An End of Identity Liberalism?

Sign at a “Women for Hillary” rally in New York City in April. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Don’t count on it.

The New York Times, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes and necessarily contradicts itself.

In the Sunday edition there is an intelligent essay by Mark Lilla titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” In the Times magazine is an essay by Alexander Fury asking “Can a Corset Be Feminist?”

Lilla argues that the tiresomely omphaloskeptic identity politics of the contemporary Left is counterproductive, standing in the way of a genuine liberalism of principle and cosmopolitan broad-mindedness. He writes: “How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the ‘first X to do Y’ — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.”

If we were feeling generous, we could overlook the fact that such sterling progressives as Jonathan Chait began to question the value of identity politics right around the time that “Shut up, white man!” came to be accepted as an all-purpose response to columns by Jonathan Chait. Lilla’s understandably Europhilic column does not grapple with the demographic facts — that Switzerland is full of Swiss people and Mississippi isn’t — but his prescription for liberal reform is the right one, one that certainly would please conservatives even if it made no impression on the Left, which does not have very many liberals anymore. A liberal education system, Lilla writes, would acquaint students with the structures and dynamics of American government and prepare them for the duties of citizenship. A liberal press would take more than an “anthropological interest in the angry white male” and “would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion.” (Learning the elementary facts about firearms would be something, too.)

RELATED: The Delusions of Left-Wing Identity Politics

The most interesting and insightful part of Lilla’s essay is his argument that the right-leaning rural and small-town Americans are not in fact revolting against the fact of American diversity but against the “omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’” That is exactly right.

He ends with a salute to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” without getting into the messy fact that the Democratic party has declared open war on two of them — freedom of speech and freedom of worship — with Harry Reid’s Senate caucus having gone so far as to vote for repealing the First Amendment.

Make identity politics the main operational model in a country that is two-thirds white and 50 percent or so male, and what do you expect?

How different is Alexander Fury’s essay on the corset, by comparison. Fury’s piece is the usual exercise in progressive moral panic: How should the right sort of people feel about corsets? (Kale? Juice cleanses? Whole Foods? Tesla automobiles?) The corset, Fury says, is not just another article of clothing, and one can feel a dreadful premonition of the abuse of the word “literally” before Fury gets around to writing it: “As opposed to merely transforming our perceptions of the figure, as with the padding and extensions of 18th-century pannier skirts, or the 19th-century bustle, the corset acted — and still acts — directly on the form, kneading and shifting flesh to literally carve out a new body for its wearer, no situps required.” We are all good liberals here, but I am confident that literally carving the human body remains a crime, even in New York.

RELATED: Identity Politics Are Ripping Us Apart

Fury’s version of things is the opposite of Lilla’s tolerant liberalism: To be the right sort of people, we must be feminists, and to be feminists, we must have opinions on . . . everything, and assign to the entirety of the universe moral gradations based upon the feminist position that all of the right sort of people must assume. Fury ultimately comes down as a corset libertarian: “A woman wearing a corset today is a symbol of empowerment, of sexual freedom, of control. She’s the one holding the laces, the one constructing her own femininity.” But the problem is less the answer than the question, and the question-begging — the identification of feminism with virtue and the hunt for heresy.

#related#Lilla’s plea is probably doomed to fall upon deaf ears — or ears that are at the very least not listening. There is almost nothing that people enjoy so much as talking about themselves and all of the splendid ways in which they and their experiences are utterly unique, and it is very difficult to listen to others while talking about one’s self. Sir Richard Francis Burton wasn’t entirely wrong to conclude that “man never worshipped anything but himself.”

But if progressives will not heed principle, then maybe they will heed arithmetic. Make identity politics the main operational model in a country that is two-thirds white and 50 percent or so male, and what do you expect?

President-elect Trump might have some thoughts on that.


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