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Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner, and the New Identity Politics: Observations from 20 Years Ago

One of the oddest and most interesting political trends is the resurgence of identity politics. “Resurgence” may be the wrong word here because identity politics never really went away; it simply had occasional periods of slumber when other issues dominated the national imagination. But it is certainly back center-stage with the transmogrification of Caitlin-Bruce Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, the white young activist lady who “passed” as black, and the dark suspicions that Governor Jindal, by describing himself as “American,” is seeking to flee his “Indian” identity.

In this instance I can write “dark suspicions, which might otherwise be denounced as racist, because Governor Jindal is a Republican. He is therefore not entitled to choose his identity, as Rachel Dolezal might be (though that’s not entirely clear since a black girl passing as white would be treated as shameful.) Mr./Ms. Jenner is also a Republican but is apparently entitled to choose a new sexual identity, probably because that choice is seen culturally as a repudiation of conservatism as well as of manliness. But all of these judgments may have to be revised in a few moments since fashion in identities changes with alarming rapidity.

Thinking about these things — notably, the question of whether being a woman has anything whatsoever to do with biology in modern political conversation — I was struck by a strong feeling of déjà vu. Hadn’t I read or thought about some of these matters before? Echoes of past reflections kept recurring in the back of my mind until I suddenly remembered. The late Ken Minogue had asked me to write a paper on identity politics for an academic conference in the late Nineties, and these papers had eventually been published in book form under the title “Conservative Realism.” Roger Kimball had then asked me to revise the paper for The New Criterion, where it had appeared in 1998.

It attempts to explain what is likely to happen when society adopts the notion that an identity is almost infinitely plastic so that we can safely abandon the taken-for-granted identity we gradually discovered in youth or adolescence and adopt some other identity more pleasing to us. The two main theories offering us this psychological liberty were Marxism, which urged us to throw aside our class-bound “false consciousness” and recognize our real identity and interest, and the more radical theory drawn from both Hume and Pirandello that identity is a set of skills for dealing with other people that enables us to change our identity depending on whom we’re talking to.

From the essay:

Here then is the existential choice offered to us by the modern theories of identity: we can be either the puppets of other people, dummies surrounded by ventriloquists, or we can be the landlords of a vacant lot.

This is, of course, an intolerable choice. But it comes accompanied by an attractive escape hatch: if other people can insert a false identity into the empty space in my head, can I perhaps insert an authentic self there in its place? Authentic because it is rationally chosen and consciously shaped by myself rather than being simply a psychological “given” that I gradually discover in childhood and adolescence. And the principle upon which this new identity can be selected is the best bonus of all. That principle has been laid down by the greatest living American psychologist, Tom Wolfe, in his essay “The Me Decade.” It began life as an advertising slogan for a shampoo: “If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.” The charm of this principle for constructing a new identity is that it is almost infinitely accommodating. It enables us to say to ourselves: If I have only one life to live, let me live it as … (fill in the blank)—as a Noble Proletarian, as an Irishman (provided, of course, that I don’t start out as Irish), as a woman (if, similarly, I don’t happen to be a woman), as a European (from no particular European nation, naturally) . . .

To the old question, Is there a ghost in the machine? we can now answer: No, but there is a consumer.

Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not. Some identities have disapproval of other identities built into them.

We might suppose that if everyone gets to choose his or her identity, then universal contentment will be established. After all, if we can all be what we want to be, what possible unhappiness or conflict can arise? As the recent rows within the LGBT community demonstrate, however, people of the same trade never agree. Some choices excite disapproval from those who diverge even slightly from the identity claimed by others:

As Kenneth Minogue has pointed out in Alien Powers, the first impulse of someone who has abandoned his old identity and embraced a new one is an evangelical impulse. He wants to tell everyone that once he was blind, that now he sees, but that they are still blind. And what he sees is that his old identity was a fraud and an imposition, and that their current identity still is. Hence, new identities tend to attack and seek to replace their counterparts among existing identities. The gay or feminist identity will define itself by opposition to the traditional sexual identities of male and female. These it will decry as socially constructed and consequently false and oppressive—“Heterosexism” in the approved jargon.

Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not. Some identities have disapproval of other identities built into them. And not only sexual or racial identities, but also national, ideological, personal, and religious identities:

Not even the most multicultural feminist can extend tolerance, let alone approval, to an Islamic identity because of its narrow concept of women’s education. Similarly, the Afrocentrist or Hispanic activist is likely to reject the political arrangements and electoral boundaries based upon a nonracial or monocultural concept of American identity and demand forms of political representation which treat ethnic groups as the building blocks of political society. Hence, the emergence of legal theories, in the writings of Lani Guinier and others, that would revive “fancy franchises” and “concurrent majorities” on the underlying assumption that minorities and majorities are not continually forming and reforming on different issues, but permanently frozen along ethnic and racial lines. Hence, in numberless ways, the multiplication of chosen identities leads to endless social conflict.

When modern psychologists and modernist writers began deconstructing what they thought was the prison of a rigid and unreflecting identity, they doubtless thought they were liberating the citizens to stroll about in free and equal relationships without bumping into the barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. What they were in fact doing was laying the epistemological ground for a low-intensity civil war.

Many of the references are now dated. Others — Zelig, Tom Wolfe — are still very current. Tom Wolfe’s novel about Miami and the new American tribalism, written since, deepens our understanding of these risks of identity. And the Jenner, Dolezal, and Jindal cases might almost have occurred in order to illustrate arguments in the article for which I didn’t then have examples.

You can read the whole thing here. It covers a lot of other ground. And it doesn’t read like yesterday’s news. Alarmingly.

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