Category Archives: Identity Politics

An Identity Politics dilemma

Newspaper advice columns used to be entertaining, but easier to sort out. For instance, I just went hunting for some of Dear Abby’s zingers, and here’s a good one that showed up in a couple of places:

Dear Abby: Are birth control pills deductible?
Dear Bertie: Only if they don’t work.

Ah, for those simpler times! Check out this one from “The Ethicist” in The New York Times, which cropped up this week:

I am involved with a well-regarded community theater that has made significant efforts to diversify its membership, casts and audience. A conflict has arisen over a proposed production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Yes, we know, “Fiddler” has been done to death in community theaters. A different issue.) The director proposing the production has committed himself to colorblind casting. Others involved say that, in view of the Jewish community the play is about, they would consider this to be a cultural appropriation. How should we approach this conflict in values?

Set aside the fact that someone thought this was an “ethical” question, rather than a conflict between — I don’t know what to call it — two currently fashionable cultural phenomena. But this person so troubled as to feel the need to apologize for putting on a play from benighted times of long ago.

The Ethicist made quick work of the cultural appropriation issue: “Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the Jewish American duo behind ‘Fiddler,’ certainly weren’t hung up on anything like cultural appropriation; early on, they were in touch with Frank Sinatra for the part of Tevye…”

Alfred Molina as Tevye.

Yeah. I like the idea of having an all-Jewish cast (and I’m glad Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t get the part), but it’s certainly not necessary. I saw it on Broadway in 2005 with Alfred Molina as Tevye. It was awesome. It was the best show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. Of course, it was the only show I’ve ever seen on Broadway, so…

It wasn’t a stretch to believe in Molina as Jewish. He’s Spanish-Italian. But did being Mediterranean make him look more the part? I dunno. Wasn’t Tevye Ashkenazi? Maybe not. It doesn’t matter.

It’s certainly not an ethical issue. It’s an esthetic one. Did Molina work in the role? Did Topol? Yes to both.

Ditto with the recent fashion of casting black actors in “white” roles — does it work? Are they compelling as the characters they portray, or do you perceive a distinct lack of, I don’t know, verisimilitude?

For instance, here’s an example that I think worked. (And of course, all I can tell you is what “I think,” since whether a particular bit of casting in a film or a brushstroke on a canvas “worked” is a complex subjective impression.) In 2016, Sophie Okenedo played the part of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, in the second season of The Hollow Crown, an excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s plays covering the Wars of the Roses, all strung together chronologically.

Sophie Okonedo as Margaret of Anjou

Did she “look like” Margaret, to use that fave phrase of Identity Politics? Or like we would expect Margaret to look? Well, no. She’s the child of a Nigerian father and a Jewish mother. And I suppose my eyebrow rose, as it might if a tall, healthy Richard III appeared (speaking of which, Benedict Cumberbatch was an interesting choice in that role, in the same series).

But then I watched, and she brought the character to life vividly. Which is what matters, you see. She was great.

Creators of art might also be trying to say something larger through casting. My initial reaction to the multiracial cast of “Hamilton” went beyond eyebrow-raising. I was like, Are they messing recklessly with one of my favorite periods in history? (You understand, I’m also suspicious when, say, “Hamlet” is staged in modern clothing. And I really hated the Leonardo DiCaprio version of “Romeo and Juliet.”)

But it didn’t take me long to realize that I loved the idea. It was, in fact, a rebuttal to some of the sillier aspects of Identity Politics. Who could now dismiss the achievements of the Founders as the irrelevant doings of a bunch of “dead white men?” This magnificent musical told even the most skin-conscious observer that these were people who did something pretty wonderful for all of us, and the amount of melanin they exhibited didn’t matter.

At the moment, there’s a lot of hullabaloo over Cleopatra being portrayed by a black actress in a show on Netflix. The Egyptians are calling it “a falsification of Egyptian history,” and I suppose they’re right, on the melanin front. She was of Macedonian heritage, being of the Ptolemaic dynasty. In her case, she might have also had some Persian DNA, but that seems neither here nor there to the controversy.

Of course, rather than the case being considered on its own merits, it’s become another obsession in the never-ending shouting match between the ones and zeroes people. To give you an idea, Vogue has proclaimed, “Let’s Just Call the Outrage Around Queen Cleopatra What It Is: Racism.”

And, you know, here we go again, with both sides of the IP obsession going at each other hammer and tongs.

As for “its own merits,” such as they are, I see a couple of things going on. One, you have someone thinking it would be cool to dramatize the widely held, but rather dubious, notion that Cleo was a sub-Saharan. Personally, I’d rather see some random historical queen played by a black actress (say, Margaret of Anjou) than reinforce erroneous notions about history, but that’s me. The difference is, my way says race doesn’t matter; the other way seems to argue that it matters quite a bit. And misleads people doing it.

The second thing is that someone is trying to ride the cultural wave that has given us “Sanditon,” “Bridgerton,” and “Queen Charlotte.” That seems popular at the moment, so why not? Next year it will be something else. I once wore wide, white belts on houndstooth pants with loud-colored shirts. Briefly. Then, the Carnaby Street thing passed.

The thing is, there is no great overriding moral issue here. Slavery is a moral issue, one of great consequence. So were Jim Crow laws. The complexion of Cleopatra, not so much.

But some people are terribly worried, and fortunately we have The Ethicist to sort it out.

At this point I would go into the strange contradiction of the same group of folks both a) worried about having a “diverse” cast and b) afraid of committing the sin of “appropriation.” And someone sitting between them feeling conflicted. But so go our modern modes of “thinking.”

I’ll just stop there. If I ever watch the new “Cleopatra,” I’ll report back on whether it worked. But I warn you, I don’t think I ever got all the way through the Elizabeth Taylor version…

What? Are you saying Cleopatra had purple eyes?!?!

A quick follow-up on that Will column…

Oh my, look! THERE’S an attractive candidate…

If you read the piece that inspired the previous post, you know that Will launched into his topic about the debasement of our politics and our political journalism with the observation that for the likes of Josh Hawley, it’s not about getting anything done, or saying anything meaningful (in his case, certainly not!) — it’s about getting attention.

Like an infant feeling ignored and seeking attention by banging his spoon on his highchair tray, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) last week cast the only vote against admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO. He said adding the two militarily proficient Russian neighbors to NATO would somehow weaken U.S. deterrence of China.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who is an adult and hence not invariably collegial, said: “It would be strange indeed for any senator who voted to allow Montenegro or North Macedonia into NATO to turn around and deny membership to Finland and Sweden.” That evening, Hawley appeared on Fox News to receive Tucker Carlson’s benediction….

Which, for someone like Hawley, is the point.

Anyway, I was reminded of that point this morning when I saw, and reacted to, this: “Cunningham wants end of ‘geriatric’ politicians. Will it cost him help from Biden, Clyburn?

My response was to say:

But I decided to post this to take it to the next step, which is to point out the connection to what Will was saying yesterday. You don’t have to look far. It’s the lede of The State‘s story:

Joe Cunningham made national headlines when he suggested an end to the “geriatric oligarchy” in political office and said on national television that President Joe Biden should step aside in 2024 and let someone younger run…

You see, he “made national headlines!” He got “on national television!” How terribly exciting. What more could he want?

Well, I’ll tell you what more I want, as a voter. I’d like him to step up and tell me why he, Joe Cunningham, would be a better governor than Henry McMaster. That shouldn’t be hard, if he has anything to say in his behalf at all.

And no, being younger doesn’t cut it. Just as it wouldn’t if you boasted that you are white, and male. I’m looking for something a tad more substantial than that. Yeah, I’m picky…

Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. Why don’t we just say that?

Someone I follow posted this today, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Actually, that was the first part of a two-tweet series, finishing with this. But I initially only saw the first one, and I reacted this way:

Which of course is why all forms of Identity Politics are a very bad idea. Because they cause people to forget that we’re all just people…

I realize that wasn’t where she was going with that, but it’s where I went. Partly because I’m always down on that harmful phenomenon. But also because I was irritated earlier this week when I saw this headline from Variety:

Losing Sidney Poitier Reminds Us That Only Four Black Men Have Won Best Actor

My irritation arises from more than that headline. Perhaps you’ve noticed, perhaps you hadn’t, but we get a lot of headlines like that these days. Every story written about, say, the latest award nominations, tends to center on whether this was a good year or a bad year, based on how many Asian female directors were recognized. (Or something like that. Maybe just female directors or Asian directors or directors “of color,” to broaden the field somewhat…) So this is just another in that series.

And no, that is not what losing Sidney Poitier makes us think about — not if we appreciated Sidney Poitier.

That’s because Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. To cite Donne, his loss makes us all “the lesse.” His accomplishments were not, as would have been said in his early career, something you had to say “Negro actor” to acknowledge. He was just a great actor, period.

Take away the fact that he was black, and that’s what you’ve got left. And it’s enough, more than enough, for reflecting upon his prodigious talent, and being thankful for it.

You want to recognize the struggles he had as a black man? Certainly, do so. You want to talk about his political activism? Great, let’s do that — in a separate discussion. But you don’t immediately drop the subject of Sidney Poitier, remarkable human being, to start counting how many actors with dark skin have won a particular Oscar. That indicates you’re thinking of him as “oh, that famous black guy” instead of the talent he was.

Anyway, I’ll drop that for now, and turn to a more worthy subject: I need to go out and find the Sidney Poitier movies I haven’t seen, and watch them and enjoy them. I’m realizing I’ve seen too few of them, and that’s good news: I have a lot of enjoyment ahead of me.

For instance, I haven’t seen either “Lilies of the Field” or “Raisin in the Sun.” So I’m looking forward to those. And after listening to a discussion of it on NPR the other day, I want to check out “No Way Out.” And yes, I’ll be careful not to accidentally watch the one with Kevin Costner (which, unfortunately, is way easier to find on streaming services).

At this point, I’d compose a Top Five list, but that would be ridiculous when you consider the important films I haven’t seen yet. So maybe later.

Among those I’ve seen, there’s… “The Defiant Ones,” which personally I found forgettable. (I find most Tony Curtis movies forgettable. Chain even Sidney Poitier to Tony Curtis, and you have a problem with me.) I probably ought to go back and watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” I’ve seen it, but it’s not a favorite. (I remember the point of it being, Let’s see how liberal and broad-minded Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy really are, which seemed to me a thin premise for feature length.)

My faves include “In the Heat of the Night” and the lesser-known sequel, “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs.” (I haven’t seen the third in the trilogy — in fact, I just this moment learned that there was a trilogy.)

But my Number One is so far above those that it’s a separate category. That’s “To Sir With Love.”

Hey, I’m a child of the ’60s. I’ve gotta love that one. Right, Lulu? And I do. If I did a Top Five of that decade, I’m pretty sure it would make the list.

Let’s cut away for a clip…

Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, period

Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, a hero and role model for us all.

He was a man who radiated leadership and strong character. Four-star general. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State. He was someone many wanted to see run for president, except that he didn’t want to. (Which makes him preferable in my book than all those people who run for the job every four years when no one asked them. And I don’t hold it against him that he declined. He had given enough to his country, and gave more later.)

So I’m a bit bothered by the way his death was covered by many:

  • Reuters — Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, a top military officer and a national security adviser, died on Monday at age 84 due to complications from COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated, his family said.
  • CBS — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies at 84 from COVID-19 amid cancer battle
  • CNN — Colin Powell, first Black US secretary of state, dies of Covid-19 complications amid cancer battle
  • USAToday — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 complications
  • LATimes — Colin Powell, America’s first Black secretary of State, dies at 84

And here are some headlines that were on the right track, more or less:

  • New York Times — Colin Powell, Who Shaped U.S. National Security, Dies at 84
  • BBC: Colin Powell: Former US secretary of state dies of Covid complications
  • The Washington Post — Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state and military leader, dies at 84

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Colin Powell wasn’t impressive “for a black guy.” He wasn’t great because he was black.

He was impressive for anyone. I suppose some people think there’s nothing special about earning the rank of four-star general. Such people are wrong. It’s a huge accomplishment, and worth a salute from everyone, especially us civilians. But then he went beyond that. And every job he did was a testament to standout characteristics that had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in his skin.

Was the fact that he was black and held these posts interesting, and even a testament not only to his abilities but to the country he served? You bet. As he said during confirmation as secretary of state:

“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country. It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”

Don’t leave it out. Include it in the history book. For that matter, include it in the obit. Celebrate it. (And don’t forget to mention that the man who did these things was a son of immigrants, yet another reason for all of us to take pride in his accomplishments.) But don’t make it the first thing you have to say about him, please.

Because he was much more impressive than that.

What Tim Scott said about race in America

Tim Scott

As I told you previously, such is my complacence with regard to the national government now, with Joe Biden as our president, that I forgot to watch his address to Congress last week.

Consequently, I certainly didn’t watch Tim Scott’s Republican “response.” You recall that I take a dim view of this “tradition” that we’ve had since 1966. It’s rather idiotic. First, it’s not a “response,” because it is written before the president’s address is delivered. It’s basically just a recitation of party talking points, with networks providing free air time. (And now, any national news outlet with a website providing live streaming.)

Here’s the thing: The Constitution requires the president to give Congress an update on the state of the union “from time to time.” He can do it with a scribbled note if he chooses to. But modern presidents have been happy to deliver it in person with much pomp. Fine. Let them do that, and I’m glad the networks are willing to broadcast it when they do. But if the other party wants such a platform as well, they should have to win the next presidential election. Democrats should have no expectation of free air time when the president is named Nixon, Ford, Reagan or Bush, and Republicans should have to sit it out when we have a chief executive named Carter, Clinton, Obama or Biden. Issue all the releases, tweets, etc., you want, and you will get some coverage. But expect no more.

Anyway, this wasn’t a State of the Union, technically.

But on to Tim Scott…

I’ve never had much occasion to say much about him. For one thing, I don’t know him — he rose to statewide prominence after I left the paper, and I’ve never met him, much less sat and talked extensively with him. Secondly, and more to the point, he hasn’t done much to attract attention, until quite recently. For years, I had trouble remembering his name, because it didn’t come up much. When people said “Senator Scott,” I tended initially to think they were speaking of John. Him I know.

It always seemed to me that Tim Scott was sort of maintaining as low a profile as possible — which of course set a stark contrast with our senior senator. South Carolina had elected him (after Nikki appointed him) when he hadn’t done much to attract attention, so he was sticking with the formula. All those white voters seemed pleased to have a black Republican senator, so they could tell everyone “See? We’re not racist!” And that was the sum of his effect on state politics. Why rock that boat by doing or saying anything that drew attention?

That has changed recently, starting with his appearance at the GOP convention last year. For me, it was almost an introduction to Tim Scott. Not only had I never met him, I’d never heard him speak for several minutes at a time.

I formed two impressions:

  1. He seemed like a good and decent man, quite sincere.
  2. He was undermining, even canceling out, all that decency by using it to support the reelection of the man who was by far, by light years, the worst person ever to hold the office.

Anyway, as I said, I missed his recent “response” speech (although I’m listening to it as I type this). But I saw some of the responses to it, which seemed to all center on this passage:

When America comes together, we’ve made tremendous progress. But powerful forces want to pull us apart. A hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic. And if they looked a certain way, they were inferior.

Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor. From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all, by doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.

You know this stuff is wrong. Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present….

I read, for instance, two views in The Washington Post.

The first was actually a step removed from Scott and what he had said. It was headlined, “Kamala Harris has to walk a tightrope on race. This time, she slipped.” This was in response to the vice president having agreed with Sen. Scott on the point that seemed to disturb “woke” Democrats the most. She said “No, I don’t think America is a racist country.” The writer of the column — one Karen Attiah, whom I had to look up because I wasn’t familiar with the name — tried to make excuses for the veep, but nevertheless she “slipped,” leading the writer to conclude:

And especially for women of color, it is exhausting to watch Harris have to walk on the all-too-familiar tightrope of race and gender. Perhaps, in time, Harris will get more space to shine as the administration progresses. Until then, we are all holding our breath.

Yeah, OK. The other piece was by South Carolina’s own Kathleen Parker, and it was headlined, “Liberals just cannot handle a Black conservative,” employing the Post‘s unfortunate recent style of capitalizing references to people’s race. OK… Such an assertion seems more like something that you’d hear on Fox than from such a normally sensible woman as Kathleen. But I suppose that is one way of putting it, since people were calling him “Uncle Tim” on social media. An excerpt:

This, my friends, is (also) what racism looks like in America today.

Let a Black man speak for the GOP; let him defend conservative values that were once considered mainstream; let him challenge the current orthodoxy of systemic racism that pegs Whites as oppressors — and he will feel the wrath of those for whom, as Scott said, belief in racism is essential to political power….

There’s that capitalizing-race thing again. I’ll post about that some other day. (“Capitalizing “Black” bugs me, and capitalizing “White” is just plain offensive. It’s like we’re back to separate restrooms, and they want to make sure the labels pop out so nobody goes into the wrong one.)

For the time being, I responded to the Attiah piece with this tweet:

If she hadn’t answered that way, I think we’d need to have a long conversation about it. But she did, as anyone a heartbeat away from the presidency should. And I see that Jim Clyburn also spoke in agreement with what Scott said.

So, nothing to see here, folks.

As for the Parker piece, I just tweeted it out.

What are your thoughts?

Top Five Irish Actors


Best on the list — and I didn’t even have him pegged as Irish

I was thinking about doing a rant against Identity Politics, which I still might do if I find time today or tonight, because now that Trump’s gone, it seems to be all we can talk about (the argument over motivations in the Atlanta shooting, this business over who gets to play on girls’ teams in school, the unrelated battle over whether enough resources are committed to female sport on the college level, etc.) when there are far, far more important things we could be talking about (the deteriorating relations with China and Russia, the Biden administration’s upcoming $3 trillion spending plan — yes, that number is correct — and a host of other things that I won’t mention because this parenthetical, and the sentence of which it is a part, are both far too long now).

But that would take a long time, and I have less than zero time available for it. So I’ll go completely in the opposite direction. Earlier, I randomly ran across a picture of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane in a Tarzan movie, and idly thought, “Whose Ma was she again?” (Mia Farrow’s, for the curious.) And I found on Wikipedia that she was listed No. 8 on a list in The Irish Times of “The 50 greatest Irish film actors of all time – in order.”

So of course I had to look at it, so I could disagree with it. And not just with the fact that it’s undisciplined to list 50 when the proper number is five.

Anyway, just choosing from this list of 50 (there could be others, but I’m not going to spend time thinking about it), here’s my five. I’ll start with my apologies for not putting Maureen O’Hara at No. 1 the way they did, or even on the list. I mean no disrespect to the lady. Here’s my list:

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis — First, I had no idea he was Irish. I thought he was a Brit. But he’s definitely the best. Interestingly, some of my favorite performances by him were as iconic American figures: Abraham Lincoln, the ultimate frontiersman Natty Bumpo, and violent nativist Bill the Butcher. They had him at No. 2, behind Ms. O’Hara, but he’s the best.
  2. Kenneth Branagh — Also would have pegged him as a Brit. He certainly impersonates one well. He can be overbearing, but the man can act. I agree with them that he was most impressive as Henry V. But they were wrong to put him way down at No. 20 on the list.
  3. Brendan Gleeson — He’s just magic in everything. If you haven’t seen it, try to find The Guard and stream it. He’s great. They had him at 18.
  4. Maria Doyle Kennedy — You may remember her as the hottest of the Commitmentettes. (Yes, I know Angeline Ball — in the center in that picture — was the prettiest, but I found Maria, whom you see to Angeline’s right as well as below, more appealing.) They had her at 46, and she deserves much better. She’d probably have been higher, except that — and this bugs me — you so seldom see her. But occasionally she’ll crop up where you don’t expect her — as Catherine of Aragon in “The Tudors” or Siobhán Sadler in “Orphan Black.”
  5. Chris O’Dowd — OK, he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis, or even particularly great at all, but I’m a huge fan of “The IT Crowd,” and I don’t think it gets enough attention, so I’m promoting him from where they put him, at 39. Mind you, if Richard Ayoade were in any way Irish, I’d have included him on my list — there’s a guy you don’t see enough, even less than Maria.

Honorable mention, with their ranks on the Times’ list:

8. Maureen O’Sullivan

9. Michael Fassbender

11. Barry Fitzgerald

24. Colm Meaney

That’s it. Back to work…

My favorite Commitmentette.

My favorite Commitmentette.

OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

I subscribe to an app for The New Yorker on my iPad, and it is through that that I read the magazine.

Through that, but not on that. I mean through the subscription, but not on the app. Although I read practically everything else — The State, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and sometimes The Guardian and the Post and Courier — via their respective iPad apps, I usually interact with this subscription through a completely different mechanism. Oddly enough, through email alerts. I read practically nothing else that way. In fact, I’ve recently embarked on a ruthless campaign of unsubscribing from every email list that I once, however fleetingly, had thought would interest me.

But not The New Yorker. I can’t explain it to you, but they seem to have hit on a formula that engages my interest where other emailers have failed miserably. One of the interesting features of this formula is that the articles the messages link me to are not all from the most recent issue. The emails mine the entire archive of the magazine; the items they lead me to read may have run months, years, even decades ago. And they tend to be fascinating. (Also, this approach supports the way I see the world of ideas: If it was worth saying last year, or in 1939, it’s worth saying today. Worthwhile ideas are timeless.)

Anyway, this week I was led by an email to read an item from back in September of this year, headlined “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” with the subhed, “The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.”

Well, y’all know how I feel about identity politics, so I dug in eagerly, and after a brief rehash of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis of three decades ago, I got to the nut grafs:

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, isis, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic…

Which made me think, I need to go read that book. Even though I know that with such books, I tend to find satisfaction in the way the idea is presented in the first chapter (actually, more like the introduction, because the first chapter usually starts getting into the weeds), and then lose interest. I’m like, “Got it!,” and I want to move on before the explication drags on for the next 20 chapters or so.

In fact, in this case I may even be satisfied with the idea as set out in the two grafs above. You know how it is with those of us who are so “N” on the Myers-Briggs scale as to be off the chart: I perceive rightness in those few words and am immediately ready to applaud and move on to the next thing.

But not Louis Menand, the gentleman who wrote the article. In fact, the words I quote above are immediately followed by these:

Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well….

Frankly, I’m not enough of an intellectual, public or private, to follow Mr. Menand’s objections. They have to do with esoteric considerations of certain terms used by Plato, Hegel and an influential 20th-century dude named Alexandre Kojève.

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Along the way, he sort of loses me the way, say, arguments between difference feminists and “do-me” feminists over which possesses the purest understanding of feminism. Or whatever. I like esoteric things. In fact, I was very excited back in school when I first learned the word “esoteric” because it gave me a term for describing some things that I liked. But even a good thing can be run into the ground.

All of the objections seem beside the point to me. They don’t really refute the idea that all those movements and phenomena described above are related to the identity impulse. Not so I can tell, anyway.

In fact, Mr. Menand helps me figure out a way to remove the fly in the ointment of the passage I like so much above. I was bothered somewhat by the fact that ideas and movements I tend to dismiss, or even abhor — such as campus identity politics and the election of Donald Trump — are described as springing from the same source as the civil rights movement.

But Menand helps me dismiss that concern, perhaps inadvertently, with this:

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like isis militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

Ah. Perfect. Those thoughts suggest to me a standard: The legitimacy of a movement or phenomenon linked to identity can be determined by the extent to which reasonable people outside the group can agree with it, even advocate it.

Nice. Neat. Perhaps too neat. Perhaps it appeals because it gives us old white guys a potential role to play. But I like it, and I think I’m going to stop while I’m enjoying it, before the objections that I sense are about to pounce on it from the shadows do their worst….

How far have we come in 70 years? Maybe not so far…


When I saw the above story, and especially the picture with it, I had to smile.

Look at that young woman! She has worked hard, and achieved a milestone toward a lifelong goal. She deserves the joy I see in her face. God bless her. I’d like to meet her and shake her hand, and thank her for her service, and her drive to excel in that service. For the rest of the day, I’d probably feel much better about Life, the Universe and Everything — and especially the human race, which as we know can be disappointing at times.

But when I read stories like this, this tiny, cynical voice tries to ruin it by saying something like “Another ‘first’ story. It’s 2017, and ‘first’ stories still get big play in The New York Times.”

Don’t blame me. On this point, I was warped early on. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And a lot of things about that book have stuck with me. Here’s one of them…

X tells this colorful sort of comic-opera story about himself that is much like the one Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant,” about how he got his draft notice, and upon arrival at the intake station went into an elaborate, over-the-top act to get a psychiatrist to rule him unfit for service.

This was 1943. X acts as crazy as he can while standing in line with the other draftees during the physical, and marvels at how long it takes them to pull him out of the queue. But eventually they do, and when he gets to the shrink’s office, he describes this scene:


Ignore the “not bad to look at” part. This was 1943, and even 20 years later when the book was written, we guys got to say stuff like that without being condemned for it.

Malcolm X in 1964

Malcolm X in 1964

No, my point is what X is saying about “first” stories. Reading this at 17, and rereading it today, I get the strong impression he held such stories in contempt. Part of this arises from the attitudes he would embrace through the Nation of Islam (views he would just be in the process of turning away from as the book was being written). He apparently held all involved in contempt — the white man for so grudgingly allowing black people such small achievements, and black folks for being so thrilled at such crumbs from the white man’s table.

I have never been a bitter cynic in the league of Malcolm X, and hope to God I never will be. I’m pleased for people who accomplish anything that improves their lives and inspires other people. But that anecdote has stuck with me over the years. And every time I see a story like this one today, that memory looms up.

About the time X was working with Alex Haley on that book, the white press joined the “Negro press” in celebrating such firsts. Which in and of itself was a fine thing, a form of progress, of the nation forming a consensus around its highest ideals.

But here it is 2017, and we’re still reading these stories? Almost a decade after the election of our “first black president,” this is still news?

To go back to where I started: I liked reading this story. I like reading about the achievement of a fellow human being named Simone Askew. This world needs more like her! But that part of me that was influenced by that book when I was younger (and far less accomplished) than she is makes me wonder whether it doesn’t take something away from her personal achievement to couch it in terms that Malcolm X scoffed at in 1943…

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.

I don’t go for these same-sex work partnerships

Having decided it was time, after 10 years, for me to leave The Jackson (TN) Sun, I started putting out feelers in the spring of 1985.

Just before I flew out to Wichita to interview for a job I would eventually take, I got a call from an editor at The Charlotte News, who wanted me to come there before making up my mind. By the end of the conversation, we had made travel arrangements for right after the Kansas trip. (But then days later, the editor called me back to cancel. The hiring freeze word had just gone out; the afternoon paper would close later that year.)

It was a fairly lengthy call. When I got off the phone, my wife asked who I’d been talking to.

“An editor in Charlotte who wants me to go there instead of Wichita.”

“Was it a woman?” she asked.

“Yeah… how could you tell?”

“You were enjoying yourself,” she said.

She knows me very well. Most of my career, my closest working relationships — certainly most of the really enjoyable ones — have been with women. (One of my best friends at the Jackson paper once referred to herself as one of “Brad’s women.” Some might have misunderstood that, but all within hearing knew what she meant.) I don’t know why. Nothing against guys. I’ve had a great working partnership with plenty of guys, such as Robert Ariail, as I described back here. But who’s to say? — maybe if we’d also had a cartoonist who was a woman, I might have an even closer partnership with her. Or not. I never set out to work more closely with women. It just keeps happening.

Earlier today I mentioned the Power Failure project. While I worked with people from across the newsroom off and on during that year, there was a core group of three women, from start to finish, without whom I couldn’t have gotten it done. One of them was assigned to the project mainly to keep me on track, to make sure that all my theories and plans and ideas were actually translated into articles and graphics and photos, on time. She was essential to the project becoming something that you could hold in your hand.

And anyone who had occasion to observe the portion of my career spent at The State knows how important was the partnership I had with Cindi Scoppe, from when I first supervised her as a 23-year-old reporter in the late ’80s through those last 12 years on the editorial board.

Anyway, I share all this to explain why I thought this piece in The Wall Street Journal today was such a crock:

Picking Someone for a Project? Chances Are, He’ll Look Like You

Here’s at least one instance of parity among the sexes: Men and women are equally biased when it comes to choosing work partners, a new study suggests.

When selecting colleagues to collaborate with on a daily basis, males and females are both significantly more likely to choose someone of their own gender, according to an analysis by Innovisor, a Copenhagen-based management consulting firm…

“We prefer to collaborate with people who look just like us,” says Jeppe Hansgaard, a managing partner at Innovisor. “That’s a management issue, because you want your employees to collaborate with the right people, not just people who look like them.”…

Maybe the piece set me off particularly because I’d just read (part of) this distressing report telling me that the Obama campaign plans to stress Identity Politics more in this election. But every time I read anything about  how people choose to associate with “people like them,” it ticks me off. I like to think people are broader than that.

Hoping Obama won’t really run this way

Maybe y’all have time to read this piece by John Heilemann in New York Magazine. I don’t, not today. If you do, please get back and tell me that things don’t really look as dark as they do at the beginning:

The contours of that contest are now plain to see—indeed, they have been for some time. Back in November, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, two fellows at the Center for American Progress, identified the prevailing dynamics: The presidential race would boil down to “demographics versus economics.” That the latter favor Mitt Romney is incontestable. From high unemployment and stagnant incomes to tepid GDP growth and a still-pervasive sense of anxiety bordering on pessimism in the body politic, every salient variable undermines the prospects of the incumbent. The subject line of an e-mail from the Romney press shop that hit my in-box last week summed up the challenger’s framing of the election concisely and precisely: “What’s This Campaign Going to Be About? The Obama Economy.”

The president begs to differ. In 2008, the junior senator from Illinois won in a landslide by fashioning a potent “coalition of the ascendant,” as Teixeira and Halpin call it, in which the components were minorities (especially Latinos), socially liberal college-educated whites (especially women), and young voters. This time around, Obama will seek to do the same thing again, only more so. The growth of those segments of the electorate and the president’s strength with them have his team brimming with confidence that ­demographics will trump economics in November—and in the process create a template for Democratic dominance at the presidential level for years to come…

Y’all know how I feel about Identity Politics. I want leaders who want to lead all of us, not this or that arbitrarily selected subset. Obama, to me, is the guy who inspired a victorious crowd in Columbia to chant, on the night of the 2008 South Carolina primary, “Race doesn’t matter!” Amen, said I. The atmosphere that night — when voters rejected the continued partisan strife that the Clinton campaign seemed to offer — was one in which we put our divisions behind us, and work toward building a better country together, as one people.

And if there’s anything more distressing in my book than Identity Politics, it’s Kulturkampf. Those couple of paragraphs are enough to push me toward political despair on that count. The next two grafs are worse:

But if the Obama 2012 strategy in this regard is all about the amplification of 2008, in terms of message it will represent a striking deviation. Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

The Obama effort at disqualifying Romney will go beyond painting him as excessively conservative, however. It will aim to cast him as an avatar of revanchism. “He’s the fifties, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward—that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This [f*@#ing] guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.’ ”

Yeah, that’s all we need. A campaign that sees itself as an army of indignant minorities, feminists, gays and young people up against a coalition of self-interested white males, Ayn Randers, birthers and nativists, with both sides convinced that it is at war with the other. And each subset being motivated not by what’s good for the country, but by what it sees as advantageous to itself as a group.

So much for the United States.

All that’s left to me at this point is to hope the campaign plays out differently from the way this writer envisions it.