Category Archives: Identity Politics

OK, Mr. Fukuyama, you’ve got my attention

I subscribe to an app for The New Yorker on my iPad, and it is through that that I read the magazine.

Through that, but not on that. I mean through the subscription, but not on the app. Although I read practically everything else — The State, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and sometimes The Guardian and the Post and Courier — via their respective iPad apps, I usually interact with this subscription through a completely different mechanism. Oddly enough, through email alerts. I read practically nothing else that way. In fact, I’ve recently embarked on a ruthless campaign of unsubscribing from every email list that I once, however fleetingly, had thought would interest me.

But not The New Yorker. I can’t explain it to you, but they seem to have hit on a formula that engages my interest where other emailers have failed miserably. One of the interesting features of this formula is that the articles the messages link me to are not all from the most recent issue. The emails mine the entire archive of the magazine; the items they lead me to read may have run months, years, even decades ago. And they tend to be fascinating. (Also, this approach supports the way I see the world of ideas: If it was worth saying last year, or in 1939, it’s worth saying today. Worthwhile ideas are timeless.)

Anyway, this week I was led by an email to read an item from back in September of this year, headlined “Francis Fukuyama Postpones the End of History,” with the subhed, “The political scientist argues that the desire of identity groups for recognition is a key threat to liberalism.”

Well, y’all know how I feel about identity politics, so I dug in eagerly, and after a brief rehash of Mr. Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis of three decades ago, I got to the nut grafs:

Twenty-nine years later, it seems that the realists haven’t gone anywhere, and that history has a few more tricks up its sleeve. It turns out that liberal democracy and free trade may actually be rather fragile achievements. (Consumerism appears safe for now.) There is something out there that doesn’t like liberalism, and is making trouble for the survival of its institutions.

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama

Fukuyama thinks he knows what that something is, and his answer is summed up in the title of his new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, isis, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump. It also explains the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Chinese Communism, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, multiculturalism, and the thought of Luther, Rousseau, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Simone de Beauvoir. Oh, and the whole business begins with Plato’s Republic…

Which made me think, I need to go read that book. Even though I know that with such books, I tend to find satisfaction in the way the idea is presented in the first chapter (actually, more like the introduction, because the first chapter usually starts getting into the weeds), and then lose interest. I’m like, “Got it!,” and I want to move on before the explication drags on for the next 20 chapters or so.

In fact, in this case I may even be satisfied with the idea as set out in the two grafs above. You know how it is with those of us who are so “N” on the Myers-Briggs scale as to be off the chart: I perceive rightness in those few words and am immediately ready to applaud and move on to the next thing.

But not Louis Menand, the gentleman who wrote the article. In fact, the words I quote above are immediately followed by these:

Fukuyama covers all of this in less than two hundred pages. How does he do it?

Not well….

Frankly, I’m not enough of an intellectual, public or private, to follow Mr. Menand’s objections. They have to do with esoteric considerations of certain terms used by Plato, Hegel and an influential 20th-century dude named Alexandre Kojève.

Alexandre Kojève

Alexandre Kojève

Along the way, he sort of loses me the way, say, arguments between difference feminists and “do-me” feminists over which possesses the purest understanding of feminism. Or whatever. I like esoteric things. In fact, I was very excited back in school when I first learned the word “esoteric” because it gave me a term for describing some things that I liked. But even a good thing can be run into the ground.

All of the objections seem beside the point to me. They don’t really refute the idea that all those movements and phenomena described above are related to the identity impulse. Not so I can tell, anyway.

In fact, Mr. Menand helps me figure out a way to remove the fly in the ointment of the passage I like so much above. I was bothered somewhat by the fact that ideas and movements I tend to dismiss, or even abhor — such as campus identity politics and the election of Donald Trump — are described as springing from the same source as the civil rights movement.

But Menand helps me dismiss that concern, perhaps inadvertently, with this:

Wouldn’t it be important to distinguish people who ultimately don’t want differences to matter, like the people involved in #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, from people who ultimately do want them to matter, like isis militants, Brexit voters, or separatist nationalists? And what about people who are neither Mexican nor immigrants and who feel indignation at the treatment of Mexican immigrants? Black Americans risked their lives for civil rights, but so did white Americans. How would Socrates classify that behavior? Borrowed thymos?

Ah. Perfect. Those thoughts suggest to me a standard: The legitimacy of a movement or phenomenon linked to identity can be determined by the extent to which reasonable people outside the group can agree with it, even advocate it.

Nice. Neat. Perhaps too neat. Perhaps it appeals because it gives us old white guys a potential role to play. But I like it, and I think I’m going to stop while I’m enjoying it, before the objections that I sense are about to pounce on it from the shadows do their worst….

How far have we come in 70 years? Maybe not so far…

cadet

When I saw the above story, and especially the picture with it, I had to smile.

Look at that young woman! She has worked hard, and achieved a milestone toward a lifelong goal. She deserves the joy I see in her face. God bless her. I’d like to meet her and shake her hand, and thank her for her service, and her drive to excel in that service. For the rest of the day, I’d probably feel much better about Life, the Universe and Everything — and especially the human race, which as we know can be disappointing at times.

But when I read stories like this, this tiny, cynical voice tries to ruin it by saying something like “Another ‘first’ story. It’s 2017, and ‘first’ stories still get big play in The New York Times.”

Don’t blame me. On this point, I was warped early on. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And a lot of things about that book have stuck with me. Here’s one of them…

X tells this colorful sort of comic-opera story about himself that is much like the one Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant,” about how he got his draft notice, and upon arrival at the intake station went into an elaborate, over-the-top act to get a psychiatrist to rule him unfit for service.

This was 1943. X acts as crazy as he can while standing in line with the other draftees during the physical, and marvels at how long it takes them to pull him out of the queue. But eventually they do, and when he gets to the shrink’s office, he describes this scene:

firsts

Ignore the “not bad to look at” part. This was 1943, and even 20 years later when the book was written, we guys got to say stuff like that without being condemned for it.

Malcolm X in 1964

Malcolm X in 1964

No, my point is what X is saying about “first” stories. Reading this at 17, and rereading it today, I get the strong impression he held such stories in contempt. Part of this arises from the attitudes he would embrace through the Nation of Islam (views he would just be in the process of turning away from as the book was being written). He apparently held all involved in contempt — the white man for so grudgingly allowing black people such small achievements, and black folks for being so thrilled at such crumbs from the white man’s table.

I have never been a bitter cynic in the league of Malcolm X, and hope to God I never will be. I’m pleased for people who accomplish anything that improves their lives and inspires other people. But that anecdote has stuck with me over the years. And every time I see a story like this one today, that memory looms up.

About the time X was working with Alex Haley on that book, the white press joined the “Negro press” in celebrating such firsts. Which in and of itself was a fine thing, a form of progress, of the nation forming a consensus around its highest ideals.

But here it is 2017, and we’re still reading these stories? Almost a decade after the election of our “first black president,” this is still news?

To go back to where I started: I liked reading this story. I like reading about the achievement of a fellow human being named Simone Askew. This world needs more like her! But that part of me that was influenced by that book when I was younger (and far less accomplished) than she is makes me wonder whether it doesn’t take something away from her personal achievement to couch it in terms that Malcolm X scoffed at in 1943…

Identity politics is not the way forward for America

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

You ever see a Latin American Casta painting? They were used in colonial times to help everyone keep straight in their minds the rigid caste system in the Spanish colonies, based meticulously on various shades of racial heritage.

That would seem to be obvious, wouldn’t it, when we’re speaking of the white supremacists who demonstrated in Charlottesville?

But I mean it more broadly. This comes to mind because of a piece I read in the NYT Saturday, before the violence that led to three deaths.

The column, by Frank Bruni, wasn’t about Charlottesville. At least, he didn’t mention it. It was the sort of piece that steps back from the news and asks where we’re headed. It was headlined “I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” As a guy who’s been concerned about the Left’s obsession with Identity Politics for some years now, I was immediately drawn to that headline. And it was a good piece. It began:

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

But wait. I’m gay. And I mean gay from a different, darker day. In that pool and at that school, I sometimes quaked inside, fearful of what my future held. Back then — the 1970s — gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out. We conducted our lives in whispers. Then AIDS spread, and we wore scarlet letters as we marched into the public square to plead with President Ronald Reagan for help. Our rallying cry, “silence = death,” defined marginalization as well as any words could.

So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer?

To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes…

Of course, being a thoughtful sort, he disagrees with that assessment. He goes on to explain why, and pretty persuasively, I think. But then, I didn’t need persuading.

I urge you to read the whole column.

I like his ending, so I will share it and hope the NYT regards it as fair use:

… At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.

Those construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me.

Bruni seemed to expect to get some criticism for his column. That’s something that all opinion columnists expect. His one beef was his concern that too much of it would be of this variety. Shut up, white man. You have nothing of value to contribute.

He had a cautionary example before him: The reaction to a piece written right after the election by Mark Lilla, described by Wikipedia as “a self-described liberal,” was of just that sort — criticism rooted in his white-manness, not in the quality of his arguments.

That essay in November was somewhat optimistically headlined “The End of Identity Liberalism.” What he is describing is something that has by no means ended. But he suggests that its time as a viable strategy for winning elections is past, if there ever was such a time.

Lilla, like Bruni, made good arguments. (Again, I was part of the choir on this, so maybe reaching me wasn’t a major accomplishment.) It’s a longer piece, in which Lilla introduces his theme this way:

But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for
nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate”
our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as
a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American
liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual
identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a
unifying force capable of governing.

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its
repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.
Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American
interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy.
But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large
vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to AfricanAmerican,
Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic
mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all
of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data
show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted
for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals…

And here’s the kind of future toward which Lilla urges liberals:

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. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in
this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly
charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching
on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with
a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of
hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main
political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their
system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity
liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A postidentity
liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that
have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would
take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping
world politics, especially their historical dimension…

Amen to that. And I would likewise say “amen” to a “post-identity conservatism.” Personally, I don’t care where it comes from on the ideological spectrum, because I don’t believe in the ideological spectrum, which I see as just another way that short-sighted people seek to divide us.

The liberal, conservative or (oh, consummation devoutly to be wished!) independent who compelling invokes what we have in common as Americans, and builds a vision for our future on it, has my vote.

I don’t go for these same-sex work partnerships

Having decided it was time, after 10 years, for me to leave The Jackson (TN) Sun, I started putting out feelers in the spring of 1985.

Just before I flew out to Wichita to interview for a job I would eventually take, I got a call from an editor at The Charlotte News, who wanted me to come there before making up my mind. By the end of the conversation, we had made travel arrangements for right after the Kansas trip. (But then days later, the editor called me back to cancel. The hiring freeze word had just gone out; the afternoon paper would close later that year.)

It was a fairly lengthy call. When I got off the phone, my wife asked who I’d been talking to.

“An editor in Charlotte who wants me to go there instead of Wichita.”

“Was it a woman?” she asked.

“Yeah… how could you tell?”

“You were enjoying yourself,” she said.

She knows me very well. Most of my career, my closest working relationships — certainly most of the really enjoyable ones — have been with women. (One of my best friends at the Jackson paper once referred to herself as one of “Brad’s women.” Some might have misunderstood that, but all within hearing knew what she meant.) I don’t know why. Nothing against guys. I’ve had a great working partnership with plenty of guys, such as Robert Ariail, as I described back here. But who’s to say? — maybe if we’d also had a cartoonist who was a woman, I might have an even closer partnership with her. Or not. I never set out to work more closely with women. It just keeps happening.

Earlier today I mentioned the Power Failure project. While I worked with people from across the newsroom off and on during that year, there was a core group of three women, from start to finish, without whom I couldn’t have gotten it done. One of them was assigned to the project mainly to keep me on track, to make sure that all my theories and plans and ideas were actually translated into articles and graphics and photos, on time. She was essential to the project becoming something that you could hold in your hand.

And anyone who had occasion to observe the portion of my career spent at The State knows how important was the partnership I had with Cindi Scoppe, from when I first supervised her as a 23-year-old reporter in the late ’80s through those last 12 years on the editorial board.

Anyway, I share all this to explain why I thought this piece in The Wall Street Journal today was such a crock:

Picking Someone for a Project? Chances Are, He’ll Look Like You

Here’s at least one instance of parity among the sexes: Men and women are equally biased when it comes to choosing work partners, a new study suggests.

When selecting colleagues to collaborate with on a daily basis, males and females are both significantly more likely to choose someone of their own gender, according to an analysis by Innovisor, a Copenhagen-based management consulting firm…

“We prefer to collaborate with people who look just like us,” says Jeppe Hansgaard, a managing partner at Innovisor. “That’s a management issue, because you want your employees to collaborate with the right people, not just people who look like them.”…

Maybe the piece set me off particularly because I’d just read (part of) this distressing report telling me that the Obama campaign plans to stress Identity Politics more in this election. But every time I read anything about  how people choose to associate with “people like them,” it ticks me off. I like to think people are broader than that.

Hoping Obama won’t really run this way

Maybe y’all have time to read this piece by John Heilemann in New York Magazine. I don’t, not today. If you do, please get back and tell me that things don’t really look as dark as they do at the beginning:

The contours of that contest are now plain to see—indeed, they have been for some time. Back in November, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, two fellows at the Center for American Progress, identified the prevailing dynamics: The presidential race would boil down to “demographics versus economics.” That the latter favor Mitt Romney is incontestable. From high unemployment and stagnant incomes to tepid GDP growth and a still-pervasive sense of anxiety bordering on pessimism in the body politic, every salient variable undermines the prospects of the incumbent. The subject line of an e-mail from the Romney press shop that hit my in-box last week summed up the challenger’s framing of the election concisely and precisely: “What’s This Campaign Going to Be About? The Obama Economy.”

The president begs to differ. In 2008, the junior senator from Illinois won in a landslide by fashioning a potent “coalition of the ascendant,” as Teixeira and Halpin call it, in which the components were minorities (especially Latinos), socially liberal college-educated whites (especially women), and young voters. This time around, Obama will seek to do the same thing again, only more so. The growth of those segments of the electorate and the president’s strength with them have his team brimming with confidence that ­demographics will trump economics in November—and in the process create a template for Democratic dominance at the presidential level for years to come…

Y’all know how I feel about Identity Politics. I want leaders who want to lead all of us, not this or that arbitrarily selected subset. Obama, to me, is the guy who inspired a victorious crowd in Columbia to chant, on the night of the 2008 South Carolina primary, “Race doesn’t matter!” Amen, said I. The atmosphere that night — when voters rejected the continued partisan strife that the Clinton campaign seemed to offer — was one in which we put our divisions behind us, and work toward building a better country together, as one people.

And if there’s anything more distressing in my book than Identity Politics, it’s Kulturkampf. Those couple of paragraphs are enough to push me toward political despair on that count. The next two grafs are worse:

But if the Obama 2012 strategy in this regard is all about the amplification of 2008, in terms of message it will represent a striking deviation. Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’ ” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

The Obama effort at disqualifying Romney will go beyond painting him as excessively conservative, however. It will aim to cast him as an avatar of revanchism. “He’s the fifties, he is retro, he is backward, and we are forward—that’s the basic construct,” says a top Obama strategist. “If you’re a woman, you’re Hispanic, you’re young, or you’ve gotten left out, you look at Romney and say, ‘This [f*@#ing] guy is gonna take us back to the way it always was, and guess what? I’ve never been part of that.’ ”

Yeah, that’s all we need. A campaign that sees itself as an army of indignant minorities, feminists, gays and young people up against a coalition of self-interested white males, Ayn Randers, birthers and nativists, with both sides convinced that it is at war with the other. And each subset being motivated not by what’s good for the country, but by what it sees as advantageous to itself as a group.

So much for the United States.

All that’s left to me at this point is to hope the campaign plays out differently from the way this writer envisions it.