So-Called Identity Politics

I recently read and had a very strong reaction to Mark Lilla’s op-ed piece in The New York Times (11-18-16). As he sorts through the post-election morass, Lilla states unequivocally that “identity liberalism” has taken too much of the center stage of Democratic politics. He takes liberals to task for “celebrating” differences, operating against unity, and flooding the schools and the media with diversity rhetoric. His main concern is that “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality.”

It is true that Democrats could always do a better job at touting successes that serve the common good, including President Obama’s saving the auto industry and the many jobs at stake there and working to pass the Affordable Care Act, which has at least moved the nation towards more healthcare for more people. *Chris Gavaler’s blog post (11-21-16) brilliantly compares simplified, Manichean, Gingrich-driven GOP rhetoric to the complicated, nuanced statements often made by the top brass of the Democratic Party.

I want to take issue, nevertheless, with most of the points Lilla has made.

Identity is and always has been a part of politics (which, after all, comes from the word for “city,” a place where many people of different backgrounds gather and live). “Identity politics” only emerges as a term when politics isn’t all or only about white men. In other words, so-called identity politics breaks the supposed universality of the white male. When political engagement and activism were less available to women, people of color, non-Christians, and the LGBTQ community, we just called politics “politics.” As soon as these groups gained more voice and used them to effect change in the political realm, their form of politics was made “other,” snidely labeled “identity politics.” Many of our constitutional amendments have had to correct for the marginalizing biases of the all-white, all-male, all-Christian, and, at least on the surface, all-straight founding fathers. To dismiss these important and inclusive changes is to ignore the concept of change itself.

Lilla blames the schools for overreaching or overemphasizing the contributions of people of color and women to the history of the United States. He believes this is an overcorrection that panders to groups traditionally underrepresented in United States politics. I wonder if this author has ever looked at the curricula of elementary, middle, and high schools. Christopher Columbus is still portrayed as the hero of the Americas, the one who persevered and delivered the lands and its riches and, more significantly, its peoples to Western Europe. Indigenous peoples of the Americas are barely mentioned, except as the vanquished or as the willing facilitators of white domination. In fact, war is still the organizing principle for most history textbooks. This means that we are teaching our children that war is inevitable, that depleting our natural resources for such efforts is warranted, and that, again, the war hero is the dominant figure in the United States narrative. It would be amazing if our schools’ curricula could ever overcorrect for their emphasis on the lives and accomplishments of Christian white males. Mr. Lilla states, “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” Many groups define themselves from a very keen awareness of the conditions of other groups and a necessary desire to have their own ideas and needs made visible to a larger group in power. I would argue that many of these groups are much more educated about the history and circumstances of other groups than they are in this op-ed piece given credit for. In fact, this piece reads as narcissistically unaware of its own privilege.

Lilla says that, “At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them.” Mr. Lilla, have you ever had a young child or taught young children? They have their own little personalities as soon as they emerge from the womb. These quickly develop into a sense of individual and group identities. Being able to assess one’s identity and its evolution in terms of the self and the polis is an excellent skill to have. In fact, this important tool of critical thinking allows us to understand the systems of oppression that continue to operate in schools, the media, the government, and our families. When I was five years old, I knew that being a girl was different from being a boy. Being a girl meant not being president. Being a girl meant playing basketball in the little gym, labeled the “girls’ gym.” Being a girl meant earning less; it meant being taught to want less. If so-called “identity politics” had really succeeded in saturating our schools and the mainstream media, then maybe black lives would matter to a greater number of white people and maybe more people would believe a woman can be president.

In his op-ed piece, Lilla also states, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.” First, I hardly think the Ku Klux Klan was the very first identity movement in American politics. Second, its very existence in our world today seems to speak to its enduring power. Third, the Ku Klux Klan’s persistence has brought it from a violent fringe movement to an unfortunately high-stakes, high-power player in current presidential politics. In other words, does Lilla actually believe the Ku Klux Klan has lost? The group seems more powerful than ever, given who our president-elect is and how he has been supported.

The term “post-identity liberalism” (used by Lilla) makes me cringe because it just means we go backwards. It means that government is to blithely ignore those whom it is supposed to represent. It silences big groups of people. It returns us to the paradigm of white man = universal. Mr. Lilla wants us to “reach out to Americans in every walk of life.” If “every walk of life” refers only to the economy (which should certainly be a feature), then we are missing many pieces of the puzzle.

Lilla’s own sense of privilege is exactly what allows him to encourage all of us to pare everything down and back to the white dudes who founded our nation. He refers to an “array of different faces” at a speech he gave in Florida and seems to celebrate the diversity of the crowd without stating why it actually matters. The attendees at the speech apparently sang the national anthem together and then celebrated what they had in common. Recent protests during the national anthem might tell us that we also have to pay attention to how we’re different.

We need to get away from an either/or (difference versus unity) model of politics and move towards a both/and (difference and unity where possible) approach that makes radical economic change without ignoring major problems of representation and power of traditionally underrepresented groups.

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