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.

Jonathan Swift and the Arc of Liberalism

for my blog-mate, Steve Morris, with whom I often disagree 🙂 

Ah, the Lilliputians. Those diminutive people on the island of Lilliput described by Jonathan Swift’s blundering traveler, Gulliver. What the reader takes home from the voyage to Lilliput is the comical insignificance of human struggles. These tiny creatures huff and puff and bluster about all the things we do, but their size alone makes it seem like so many trifling exercises pushing forward, then backward, then sideways, and getting nowhere fast. It is the comic version of Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Were Swift with us today, he might apply that same satiric wit to the liberal cultural vision in America over the last 50 years. The changes in consciousness that liberals of the 1960s and 70s advanced so furiously are the very things that liberals today are working furiously to reverse. Whether this tale told by an idiot is in the tragic mold of Shakespeare or the comic mold of Swift will depend on your perspective, but the details run something like this…

1960s/70s liberals emphasized our shared humanness over and against demographic differences that we were told could not be overcome; now liberals strenuously emphasize that whites can’t know what it is to be black, men can’t know what it is to be women, Asians can’t know what it is to be Latino … the very walls yesterday’s liberals fought so hard to break down are the ones being feverishly rebuilt by today’s liberals. The 60s/70s group implicitly favored all forms of cultural appropriation in every direction, everyone sharing each other’s stuff in the great communal playhouse; nowadays, liberals encourage each demographic group to guard its cultural turf against plunder.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove double standards on race and gender, fought to stop talking about and start living the dream where people are not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today’s liberals pivot and push with equal vigor to enforce different standards for how to treat someone based on preconceived notions about privilege or race or gender. As hard as earlier liberals fought to treat everyone you meet as human being, regardless of race or gender or background, today’s liberals see everyone through the lens of race or gender or privilege and indeed many universities have now labeled it as a racist or sexist microaggression not to do so.

1960s/70s liberals fought hard to remove all restrictions on how to speak, think, dress, or set up your living arrangements. “Rules and regulations, who needs them,” sang hippie icon, David Crosby. Bust it wide open and let everyone say what they think. Today’s liberals have briskly rolled back that joyful, bumpy pluralistic chaos with innumerable speech codes, Halloween dress codes, and a general shaming of anyone who deviates from the liberal norm.

I’m not sure where the arc of liberalism goes from here. I’ve hinted before that we may need, and there may already be a groundswell for, a movement outside the scope of politics, casting off the dried snakeskin of today’s liberals and conservatives alike, a movement that embraces the chaos of pluralism, that rejects all politics left and right, and relies on only the human heart and human imagination in our treatment of one another. I can’t say whether my new movement will get off the ground, or whether today’s liberals will consolidate their gains, or perhaps we’ll swing back to the more anarchist-minded 60s liberalism. These things are hard to predict. What’s not hard to predict is that the next turn of the wheel will probably leave us as vulnerable to Swiftean satire as ever.

Related: 1960s vs Post-1980s liberals; How the left ceded the moral high ground

 

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 …”

Gary