The Curse of Identity Politics

Video of a protest at The Villages in Florida (via Twitter/@davenewworld_2)
As Jimmy Durante would say, everyone wants to get into the act

Yesterday morning, President Trump circulated a video showing a pitched battle at The Villages: a verbal battle between pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers. The Villages is a retirement community in Florida, billed as the state’s “Friendliest Hometown.”

You would not want to cite that video in support of that contention.

“Thank you to the great people of The Villages,” the president wrote. “The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!”

The video was approximately two minutes long, and approximately ten seconds in, a pro-Trumper yelled, “White power!” twice.

Three hours after he circulated the video, the president deleted his tweet, with a spokesman saying, “President Trump is a big fan of The Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”

To read about this episode, consult Axios, here.

The “white power” guy got me to thinking about identity politics, as happens.

Obviously, not all expressions of identity politics are equal. When I was young, the slogan “black power” was in the air. Black Americans had been severely disadvantaged for a long time. They were sick of being powerless.

There was also the slogan “Black is beautiful.” You did not hear “White is beautiful.” There was no need for such a slogan. The denigration of black skin needed to be countered.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., a liberal citadel (and, to a degree, a left-wing one). For my twelfth-grade year, I went to a boarding school elsewhere in the state, and heard a kid from a Detroit suburb say something jarring. He was a white kid, I should say. And he said, “Black is beautiful, but white is right.”

What in the world? How could a skin color be right or wrong?

Like you, certainly, I knew good white people and lousy white people. Good black people and lousy black people. One knew people.

I belonged to a “colorblind” school of thought, or approach to life: a school that was soon to be attacked, mocked, and routed. It’s not that we were naïve. No, not at all. It’s that we held a view of man that did not allow race as defining.

Yes, I actually use the word “man.” See what a dinosaur I am?

The “colorblind” view was related to a political outlook: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And don’t forget the national motto: E pluribus unum.

But mainly, I think, our view was rooted in religion: a religious, or spiritual, estimate of man (rising way, way above the physical).

In 1998, Vice President Al Gore made a statement to the NAACP: “I’ve heard the critics of affirmative action. They talk about a colorblind society. Give me a break! Hel-lo? They use their ‘colorblind’ the way duck hunters use their duck blind: They hide behind it and hope the ducks won’t figure out what they’re up to.”

I burned at this statement, as I did at most things Gore. I thought it was grossly defamatory.

Is man a tribal animal? I find it increasingly hard to deny that this is so. “What took you so long!” I can almost hear my old anthro profs say. (Yes, I was an anthropology major. To see my 2015 piece “Majoring in Anthro,” go here.)

Those who escape a tribal mentality are mainly able to do so through a religious or spiritual outlook, I think. Although it could be that secular humanism is enough. Of course, there’s plenty of religious tribalism (or ecclesiastical tribalism, let’s say).

In any case, the “default” of man, I suspect, is tribal. It seems to be baked way in.

Some individuals and some groups have tribalism forced on them, at least to a degree, by the tribalism of others. That must be acknowledged. If Smiths are constantly running down Joneses, people named “Jones” are going to feel like Joneses — are going to “identify” that way.

So, tribalism is a flagrant reality. But I hope people will not stop striving for one America. For the goal, or ideal, of E pluribus unum.

America aside, there is also the old concept of a “family of man,” which makes many eyes roll. I’m talking about a condition “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free . . .” (Told you about the eye rolling.)

I find the identity politics of the Left and the identity politics of the Right distasteful, when not repulsive, but I don’t get a vote. Or rather, I get only one vote. And we see identity politics of many stripes on the rise.

Furthermore, I think that identity politics begets identity politics. (“Well, they’re doin’ it!”) As Jimmy Durante said, “Everybody wants to get into the act.”

Yesterday morning, shortly after Trump tweeted about “the great people of The Villages,” I went for a walk in Riverside Park, New York City. There, I witnessed something extraordinary: a fierce racial battle (verbal). I had never seen anything like it, in 20-plus years of living in these parts.

On one side were two black women; on the other, one white woman. I’m not sure what started the argument. I came on the scene mid-fight. I lingered a bit — I am a journalist, and there was a story — but could not hear much.

One of the black women was saying to the white woman, “We have gifted you this moment to channel the energy inside you in a different direction.” I also heard a “been black all my life.” I can’t give you more detail. Wish I could. I can tell you that all three women were very, very unhappy — and heated.

This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, mind you. Let me say once more how unusual the episode was.

Was it a good thing or a bad thing, this battle, this clash? Was it a “long-overdue conversation” or an ugly instance of racial antagonism? You know, not knowing more, I’m really not sure.

One thing I have learned in recent years is that leadership matters, more than I ever thought it did. America is supposed to be a bottom-up society, not a top-down one! We are not supposed to take our cues from leaders!

Ah, but people do, that is clear. And leaders can summon better angels or worse ones.

For years, conservatives like me have used the term “racial arsonists” to refer to activists who like to start racial fires. Can we deny that there is some of that on the right, in addition to the left?

I know conservatives who refer to “our people.” They mean what some would call “the white working class,” I think. In 2012, President Obama ran an ad against his Republican opponent: “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.”

How much I hate that stuff, I could not begin to tell you.

I think the veneer of civilization is very thin. The Balkans were doing just fine, all things considered. There was a lot of intermarriage. But bad leaders awoke the old tribal resentments. They flicked scabs off wounds (a Nixon phrase). Then there was blood.

“Ancient hatreds!” some analysts said. Yes, but these hatreds need help: present, demagogic help.

In my observation, the liberal spirit — the pluralistic spirit, or the Jeffersonian spirit — is very rare. Almost eccentric. I think it should be encouraged, at every turn.

For decades, we conservatives despaired over Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and he despaired over us. But in the early 1990s, he performed an outstanding service: a little book called “The Disuniting of America.” Conservatives lavished praise on it. These were Reagan conservatives, mind you, a long time ago.

Honestly, I can’t remember whether I read the book or simply read about it (which would be my pattern). I believe I bought a copy, which probably lies a-moulderin’ in my mother’s basement. I think I will order another copy today . . .

If you would like to contact Jay Nordlinger, or receive his Impromptus column by e-mail, write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.


The Latest