Identity Politics Explained

In a nutshell, identity politics is the art of taking something quite simple and getting it all wrong.

The backdrop question – what role does demographics play in human identity – is actually simple. So simple, that only very powerful institutional politics (departmental interests within academia and monied interests outside of it) can steer people wrong. Before the brainwashing begins, everyone knows that there are multiple layers of identity – gender, racial, sexual orientation, etc. – and everyone knows that the bottom layer is the layer of shared humanness. Everyone instinctively knows that in our social interactions, sometimes our shared humanness is the dominant feature of the interaction, and sometimes one of the other layers of identity is relevant or even the dominant feature of a given interaction. But in any wholesome vision of a more ideal multicultural society, it is the shared humanness that lays the foundation. We need to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness. This is not rocket science.

“Identity politics,” in its current usage, removes shared humanness and defines human identity in every transaction as demographic identity. A black woman sees everything from the point of view of a black woman, a white man’s reality is always white and always male. Every thought or speech act is a priori politically situated. There is no escape from demographics. Indeed, in an Orwellian turn of the dial, the concept of “shared humanness” is itself rejected as racist. Saying that you “don’t see color” when meeting people is officially listed as a racist microaggression at many universities, oddly enjoining students to view each other first and foremost not as fellow human beings but as instances of this or that race. And the point is not to create sympathy between the races but to highlight impenetrable walls between their experiences. For example, when activists recently called on the Whitney Museum to “remove and destroy” Dana Schutz’s painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket on the grounds that “the shameful nature of white violence” cannot be “correctly represented” by a white artist (quoting Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney), the message is clear: Creatively identifying with people of other races, genders, etc., is to be forbidden, presumably because it asserts the false notion of shared humanness. This is identity politics in its current form.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, it is false on the face of it, as anyone with even a modicum of multicultural social life outside of the ivory tower of academic theory knows that cross-group social bonding takes place often in a spirit of shared humanness and less often with attention to group differences. Secondly, it is impractical. It is de facto a divisive theory and not a unifying theory and thus intrinsically antithetical to any future vision of a society living in racial harmony. Thirdly, in its historical aspect, it reverses the positive trends of the Civil Rights and hippie movements of the 1960s, movements that were both radically integrationist and unifying, movements that looked to a time when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We could appreciate our different backstories, race, ethnicity, etc., but the anchor was shared humanness with universal rights and principles. Everyone acknowledged historical inequities that still need to be addressed, but the idea was to work them out together as human beings with a common interest in a more perfect union. Identity politics, on the other hand, fosters the idea that common interest is a myth, that each demographic group needs to get its share of the pie and then go home and block the entrances. It is a short-term vision with no hope of reaching the ideal of a multicultural society that is harmonious, uninhibited, and free to join hands across demographic lines without shame or judgment.

Thus, the final problem with the “identity politics” branch of liberalism is that it has done more than any conservative formation to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights era. Surely, conservatives have been most unhelpful in the policy arena, but in terms of the evolution of consciousness toward a society of peace and harmony across races, genders, nationalities, etc., identity politics has been the most destructive force of the past 30 years. It is demoralizing to consider, but it is not conservatives today but identity politics liberals who are rapidly burning all bridges back to Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Mandela, all of whom explicitly appealed to our shared humanness as the lighted path toward racial and gender harmony.

So here we stand at an urgent pass. The identity politics Left gets worse, with “cultural appropriation” fences and do-not-cross lines (despite the head fake of “intersectionality” but that’s for another discussion), the demographic double standards for what you can say, think, or do, the branding of all whites as racist and all men as sexist, the erasure of all past and present Western culture as white supremacist and thus without value. Conservatives too have taken a turn for the worse in Trump era, reasserting their own kind of racist, sexist, and xenophobic, demographics-driven identity politics. Despite a policy platform that perpetuated disparities between races and genders, most of my conservative friends had over the years, on the level of consciousness, jettisoned the Bull Connor racism of the Civil Rights era and accepted the equality of all humans as a universal principle and an endgame of racial harmony as a valid goal. Despite liberal cries to the contrary, the Left-Right dance had actually brought moderate conservatives closer than identity politics liberals to Martin Luther King’s principle of equal treatment and unbiased judgment for all regardless of demographics (again, this is on level of consciousness and not policy). But now both Left and Right are in a demographic divisiveness death spiral.

I might sound quite pessimistic here, but all is not lost. Little children growing up in our multicultural spaces understand perfectly well that some kids are black, some kids are male, some kids speak different languages, but that we are all on some level kids with a shared interest in playing together. They get the “shared humanness” part. And therein lies our hope. Just forget about everything you learned in academic theory classes and become like little children. You were there once. You can go there again. And in today’s political and environmental conditions, now is the time to make the pivot. Turn off that academic theory. Turn on the heart and imagination. Greet everyone you meet on the street in a spirit of shared humanness, without regard to race, gender, or political affiliation.  We’re all in this together and we might not have much time.

Unless you change and become like little children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
(Matthew 18:3)


Zizek Revolution

Why hasn’t the Left been able to counter the rise of right-wing populism these last few years? Slavoj Zizek makes an excellent start at answering that question (video clip below, h/t to my friend, Balazs Zsido). I would only quibble a bit, as I believe he may tend to overstate his case at times and leave a little something out at times.  When he says that every populist movement is caused by a failure of the Left, I think it would be more accurate to say that a failure of the Left is one of the things implicated in the rise of right-wing populism. There are probably multiple causes in each case, but in each case, one could also ask how the Left failed to put forth a viable alternative. I’m with him about 90% on that one, as historical analysis.

Turning from historical analysis to the current crossroads, I agree with him 100% that the Left is failing to produce a viable alternative today. The “old” Left of protecting universal health care and worker rights established post-WWII is a good thing but not enough to get us across the new horizons today. I agree with him there, although I might emphasize more than he does that the freedoms and socialized elements of Western democracies are the best thing going right now. Some of the rage against capitalism and the West needs to be thoughtfully reconsidered, as simply taking down the Western democracies revolution-style right now may well result in more oppressive structures — a turn for the worse. When I look at existing models of governance outside of the West – Russia or China, Iran and the Middle East, North and Central Africa – the freedoms of the West’s liberal democracies look relatively good. Simply knocking down the West would leave a vacuum for the other power brokers of the world, who do not seem to promise more enlightened governance. Even within the West, the “identity politics” branch of the Left (at least in the U.S.) seems all too eager to replace the West with their own oppressive and demographically determined structures. Be careful what you wish for. Things could actually be a lot worse than they are.

Am I then an “apologist for capitalism,” as some of my leftist friends might say? Not at all. Capitalism is approaching its limit. The age wherein human fulfillment is defined by how many resources you can hoard, wherein the primary relationship between people and resources is one of private ownership – this age will end, whether dystopically or utopically. The writing is on the wall in the form of ecological collapse and worldwide economic disparities that are increasingly visible with globalization. But beware the negative possibility. Just knocking down the West and leaving the field to, shall we say, less liberal and less democratic forms, may not yield the answer young Western radicals seek.

Like Zizek, I don’t have a specific answer for today’s Western leftists, but I do have a framework for answers. My framework is simply this: We need to think of the next stage not as a revolution against the West but as a revolution within the West.  We do need to move into the (post-materialist, post-capitalist) 21st century, but capitalism and liberal democracy are the matrix from which new forms will spring. Every age begins as a new birth but carries the seeds of its own destruction in the form of its own contradictions. When those contradictions reach a critical mass, the shell starts to crack. As the shell of capitalism starts to crack in the face of ecological and economic imperatives, the idea is not to crush everything but to bring forth the hidden seed that has been nurtured and throw away the husk. In particular, we need to keep the freedoms of liberal democracy intact while pushing hard and mindfully on the transformation into a post-capitalist economy that leaves no group stranded.

So yes, we need to move into a post-capitalist, post-materialist 21st century, where for example green technologies can be deployed based on what is possible, not on what is profitable. Following Zizek, I might say that we need a new Left to articulate a transformational vision for our age. Something may come of the Alt-Left, if its presently amorphous and contradictory energies coagulate around the best it has to offer. Then again, I’m not sure this radical vision will come from the Left at all. It may be that the last true radicals were in the 1960s.  Since then, Left and Right may both have become too damaged, too entrenched, to make the next turn. So be it. If the new radical vision comes from outside of today’s Left-Right spectrum, that is fine with me.

Zizek video clip

Won’t Get Fooled Again

Why Democrats Keep Losing

Per white, working-class men, part of the problem is that they hear Trump and co. saying, “We’ll bring back jobs,” and they hear liberals saying, “You already have too much white and male privilege, so don’t look to us for help.” So who you gonna vote for? I say this as one who believes that the core Democratic platform is much better for workers than that of the disingenuous Trump Republicans, but the Democratic PR has been hijacked, at least in part, by academic theorists with a message uniquely suited to alienate white working-class men and their families (whose interests should be with the Democratic Party).

 

The Curse of the Confederacy: A Plague on Both Your Houses

As I try to think through both sides (and come to terms with my own ambivalence), I don’t see any good guys in the debate about removing the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. I share the underlying politics of the “removal” side – let’s call them the liberals. Namely, the values of the Confederacy in no way reflect our values today. In fact, the vast majority of people (white and black) I have known in my 50 years in New Orleans agree with that. Thus, removing purely political markers like the Liberty Monument makes sense. Changing selected street names or removing flags – no problem. But I am uncomfortable with the cleansing of art history, as if art history has no value beyond politics and must be purged to suit today’s political values. For example, the century-old Beauregard sculpture’s lines and shadowed cuts and grandeur impressed me long before I knew who was on the horse. It certainly never gave me the slightest pro-Confederate feeling. If it had been quietly renamed “The Unknown Union Soldier,” most could still have enjoyed the aesthetics and most native New Orleanians would have been none the wiser. (My experience is that outsiders coming in are more aware of the political side and natives are more likely aware of these things as the “furniture” they grew up with.) So my concerns on this side are these:

(1) Where does the cultural cleansing of historical-register artifacts from centuries past stop? Take ‘Em Down Nola (who led the removal of Beauregard and the other Confederate monuments) has already targeted the 160-year-old equestrian statue of U.S. President Andrew Jackson as well as the French Quarter monument to New Orleans founder Bienville, who died 100 years before the Confederacy existed.  For those who are concerned about the scope of the cleansing, if removalists could give them a clear sense of the endgame before the steamroller (as they see it) starts rolling, it would go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and opening a dialogue. At least it seems a fair question to ask.

(2) How does “us vs them” identity politics ever get us back to the “all-in-this-together” model of Martin Luther King and Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, Gandhi and Mandela, all of whom placed shared humanness at the center of their visions? Sectioning off white, male, black, female, etc., reifying those characteristics and prejudging people accordingly, seems to keep us on the wrong path. What you spend your time visualizing is what you bring into being. At what point do we focus our considerable energy on the things that connect us to each other and to the future rather than on the things that divide us?  

Pro-monument voices – let’s call them the conservatives here – have, for the most part, been even worse. All the waving of Confederate flags and “Southern pride,” in this context, suggests that they really do still believe in the lost cause of Confederate values. This is almost mind-boggling. Even the ones who complain about “erasing history” seem to be clinging to the political history of a vicious past. I haven’t heard every voice, but has no one disavowed the political values of the Confederacy in no uncertain terms and made the case that art history may have some small value that goes beyond politics?

Removal of the Liberty Monument was an easy call. Removal of the Jefferson Davis statue should also have been an easy compromise, as any art historical significance it had beyond its political point seemed slight. But Lee and Beauregard were on the National Historical Register for a reason, and that reason is not because the National Historical Register favors Confederate values. I would like to think it has something to do with preserving art history as, to some extent, valuable in its own right, irrespective of politics.

In the end, maybe removal of all the monuments was a good thing. I haven’t really canvassed all the neighborhoods to see what people were actually thinking, and I might be swayed by more voices on the ground. I suspect, though, that the most public voices on both sides represent their own fairly small but very active political circles. But each side seems to thrive in its own way on polarization, ready to shut its ears and throw everything under the bus to make its political point. This makes me think that maybe politics itself is the problem. Maybe we should throw politics under the bus …

Click here for “The end of all politics.”

Trump completes the circle

My conservative friends have abandoned all hope for me long ago, and with good cause. My liberal friends, at least those under the age of 40, may also have their doubts about me. The 2016 U.S. election gives me an opportunity to complete the circle, so let me take a few moments to drive my liberal brothers and sisters crazy.

First, my thoughts on Trump in brief. My hunch is that he will be a terrible president – ill-informed, reckless, and easy manipulated (despite the outward braggadocio) by people who actually understand politics and world affairs. But I understand why many, including some of my friends and family, voted for him (albeit a mistake in my view). They were sick of politicians, sick of political correctness, sick of the climate in which everyone must parse every word and self-censor before every comment. To them, Trump’s showy disregard for political correctness had its appeal. And the white working class people who had worked hard all their lives and were now struggling were perhaps tired of being told to shut up and appreciate how privileged they were. (To my liberal friends, I am not commenting on the truth value of “privilege” claims, but only on the perception by this segment of voters.) This predicament left them easily swayed to vote Republican and vote Trump (against their own economic interest).

Am I saying that liberals are to blame for Trump’s victory? No, conservatives who have created the alt-right through talk radio, Fox News, and other media arms of disinformation carry most of the blame. But I do say that liberals do not get out of the blame scot-free. At least some self-examination may be helpful. The tendency in the past few decades for liberals to build walls instead of bridges has perhaps contracted their sphere of influence outside of academia and left them all too often preaching to the choir. It was not always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, hippie liberals were out to bust it all wide open and eliminate restrictions on what to do, what to say, on living and loving arrangements. They were the rebels against cultural policing. Today’s liberals, on the other hand, have become the cultural police. I understand the good intent – to stamp out racism and xenophobia and toxic speech and ideas – but the practical result is counterproductive. Forever warning people that they can’t do or say or wear this because of their demographic identity, scarlet-lettering everyone who disagrees with you as racist or misogynist, shuts down communication. Sure, official members of the KKK needs to be scarlet-lettered. But in this case, branding 47.2% of the U.S. population, burning that many bridges, has no practical value. If you’re lumping in half the population with the KKK, you might revisit your metric because you’re giving way too much to the KKK.

I live in a conservative part of the country (when not in Germany). Although my inner-city neighborhood in New Orleans tracks liberal, the metro area in general tracks conservative. I have friends and family members who voted for Trump. They did not do so because they hate women or minorities or immigrants. When Trump made his comments about the border, they did not hear, “He hates all Mexicans and Muslims.” They heard, “He has no problem with legal immigrants or Mexicans in general; he wants to better control illegal immigration to serve those who are here (including legal immigrants). He believes that stable, successful Mexicans are less inclined to jump the border, so the ones who come, although some are good people, tend to include more of the criminal element … He has no problem with Muslims in general; he believes the world has an Islamic terrorism problem and we need to address it at our borders.” Etc.

You can argue until you’re blue in the face that what you heard was more accurate than what they heard, but that doesn’t really get us anywhere. That’s just wall-building, getting both sides to circle the wagons. Since my own ear tends to track liberal, I could conclude that they are racist xenophobes and effectively shut down all communication. I prefer to conclude that they are wrong on the policy and on some of the social assumptions, but that they are essentially good people. I prefer to keep communication channels open. I prefer to hear any crazy theories they want to put forward and to haggle them out over a beer. I prefer to build bridges. May they learn a little bit from me, and may I learn a little bit from them. We should be celebrating conflicting voices at the table. The only way forward is through dialectic, not monologue. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Especially now. There is too much at stake with the impending Trump presidency, which does not bode well in my opinion, for the 47.2% (Trump) and the 47.9% (Clinton) to each construct their own walled citadel.

Thus Trump may complete the circle for me. Conservatives wrote me off long ago and perhaps my liberal friends may do the same, pushing me off the existing spectrum and one step closer to my own post-political wonderland. Then again, maybe i’m not the only one heading that way.

Caveats

  1. Do not misread. This is NOT an argument against passionately opposing Trump and Republican policy proposals whenever you find them unacceptable.
  2. I know I might have to eat these words one day, but until then I’m sticking to the idea that we’re all on the spaceship Earth together, like it or not.