For a long time, the right has complained that the left engages in “identity politics”. They are referring to the practice of appealing to Americans as not simply or even primarily Americans, but as blacks, Latinos, women, homosexual, etc. This divides us and pits us against each other. And that’s very bad. So, we should not practice identity politics.
That’s at least what many on the right say. And the answer to identity politics is a politics of individualism. Here’s a recent expression of that view, by Jonah Goldberg:
American conservatism, unlike traditional European conservatism, is liberty-loving because we are defending the revolutionary ideals of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism holds that the individual is sovereign and that he or she should be judged on his own merits, not according to his tribe, his class or faith. Identity politics is hemlock to this vision.
Well, then bring on the hemlock. Or, on second thought, the hemlock isn’t even necessary; because what Goldberg and right-wingers who agree with him are offering is not only dead, but was born dead, and only ever existed as “revolutionary ideals” in the crazed, utopian minds of those who dreamed them up, and in those who have been indoctrinated into this fantasy.
Remove the weasel word “judged” from Goldberg’s statement. Identity politics isn’t about judging people. It’s about promoting and protecting their interests and values. And those things have almost everything to do with a person’s “tribe, his class or faith”. To not understand this, to think that people are primarily individuals, is to be in the grips of an idea that is as divorced from reality and human well-being as any of the ideas of the left.
People are men, women, parents, nurses, sports fans, Christians, dog owners, and, yes, black, white, etc. That’s how they see themselves. It’s how they find order and purpose in their lives. If they saw themselves merely or primarily as individuals they would be lost, confused, wondering who they were and what they should be doing with their days. Being more than an individual is essential to human well-being. So, to engage in identity politics is to engage with people in a way that is directly concerned with their well-being. That’s why identity politics are so appealing to people.
But how can we get along in a diverse, multicultural society with a politics that appeals to special identities? Great question. That’s a huge problem. But the point that I want to make here is that, in a multicultural society, a politics of the individual is a politics for no one. It’s not the politics that we have, or ever had, in this country. A truly neutral politics of the individual would not, e.g., observe Christmas as a national holiday while failing to observe many other non-Christian religious holidays. It wouldn’t be fighting about who uses what bathroom because it would never have favored “cisgender” norms to begin with. Etc.
Worse, a politics of neutral individualism is not even possible. Take, as an example, public dress codes for women. Allowing women to walk the streets with bare arms is to fail to uphold a basic value of decency for many Muslims. But forcing women to cover their arms would conflict with a value of freedom in dress that traditional Americans support. There is no neutral solution to this problem. One group’s values are necessarily subverted. And so it goes for countless practices and customs.
To summarize, the politics of individualism fails to engage with important aspects of human well-being; it’s not what we have, or ever had, in our country; and it’s not even possible. We have always practiced identity politics and always will.
The question is just what kind of identity politics we should practice. Obviously, those of us on the right do not favor what the left has been peddling. But what is the sensible alternative? I’ll take that question up in another post.
- Attack Until We Crack - November 11, 2016
- Obviously Trump - November 1, 2016
- Please Take Us Seriously - October 28, 2016
- Nagging Philosophy Shrews and Their Enablers - October 24, 2016
- The Hypocrisy of Academic Philosophy - October 3, 2016
- Identity Politics: Sensible and Inescapable - September 20, 2016