Identity politics is not the way forward for America

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system in the Spanish colonies, based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

That would seem to be obvious, wouldn’t it, when we’re speaking of the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville?

But I mean it more broadly. This comes to mind because of a piece I read in the NYT Saturday, before the violence that led to three deaths.

The column, by Frank Bruni, wasn’t about Charlottesville. At least, he didn’t mention it. It was the sort of piece that steps back from the news and asks where we’re headed. It was headlined “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” As a guy who’s been concerned about the Left’s obsession with Identity Politics for some years now, I was immediately drawn to that headline. And it was a good piece. It began:

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

But wait. I’m gay. And I mean gay from a different, darker day. In that pool and at that school, I sometimes quaked inside, fearful of what my future held. Back then — the 1970s — gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out. We conducted our lives in whispers. Then AIDS spread, and we wore scarlet letters as we marched into the public square to plead with President Ronald Reagan for help. Our rallying cry, “silence = death,” defined marginalization as well as any words could.

So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer?

To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes…

Of course, being a thoughtful sort, he disagrees with that assessment. He goes on to explain why, and pretty persuasively, I think. But then, I didn’t need persuading.

I urge you to read the whole column.

I like his ending, so I will share it and hope the NYT regards it as fair use:

… At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.

Those construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me.

Bruni seemed to expect to get some criticism for his column. That’s something that all opinion columnists expect. His one beef was his concern that too much of it would be of this variety: Shut up, white man. You have nothing of value to contribute.

He had a cautionary example before him: The reaction to a piece written right after the election by Mark Lilla, described by Wikipedia as “a self-described liberal,” was of just that sort — criticism rooted in his white-manness, not in the quality of his arguments.

That essay in November was somewhat optimistically headlined “The End of Identity Liberalism.” What he is describing is something that has by no means ended. But he suggests that its time as a viable strategy for winning elections is past, if there ever was such a time.

Lilla, like Bruni, made good arguments. (Again, I was part of the choir on this, so maybe reaching me wasn’t a major accomplishment.) It’s a longer piece, in which Lilla introduces his theme this way:

But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for
nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate”
our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as
a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American
liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual
identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a
unifying force capable of governing.

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its
repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American
interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy.
But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large
vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American,
Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic
mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all
of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data
show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted
for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals…

And here’s the kind of future toward which Lilla urges liberals:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes
of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base
by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a
vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in
this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly
charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching
on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with
a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of
hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main
political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their
system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity
liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity
liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that
have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would
take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping
world politics, especially their historical dimension…

Amen to that. And I would likewise say “amen” to a “post-identity conservatism.” Personally, I don’t care where it comes from on the ideological spectrum, because I don’t believe in the ideological spectrum, which I see as just another way that short-sighted people seek to divide us.

The liberal, conservative or (oh, consummation devoutly to be wished!) independent who compelling invokes what we have in common as Americans, and builds a vision for our future on it, has my vote.

29 thoughts on “Identity politics is not the way forward for America

  1. Karen Pearson,

    The problem is, even if you don’t identify as any particular sex/race/country of origin/religion, society in general is going to identify you as such. When society collectively does so, and treats you differently because of this identification you enter an unspoken caste society. And it is very hard to break that system. It requires a group response. Otherwise you end up with the old, “of course I’m not prejudiced; why some of my best friends are —.” “Or I treat everyone with respect/kindness/the same way.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep, and people scoff at those who say such things. And yet the only truly valid position IS to “treat everyone with respect/kindness/the same way.

      The minute we form exclusive groups to respond to “break the system” or for whatever purpose, we fragment society.

      Yep, it may sound vague and weak, but in the end, basic, generalized decency toward all is the goal to be reached for, and concerted, focused action by groups on goals specific to those groups is not going to get us there…

      1. Karen Pearson,So

        How does that work? In a society that has consistently degraded persons of color, does one simply punish people for a crime without mentioning race? Then how do you determine whether the attacks on persons of color are occuring less? or more? It seems to me that if you can’t name the problem and can’t demonstrate that the problem exists, you can do nothing about it.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Are you referring to hate crimes? It sounds like that’s what you mean. If so, yes: Punish the crime, not the political content.

          A person who assaults another person should be punished for THAT, not for his racial attitudes, however abhorrent they may be.

          The most important concept in the Bill of Rights is freedom of conscience. The First Amendment, with all its clauses, is ultimately about that. You believe what you want. And that doesn’t just mean you believe what you want as long as it’s kind and wise and enlightened. Think what you want about other people; just don’t harm them in any way. That’s where your rights end…

  2. Phillip

    I agree with what Bruni and Lilla wrote, and I feel that they expressed it well. Reading the comments on Bruni’s column is depressing though. It’s as if many well-meaning people are talking right past each other.

    One small quibble I would have with this line of reasoning (“the left should move beyond identity politics”) is that identity politics (at least as practiced in my lifetime) has by no means been the exclusive province of the left. In many ways the origins of what we think of as “identity politics” go back to the earlier civil rights era, the passing of the major civil rights legislation in the 60s, followed by the subsequent “Southern strategy” of the GOP, the party switch by so many Southern legislators, the era of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” followed by Reagan’s invocation of “states’ rights” in Neshoba County Mississippi in 1980 campaign, then the Willie Horton ad, then birtherism, finally Trump’s triumph and perhaps now the feeling-their-oats stage of the real white supremicists in the country. The rights of women, African-Americans, LGBT, Hispanics, and so on have been more consistently championed by the left, whereas the right generally chose another side of “identity politics.” Then, there’s social/religious issues, and there’s no question that religious/political figures (from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell and on) traded in very clear identity politics, although their ilk may be slightly on the wane at the moment.

    Nevertheless I still agree with Bruni and Lilla. Maybe poor Heather Heyer, through her martyrdom at Charlottesville, can be the symbol, the bridge to which Bruni refers. And Lilla’s point in his upcoming book is especially on point:

    “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue…So what remains to be said?”

    1. Doug Ross

      Politically, it’s easier for Republicans to work together for their “identity groups” than it is for Democrats. “White Christians pro-military” is a much easier group to corral than the amalgamation of feminists, LGBT, immigrants, African Americans, climate change advocates, pro-choicers,anti-gun, peaceniks, working poor, etc.

      You can rally the Republicans around four bullet points: taxes, war, Christian values, and guns.

      Democrats have to appease all the “What about MY issues?” groups. Much harder to do on a national scale. Democrats would be smarter to pick a few issues that affect all of their base and wait to get elected before addressing the needs of the individual groups. Single payer, Social Security solvency, and Jobs programs before anything else.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        “Democrats would be smarter to pick a few issues that affect all of their base.” No. They, and the Republicans would be smartest to adopt issues than are important to us ALL. Thinking about bases s what got us here. Real leadership would move beyond that.

        1. Doug Ross

          That is not possible. On larger issues, people are on one side or another. You just think your views are the right ones. There is no middle ground on certain topics.

          I (and many others) believe in my heart of hearts that abolishing the tax code and replacing it with a flat tax would be good for all of us. Others disagree. There isn’t a way to nuance that into a compromise position without losing the support of one group or the other.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Perhaps. Perhaps not. But your support of the flat tax isn’t the sum total of Doug Ross. You have a lot of views. You and I will agree on some, and disagree on others (a LOT of others, apparently 🙂 ). We can work together on those. On others, there’s room for us to work together toward something that might not be 100 percent what I want or you want, but which advances both our goals.

            Once we split up into parties, or “left” and “right,” or the “woke” vs. the unwoke, or whatever, the opportunity to work together for the greater good is lost. We ALWAYS agree with our team, and ALWAYS despise the views of those other people. I honestly don’t know how people manage the mental gymnastics it takes to do that, but they do.

            And once those divisions completely dominate the national conversation, we’re lost…

            1. Doug Ross

              Plus I have a party, the Libertarian Party, that has a platform that is a very good match for my beliefs. Oh, you mean it’s not one of the two parties that created the mess we have in Congress now? Not my problem. I never have to make a choice that involves people like Joe Wilson or Jim Clyburn… or Trump or Hillary.

              I’m fine with sticking with a set of principles that are collectively agreed upon rather than compromising my core beliefs.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                As I say to Democrats and Republicans: Must be nice for you.

                I’ve never had that, and never will.

                At least there’s a consistency to your party (with which I consistently disagree). The Democratic and Republican parties are mash-ups of positions that have nothing to do with each other, but are cobbled together in order to enable them to do what the Libertarian Party can’t — win elections. So Democrats and Republicans hypnotize themselves into believing that anyone who believes X must also believe Y, even when an intellectually honest person could agree on one and disagree on the other.

                Of course, the reason your party is so consistent is that it’s built on One Idea. And as a governing (or in this case, nongoverning) philosophy, that makes it inadequate. There’s no one idea that can serve as a guide to every issue that a president or governor or senator or representative or whatever will encounter in office. And whoever tries to FORCE every situation to fit one preconceived notion is going to be a bad leader…

                1. Chuckie

                  ”Once we split up into parties, or “left” and “right,” or the “woke” vs. the unwoke, or whatever, the opportunity to work together for the greater good is lost. We ALWAYS agree with our team, and ALWAYS despise the views of those other people.”

                  Yeah, I’ve seen this sort of thing here before. And every time it reminds me of the folks who say, well, if we just didn’t have religion, the world would be such a better place – because then we wouldn’t divide ourselves into “us” and “them.” To which I say, hold on, not so fast. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves in wanting to “come together.” Because, getting rid of religious communities or political parties wouldn’t end our divisions. And, what’s more, both religion and politics can serve as the perfect vehicles for achieving the greater good.

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    That’s a false analogy. You’re saying left and right are like religions. Well, in one sense you’re right: Too many act as though it IS a religion, something more important than every other consideration. And THAT is the problem.

                    And perhaps there are religions that are all about separating the world into US vs. THEM. But mine is not. I am called by my religion to love and care for ALL people. My religion teaches me not to define myself by the people I despise, the way left and right do today.

                2. Doug Ross

                  But your religion has certain tenets that others would consider non-starters. Sort of like I am with Republicans and their fixation on war or Democrats and their desire to redistribute earned wealth. Same principle applies in my choice of a church – I choose the one with the best fit to my beliefs. You wouldn’t attend my church because the fact that they have a band playing modern Christian songs would turn you off.

                3. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “But your religion has certain tenets that others would consider non-starters.”

                  Yep. That’s why we have the First Amendment, and a pluralistic society. We don’t all have to believe the same thing.

                  I mean, the rest of y’all are free to be in error if you want to be 🙂

              2. bud

                The Libertarian party is really just a cult. It is both unreasonable on far too many issues and inflexible too. It’s impossible to solve environmental issues through the capitalism paradigm. They are ridiculous in their devotion to narrative that government is ALWAYS at the heart of ANY problem. Conversely free markets are perfect. They worship 2 gods, money and Ayn Rand. We need to view the world with nuance and flexibility. The Libertarian party would rather believe in unicorns.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  I agree with you on one point for sure: “We need to view the world with nuance and flexibility.”

                  Of course, that counts out ALL ideologies…

                2. Doug Ross

                  Yeah, it’s a cult. A cult of people who believe in individual freedoms. Scary… Why just the other day, my cult master told me if I didn’t start thinking for myself and not expecting others to take care of my needs that he would… he would… just leave me alone.

                  We “worship” liberty and justice for all. Hey, that’s a catchy phrase. I should trademark it.

                  Don’t see a whole lot of libertarians causing problems out in the streets. Probably because they all have jobs.. or just an aversion to fighting…

                3. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “A cult of people who believe in individual freedoms.”

                  Yeah, and that would make a fine bumper sticker. But reality is more complicated than libertarians think. Not everything can be solved with personal freedom. You also need to be responsible, and not responsible the way libertarians mean it. You have to be responsible to other people, which can mean curtailing your “individual freedom.”

                  If you, for instance, exercise your “individual freedom” to establish a hazardous waste dump on your property, you can ruin the property values, health and even lives of the people around you.

                  You can’t just base a society on everybody getting to do what they want. Which is why I believe in nuance and flexibility.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks as always for your comments, Phillip. And of course I agree with you here:

      One small quibble I would have with this line of reasoning (“the left should move beyond identity politics”) is that identity politics (at least as practiced in my lifetime) has by no means been the exclusive province of the left.

      After all, I started the post by saying, “That would seem to be obvious, wouldn’t it, when we’re speaking of the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville?” And as I also said, I would welcome a “post-identity conservatism” as much as a “post-identity liberalism.”

      But I think Bruni and Lilla, being liberals, were trying to address the log in their own side’s eye. And it’s a pretty big one. If the Left hadn’t veered off in that direction starting in the early ’70s, it would probably be enjoying solid majorities today, and there’d be no President Trump.

      The Democratic Party of the 1960s would have beaten Donald Trump like a drum…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      And I agree that this may be the best thing Lilla says:

      “classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one ‘epistemology,’ black women have another. So what remains to be said?

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Identity Politics of all kinds are awful and detrimental to the individual. If your value is your race or gender, then you have sort of marginalized yourself as someone of low value, haven’t you? Defining yourself and giving yourself a sense of worth as being a member of the Identity Group diminishes your individual self-worth.

    As others have pointed out, you can’t expect a culture to praise some sorts of Identity Politics but say that one group doesn’t get to play by the same rules.

    Either it’s all garbage, or it’s all got something of merit to it.

    I would say it’s all garbage. However, people cannot continue with the incoherent claim that Identity Politics are permissible for certain groups except The One Group Which is Truly Bad.

  4. bud

    Of course we should focus on issues important to all of us. Duh. But the devil is in the details. Racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, homophobia. These are concerns that most assuredly do concern us all. By sugar coating bigotry with bland phrase like “identity politics” we do a disservice to genuine concerns. So while it is true we can go too far with overly zealous affirmative action policies we must acknowledge that in a country that cannot convict a white cop who shots an unarmed black man in the back we still have a long way to go. Yes let’s focus on issues that affect us all. That includes Africa’s fertility rate, global warming, clean water and air, income inequality, traffic safety, exceessive military spending and yes, bigotry.

  5. JesseS

    Last month I was reading Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies and it came to similar assumptions. It felt odd hearing this from a self identifying socialist who happily falls back on long citations from Foucalt.

    Her big point wasn’t that this is all the left’s fault, but that “White Supremacy: The Next Generation” is picking up the left’s tools and wielding them. If that is the case maybe the left never should have used those tools to begin with and worse of all they never should have gotten into the “when is all you have is a hammer” mindset.

    Richard Spencer can quote Rules for Radicals just as easily and as fast as any union organizer. It’s become required reading for StormFront. In Europe and America this breed of degeneracy literally calls itself an identitarian movement. Their arguments are often a rehashed and (very) poorly constructed reinterpretation of old, worn out left leaning theory with a salt shaker full of Nietzsche. All of this is sold to rubes who aren’t necessarily dumb, but desperately ready to eat up anything that gives them some kind of personal validation.

    Not that identity politics is inherently wrong. I have to view it as the national therapy session. We have to let stuff out, vent, feel that someone is listening, and look for constructive solutions. It has a place and it’s necessary. It’s a problem when “all you have is a hammer”.

    I can see some of myself in the tiki torchers. I can understand their feelings of resentment, alienation, and anger. When left leaning pundits and internet commenters go on and on about the rapturous demographic shift of 2040 and vaguely hint that the white man is finally gonna get what’s coming to him, I can almost understand a group of white guys in cargo shorts, who look like they are on call this weekend for the IT dept, chanting “You will not replace us!” over and over again. However when they go on to antisemitic slurs and “black lives splatter”, while skinheads did the Saturday night dance, the sickness no longer makes sense and I can no longer rationalize it. It no longer feels like an untreated cancer, it feels like the plague –something you might treat with exile and fire.

    What is worse is that a lot of the StormFront types literally think a sectarian race war is coming and that the POTUS quietly endorses them. He has done little to dissuade them. Not only that, the far far left is saying, “Bring it on! We have been ready to line you up against the wall for a long, long time. Forget democracy; democracy is being put up in capitalism chains! Forget science, it’s taxonomies are racist! Forget justice; justice allows people like you to live!”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’ve always tended to misremember what Marcuse meant by “repressive tolerance.”

          I tend to think of it as meaning that liberal societies repress dissident opinions by tolerating them. Tolerating them is a way of ignoring them and letting them burn out, whereas if the society repressed such views, the conflict would dramatize the dissident position and give it a chance of becoming more widely popular. It’s the idea that people who want to be rebels have trouble doing so in a liberal democracy because the larger society is unimpressed, saying, “Do what you like…” Which can be frustrating to people who yearn to storm the ramparts.

          I remember it that way because that sort of makes sense, and I think it’s a cool idea that expresses something true about liberal societies and how they sustain themselves.

          But according to Wikipedia, this is what Marcuse meant:

          Marcuse argues that the ideal of tolerance belongs to a liberal, democratic tradition that has become exhausted. Liberal society is based on a form of domination so subtle that the majority accept and even will their servitude. Marcuse believes that under such conditions tolerance as traditionally understood serves the cause of domination and that a new kind of tolerance is therefore needed: tolerance of the Left, subversion, and revolutionary violence, combined with intolerance of the Right, of existing institutions of civil society, and of any opposition to socialism.[1] Marcuse claims that tolerance shown to minority views in industrial societies is a deceit because such expressions cannot be effective. Freedom of speech is not a good in itself because it allows for the propagation of error; Marcuse believes that “The telos of tolerance is truth”. Revolutionary minorities hold the truth and the majority has to be liberated from error by being re-educated in the truth by this minority. The revolutionary minority are entitled, Marcuse claims, to suppress rival and harmful opinions.[2]

          In other words, Marcuse was a major a__hole who wanted everybody’s views but his own repressed…

        2. JesseS

          I feel bad for saying that I’ve never read Foucault, I’ve only read books that steal 5 or 6 paragraphs of Foucault per chapter.

          Electronic music and sub-cultural vernacular? Quote Foucault (and maybe Theodor Adorno). Wanna talk about the intersection of Gullah folkways and northern education during Reconstruction? Quote Foucault. Sexual taboos during the Spanish Civil War? Foucault.

          The man is an intellectual phantom to me and I claim nothing but ignorance. All I know is that you gotta quote Foucault or your masters thesis on “Masculine identity in the post-millennial age as it refers to the works of Chuck Palahniuk” is total garbage without 500 lines or so of Foucault. Not to mention if your paper doesn’t make the least bit of sense, your reader must not understand Foucault.

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