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.

A revolution with no enemies

A recent blogger reminded me of Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.” The blogger (altrrockchick) sees in this the reality-denying naivete of the hippie movement. I respectfully disagree with her well-written analysis.

Don’t get me wrong. At first glance, I see her point. The enemies of hippiedom were vocal and widespread in 1969. But let’s assume for a moment that Shurtleff recognized as well as we do that many people in the “war, money, and machines” Establishment opposed the draft-dodging, bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. Then what could he have meant? He must have meant that this was not a revolution in which one side wins and one side loses, but rather a revolution in human sensibility, which brings everyone along with it. To the cynic, this might sound naïve, but the hippies did not spring from a vacuum and other revolutionary voices prominent in the latter 20th century sounded a similar note. Gandhi repeatedly said the same thing – that those who opposed him were not enemies to be destroyed but good people who needed to be brought round. Mandela thought similarly of even the most brutal racist guards on Robben Island and after decades of trying to “bring them ‘round,” several of those guards became allies and attended his first inauguration. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the same. This is what is meant by a revolutionary movement that “has no enemies.”

Also, it is very likely that Shurtleff has his finger on the pulse of the larger cycles of history. With climate change and resource depletion, the period in human history where economies are measured by growth (i.e., by how rapidly they can churn through natural resources) and where human achievement is measured by how much private property one can amass – this period will of necessity end soon, and it cannot end happily without some fundamental shift in human sensibility. I understand the cynics’ point of view, and understand that reason might be on their side, but it’s still nice – indeed, I’d even say “practical” – to have some idealists in the mix. When it comes to assessing the situation of the day, the cynic has the upper hand. When it comes to envisioning possible futures for ourselves, individually and collectively, and setting our course, I’ll cast my lot with the naïve idealists. We have imagination on our side.

“You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one …”


White Privilege and a Third Way on Race

Like many, I was amused by the recent Samuel L. Jackson interview flap, in which the interviewer asked Jackson about his super bowl ad. The problem was that it was Laurence Fishburne and not Jackson in that ad. As this opened the door to much twittering about racism that predictably generated more heat than light, I thought I’d carry my blog into the minefield of race. I say “minefield” because one false move in any direction and one is subjected to the vilest of condemnations, comparisons to Hitler, etc. – which is a true pity because it would help us all enormously if we could talk about it openly and freely, without being shamed into silence or charged as an unredeemable racist for every misstep or every deviation from the party line of the listener. And when it comes to stifling discussion on this topic, I find my liberal allies and my conservative friends “across the aisle,” as it were, equally culpable. My own views, I think will cause equal discomfort to both sides, and hence with luck might push dialectically toward a third way. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

It’s tempting to shame Jackson’s interviewer, Sam Rubin, for being a racist, but this would be a mistake on at least two levels.

First, we have no reason to believe that race was an operative factor in his faux pas. I often get actors mixed up, white and black, including Fishburne and Jackson in some of their shots. Of course, unlike me, Rubin is an entertainment reporter, and such a glaring mistake, whether the actors confused were white or black, is a serious faux pas. Even there, I sympathize, having made incredibly stupid mistakes myself from time to time, but if this proves part of a larger pattern, Rubin may need a new line of work.

Second, even if race were an operative factor – i.e., Rubin blurs black actors together more easily than white actors – shaming is not the best response. It is safe to assume that if Rubin’s stumble was race-related, this isn’t because blacks really look alike but rather that if one grows up day in and day out from infancy surrounded by white faces, one becomes better at picking up distinguishing cues of white faces.  Awkward, yes; racist, no. This is actually an iteration of a quite common scenario in our culture – and one that I believe my fellow progressives consistently mishandle. The scenario is this: Someone inadvertently expresses a racist structure, or what can function as a racist structure, with no bad intent. Certainly, Rubin did not intend to confuse the two black men, nor did he intend to suggest that black men all look alike. No one intends to jeopardize his career by presenting himself foolishly on public TV (Jerry Springer guests and reality TV stars excepted). To those who would promote racial harmony and equality, Sam Rubin is still a potential ally. Yes, he slipped (as we all do from time to time), but as far as we know his heart is in the right place. He is certainly not a lost cause, certainly not in the same camp as the white supremacist on Jerry Springer who speaks of blacks with bad intent.

So on to “shaming” as a form of corrective action. An unintentional slip may warrant a confidential follow-up, a little nudging combined with a willingness to hear the other side, but in general it doesn’t warrant shaming because shaming, in general, doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character.  I hold racial harmony and equality a dear goal, but I cringe when I see my progressive colleagues shaming white people who slip in the manner of Rubin, with no ill intent. There are enough people out there with racist intentions who deserve to be shamed. Why alienate potential allies because of an unintentional slip that exposes some racist tic of the culture or that is politically incorrect enough to be construed as racist? The bottom line is that shaming, the reinforcement of self-loathing, doesn’t build character for blacks and doesn’t build character for whites. Save it for the select few malicious racists who deserve it.  Lumping Rubin in with such freaks places the “us versus them” boundary line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side. (Although Gandhi and Mandela were famous for not writing off even avowed racists, I do not rule out “shaming” as a mechanism for dealing with those who spew racist views with expressly bad intent. But where there is no bad intention, shaming does more harm than good.)

So how do we break the ossified “us versus them” line? I’ll try to point a way out through a concept that has gotten quite a bit of traction recently in the public sphere: “white privilege.” “White privilege,” I could argue, is the breaking point of the current age of race relations. It is equally misused on both sides. To the standard conservative, “white privilege” is the crowning concept in a long line of liberal misconceptions about race. “What white privilege?” they ask. When policy issues addressing racial inequity appear, the standard conservative line argues that slavery ended 150 years ago, that blacks have the same opportunity as whites to work hard and climb the ladder – indeed blacks have greater opportunity, since they have all “our” freedoms plus affirmative action and set-asides and minority-owned business preferences, etc.

There is a certain logic to this, but upon a closer look that logic proves spurious and historically naïve. Africans were taken in chains, separated from all who spoke their own language, subjected to a multi-generational, cradle-to-grave, systematic attack on all human values, had spouses and children sold away in the middle of night, were forbidden education, literacy, or any other form of self-determined skill-building. Their condition was not “like the Irish immigrants,” as Bill O’Reilly idiotically likes to say.  You can’t one day say, “You’re free now,” and conclude that everyone, black and white, is suddenly at the same starting line. Since slavery, economic and educational conditions for blacks have never, in the aggregate, reached par with whites, this is a problem that public policy can and should address.

The standard liberal line on “white privilege” at first seems more innocuous. Whites have certain advantages in our society. No sane person can deny that whites, on average, have greater economic and educational resources at their disposal than blacks. Whites are more likely to be born into middle and upper classes than their black counterparts. This comes with certain privileges or advantages. People born into those classes have a level of access to education, jobs, contacts, visible role models, family safety nets, etc., that tend to keep them in those classes, not in every case, but in the aggregate.  The problem is that for liberals, “white privilege” has become a shaming device, a catalyst for self-loathing. The message all too often seems to be that whites (like me) should feel embarrassment and guilt for the advantages we and not others are born with. But self-loathing does not and never will build character. Not for blacks. Not for whites.

So the problem with “white privilege” is that both sides use it in a way that fetishizes the current, unproductive “us versus them” lines in the sand. We need to push off of both sides to a new position. Progressives have a point in the sense that blacks and whites are not and never since slavery have been at the same starting line. Conservatives have a point in that the introjection of racial guilt and shame about the history of slavery is not going to solve the problem. We become what we visualize. We need to visualize not guilt, not self-loathing in ourselves or others. We need to visualize a way out of the “us versus them” dilemma, a third way. The “third way,” when it appears on the horizon line, will involve all of us opening up, being more cognizant of the fact that we and our white and black interlocutors are all flawed, all make mistakes, but we are all in this together. We will put the self-loathing on both sides behind us. The third way will have us visualize harmony in our daily actions, to visualize it as if there is no other way, to envision ourselves and others as happy, fulfilled beings.  We need to acknowledge the historical basis of racial disparities and work out policy changes without inducing any collective shame and self-loathing. We can build something together but it involves getting on the same side in the tug of war … and cutting ourselves, our black and white neighbors, and Sam Rubin a little slack.

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

In a previous blog, I mentioned how 1930s liberals and 1960s liberals were strange bedfellows, despite some shared principles. The same could be said of post-1960s liberals and post-1980s liberals. The continuity comes with shared progressive goals on social, economic, and environmental fronts, as well as in foreign policy. The fault line runs along the general concept of political correctness and the specific idea of policing offensive speech. (And even in this area, we share a long-term vision of a society less hamstrung by hate and prejudice, although we differ on how best to get there.)

The 1960s hippie liberalism was more wide open in what forms of expression were to be tolerated. The conservative “Establishment” culture of war, money, and machines was held in place by conventional restraints on what to say, what to think, what to wear, how to live and with whom. The hippie idea was to break down all conventional restraints and open up free expression, whether in clothing, thought, speech, or lifestyle and communal forms of organization. Let everyone express themselves freely at the communal table, without fear of reprisal, and even offensive speech will be recontextualized and find its natural level.

1980s liberalism in some ways took a 180-degree turn. The 1980s paradigm shift in liberalism was largely academia-driven, as opposed to the grass-roots, street-level, lifestyle-based paradigm of the hippies. 1980s liberalism introduced the idea of speech codes and of standing ready with a stifling challenge should anyone say anything offensive, especially on topics of race and gender.

Although I share the progressive goals of my 1980s liberal colleagues, and I sympathize with the idea of foreclosing particularly hateful speech before it becomes toxic, I think a cost-benefit analysis favors the 60s approach. The risk of the 60s approach is that hateful speech, if tolerated, can become toxic. The benefit of the 60s approach is that everything is aired unfiltered, ideological fault lines on issues like race and gender are exposed, not hidden, and are more likely to be dealt with in a swift and communal manner. The benefit of the 80s approach is that there is less toleration of prejudicial ideas and therefore a lesser risk of those ideas going toxic. I see two risks to the 80s approach. The first is that the prejudicial attitudes go underground, where they might coagulate and do more harm. Were this the only risk, I’d say the benefit of the 80s approach outweighs the risk. Better to marginalize hate groups than to tolerate them too easily in the mainstream.

The second risk, more problematic in my mind, involves a kind of self-censorship that affects the whole community and not just the hateful minority. With very smart people parsing every speech act for implications that might be hurtful to this or that demographic group, regardless of intent, discourse in general becomes a little icier, less open.

Consider two periods of my own life. In my days as a blues-joint bartender in Austin, I had a motley circle of friends who would go out frequently in random combinations of black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, working class rowdies, and scholarly grad students. This involved many late nights of deep conversation and frequent banter of a wildly “politically incorrect” stamp. Then, in the very late 80s, as a graduate student and then faculty member, my circle was composed largely of academic (English and related departments) liberals. Although I benefited greatly from the intellectual milieu, the halls of academia fostered a tendency to pause and filter before every utterance, lest someone catch you in an utterance that inadvertently validated the dreaded dominant paradigm. Although I share to this day the political goals of “academic liberalism,” the “lifestyle liberalism” of my unfiltered, anarchistic days in Austin produced warmer, deeper, heart-to-heart connections across demographic lines, albeit with some topsy-turvy moments along the way. As a capsule community, the Austin group was probably closer to the long-term progressive ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.

Still, the differences between post-60s and post-80s liberalism are not absolute. Although my center of gravity is post-60s, I don’t say that anything goes. Harassment (e.g., writing hateful speech on someone’s dorm door) or using racial or gender slurs in the presence of one’s employees should be codified violations subject to swift and severe punishment. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that some speech warrants only limited protection and some none at all. But in the vast mess of rough-and-tumble discourse that is not subject to legal scrutiny, the lines of what is tolerable get blurry, and must be negotiated not only by 60s and 80s liberals but by and with our conservative friends as well.

As to where to go from here, I’d like to think we can back off a little on the gotcha readings of speech acts by others. Post-structural theory has taught us that we can always extract varied and contradictory meanings, including offensive ones, from every speech act. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially where there is no offensive intent, where someone perhaps less politically or academically up-to-date than us implies something that current academic practice has deemed unfit, public attack or humiliation is probably not the best fix. Why alienate a potential ally over an unintended faux pas? Better to give a gentle nudge or a good-natured counterpoint. Even where the intent is malicious, or favors older paradigms that are clearly inequitable, all out attack or humiliation may not be warranted (although it may be, on a case-by-case basis).

Mandela and Gandhi are great examples of political activists who always stood up to bigotry but never wrote off the bigot. When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them, he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause” (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II passim). And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his enemies when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiography, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242). My concern is that perhaps too much of our current critical practice has veered into that ad hominem zone, making it more difficult to see that, like it or not, we are all on this journey into the future together.

So when it comes to sensitive subjects, we never need to countenance overt bigotry, but we can err in favor of behaving generously to each other rather than humiliating each other for wrong-headed ideas or statements. When it comes to our own behavior, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense.

And now I welcome any feedback from my post-80s liberal colleagues, whose point of view I value but to which I am not entirely privy, having formed my own political core values largely in the 1970s.