Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
They Said It:
Many [postmodernists] deconstruct reason, truth, and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth, and reality Western civilization has wrought dominance, oppression, and destruction. “Reason and power are one and the same,” Jean-Francois Lyotard states. Both lead to and are synonymous with “prisons, prohibitions, selection process, the public good.”
Postmodernism then becomes an activist strategy against the coalition of reason and power. Postmodernism, Frank Lentricchia explains, “seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth but to exercise power for the purpose of social change.” The task of postmodern professors is to help students” spot, confront, and work against the political horrors of one’s time.”
Those horrors, according to postmodernism, are most prominent in the West, Western civilization being where reason and power have been the most developed. But the pain of those horrors is neither inflicted nor suffered equally. Males, whites, and the rich have their hands on the whip of power, and they use it cruelly at the expense of women, racial minorities, and the poor.
Stephen R.C. Hicks, Explaining Post Modernism, Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, 2005.
GOOGLE, CHARLOTTESVILLE, AND IDENTITY POLITICS.
A long time ago, when we worked for big-time brokerage house, we used to write for a fairly wide audience. Needless to say, with such a wide readership, we were bound to come across readers who disagreed with us vehemently and therefore wanted us to shut our stupid faces . . . or be fired . . . or something along those lines. One reader in particular thought that our use of history and philosophy to assess contemporary politics was extremely annoying. And every time we quoted Cicero or made reference to Plato or Rousseau or Hegel, this reader would scribble his thoughts down on the actual research copy and mail it back to our bosses at the firm’s headquarters, who would, inevitably, forward it on to us, so that we would know how much we were loved. Usually, his comments would end with something like: “So these two dimwits read Nietzsche in high school. Who gives a ****! What does that have to do with America’s social and industrial policies today?”
Well, everything. Let us explain.
Obviously, there is little agreement among the talking heads and experts about the causes of the problems plaguing our country. And the problems that plagued us over the course of the last week or so are no exception. Some think that Donald Trump is Hitler-in-waiting and is likely to burn down the Reichstag any moment in order to consolidate his power. Others believe that presidential adviser Steve Bannon is a contemporary Rasputin, manipulating events behind the scenes to cause social chaos, all in an effort enhance his own power and position among the royal family. Those who have paid the closest attention to the state of American politics, however, worry about the influence of something called “identity politics.” From the turmoil over “diversity” at Google to the riots and murder in the streets of Charlottesville, identity politics – which they define as “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics” – is causing significant trouble.
We find it hard not to agree with this latter group. This is as good a name as any, we suppose, and there can be little doubt that re-tribalization of Americans into identity has been the cause of much strife and conflict of late, on campuses especially but also in corporate America and in our politics more generally.
The problem is that this group that has identified and bemoans identity politics is relatively small and generally shoehorned as “right-wing.” Others acknowledge that identity politics exists, but either don’t understand its power or believe it to be a social good, not the source of our current social disharmony. Last week, for example, someone called Ben Mathis-Lily wrote this for Slate:
One prominent line of conservative response to this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been to admit that murderous white supremacist violence is bad while noting that liberals who engage in “identity politics” are bad too. . . .
The idea that the Black Lives Matter–style groups are being “divisive” by highlighting the role of racial identity in American society is not a new trope, but it is particularly ridiculous to bring up in reference to an actual white supremacist riot. . . .
In short, the first 350 years or so of U.S. history involved white Americans insisting that black Americans were members of an inferior racial group and setting up systems of employment, housing, education, and law enforcement that reflected that belief. The subsequent 50 years have involved whites presuming to be flabbergasted that anyone could think racial identity was a relevant subject in American life. It’s a neat trick!
With all due respect to Mathis-Lily, this is an incredibly ignorant or incredibly silly rant on his part. There are differences between traditional racism and identity politics – even identity politics as practiced by white nationalists. Identity politics is NOT merely the fabrication and exploitation of race. It is not even racialism – i.e. the belief that there are differences between races, without a specific denotation of superiority. Heck, identity politics is not exclusively, or even predominantly, about race. To insist that it is any of these things is either to demonstrate ignorance or to engage in obfuscation. We suspect that Mathis-Lily knows better, but chooses to conflate the issues at play in the current state of race relations for his own, presumably ideological purposes.
Put simply, identity politics is social interaction (traditionally political, as well as professional, social, academic, and so on) based not on collective, society-wide experiences, but on narrow, subjectively interpreted experiences of smaller groups that deem themselves different from the whole. Identity politics isn’t a case of the majority population exerting brute strength and domination over a minority group, as racism has been traditionally understood. Indeed, identity politics is, in many ways, the opposite of this traditional racist power relationship. It is, rather, the exclusive focus on social variations among small groups, differentiating them from the whole, and the insistence that these differences are both formative and determinative.
Interestingly enough, in the Wall Street Journal’s “Saturday Essay,” (published before the melee in Charlottesville), Mark Lilla, a liberal scholar and professor of the humanities at Columbia University, described, in part, the evolution and rise of identity politics:
There is a mystery at the core of every suicide, and the story of how a once-successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed liberal politics of “difference” is not a simple one. Perhaps the best place to begin it is with a slogan: The personal is the political.
This phrase was coined by feminists in the 1960s and captured perfectly the mind-set of the New Left at the time. Originally, it was interpreted to mean that everything that seems strictly private — sexuality, the family, the workplace — is in fact political and that there are no spheres of life exempt from the struggle for power. That is what made it so radical, electrifying sympathizers and disturbing everyone else.
But the phrase could also be taken in a more romantic sense: that what we think of as political action is in fact nothing but personal activity, an expression of me and how I define myself. As we would put it today, my political life is a reflection of my identity.
Over time, the romantic view won out over the radical one, and the idea got rooted on the left that, to reverse the formula, the political is the personal. Liberals and progressives continued to fight for social justice out in the world. But now they also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they did in that world. They wanted their political engagements to mirror how they understood and defined themselves as individuals. And they wanted their self-definition to be recognized.
This was an innovation on the left. Socialism had no time for individual recognition. Rushing toward the revolution, it divided the world into exploiting capitalists and exploited workers of every background. New Deal liberals were just as indifferent to individual identity; they thought and spoke in terms of equal rights and equal social protections for all. Even the early movements of the 1950s and ’60s to secure the rights of African-Americans, women and gays appealed to our shared humanity and citizenship, not our differences. They drew people together rather than setting them against each other.
All that began to change when the New Left shattered in the 1970s, in no small part due to identity issues.
In a brief passage in his new book, The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla explains how this plays out, in practice, on the individual level. He describes the hypothetical “re-education” of a young politically engaged student leaving home for the first time to attend college:
She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward toward the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she finds that she is being encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. (Little does she know. . . . ) She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity which, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not to progressively become a self through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.
And so she begins. She takes classes where she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she decides her identity is, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus groups that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be real but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes non-negotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity are not even perceived. Nor are the people affected by them.
Now, to be fair, we haven’t read this book in its entirely. But we must say that we were not as taken by it as some on the Right. We greatly appreciate his explication of identity politics. And, moreover, we agree with him that the advance of identity politics mirrors the collapse of traditional liberalism. Still, we’re not sure even he grasps just how far gone the Left really is. Or to put it bluntly, he completely lost us when he wrote that “We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.”
This isn’t going to happen. Frankly, it can’t happen.
For starters, the notion that “liberalism” used to perform well as a civic and economic movement is false. And so, therefore, is the corollary that it can do so again. Additionally, and more to the point, the belief that the shift to identity-politics was a conscious choice that can be consciously reversed is incredibly naïve, to say the least.
In his essay for the Journal, Lilla notes several times that the liberalism of the Roosevelt coalition no longer exists and that it collapsed at a specific moment in history. “Up until the 1960s,” he writes, “those active in the Democratic Party were largely drawn from the working class or farm communities and were formed in local political clubs or on union-dominated shop floors. That world is gone.” Elsewhere (as noted above), he says that “All that began to change when the New Left shattered in the 1970s, in no small part due to identity issues.” In other words, Lilla suggests that liberalism changed in the late 1960’s and 1970s, becoming something different from it what it once was. What he doesn’t do, however, is explain why that change took place, what it was about Leftism necessitated a rebranding of sorts.
The truth of the matter is that Leftism, both in its American form and its more radical European/global form, had to change. It had no choice. For a variety of reasons – some cultural, some religious, some economic – Leftism, as understood then, had been thoroughly undermined. Some of this it did to itself. Some reality did to it. But in the end, the Left as it then existed simply died.
Among other things, the traditional Left promised that which could not be delivered. Rousseau’s embrace of the “egalitarian State of Nature” enabled and encouraged a second, quasi-secular, post-Christian outbreak of revolutionary, chiliastic fantasies throughout the West. But like all such fantasies, these were inevitably doomed to fail, and this failure carried consequences.
In the West, the failure of the Left to deliver on its promised Utopia exacerbated a crisis of belief and elevated the epistemological skepticism of Nietzsche to new heights. In response to socialism’s disappointments, the Left abandoned reason, abandoned “reality,” and, in the end, rejected the Enlightenment itself in favor of relativism.
All of this constituted a death-blow for the Left as it had existed. The Left was, after all, specifically and incontrovertibly a product of the Enlightenment. In fact, its sole purpose was to advance the so-called “Enlightenment Project,” which turned into a three-century-long attempt to construct a reason-based moral system to replace the Judeo-Christian framework.
This project, however, was doomed from beginning by its refusal to recognize the premise upon which the Christian based moral system was based, that being that man is flawed and that neither reason nor science could fix him. Man could not – and cannot – be perfected. His “Millennium,” which is to say his “paradise” is otherworldly. It is beyond that which he, with his imperfect nature, is able to create on earth.
Unfortunately, while the quest for a better system failed, it managed to damage Christianity so badly that by 1860 Nietzsche was able to declare that God was dead. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, this “victory” on the part of the Left, created the conditions for its own demise. The movement drew its nourishment from its hatred of Christianity, which it claimed was responsible for all of mankind’s woes. Naturally then, as Christianity lost its once powerful importance, the Left did as well.
The failure of the Left to deliver its promised, pseudo-Christian Utopia created a crisis of confidence and, in turn, a crisis of reality. The American Liberal dream managed to struggle along for its first few decades, but by the 1960s, it was patently evident that the narrow economic success that state-liberalism enjoyed were driven primarily by non-economic, non-repeatable events, e.g. the flight of gold from pre-war Europe, the war effort itself, the post-war American geopolitical hegemony, and the post-war demographic boom. The normalcy of 1960s and the 1970s more or less ended the Keynesian fantasy.
The global Left’s failures were more spectacular still. The viciousness and murderousness of Stalin’s purges, the cold-blooded slaughter of millions of Chinese peasants, the violence, the bloodshed, and most especially the economic failure of the world’s leftist regimes belied the blissful idealism of the Marxist dream.
In response to this “failure of reality,” the Left did what any good religious fanatics would do in a similar situation. It simply denied reality. It insisted that no such thing existed. You could not believe your lyin’ eyes, in other words. Or, as Stephen Hicks out it in his classic Explaining Postmodernism:
In the past two centuries, many strategies have been pursued by socialists the world over. Socialists have tried waiting for the masses to achieve socialism from the bottom up, and they have tried imposing socialism from the top down. They have tried to achieve it by evolution and revolution. They have tried versions of socialism that emphasize industrialization, and they have tried those that are agrarian. They have waited for capitalism to collapse by itself, and when that did not happen they have tried to destroy capitalism by peaceful means. And when that did not work some tried to destroy it by terrorism.
But capitalism continues to do well and socialism has been a disaster. In modern times there have been over two centuries of socialist theory and practice, and the preponderance of logic and evidence has gone against socialism.
There is accordingly a choice about what lesson to learn from history. If one is interested in truth, then one’s rational response to a failing theory is as follows:
One breaks the theory down to its constituent premises.
One questions its premises vigorously and checks the logic that integrates them.
One seeks out alternatives to the most questionable premises.
One accepts moral responsibility for any bad consequences of putting the false theory into practice.
This is not what we find in postmodern reflections on contemporary politics. [Instead] Truth and rationality are subjected to attack . . .
What does this have to do with identity politics? Well, identity politics is part of the postmodern milieu. The essential premise of identity politics is that each and every identity group – whites, black, male, female, non-conforming, straight, gay, etc. – has its own version of reality. Reality does not exist as an objective matter. The collective experiences of the identity group differentiate it from the whole, which is to say that only the members of the identity group “experience” reality in a specific manner. Everyone else experiences reality differently and cannot even begin to fathom what it means to experience reality from within the group.
Among other things, postmodernists believe that all identity groups speak a language unique to themselves and to their own experiences. Therefore, they believe that certain groups communicate “secret messages” to one another through otherwise seemingly innocuous speech. This is the “dog-whistle” complaint we hear so much about in politics today. “States’ rights,” for example, is white, racist code for hatred of blacks and other minorities. Only the white racists – and the assorted post-modernist cultural polymaths – understand the code for what it really is.
Additionally, and more to the point today, postmodernism insists that shared language, experiences, etc. form the backbone of identity-based reality. Unless one has lived, breathed, spoken about, and otherwise faced the experiences of a specific identity group, one cannot possibly fathom what reality is or means to that group. Only the group itself can exercise or justify its own expression of power. Or to put it another way, the shared experiences of victimhood create the demand for power, which, in turn, begets status and which cannot be questioned from the outside. Identity politics is a postmodern initiative designed not just to empower the Left’s favored groups, but to shield those groups from any and all external criticism.
Now, if all of this sounds to you like pseudo-intellectual gibberish, you’re right. That’s precisely what it is. It is the nonsensical manipulation of language and guilt to fashion an ideology of victimhood. Unfortunately, this ideology has its costs.
In the first case, the cost is actual and genuine “diversity.” This genuine diversity – diversity of opinion, diversity of education, diversity of background, diversity of strengths and weaknesses – is a good thing and it contributes, in sum, to a well-rounded organization. But that is not the diversity in which the Left is interested. Instead the Left is interested specifically in diversity as measured by identity alone, in the presumption that only by empowering specific identity groups can society’s failures be rectified. This type of identity is, by its very nature, discordant and balkanizing. It creates an atmosphere in which questioning the experiences and manifestations of identity is, in and of itself, a thought crime.
Who are you, after all, to determine what is or is not an effective or legitimate expression of power? Unless you happen to be a member of the identity group, you cannot possibly understand what its unique, shared experiences have created or what its unique, shared language means. You are an interloper at best, a threat to the group and to the group’s project of rectifying shared and yet undisclosed oppression. The language and institutions of other power groups – dead white males, for example – is inadequate, and even the use of them denotes hostility. All of which means that James Damore must be fired by Google, no matter how convincing his arguments may appear to outsiders.
In the second case, the cost is the peace and stability of society. When victimhood becomes the currency of the realm, then victim status becomes something coveted and jealously guarded. As we suggested above, the racism in evidence in Charlottesville last weekend is not your grandfather’s white racism. It is not the racism of “white power” or white supremacy. Rather, it is the racism of victimhood. The white racists see that other groups have used identity politics to enhance their own power, and they want in on the game. We’re victims of mass immigration, they complain. And of global Jewish banking conspiracies. We’ve been wronged by affirmative action. We’ve been punished by low-cost foreign manufacturing. The forces of liberalism have aligned against us and have stolen what was rightfully ours, and we just want it back. We have been called racists and repeatedly told that we are privileged, despite the fact that we have nothing. Not only do we want to have something, to have control of our lives back, but we no longer care what they call us, because they can’t possibly understand us and what we’ve been through. They don’t know us.
Now, to be fair, we will concede that not ALL of the rebirth of white racism can be attributed to this is a new form of identity-politics-enabled racial grievance mongering. There is plenty of old-fashioned hatred in the mixture as well (witness, for example, David Duke’s ongoing presence). Nevertheless, the galvanizing force in what we are seeing is group identity and group victimization. In a very real sense, identity politics is a zero-sum game in which the “winner” is that groups which grab the most – most stuff, most power, most privilege – for itself. And therefore clashes are inevitable.
What took place on Saturday in Charlottesville was one of these inevitable clashes. There can be no question who was responsible for the clash, no question who started it or even, for that matter, who ended it, bloodily. In this case, the radicalism of white identity politics fit nicely with the symbols and the ideals of traditional southern racism, creating a virtual tinder box. All that was needed to cause an explosion was the faintest hint of opposition to white identity victimhood.
It will not always be this clear-cut, however. This type of violence feeds on itself. And while we don’t believe that widespread civil unrest is likely, we do think that repeated outbreaks among these identity groups will continue into the indefinite future.
The biggest problem in all of this, especially in the context of Mark Lilla’s hypothesis, is that there is no going back. Re-creating the liberalism of yesteryear is a fantasy, not just because the postmodern ethic has become so embedded in our institutions, but because traditional economic liberalism can no longer function. The New Deal and Great Society models have collapsed and will never again be even viable in our low-population-growth environment.
Given this, it is hard for us to imagine the reestablishment of any sort of national common purpose, any sort of shared sense of citizenship. Instead, we suspect that it will lead to even greater division, to political devolution of power. In the end, that’s likely the best we can hope for.
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