In her Newsday column, Cathy Young offers a provocative take on the vexing question of what’s wrong with the progressive contention that identity politics is the proper lens through which to view what’s wrong with our world.
For progressive activists and commentators, criticism of identity politics is a coded way to tell racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women, gays and other people who are not white males to stop demanding equal treatment. They argue that the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement and other forms of activism that have made America a fairer and better country were focused on identity. And there’s a long history of other, more traditional identity-based alliances: Jewish Americans and Italian-Americans and other groups in this country have organized to combat prejudice against them.
Is there a Polish-American Hall in your town? What about a Sons of Italy club? Are these not “identities,” even if the word doesn’t appear in the title? Why was it right and normal when it was about your affinity group, but wrong when the identity at issue is black or gay or Muslim?
But, as progressive journalist Jesse Singal argued recently, identity-focused politics can come in very different forms. He proposes a distinction between identity politics — advocacy for groups that suffer prejudice or discrimination, or have practical collective interests — and “identitarianism,” which sees all human interaction solely through the lens of demographic identity and promotes identity-based polarization.
Does this rhetorical distinction, Identity Politics v. Identitarianism, provide an answer? It didn’t for me, and after reading Cathy’s column and pondering Jesse’s wordplay, I was left with the sense that this wasn’t at all helpful in figuring out what was so different this time than last time, or the time before.
Then Cathy added another piece to the puzzle.
Left-wing identitarianism is particularly troubling in the age of revived identitarianism on the right. Of course, white identity politics in America is not simply, as some conservatives claim, a backlash against race- and gender-based “oppression Olympics”; an emphasis on whiteness was the cornerstone of historical racist policies. Today, Donald Trump’s Republican Party has become a haven for a mentality that sees white Americans as an aggrieved group and promises to champion their interests.
This not only failed to help clarify the parameters of the question, but muddled it even more. The addition of Trump and white nationalists as the alternative to “left-wing identitarianism” struck me as a red herring at best, and a tacit hat tip to the logical fallacy of tu quoque at worst. White supremacy is an inherent evil, and plays no role in any discussion of what’s happening with identitarianism. Assuming the right-wing fringe crazies didn’t exist, because they shouldn’t, what then?
The trouble with this approach, beyond using a piddling rhetorical distinction as a substitute for a more serious consideration, is that the premise is misguided at the outset. Holding up the older affinity groups like the Sons of Italy as an example of identity politics both mistakes its purpose and misapprehends what today is framed as identity politics.
When Italians immigrated here, they were treated as outcasts, snubbed by the WASPs who had established themselves as the keepers of American culture. So they joined together to have a place where they were welcome, where familiar ways were not only allowed, but embraced.
And they defended themselves from reproach by the “refined” forces of American propriety. But what they did not do is demand that the WASPs hand over their country clubs. They sought to end the detriment of not being Anglo-Saxon, to be given the same opportunity as anyone else.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the words are established by the Fourteenth Amendment, that no person shall be “denied the equal protection of the laws.”
My way of explaining this notion utilized what I delightfully called the Bastardized Herzberg Theory, which should have earned me a place of honor in political theory plus a statue, but instead had no legs at all. The foundational premise is borrowed from Mr. Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” While the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a detriment, it cannot require the provision of a benefit to any group at the expense of others.
This is what’s meant by identity politics. It is the zero-sum game of dividing up the booty of benefits, not eliminating the unconstitutional detriments. When one minority identity group can dictate to the majority, they move beyond the eradication of detriment into the demand for hegemony.
At first blush, this may sound pretty much the same as Jesse Singal’s identitarianism distinction, and there is significant similarity. But there is a critical difference. The Polish-American Hall wasn’t dedicated to making America Polish, but to making Poles Americans. It sought to prevent the identity from being used to separate the few from the many and to allow them the opportunity to take their place as Americans, like any other Americans. Like every other American.
This isn’t identity politics, but anti-identity politics. Stop distinguishing the minority as outsiders to be excluded and allow them to shed their identity and become an equal part of the whole, suffering no detriment based on where they hailed from, what foods they preferred, what language their grandparents spoke. They were here now. They were Americans now, just like those who came before them.
Identity politics today seeks the opposite, to separate the few from the many and demand the many deconstruct the melting pot that allowed anyone to rise above the detriment to enjoy the beneficence America offered. They use the weapon of shame for the detriment, a fair enough challenge as no one should suffer detriment, but take it past neutral into the realm of benefit for the few at the expense of the many.
This, I propose, is the critical distinction, and it’s not a matter of rhetoric, a word game between identity politics and identitarianism, but a matter of the Bastardized Herzberg Theory. Everyone gets the opportunity to be at neutral, to suffer no detriment because of the identity others use to limit them and hold them down. No one gets to demand special treatment beyond the opportunity to participate in America. No society can function where the many are expected to suffer for the benefit of the few, no matter what words are used or how vociferous their cries of shame.