Lilla Again: Campus Politics

*A shorter version of this blog post was published as a Letter to the Editor on The Chronicle of Higher Education site.

(The New York Times photograph of students protesting Mike Pence, May, 2017 Notre Dame graduation; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/us/parents-students-summer.html?mcubz=3)&_r=0)

A few days ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a long piece by Columbia University Humanities professor Mark Lilla.  This piece, “How Colleges are Strangling Liberalism,” is adapted from Lilla’s recently published book, titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  As The Chronicle has done with other authors (*see this Gender Shrapnel post), here they have had the author write a “Chronicle Review” piece about his own book.  The timing of the publication of the piece, nine days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, coupled with the subtitle of the article, “An obsession with identity has made students less likely to engage with a world beyond themselves,” seems intended to fan the flames of our national debate about white supremacy and to blame the left for its visible resurgence.

Full disclosure: I addressed Mark Lilla’s ideas in the Gender Shrapnel Blog back in November of 2016, soon after the election (another propitious moment to fan flames), when The New York Times ran Lilla’s piece, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  The November blog post I wrote takes issue with Lilla’s refusal to learn the lessons of the interdisciplinary programs he scorns.  His inability to recognize why “identity politics” is an exclusive and offensive term cripples his argument.  The term comes to life only when people who aren’t cis, white males start having a political voice. In the second paragraph of his piece in The Chronicle, Lilla writes, “All of us liberals involved in higher education need to take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation.”  This would have been a good moment for Lilla to make clear what he means by “all of us liberals.”  Who are “us liberals,” and what do we have in common?  How does the author define “liberalism” itself?

Lilla accuses 1980s liberals who espoused a “politics of identity” of “losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation.”  I was in high school and college in the Reagan 80s, and, like many of my peers, I was concerned about and involved in protests of nuclear armament, apartheid—in South Africa and in the United States–, U.S. support of right-wing fascist dictatorships in Latin America, and the nation’s continued failure to support and elect women leaders of all backgrounds.  In other words, I did not feel “bound” to my nation because so many people were disenfranchised from participation in the voice and governance of the nation.

Lilla says, “What was astonishing during the Reagan years, though, was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, school teachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party.  This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalized right.”  My sense of this argument is that Lilla is encouraging a seemingly all-embracing left (would that it were more so) to silence its recognition of the existence of different groups (often formed from a shared group identity; often formed in response to visible and invisible systems of oppression) so as not to galvanize the forces of the right, so as not to unleash the dangerous forces of the right.  Is this silence, or this inaction, not just another form of oppression, in this case, as posited by Lilla, an oppression of the left that he recommends being imposed by the left?  Lilla says that the only way to “meaningfully assist them” (with “them” being “minorities”; ah, the haughtiness of this tone, the distance established) is “to win elections.”  Yes, absolutely, winning elections is essential, of course.  But multi-pronged approaches to problems, approaches that draw upon a variety of people’s different strengths, also work.  I believe the function of higher education is to develop this variety of skills, analytical approaches, and ability to collaborate so that our students become citizens who are interested in the world and able to effect change no matter where they land.  Also significant is our need to understand affective approaches to the polis—understanding our changing selves, engaging in dialogue with many others, and working together towards viable solutions.  I envision Venn diagrams of groups that often exist apart but certainly find interlocking areas of affinity, agreement, and action.

Martha S. Jones’ response to Lilla, “What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students,” published in the August 24, 2017, edition of The Chronicle, appropriately takes issue with Lilla’s overgeneralized characterizations of today’s generation of college students.  While Lilla states in general terms that our students are obsessed with their own identities and are unable to engage with the broader world, Jones gives concrete examples of students who have watched the gathering clouds of racism and done something about them.  I would like to add to Jones’ examples.  At the small university where I teach (which Lilla might see as “detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country”), many students understand their own changing mores and priorities and figure out how to contribute in small and large ways to the local community and the larger political realm.  Many don’t assume one, blanket national identity, but rather work to understand the many groups that make up the United States and the positive and negative effects our nation’s leaders have had on the world.  Many of the students recognize their own wealth and privilege (or lack thereof, in some cases) and labor to alleviate, to the extent they can, the challenges of everyday living for people in our community—transportation, food supplies, safety, education, and literacy.

Lilla’s characterization of college towns also reveals his own biases, rather than the more nuanced realities that one can seek to see, understand, and engage with: “A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job it is to keep it real for the residents.”  The tongue-in-cheek tone both contradicts Lilla’s later criticism of “casting an ironic eye” towards democratic politics and caricaturizes real people who experience actual life struggles.  In addition, Lilla says that campus towns “are very pleasant places to live.”  The town where I live is beautiful, but it can also be an unpleasant, and sometimes downright hostile, place for people to live.  (See last week’s post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)  Again, Lilla’s unexamined position is from above, and he neglects to distinguish between and among types of colleges and universities and the surrounding towns.  The refusal to engage with the world beyond the Ivory Tower simply reaffirms Lilla’s sense of the Tower itself.  Nevertheless, there are plenty of other ways to exist, teach, and advise in the higher education setting.  Instead of creating a straw man of so-called “identity politics” and this current generation of students, Lilla could get in the trenches and see what kind of actual work is being done.

I hope a collective sigh takes hold of The Chronicle’s audience when it reads Lilla’s sudden decision to incorporate a “she” in his article.  When he asks readers to “imagine a young student entering such an environment today,” the young student is a “she,” and the old master paternalistically mocks the courses the student chooses to take, the groups she chooses to join, the ways in which she will choose to be labeled a “victim.”  The long screed against this fictional “she” includes this assertion: “If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it.”  Is Trump “an anonymous force of power?”  Are Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler, and Christopher Cantwell “anonymous forces of power?” Is Dylann Roof an “anonymous force of “power”?  How about Brock Turner?  I believe we know the names and faces of those who use power—whether manifested through elected office or violence, or both—for their own gain, and I don’t think we could say that Heather Heyer, for example, chose to withdraw from democratic politics and cast an ironic eye on it.

If Lilla had used concrete examples (for example, here: “Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities”) and had avoided sweeping generalizations (e.g. “liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation”), I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not completely discarded the profound social, political, and legal impact of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he not made a sermon out of “reasoned political debate,” and had actually defined what that is, I might have understood his argument better.  Had he provided statistics (for example, about how colleges are “mainly run by liberals”), I might have understood his argument better.  In other words, had Lilla practiced the research and writing prescriptions offered in most higher education curricula, I might have understood his argument better.

I argue that we are not imposing an identity-based education, but that neither are we ignoring that individual and group identities exist and enjoy different levels of voice, visibility, and power, in our curricula, on our campuses, in our political realm.  To interpret contemporary campus politics with nuance, we have to examine our course offerings (have the white dudes really been taken over across the curriculum?), club offerings (I don’t think fraternities have disappeared, have they?), and our towns (real people live and work in these towns; real people struggle in these towns).  Traditional power dynamics still prevail, and they seem both unstudied and reinforced in Lilla’s work.

Does Lilla’s message continue to be broadly publicized because it comforts those who want to believe in a universal “us” and scorns and silences people and movements on the left who are laboring to achieve a working wage, safety from the violence of white supremacist groups, and a sense of fairness in our world?

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 it 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.