On the January 15, 1968, episode of Firing Line, after discussing the circumstances of the 1967 Detroit riot, Godfrey Cambridge acerbically remarked to host William F. Buckley Jr., “The terrible thing about a riot is that it has no brain. Good people get hurt, and bad people get hurt.”
The theme of the episode was the condition of the American civil-rights movement — specifically, whether it had gone awry in the face of events such as the violent protests of the “long, hot summer of 1967.” Over the course of 50 or so minutes, the men had a fruitful discussion on the viability of nonviolent protest, the legal enforcement of civil rights, and the dynamics and limits of cultural identity.
In evidence throughout the entire segment, however, is a tension between two overlapping but distinct identities, the common American identity on the one hand and, on the other, the sectional, cultural identity — whether that be white, black, or some other ethnic group. While the men agree that both the common identity and the sectional identity are legitimate, there is nonetheless a tension between the two poles. The conversation underscores that an increased emphasis on the sectional, ethnic identity tends to diminish the common American identity, whether or not that is the goal of one’s adherence to the sectional identity.
While neither man explicitly says so, they seem to agree on a solution: The various sectional identities will remain distinct but exist with mutual respect within the common national one.
Yet, while this ideal might appear within easy reach for educated pundits speaking before a national audience, it is often elusive in everyday reality.
Extreme emphasis on an ethnic or class identity invariably ends in violence, and because membership in a given ethnic or class group has no bearing on individual morality, it is an arbitrary violence. Good and bad people alike get hurt. Identification with one’s ethnic background is not necessarily irrational, but neither is it the result of rational choice. It is an organic feature of one’s human makeup. It can be powerful, natural, even uplifting in the proper context, but it can also prove extremely volatile.
This possible volatility and inherent amorality mean that this aspect of human identity can never serve as the final basis of one’s political philosophy — and therein lies one of the main cause of the violence in Detroit in 1967 and the violence perpetrated by civil-rights opponents that same summer. The source of the violence was an absolute and immoderate adherence to the idea usually referred to today as “identity politics.” Even if many, or none, of the participants in the violence thought in these terms, this is the political philosophy they were practically acting out. One’s personal identity is a limited and specific thing; making it the absolute yardstick of one’s political action, such that one does all things in the political sphere, or makes all decisions in the philosophical sphere, simply for the good of one’s personal identity or group, will invariably lead to a perversion of justice. “Identity,” as understood by the thinkers who formulated “identity politics,” is an essential and unavoidable part of humanity — but it is also secondary.
“Identity politics,” as commonly understood today on the hard left and hard right, is in essence the notion that people of a common “identity” — usually of a racial, class, ethnic, or cultural character — should operate in the political realm as a unit to achieve their goals. Many would portray identity politics as a justifiable course of action to bring about social change for excluded or threatened social groups, and in many cases this sentiment is entirely correct. But the history of identity-based politics show that this can go too far. While minority groups, or groups of any form, must often band together out of self-interest or even self-preservation, there is a limit to this strategy, and the weaker society’s attachment to absolute God-given morality becomes, the more difficult it is to observe that limit.
The belief that membership in an ethnic group necessitates support of a given political group or movement has long bedeviled American politics. Whites, blacks, Jews, and nearly all ethnic groups, at one time or another, have fallen prey to this belief. In the Firing Line episode, Godfrey Cambridge referred to “self-realization” — a process that might involve, for example, wearing the traditional dress of your ancestral homeland even though you have only distant connections to it, through long-dead forebears. “Self-realization” of this sort might be uplifting, but it cannot serve as the ultimate basis for any political philosophy. The nonrational and ethnic elements of human identity can only serve as an accompaniment to, never the foundation of, one’s outlook on life, no matter how essential they are to an individual’s self-conception.
Many theologians would interject here with the idea that that ultimate bedrock ought to be God Himself and the promotion of human flourishing. If he were of the Thomistic school, he might cite natural law as well. But the point remains that it is ultimately impossible to entirely base a humane, just, and constructive political outlook on a nonrational personal, class, or biological identity.
But, as history shows, many have taken this path.
The pull of what the Left today commonly understands as “identity politics,” a term that first came into widespread use in the 1970s, lies partially in its simplicity. Man is, by nature, social, and voting as a cultural bloc — in what amounts to electoral collective bargaining — can yield tangible and entirely just rewards. But when, in advancing your own group, you harm the innocent members of another group — when “good and bad people” are getting hurt indiscriminately — your movement has failed the litmus test of moral politics.
It’s true that “identity politics” are to some degree inherent to all politics. Adrian Vermeule, a constitutional-law professor at Harvard, recently said,
There is nothing that isn’t “identity politics” of one sort or another, including the identity of “one who stands above tribalism.” The legitimate objection isn’t that “identity politics” is bad, but that it is an inescapable and therefore vacuous description.
Vermeule is correct — even a belief in God or in the rule of law is an aspect of one’s personal makeup and identity, and allows oneself to be classified in a particular political or social category.
But the essential thing is that we not allow the sectional or amoral aspects of our identity to define our political outlook to the extent that we adopt an “ends justify the means” strategy. We must not place ethnic community, class distinction, or any other merely personal qualifier above all other considerations and excuse violence waged on behalf of those groups. Giving in to such violence could lead to something such as militant Nazism or aggressive Communism. Without a dedication to the universal application of God’s moral and natural law, and a frame of beliefs to uphold that dedication and specify what it entails, an unchecked and unmoderated emphasis on “identity” can only end in violence.
It has been said that the Hitlerian swastika is a “twisted” version of the Cross, both literally and figuratively. When a direct emphasis on God and His moral law is twisted into an emphasis on sectional identity and race, transforming a dedication to God for the good of one’s group into a dedication to the group as if it were God Himself, the resulting philosophical product might appear grounded in the sacred, yet it is anything but. Once the “first principles” have been confused and muddled, none of the following principles will make sense either.
This is the ultimate lesson of the Second World War. Once a sectional identity becomes absolute in its demands, once man has transformed himself into a surrogate God — or as Archbishop Fulton Sheen would put it, once the God who becomes man is replaced with the man who makes himself into God, through Communism, Nazism, or any similar ideology — anything evil is possible for the adherents of that ideology.
The respectable tradition of the Democratic party and the respectable tradition of American conservatism stand equally apart from the pitfall of extreme identity politics. The right-minded of both sides ought to constantly remind themselves and others of this.
In 1922, German economist and sociologist Max Weber wrote the essay “Three Types of Legitimate Rule,” a work that left an indelible mark on political science in the 20th century. In his essay, Weber delineated three types of political legitimacy: “legal authority,” based on rational laws and principles; “traditional authority,” in which authority is connected to tradition, inheritance, and social custom; and “charismatic authority,” in which authority is drawn from the charisma and personality of a leader.
The American system — at least ideally — has always relied largely on the first of the three. This is not to say that the other two are not legitimate, but it does provide us a way to consider the issue in the American context.
The Constitution has always served as a bedrock of American political self-conception, but identity politics, taken to an extreme, are a direct assault on the spirit of the Constitution, which is based on legal and political universals. The idea of sectional loyalty placed above loyalty to the law, let alone loyalty to God, is totally foreign to the American constitutional system and, moreover, to the foundation of Christian civilization. This, again, is not to discount the notion of culture or ethnicity, which is inescapable and inseparable from human nature, but only to say that we must keep these categories below the law, next below reason, and ultimately below God.
As Daniel Webster famously said in his address to the New-York Historical Society in 1852:
If we and our posterity reject religious instruction and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution . . . no man can tell, how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us, that shall bury all our glory in profound obscurity.
God’s truth, the source of all moral absolutes, is the only grounding on which any country can justifiably base its ideals or create a legal framework that will protect innocents from violence.
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