In November 2016, Mark Lilla, the humanities scholar, published an essay, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in the New York Times. “In recent years,” he wrote, “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.”
The reaction of many liberals to Lilla’s piece was disheartening. Writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia law professor Katherine Franke compared Lilla to David Duke: Both were pledged “to the same ideological project, the [one] cloaked in a KKK hood, the [other] in an academic gown. . . . Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable.”
For liberals like Franke, Lilla’s questioning of identity politics went beyond the pale of what it is permissible for a liberal in good standing to say. Yet it was not the intolerance of Franke’s piece that was surprising; political punditry, both left and right, more and more resembles what Henry Adams said politics itself is, a systematic organization of hatreds. No, what was most startling about her démarche was its revelation that, of all the issues under the liberal sun, identity politics in particular should have hardened into so non-negotiable, so sacrosanct, a dogma.
The whole business was all the more unpleasant when one reflected that Lilla’s criticisms of identity politics emerged squarely from what was, at least until recently, a wholly respectable strain in liberal thought. It was the strain to which Abraham Lincoln appealed when he said that the state should eschew the politics of “classification” and “caste”—that it should resist the temptation to divide humanity into various social or racial groups and make special rules for each.
Lincoln, certainly, would have been uncomfortable with a politics that seeks, in Lilla’s words, not simply to “‘celebrate’ our differences,” but to celebrate some of those differences more exuberantly than others. Whether the privileged identities are those of African Americans or European Americans, gays or straights, such favoritism, in Lincoln’s eyes, could only undermine the first principle of the republic, that we are all created equal.
But appeals to the republic’s founding ideals will not appease Lilla’s detractors. To judge from comments posted on social media, a good number of them see the country’s founders not as sowers of a seed that has since flowered luxuriantly (in ways they themselves could never have imagined) but as so many apologists for white-hetero privilege. If Lilla thought he was retailing what was most valuable in the republic’s original inspirations, so much the worse for him—he was dealing in tainted fruit.
Lilla has now expanded his Times essay into a book, in which he describes how a liberal “politics of solidarity,” embodied in the New Deal, gave way to today’s atomistic cults of identity, a “pseudo-politics” that has made civic cooperation and even reasoned argument difficult. “Only those with approved identity status,” Lilla writes, “are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups—today the transgendered—are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats—today conservative political speakers—are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false.”
Lilla’s refusal to back down ensures that he will continue to find himself caricatured as the very sort of reactionary he described in his book The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), in which he portrayed a variety of thinkers, from Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin to Éric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq, as backward-looking prophets whose work is infused with nostalgia for a lost Eden. Lilla now finds himself condemned, by many liberals, as just such a recusant, unconsciously romanticizing a particular past, in this case Franklin Roosevelt’s America. And indeed Professor Franke has mocked him for his admiration of FDR, an exemplar, in her view, of whites-only liberalism. “Yes,” she wrote, “let’s make America great, like that, again!”
That such criticisms are a fantastic distortion of the work of one of the most humane scholars writing today is, you might say, Mark Lilla’s problem. But arguments such as those advanced by Professor Franke embody precisely the “radical antihumanism” that Lilla has shown animates a good deal of contemporary thought. And that is not just his problem, but ours.
In such books as The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (rev. ed., 2016), Lilla has documented, in spare but powerful language, what might be called the new Manichaeism. The adherents of this dualist cosmology look on the world as a field not of “good-and-evil” interblended but of “good and evil,” each inhabiting its own distinct sphere.
One strand in the new Manichaeism, Lilla shows, descends from the French structuralists’ understanding of “the Other”—a phrase they associated with all “that was marginal in Western societies.” But they had little interest in bringing the excluded ones into a fuller participation in Western society and instead developed a romantic infatuation with the exoticism of Otherness.
With updated Orientalist condescension, the Manichaean intellectuals went into ecstasies over the colorful manners and primitive virtues of the non-Western stranger, whom they identified as closely with the good as they did his Western counterpart with cancerous evil. Overlooking the thuggishness of any number of non-Western regimes, they portrayed Western democracy, Lilla writes, “in diabolical terms as the real home of tyranny—the tyranny of capital, of imperialism, of bourgeois conformity,” even as they insisted that what was most humane in the Westerner’s traditions—his rights, his freedoms, his laws and liberal pluralisms—were so many structures of oppression, “a cover for the West’s ethnocentrism, colonialism, and genocide.”
It was not long before American intellectuals were smoking the same opium. Structuralism found a home in the American academy, and its tenets have since been translated into identity politics, with its tacit equation of virtue and Otherness. At the same time, the new Manichaeans have worked to marginalize more-subtle ways of understanding good and evil. The point of taking up the now much maligned literae humaniores—the great books to which Lilla has devoted his life—is not to celebrate the virtues of this or that culture or civilization: It is to deepen one’s understanding of the human condition. And for such a scholar the problem of good and evil, or rather of good-and-evil, is never far away.
Lilla began The Reckless Mind with Plato’s meditation on philosophy and love. Eros, Plato thought, would lead the philosopher to love the good. He was very naïve in this, and Lilla, in essays on Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Alexandre Kojève, and Jacques Derrida, shows how easily the philosophic mind may be brought to place its gifts in the service of evil. Even so, Lilla’s own approach is never Manichaean. There is good as well as evil in his representative intellectuals: “I myself have been drawn to them and over the years have learned from their works.”
If there is a weakness in Lilla’s argument, it is in his account of the degeneration of an older American politics of “common purpose” into a “hyperindividualistic culture” that he believes prepared the way for both identity liberalism and Reagan conservatism. Certainly there have been periods when public-spiritedness loomed especially large in the American mind. But Lilla risks distorting the continuous tension in American history between virtue and interest—an unequal struggle in which the latter has usually come out on top. The founding generation itself, which produced such miracles of virtù as Washington, was skeptical of the efficacy of the civic. The Founders made the vitality of the republic depend not on Washingtonian virtue but on an intricate balancing of interests. It worked: Americans, Tocqueville observed, “are not a virtuous people, and yet they are free.”
Calvinist self-absorption and the Calvinist striving for a place among the pure—the righteously elect—have always been closely woven into the fabric of American life, inspiring so many cults of industrious self-betterment. Some of these are moral (Emerson), others more purely material (Franklin, Horatio Alger): All are profoundly individualist. In his call to temper this aboriginal self-seeking with a sense of “common enterprise,” Lilla overlooks the obstacle to which Hannah Arendt, a thinker about whom he has written insightfully, drew attention in The Human Condition. Public space, humane and polis-like in scale, was for Arendt the school of civic virtue: a realm where citizens translate “intangible” civic ideals into “tangible” civic artifacts (a tragic drama or a well-wrought urn), and at the same time a metaphysical arena in which people realize their potential through a “sharing of words and deeds.”
For Arendt, the mass politics of a nation-state such as ours is positively deadly to this sort of public-spiritedness. The “great numbers,” “conformism,” and inhumane “automatism” of nation-state politics, she believed, embody “precisely those traits which, in the Greek self-understanding, distinguished the Persian civilization from their own,” and frustrate a politics of virtue by rendering it rhetorical and sentimental.
At the same time, Lilla’s account of the new Manichaeans is open to the charge that it makes too much of the part played by mere ideas. Our politics today are to this extent unreal: What we are talking about, very often, is not really what we are talking about. Ideas and policies do not fully explain the passionate hatreds we encounter in today’s Manichaean debates, the hysterical anger lavished on comparative trifles, the ever more intensive division of the world into friends and enemies between whom compromise is impossible. The more energy we expend in fashioning our verbal voodoo dolls, in making Barack Obama into a crypto-Stalin or Donald Trump into a crypto-Hitler, the clearer it becomes that something else is at work.
Plato, who sensed that he had botched things rather badly in The Republic, with its brief for philosopher-kings, as an old man wrote The Laws, in which he came round to the idea that man “is God’s plaything, and that is the best thing about him: He should therefore make his play as perfect as possible.”
I suspect that there is a good deal of misplaced play in the new Manichaeism. Johan Huizinga argued in Homo Ludens (1938) that Plato, in coming up with his philosophy of play, did nothing more than state an anthropological fact—that we have, most of us, an unaccountable passion for play-acting. Or to put it a bit differently: Our ancestors knew what they were about when they put, in the center of their habitats, a variety of well-constructed playgrounds, forums of art, ritual, and escapism. Technology, beginning with the printed book (God bless it!), intervened; we now play more solipsistically than our forebears did. The new play has its virtues, but it is not so hygienic. The passions that are easily and helpfully discharged in the face-to-face play of the agora remain, when we play overmuch with books, smartphones, and mass politics, all bottled up. You can smell the putrefaction.
The fanatical righteousness of the new Manichaeans, whether of the Left or the Right, has all the characteristics of too much inward play, of passion squandered on private playgrounds, in part because, amid a landscape of so much formless sprawl, there are no adequate public ones. The game of mass politics, particularly as it is played in today’s electronic forums, breeds Manichaeism precisely because it is both so robotic and so introverted—so inhumane, you might say. The players feel the frustration of those who cannot make themselves heard or felt through their play. They shout the louder, because they are shouting in a vacuum.
A topic, perhaps, for Professor Lilla.
– Mr. Beran is the author of Pathology of the Elites, among other books.