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.
The first question people always ask me about Hippies is whether this romp through the psychedelics and sexual liberation and ideals, the music scene and the war scene, all the darkness and all the light of the late 1960s, is autobiographical. And am I like Ragman or Ziggy or Tex, etc.?
It’s not exactly autobiographical in that sense. But I draw from autobiography on every page. I am a bit part in every character. But perhaps this is tautological. Perhaps every artwork with more than one character is a kind of psychomachia, all characters projecting different aspects of the writer’s soul or psyche. Perhaps this is not just a psychological necessity (creative arts are after all self-expression) but a metaphysical one as well. How metaphysical? If all the people of the world – past, present, and future – are so many surface expressions of the single personality of godhead, then the whole great drama, the extended “vanity fair” of human history, is one great psychomachia. And divine history, too, as the figures that populate the collective imagination are just as much expressions of godhead as the figures that populate physical reality. Indeed, the figures of imagination may be more intimate expressions of godhead, as Jung’s collective unconscious transcends the individual psyche and gets one step closer the universal Psyche.
At least this literary theory, this metaphysics, seems consistent with the cosmic laws governing the created world of Hippies. And perhaps that is enough.
The difference (when it comes to issues of cultural identity) may be differing views of human nature. In the Civil Rights and hippies decade, there was much struggle but there was much optimism. The liberal assumption was that people of no race were intrinsically racist, that people brought different views and backstories to the table, some wrongheaded and destructive, and some just different. Our role was not to pass judgment but to help each other to find the lighted path with no preconceptions based on race and gender or where you came from. The progressive goal was to find the human goodness in all and celebrate each other across demographic lines, to work joyfully together, without judgment and without shame. Sure, there were problems, but there was an underlying sense that the goodness of the human heart would win out in the end.
Liberalism today (or a large branch of it) seems to take a much darker view of human nature. The assumption seems to be that all white people are racists, all men are sexists, and those who don’t acknowledge their racism and sexism are the worst and most dangerous sort. Instead of looking for ways to celebrate each other across demographic lines, the modus operandus seems to be to search every alleyway to validate one’s own grim premise in this regard. The old liberalism that eschewed shame and judgment and trusted in the goodness of the heart to come through in the end has yielded to a liberalism dedicated almost entirely to identifying targets for shame and judgment. S/he who finds the most racism wins.
The hippie view of human nature had its risks. It was rooted in a naïve idealism that was not always well equipped for the contingencies of the real world. But the risk of the current variant of liberalism is that you end up fostering self-segregation along demographic lines; you end up with people sharing less openly, thinking less outside the box, for fear of offending, and when they do offend, you end up eating your own; you end up with people living under an imminent threat of shame and judgment instead of celebrating each other openly in a spirit of positive affirmation of self and other.
I prefer to go with the hippie risk of “naïve idealism.” Maybe it’s just selfishness. After all, this preference allows me to greet people on the street, regardless of demographics, backstory, or political affiliation, with a good-faith optimism, and a little bit of joy at our shared humanness, rather than greeting them with suspicion and a sharp eye scanning for their sins. Then again, perhaps my preference is simply a function of my age. But I would like to think that it won’t get me scarlet-lettered out of hand by my younger colleagues. There’s still a lot of work we can do together.
Another excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Hippies. (Log line. In this overdue epic of the Age of Aquarius, Jazmine, Ziggy, Ragman, and a coterie of hippies struggling with the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture discover an LSD-spinoff drug that triggers past life regressions and sweeps them toward a dramatic climax.)
“Hey, Pepper, that bandanna looks great on you.”
“Did the priestess come in today?”
“Yeah, bitch was there,” said Pepper. “Complaining about horse shit from the tourist carriages on Royal Street.”
“I thought horse shit was her specialty,” laughed Jazmine. She stood, stretched, and tossed the magazine on the lower shelf of the open pantry.
“Let’s sit outside,” said Pepper. “It’s a nice, clear night.”
They stepped out to the yard just as the spring sun set and sat on the benches at the small picnic table. The night was clear but the air dense and humid, with a moist citrus scent coming from the small satsuma tree near the alley that ran from the yard to the street.
Ziggy brought out three plates and Ragman filled four jelly jars with wine. Zig and Jaz and Rag dug in, and Pepper took a sip of chianti and looked up. She was engrossed with the sky, or something in it, but she said nothing.
“You make the simplest things taste so good,” Jaz said to Ziggy.
“How about you?” Pepper addressed Jazmine. “How you doing?”
“I mean that trip the other day. The tan acid. What do you think? Was it good? Bad? Weird.”
“Well, it was quick in and quick out, just like Rag predicted. That’s good.”
“That’s really good,” said Pepper, and she looked back up at the sky.
The others ate in silence, enjoying the crickets, the bird chatter of dusk, and the occasional sound of a VW bug torqueing around the potholes on St. Roch Street. Rag bussed the plates and refilled the wine.
“That’s why I never did LSD after that first time with Gina and Tex,” Pepper continued, as if there were no pause. “It was cool at first but then the long agony of coming down. I remember driving across the 24-mile bridge at night and seeing monsters coming out of the water with each turn of the waves, over and over in a hellish rhythm. And then I felt all the organs inside my body splitting open. I could see them and feel them tearing. Fuck that.”
Ragman had come back out and was lighting two tiki torches at the ends of the table.
“What the hell were you doing driving while tripping?” he asked.
“I wasn’t driving. Tex was.”
“Oh, that makes it all better,” joked Zig. “TEX was driving while tripping.” They all chuckled at the reckless absurdity of it all, knowing that at least this time all turned out safe.
“But listen,” Jazmine said. “You could even do this stuff, Pepper. There is no long, dark coming down part.”
Rag fired up a joint. The match momentarily lit up his face. The hazel eyes gleamed, the cheekbones more prominent as they tapered down to the point of the light brown beard. He looked for a moment like one of the plastic devil heads that come from claw machines. He inhaled hard on the joint and then passed it to Zig, who sat on the bench next to him across from Pepper and Jaz. Rag momentarily held the pot in his lungs and ran his hand through his flowing brown hair.
“What are you thinking, Rag?” Jaz asked quietly. The flickering of the tiki torch pulled the violet highlights from her eyes.
Rag was equally quiet as he spoke: “This shit could change everything.”
Zig took his hit and passed the joint to Pepper. The earthy sweet smell of marijuana mixed with the citronella fuel of the tiki torches, wrapping the four faces at the table into their own world. Jazmine, with her dark eyes and ivory glow, fiery Pepper with the ice blue eyes, Zig with his rectangular face framed by long curling black locks, and Ragman: faces close together, dimly lit against the darkening sky, all feeling the wrap and pull of pot-forged kinship, but the attention was on Ragman.