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)

Post-Trump path to a whole new vision

To be honest, I was as disappointed as my liberal brothers and sisters at Trump’s victory. Equally disappointing, though, is that most liberals seem to have gotten exactly the wrong message.

2016 should have been a cakewalk for liberals. A civil war raged within Republican ranks between the old guard and the alt-right. The demographics of the U.S. population was growing less favorable for Republicans every year, and Obama had won two straight victories. Add Trump’s unlikely candidacy, and many wondered if the Republican Party would survive the next few years.

What went wrong? Surely, the 24/7 right-wing propaganda machine from talk radio and Fox News had some impact, but we had known their impact for years and Republicans still seemed on the ropes. So the real question is, how did liberals alienate so many people that they could not close what should have been a done deal? I believe a large part of it is liberalism’s self-inflicted wounds in the culture wars – “self-inflicted” because conservatives never had and still don’t have any credible vision of social harmony for white, black, male, female, gay, etc., people. Liberals had easy dibs on the moral high ground, but chose another path, a path that eschewed the traditional liberal principle of “shared humanness” as the cornerstone of race and gender analytics and opted for “us vs. them” models of identity politics.

This abdication of the moral high ground directly or indirectly alienated many people who might otherwise have been progressives. To make this as politically incorrect as possible, I think a lot of the blame (I offer this as a hypothesis and not as a fixed conclusion) may go to those Women’s Studies, Black Studies, etc., departments that have mushroomed in recent decades. No doubt, these departments emerged in response to real inequities and problems with representation, and I myself have known some good and noble faculty members in those departments. But then came the unintended consequences. Suddenly, they had a captive audience (required and recommended courses) to force-feed whatever the theories of the day were. And since they were now institutional structures with annual funding to protect, it became easy to reify “blackness” or “femaleness” into an absolute, perpetually at odds with the outside demographic (white male), in need of perpetual funding. And this funding is further secured in perpetuity if you jettison the old liberal tenet of “shared humanness” and play up your demographic (black, female, etc.) as the defining attribute of identity. Once the institutional structures were in place, it was inevitable that divisive theories would replace the old unifying approaches to racial and gender issues that we once saw in Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Mandela.

It was a terrible time for the left to crack – 2016 – a year when they should have flourished and when the cost of failure was a Trump presidency. That they were unable to thwart Trump indicates just how far the university re-education committees had alienated non-aligned moderates, many of whom were no doubt sick of political correctness, with its ever-growing repertoire of what we cannot say, do, or think, based on our demographic identity, and with its scarlet-lettering of any dissenter as racist, sexist, or xenophobic. If election pundits are to be trusted, white males were particularly affected, both those who were subjected to the forced re-education regimes in universities and those working-class whites who had worked hard all their lives, had now fallen on hard times, and felt they were being told daily by college liberals and HuffPo editors that they should shut up, sit down, and appreciate how privileged they were. This is no way to win people over. Many of these college kids and working class whites could easily have become progressives if progressives had not gone to such extremes to alienate them.

Oddly (or perhaps predictably, given the egocentrism of the human condition), most of my liberal friends seem to have gotten exactly the wrong message. The correct message, I should think, was that expressed in John McWhorter’s CNN op-ed, “We need a PC that includes white people.” Trump’s victory should have been a wake-up call for liberals to quit circling the wagons so narrowly, to quit building walls around this or that demographic, to open the doors and be more tolerant and inclusive. It was an opportune moment to review and retrieve a little of the freewheeling 1960s (when liberals celebrated the cacophony of viewpoints, let people speak freely and make mistakes, and thought that all progressives — including whites and males – were in this struggle together). Instead, many post-Trump liberals simply lumped in the half of the country that disagreed with them with the KKK (another self-inflicted wound, as they give far, far too much to the KKK). And I have even seen a number of my liberal compatriots “unfriended” for stepping outside of the party line on this or that cultural point, even though they share the broader liberal vision. Thus, my heretofore liberal allies, after shooting themselves in the foot by turning people away when they should have been more inclusive, have responded by becoming even less inclusive, circling the wagons tighter and tighter.

There is hope though. I myself feel alienated from both the left and the right. But therein lies an opportunity. I know that I am not alone. Yes, some of my liberal friends have become more intolerant than ever after Trump, but some have not. Some, I think, are open to a grass-roots movement, a new radicalism that must begin outside of the current political spectrum and outside of academia’s pseudo-radical theories. It must, at least temporarily, confront the liberal as well as the conservative fixtures of that establishment. That means it must be willing to take on the “identity politics” departments, which have already become a very powerful establishment in their own right (and an establishment that brooks no dissent). Or so it seems to me. I am willing to hear some other voices (including old friends and new students in women’s and ethnic studies departments, who may be able to qualify my generalizations with inside information).

Until then, as ever, I await the new hippie uprising.

How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground

For those who self-identify as liberals, things were simpler in the 1960s and 70s. The left had an easy claim to the moral high ground then, embracing the Civil Rights movement against racist segregationists, fueling a feminist agenda against transparently sexist cultural formations, advocating freedom from conventional constraints, and deploying Gandhi’s principles of non-violence against the war-makers in Vietnam.

Now the moral high ground seems up for grabs. Liberals are more vulnerable, rightly or wrongly, to charges of prejudicial, restrictive, and divisive policies. Where did things go wrong, and is it just an image problem or something more substantive?

If I had to pinpoint one thing to study under this lens, I’d go with the rise of “identity politics” to a kind of critical mass in the 1980s. The intention may be admirable. We can say that all men and women are equal by law, but that elides the fact that social and human rights problems are often demographically defined. If we want to work toward a “more perfect union,” individual rights and grievances are an insufficient analytic. Demographic identity needs a voice, especially for underdog groups whose members share to a large extent material conditions and obstacles.

In practice, this quickly escalated into a kind of demographic determinism, where whites cannot and should not try to envision the black perspective (a magnification of the kind of withering critique the white William Styron took for writing Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective), where men have no business trying to envision the female perspective, the same with Latinos, etc. Authors and public intellectuals became treated as a priori “politically situated,” able to access the world and express themselves only via the demographic experience of their own race, gender, and ethnicity. At this point, the damage is done. Demographic identity, which morphed into the “identity politics” of 1980s liberal academic departments, works fine as a supplement to our shared human identity, but when it becomes a replacement for our shared human identity, you have become a divider, not a unifier.  You have ceded the moral high ground, and you can rest assured that many in the public domain stand ready to seize upon this and use it against the liberal agenda more broadly.

Liberals today could learn from 18th-century thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, who appealed equally to men and women with arguments based on a rational standard that knows no gender, or Olaudah Equiano, whose slave autobiography made it clear that racial identity was real and valuable but that our shared humanness (our ability to stand in each other’s shoes) would always be the key to progress in race relations. Or the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, who emphasized over and over that oppression dehumanized the oppressor as well as the oppressed, that we are all in this together with our humanity at stake. These great figures were all unifiers because our shared humanity was at the root of their visions. That’s why I pinpoint “identity politics” as the ghost in the liberal fall from the moral high ground, because – of all the factors we might look at – I believe this is the one that most rattles the link between a liberal vision and the concept of our shared humanness.

Is this, then, an image or substance problem? I think a bit of both. It is an image problem in one sense. When it comes to immigration or economic inequality or gay rights or women’s reproductive rights or access to health care or diplomacy versus belligerence abroad, etc., etc., the core liberal vision still stands today at a higher moral ground than the conservative one (especially if one uses Democratic and Republican parties as representatives of those two ideologies).

In another sense, the problem is substantive. Post-1960s liberals were not only better situated than their conservative counterparts (morally speaking) on those core economic and structural issues, but their vision held the moral high ground on two notable levels. Their short-term vision was all about breaking free of conventional chains on expression, lifestyle, and modes of social organization.  And they had a long-term vision much like Olaudah Equiano’s, where demographic identities could be celebrated but without clouding the shared humanness that undergirds the other layers of identity.

Current liberals (at least enough of them to make a dent) seem to have lost that vision. They place too much short-term emphasis on speech codes and on restricting expressions of anything deemed “offensive.” And their long-term vision suffers from divisive strategies that often sound more scolding than celebratory. “White privilege” and “male privilege” is a case in point. I certainly agree that there are racial and gender inequities that persist and need to be addressed, but these terms perpetuate the oppressor/oppressed dyad, another upcycle of “us versus them” thinking. They send the message, intentionally or not, that “your hard work didn’t count, your efforts to treat people fairly didn’t count, it was all privilege and you should be a little ashamed of it.” This is at best a tactically and morally awkward extension of Elizabeth Warren’s more solid town hall point about how no one builds a business alone – tactically awkward because likely to alienate more potential allies than it gains; morally awkward because Warren’s point rests upon the unifying premise that we are all in this together, whereas the argument based on demographic “privilege” seems to rest upon a premise of conflicting interests and binary leverage. (Beware of anything that sets the “men vs. women” trap. As a great American said, “Those who are against women’s rights would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men.”) The “privilege” argument in its current form is not in the long run a unifying vision. It falls short of Wollstonecraft and Equiano and Douglass. It cedes the moral high ground held by them and held, I believe, by 60s/70s liberals as well.

If the left (or a sizable subset thereof) has ceded the moral high ground, this doesn’t mean they’ve yielded that ground to conservatives/Republicans. Issue for issue, the latter are even further from the moral high ground. Rather, when liberals relinquished the moral high ground, they left a vacuum.  We need a morally rejuvenated liberal party, or even better, a new grass roots, non-partisan movement, one that flushes out a little of the us-versus-them acrimony and upcycles some of the celebratory 1960s vision but without moving backwards from here. I’m not sure how to do that, but I’m open to suggestion.

Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius

Re: the argument against ending the tax cuts for the wealthy because “it’s their money,” not the government’s (and the corollary that to think otherwise is to be a vile socialist)

It doesn’t require a socialist to argue as billionaire investment banker Warren Buffett does — that the wealthy are far better off than they ever have been, are disproportionately benefiting from the productivity of the nation, and can chip in a little more as they used to do. However, my position goes beyond Buffett’s and perhaps beyond socialism, or at least beyond Marx’s version of socialism. To see how profoundly dangerous my world view really is, see below (but please don’t assume that one has to be as radical as I am to advocate letting the rich keep their full tax cut on the first 250k and pay Clinton-era rates on what falls over that).

1.      Private Property and the Age of Capitalism

The capitalist notion of private property as the fundamental basis of political economy, which is presented as a kind of “natural order,” has only really emerged in the last few hundred years. To be sure, there was private property prior to that, but the realm of private property was a kind of second-tier ownership, a veneer covering the world we all shared. Consider the UK, the very cradle of capitalism. Traditionally, land was fundamentally common grazing land. A rare spot or two may be set aside for the king. And vast areas might be – not owned really, but held for the king by the Duke of Cornwall, the Duke of Northumberland, etc. But in practice, it was pretty much commons. Then the initial seeds of capitalism were sown, of all places, in the field of agriculture. The enclosure movement. The old norm of common-use land (albeit with exceptions and conditions) yielded to a new norm of “all land is essentially private property.” Common rights disappeared in village after village, and a new class of landless workers was created.

A great philosopher, I forget his name, said that in every age, the ideology of the dominant class presents itself to all classes as the “natural order.” So during the precapitalist landed order, based on patrilineage and aristocratic tiers, the idea of a “Great Chain of Being” was successfully promulgated through all classes of people as the eternal, natural order. Pretty much everyone at every station in life bought into it, except for a few lonely radicals.

As economic power passes from the landed order to the capitalist order, the paradigm for the eternal, natural order changes in ways that suit the new dominant class. The view of the cosmos changes from an organic view to a mechanistic view. (Isaac Newton will lock this world view in for at least a couple of centuries – one could argue that this is still the dominant view, or one could argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is a fundamental shift – a shift perhaps commensurate with the rise of multinational corporations as a new kind of decentralized power that replaces an older, more nationalistic form of capitalism.)

A second paradigm shift with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism over landed aristocracy is in the realm of private property. The enclosure movement was already gaining speed when Locke wrote his treatises on government. But Locke, by making private property the cornerstone of the social order – indeed, the cornerstone of human identity – gave emerging capitalism its master narrative – the “discourse” through which it becomes presented to all as the eternal, natural order. Just as decades of impressionistic speculation about evolution suddenly all came together under the powerful gaze of Darwin, and similar decades of speculation about the unconscious were pulled into a powerful, coherent master narrative by Freud, so “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, provided a powerful, coherent discourse for socioeconomic trends that were forcing a paradigm shift at the end of the 17th century.

2.      Gary’s Conclusion: Two Visions

So if “private property” is not the natural relationship between people and resources, but merely the relationship between people and resources that controls the present age, do I believe private property should be eliminated?

Short Term Vision

I am all in favor maintaining private property in the foreseeable future. But recognizing that there is nothing “natural” or “eternal” about this paradigm liberates us to rationally re-think the relationship between people and resources. (One thinks of that great passage in Frederick Douglass where his biggest problem was convincing his fellow slaves that slavery was not the natural and necessary order of things.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a Bolshevik or Castro-like seizure of resources. My immediate ideal is much, much closer to the socialist/capitalist democracies of Western Europe– and “immediate” is actually ambiguous. One cannot skip steps and leap to the Western European ideal before the cultural and material infrastructure is in place. Not even looking at foreign countries, New Orleans is less ready for that ideal than the Northeast, and my local votes in New Orleans would be comparatively more conservative than if I were up there. However, once you see that the “private property” paradigm, like all paradigms, is historically determined and not an eternal part of nature, you can step back and re-envision the building blocks of how we see the world. Our GDP is $15 trillion a year. Let’s say that’s the sum total of our productivity as a nation. Of all the wealth generated by this productivity, the top 1% sucks out about 21% for its own use. Is it their money? I can see why one might say that. But at least consider the counter view. That’s the slice of our collective productivity that they are taking home. The vast majority of infrastructure, labor, and other economic formations were in place before they came along. They didn’t print their own money; they didn’t personally generate the productivity; they merely did their part in the collective enterprise of generating productivity. In the case of CEO salaries, let’s say that their part involves a higher level of expertise and risk. I think it’s fair that they make 10, 20, say 42 times as much as the average worker (as in 1980). But can they really suck out 354 times the average worker’s salary (2012) on the grounds that “it’s my money.” I think that’s excessive. Or if they continue to suck wealth out at that accelerated level, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they put a little extra back in on the percentage that falls above a certain cap. You may convince me that they deserve 42 x the average worker’s salary, or that their tax rate should only go up on the part that falls over that 4200% line, but the evil socialist in me will not accept that it’s “their money” until you can show me that they generated it without drawing on any pre-existing infrastructure, labor, or other economic/cultural formations.

Long Term Vision

Does private property survive my long-term vision?

I take no position on that. Future generations will be better equipped to make that call. I can only recommend keeping private property into the foreseeable future.

For the full long-term vision, the hippie world view deep in my brainstem (perhaps in the form of LSD residue) is key. The hippie vision was much more revolutionary than Marx’s vision. Marx was a man of his time. Since Adam Smith, homo sapiens was recast as homo economicus. Homo economicus is the foundation of classical political economy and perhaps still the dominant paradigm of human nature. Marx did not break from this. He was all about economic redistribution, but it was still all about economics and who gets what share of the pie. The radicals of the 1930s were still in this pattern. The radicals of the 1960s, however, envisioned human nature in a fundamentally different way — in a way that would transcend homo economicus. In some ways, the “cultural” liberals of the 1960s were very strange bedfellows for the “economic” liberals rooted in the 1930s and the trade unions. The economic liberals, like Marx, were looking for a revolution within the age of homo economicus – a centennial kind of revolution. The cultural liberals of the 1960s were looking for an Age of Aquarius somewhere past the horizon line of homo economicus – a millennial kind of revolution. Private property may survive such a paradigm shift (for all I know), but it couldn’t survive as the primary relationship between people and resources (or the primary end of human relations, as it seems to be for homo economicus under capitalism). The idea is that the species has technologically evolved, or very nearly evolved, to a point where the production and distribution of resources can easily accommodate the entire world population, were it not for the intransigent barriers of politics and the primacy of private property as a paradigm for self-actualization. This means that the time is right for some whole new paradigm to emerge. Astronomers for centuries (possibly millennia) have said that between 2012 and 2026 the Age of Pisces will pass into the Age of Aquarius (technically one constellation passes a certain point relative to another constellation, but I don’t know the details). And of course we all know about the Mayan calendar. The end is near, brothers and sisters, but it ain’t what you think it is. The Age of Pisces is over.  A new wave of hippies is coming. Brace yourself.

(For expansion and follow-up, see From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism.)