In the days following Donald Trump’s surprise election win, progressive Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla published a thought-provoking, viral essay that took direct aim at identity politics:
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.
Lilla’s essay became a book that has sparked debate, withering reviews, and general disdain across wide swathes of the political and academic Left. Yet as I read the attacks on Lilla, I was struck by the extent to which his critics were either ignorant of or indifferent to the way in which conservatives and many moderate white Americans experience identity politics. They do not know the face that identity politics presents to Americans outside the progressive bubble.
To Lilla’s critics, minority identity politics is a defensive response to white identity politics (sometimes outright white supremacy) that is necessary for achieving a measure of justice and fairness in society. Sure, there are excesses, but they’re mainly confined to the fringes of the academy, where outrages are exaggerated by the likes of Fox News. Here’s the New Yorker’s David Remnick making that case in his interview with Lilla:
And one of the things right-wing media does is take some examples of exaggerated identity politics, in your terms—cartoonish moments—and blow them up on Fox or Breitbart or the rest, and make it seem as if every student at Columbia or Oberlin or the University of Chicago is inflamed with this. Am I wrong?
When I read words like that, I think they just don’t know. Or maybe they know — but don’t care — the extent to which a hostile, illiberal brand of identity politics has seeped into every nook and cranny of American culture. It’s not the case that conservative Americans sit ensconced in their immense privilege, raging at an irrelevant fringe hyped up by Fox News. Rather they experience identity politics at their jobs, hear their children and grandchildren describe experiencing it at school, and find it so omnipresent on television and online that they can’t seem to find any space (aside from conservative media) where someone isn’t mocking their values or accusing them of being complicit in historical atrocities.
At colleges, immersion in identity politics begins on Day One, when countless students start their orientation-mandated “privilege walks” designed to teach white kids who don’t have a racist bone in their body that there is something inherently wrong with them. People are treated as members of groups, not individuals, which leads to the absurd spectacle of poor kids’ being mocked as “privileged” by the wealthy, powerful children of doctors and lawyers.
Oh, and the outrages are not limited to the very few cases that make Fox News. For every embattled student group we hear about, there are dozens more that suffer in obscurity. Would you know from watching Fox that hundreds of Christian student groups have been forced to fight for their campus lives simply because Christian organizations want Christian leadership? For every incident like the one that derailed Charles Murray’s speech at Middlebury, there are countless unreported shout-downs, cancellations, and acts of petty censorship at universities across the U.S.
Then, students graduate and work for companies that have jumped with both feet into the sexual revolution — to such an extent that Christian Americans are terrified of openly discussing their views of religion and morality at work. Diversity trainers and human-resources departments set the rules, and the rules increasingly say that dissent from identity-politics orthodoxy represents “discriminatory harassment.” This isn’t just in Silicon Valley or in Manhattan. It’s in Nashville. It’s everywhere.
Conservative Americans aren’t making up the fact that the race-obsessed Left imposes the worst sorts of double standards. It speaks with true venom about “whiteness,” “white privilege,” and white people. And things are getting worse. We’ve reached a point where an orthodox-Jewish, Never Trump conservative can’t speak at one of America’s most elite universities without $600,000 worth of securities expenditures. Why? Because he’s a “fascist” or even a “white supremacist.”
Conservative Americans aren’t making up street violence in St. Louis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Portland, Minneapolis, Berkeley, and many other cities across the United States. Nor are they making up the fact that identity-politics activists will excuse that violence or dismiss it by calling protests “mostly peaceful” while the bricks are still flying or the fires are still blazing.
Here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguably the most influential black intellectual in America, writing in the midst of the Baltimore riots:
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
Did conservatives make that up? Or are we now to dismiss a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and winner of a National Book Award as “fringe” and “irrelevant?”
I’ve noted this before, but practitioners of identity politics constantly make “motte-and-bailey” arguments. In ancient times, the “bailey” was the place where people lived and worked, while the “motte” was the fort they retreated to when enemies arrived. In arguments, the bailey is your big idea. The motte is the point you make when you’re attacked.
Far-left progressives are constantly making sweeping, stereotypical, and hateful arguments about those outside their own tribe. They’ll speak with venom about white people. They’ll act as if “whiteness” represents a malicious, cultural monolith — lumping together a senator’s child with a foster kid living in a double-wide. They’ll behave as if orthodox Christians are bigots who adopted their theology to justify their hatred.
When called on a level of hatred they’d never tolerate in others, they retreat to their motte, their fort. Love trumps hate, they say. All we seek is racial equality, dignity, and justice for the marginalized. But as soon as the crisis passes, they march right back out to force students to make their privilege walks, silence Christians in the workplace, and hector Americans from every available platform and media outlet.
None of this justifies white identity politics. And nothing I write should be construed to deny the reality that racism still exists in American life and inflicts real harm on American citizens. But treating people who are not racists and not bigots as if they’re evil — and then sometimes even attempting to suppress their liberties — is often the very essence of modern identity politics, and it is exactly as divisive and destructive as Lilla says.
It’s pretty simple, really. Progressives cannot make false accusations of hate and expect support. And they most definitely cannot seek to restrict another person’s most fundamental rights to speak or practice their religion and expect compliance. Yet that is how conservatives experience identity politics. In such circumstances, can the Left expect anything other than condemnation from its targets?