I went to a lecture on Nietzsche a while back that I found very useful in conceptualizing the contradictions of universality and inequality (and also, incidentally, why capitalism is incompatible with Christianity, though I don’t think Michael Moore argues it quite that way in Capitalism: A Love Story). According to the lecturer, Nietzsche argues that there was, at a certain point, a shift from “good vs. bad” morality to “good vs. evil” morality.
In both cases, those who make the rules set themselves as the norm and treat those who don’t match it as deficient, but in a “good vs. bad” morality those who make the rules define themselves as superior precisely because there is a weak to their strong, a cowardly to their brave, etc. In a “good vs. evil” morality, however, those who embody the norm hold everyone to their standard and want people to change to meet it.
Universality is a “good vs. evil” morality, in which a norm is instantiated and everyone is compelled to live up to it; however, at the same time there persists a “good vs. bad” morality, in which those same people who expect everyone to live up to the norm simultaneously require a constitutive Other to produce their own superiority—that is, they require inequality.
In the context of the creation of desire for the universal position, this is produced through what Emma Pérez aptly characterizes in her 1999 book The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History as a “Hegelian notion” (p. 20), a teleological narrative in which everyone should and must and will eventually get to the norm if they work hard enough—and if they fail it’s their own fault.
It thus becomes easy to see how the male, heterosexual subject becomes the organizing principle for cultural nationalism. Heterosexual men of color closely approximate the subject of universality, occupying a position of “the other as the same,” of almost but not quite (or white) (Pérez, 1999, p. 20).
Using this figure for a movement makes it much easier to argue for the rights enjoyed by the dominant group; after all, it allows activists to construct their group as differing in only one respect, which is of course then framed as a minor difference.
However, discussing activism in this way positions the turn to universality as a cynical decision, calculated against a reckoning of social tradeoffs, and there’s no reason to suspect that it truly is. Instead, it is essential to recognize that arguing for recognition by the liberal state comes from within the structure itself.
When people turn to the state to make them equal under the law, they have already subscribed to the belief that everyone should be perfectly interchangeable under the law, and consequently have also subscribed to the definition of what interchangeability looks like—white, male, and heteronormative, among other things.
Cultural nationalisms can’t take this entire, but they can change only the part that is obviously incompatible with their perceived goals and identities by excising whiteness. In doing so, they misrecognize the ways in which all of the parts of the universal subject are mutually constitutive and “failing” on any account renders one definitionally ineligible for full citizenship.
In light of this trap of liberal universality, zoot suiters’ resistance through racialized masculinities and delinquency, as described by Robin D. G. Kelley‘s 1994 Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class and Linda España-Maram’s 2006 Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture in the United States, begins to look like a good idea. Rather than applying to the state for relief, African American and Filipino men who found themselves corralled into subservience in their daily and working lives used zoot suit culture as a means of reasserting their control over themselves.
The two cases are also structurally very similar—both groups of young men were even newer migrants to the city environments who had conflict with longer-established people of their respective ethnic groups. The existence of this gap between youth culture and the larger racial communities to which the young people belonged does point to some of the limitations of this mode of resistance (the ill-treatment of women in African-American zoot suit culture being another glaring problem).
As a way of pushing back against dominant culture, it was limited, it was disorganized, and it didn’t necessarily produce broad-scale social change, but it shows one way one might conduct activism without relying on “we’re just like you” rhetoric or appealing to the state.