure for almost 20 years. Starting out on CNN debate shows, Carlson co-founded the right-wing “Daily Caller” and now has a highly rated 8:00pm show of his own on Fox News. About a week ago, Carlson started a controversy over cultural values by asking a simple question. “How precisely is diversity our strength?” According to Carlson, “diversity is our strength” has become our “new national motto” and needs to be questioned. Carlson initially seems to direct his comments at immigrants when he further asks “Do you get along better with your neighbors, your co-workers if you can’t understand each other or share no values.” But as Tucker Carlson moves forward with his train of questioning, the more important target becomes obvious. It’s the marginalization of white conservatives themselves. “If diversity is our strength, why is it okay for the rest of us to surrender one of our central rights, freedom of speech, to just a handful of tech monopolies.” Of course, Nazis like Richard Spencer and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones from twitter, facebook, and other large-scale online outlets and Carlson seems to be referring to them when he says “the rest of us.” If anything though, Carlson is more outraged that even people who question ideas of diversity “need to be shamed, silenced, and fired” and seems to believe that white conservatives in general are under enormous pressure to accept the official values associated with diversity.

Carlson objects in particular to immigrants, but “diversity” includes a dazzling array of racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, and disability identities. The latest Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick is an excellent example of how “diversity” as an all-encompassing value being promoted by corporate elites. There are legless wrestlers, triathletes recovering from brain cancer, and women kicking butt in soccer, boxing, and high school football. Speaking of football, there were several one-handed football players, also refugee soccer players scoring for the Canadian national teams and LeBron James transcending sports altogether. The current “Just Do It” commercial not only values diversity, it celebrates diversity as a path to the highest kind of individual and group accomplishment. The enormous range of accomplishment makes the world a better place and celebrating that diversity is something in which everyone can and should share. Nike tops off this brilliant commercial by anchoring it in the figure of Colin Kaepernick who best embodies the ethic of sacrificing everything for what he believes. For Nike, Kaepernick is the living embodiment of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights legacy that also serves as the anchor point for feminism, gay rights, disability advocacy, immigrant rights groups and other movements associated with virtue and decency from the diversity point of view.

Conservatives have criticisms of the Nike commercial and alternative values of their own. But all of these pale in the face of the historical, entertainment, and moral power of the diversity ethic. Indeed, conservatives would do much better if they developed more of a critique of corporate power. For example, Nike is a $100 bill global corporation with 34 bill in annual revenue. According to Market Realist, Nike outsources all of its manufacturing to third-party manufacturers with locations in Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and 39 other countries. Although not as immersed in sweatshop exploitation as it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Nike contractors are still involved in abuses even though they now pay minimum wages. But minimum wage is not the standard by which Nike measures the world and by the “Let’s Do It” standard of the current ad, Nike fails miserable. Nike does nothing to celebrate the diversity of the people making their shoes and clothes, do not seem to encourage their employees to go to college, start their own businesses, or even, you know, become athletes. The people who make Nike products can’t rise within the company because they never work for Nike. Making women stand outside for two hours in the Vietnamese heat as punishment for not meeting their quota of 60 dozen pairs of shoes may not be standard practice anymore, but Nike does nothing to encourage the extraordinary accomplishments of their ads among their overseas employees. As far as I can tell, Nike has no manufacturing facilities in the United States. And it’s easy to know why. My step-grandfather Wayne West made $15-20/hr as a union bricklayer in Northern New York through the early 80’s. Nike doesn’t want to pay $15/ hour or even $5/hr to the people making its products. That’s the way it’s been with capitalism since at least the time when Karl Marx associated capitalism exploitation of the European working class with that “single unconscionable freedom—free trade.” If white conservatives want to fight the now official values of diversity, they should do so by condemning the connection between the official values, the brutal exploitation of manufacturing workers in places like Vietnam, and the declining standard of living and health among working people in the United States. THAT would be progress.

From a talk given in 2018.

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