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.

Modern Feminism

A recent discussion brought to my attention the curious but apparently widely held belief that feminism was a 20th-century invention. I won’t go into how feminist ideas play into ancient Greek works by Sappho and Aristophanes and Euripides, but I will argue that modern feminism begins circa 1792.

My venerable readers might grant me the premise that the modern democratic state emerged during the Enlightenment, with Tom Paine and others building on John Locke. They might know Paine’s “Rights of Man” (1792), which made the rational case for individual rights and representative government against monarchy and patrilineage. Two years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (1790), with a thesis much like Paine’s. (Both of these were at least partly in response to the great conservative Edmund Burke’s defense of monarchy and tradition in the wake of the French Revolution.) Wollstonecraft then added “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”(1792), extending the same views specifically to women and on the same rational basis. Women have the same capacities as men, and should have all the same rights and opportunities. Reason tells us this. If it were not for the old irrational customs of a patrilineal society, and the caprices of education, all men and women could (and should) live equal lives integrated together in public and private spheres. That is Wollstonecraft. That, for me, begins modern feminism.

For contrast, we can look to a feminist of the late 1600s, Mary Astell, whose tracts suggest that the constant in modern and pre-modern feminism is the idea that women and men have equal capacities. But other variables show Astell to be what I’d call “pre-modern.” She believes in the conservative hierarchies of the landed social order – without hierarchy is chaos. Patrilineal ranking is natural, that men rule in the public sphere is fine. Her solution is to create separatist enclaves – kind of like secular nunneries –for women who want to advance their education and weigh in on philosophy, etc. But she is fine with segregation of the public sphere by rank and gender, and by no means a democratic thinker. Indeed, she specifically says that the old order of King Charles II is more favorable for women than the emerging, quasi-democratic order of the bourgeois moneyed people.

The literature of the period might support Astell’s alignment of feminism with aristocratic rather than democratic political structures.  Charles II invited female actresses and playwrights to the stage in the 1660s, much to the horror of the more puritanical bourgeoisie. Female characters were strong, witty, and sexually liberated in the theatre of his reign. Then came the 1700s and the bourgeois novels glorifying quiet, virginal women who were removed from the public sphere. One could at least argue (as did other feminists of the time like Mary Manley and Lady Wortley Montagu) that Astell was right in thinking that a conservative ideology of class suited feminism best. Until Mary Wollstonecraft. Then everything changes into its modern form.

(For my take on post-1960s feminism, see Female Chauvinist Pigs; for what’s at stake in the 2012 political arena, see Is There Really a Republican War on Women and Contraception Flap.)