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Questioning 'Identity Liberalism'

Is “identity liberalism,” widespread on college campuses, to blame for Donald Trump’s rise? Scholars are divided.

December 5, 2016
 
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Point and counterpoint is the rhythm of academic life, but some ideas elicit more of a response than others. Case in point: scholars and other intellectuals have spent the past couple of weeks debating “The End of Identity Liberalism,” an opinion piece by Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, in The New York Times.

Attempting to explain -- as so many have -- Donald Trump’s success in the recent election, Lilla blamed the political left’s affinity for what he called “identity liberalism.” He described college and university campuses as ground zero for a brand of liberalism that focuses on individual identity and diversity to the exclusion of other perennial but urgent questions about “class, war, the economy and the common good.” And while Lilla said he considers the U.S. “an extraordinary success story” in terms of diversity, he argued that that brand of liberalism cost the left the election and resulted in its “repugnant” outcome.

Lilla presumably opposes Trump but said his supporters are logically reacting “against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’” Essentially, Lilla argued, “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Arguing for a ‘Postidentity Liberalism’

“Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to,” Lilla wrote. “Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in ‘His Majesty’?

Lilla -- echoing common arguments against contemporary approaches to the humanities -- advocated instead for a “postidentity liberalism,” which “should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism.” High school history curricula, for example, “anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.” While the achievements of, say, women’s rights movements, “were real and important,” he wrote, “you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.”

Such a liberalism would, over all, “concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them,” Lilla said. “It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.” And as for “narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)”

Lilla’s piece struck chords -- consonant and dissonant -- with scholars and other thinkers across disciplines and political persuasions. Some responded directly or with their own think pieces on the perceived ills or value of identity liberalism or its much-critiqued cousin, identity politics.

‘The Trouble With Diversity’

First the praise. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University who has previously criticized the direction of campus diversity efforts, tweeted that “The End of Identity Liberalism” was the best thing he’d read all week.

The Chicago Reader, somewhat coincidentally, ran an interview with Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, upon the publication of the 10th anniversary edition of his 2006 book, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Calling the book “prescient” in arguing that liberals are satisfied by diverse inequality (think racially diverse student bodies at the Ivy Leagues, or gender diversity among chief executives) and so risk alienating the working class, the newspaper said that this election cycle may have transformed Michaels from a “pariah to prophet of doom.”

The piece cited Lilla and quoted Michaels saying this about campus conversations about diversity: “To me, the whole discourse of microaggression and safe spaces is what comes after farce. It's a pantomime performed of theorizing inequality among people who are the beneficiaries of the fundamental inequality and structures of our society. And it's probably more useful to the right than the left.”

Michaels added, “People often say that having faculty and students of people of color is really important because they represent their people. But I don't think there's any poor white person or lower-middle-class person who sees the rich kids at Harvard [University] and think they're there because they represent me. No, they think, 'These rich kids get to go to Harvard, and people like me don't.' When you see that kind of pantomime on campus, what you see is a fuck-you to everyone else that is suffering.”

Conor Freidersdorf, a staff writer at The Atlantic who’s been critical of “victimhood culture” on college campuses, wrote that liberals -- or at least opponents of Donald Trump -- need to get better at persuading those outside their circles, “rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them.” The reason? Politically weaponizing stigma -- in this case, that one is guilty of various “-isms” (racism, sexism, etc.) -- doesn’t work.

For example, he said, Sanders was recently criticized for telling a supporter who said she wanted to be the second Latina senator that it wasn’t “good enough” to stand on that platform alone. (“This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic party,” Sanders said, for reference. “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”) Freidersdorf argued that it is actually insulting to assume that Sanders had assumed the woman had no identity beyond her ethnicity and -- sounding something like Lilla -- wrote, “The Vermont senator clearly presumed that a Latina candidate would [emphasis his] have an agenda beyond being Latina, and argued that she must articulate it, in addition to her identity, if she hoped to win enough voters to gain election.”

In the same vein, Freidersdorf offered a discussion of why it’s wrong to overuse the term “white supremacist” (John McWhorter, associate professor of English at Columbia, recently argued in Time that it seems "any white person who disagrees with a non-white one’s opinion about race issues is given the label") and said, “The insularity and biases at work here are a significant reason that the academy, and growing parts of the press who mistake its subculture for conventional wisdom, are increasingly unable to reach anyone that doesn’t share an educational background many intellectuals now think of as normal but that is, in fact, unusual even among college students in the U.S., never mind the rest of the world. Why does this insular subculture think stigmatization of this sort will succeed beyond it?”

In all, those receptive to Lilla’s argument tend to see academe as setting the cultural and political tone for all liberals -- particularly with regard to diversity -- when campus life is in fact detached from the class, economic and other forces shaping the lives of average voters. It’s another take on what some have long said about academe, and what many said the day after Trump’s election: that academe is “out of touch” with America.

White Supremacy in Code?

Yet Lilla’s piece met with at least as much criticism as it did praise -- so much so that the Times’s David Leonhardt devoted to it a column summing up various critiques as follows: “The core criticism was that Lilla was wrong to suggest the political left deserves blame for initiating the focus on racial (and other) groups.”

In other words, if identity politics are so bad, why did Trump prevail when he was practicing his own not-so-subtle brand? And to assert that white identity politics ever went away only to come back with a vengeance this election cycle is to engage in a chicken-or-egg argument: Is the so-called “whitelash” a reaction to the left’s identity politics, or has it been there all along, necessitating identity liberalism? Interestingly, Lilla himself wrote that “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.”

Leonhardt also said that while Lilla’s view “fits with the postelection conventional wisdom: that Democrats must do better appealing to the white working class to regain power,” Democrats “need to be careful about alienating their current constituencies -- particularly since many of those constituencies are growing.”

Other critics said Lilla had whitewashed history or, worse, offered a coded defense of white nationalism or supremacy.

Writing for The Hunto, a group blog on early American history, Jonathan Wilson, an instructor at Marywood University and the University of Scranton, called Lilla's piece a response to a real problem: that in contemporary America, “demands for inclusion, equality and dignity often seem [emphasis his] to be made in the name of particular groups rather than in the name of the common good.” He reserved judgment on the “complicated” question of whether the perception is accurate, but took issue with Lilla’s invocation and rosy interpretation of U.S. history.

Lilla “seems to assume that a natural relationship links U.S. constitutional architecture and democratic politics,” yet any “practical harmony that exists between these things is actually the legacy of highly divisive political warfare at many different points in the past,” Wilson said. “Across the 19th century, the most important bases of women’s activism -- including international republicanism and socialism, antislavery activism, and Christian moralism -- were vulnerable to a critique much like the one Lilla [offers]. At key points, women’s rights activism was an indictment of the American state far more than an appeal to common ground. Moreover, the most momentous assertions of human rights in early America -- those of antislavery activists -- ran a gamut that included denouncing the entire American constitutional settlement.”

Moreover, Wilson said, in arguing that liberals must appeal “to Americans as Americans,” Lilla “overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity -- and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics.”

Scott Lemieux, associate professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose, wrote in a post to the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money that Lilla’s piece was fundamentally “self-refuting” and otherwise problematic. He accused Lilla of trivializing issues such as affirmative action, Black Lives Matter and gay rights while attempting to praise them, and of offering thin to no evidence to back up his claims. For example, Lemieux said, Sanders -- who emphasized class and downplayed identity arguably more than any other presidential candidate -- attracted major attention from college students, or those whom Lilla claimed assume “diversity discourse exhausts political discourse.” And President Reagan, whom Lilla praised, practiced his own identity politics, Lemieux said.

Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor at Columbia Law School, offered what she called an even more “harsh indictment” of her campus colleague, comparing him to David Duke, former leader of the KKK. On the Los Angeles Review of Books blog, Franke wrote of Lilla’s proposal, “Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy. It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built. And it is a liberalism that regards the protests of people of color and women as a complaint or a feeling, ignoring the facts upon which those protests are based -- facts about real dead, tortured, raped and starved bodies.”

The liberalism Lilla espouses “reduces these facts of human suffering and the systems of power that produce that suffering as beside the point,” she said [emphasis hers]. “What matters are liberal values and the idea of America as a ‘shining city on a hill’ that deserves our allegiance, not our protest.”

An election that defies expert expectations deserves to be explored. But it’s unclear if Lilla’s piece will do more than just validate those already critical of the left’s focus on diversity and anger those who see identity as being as perennial and urgent a question as that of class, war, the economy or the common good. Like any worthy academic endeavor, untangling the many threads of the 2016 election -- and academe's role in it -- will take time.

‘On Target’ or Another ‘Dog Whistle’? More Reactions

In the interim, a few additional scholars shared their thoughts with Inside Higher Ed.

April Kelly-Woessner, professor of political science at Elizabethtown College -- and like Haidt, a member of the executive committee at Heterodox Academy, a group of scholars who want a more politically diverse academy -- said social identity isn’t a problem on its own. But higher education’s approach to it is a “recipe for group conflict.” Campus conversations about social identity follow a false narrative fueled by “campus orthodoxy,” she said, and those who challenge it risk (quoting Hillary Clinton) being thrown into a basket with other “deplorables.”

“If the goal of higher education is to shift the balance of power between groups by declaring war on those who have benefited from historical privilege, we should keep doing what we are doing,” Kelly-Woessner said via email. “This will intensify group conflict, create more hate incidents on campus and fuel the rise of the alt-right.” But if the goal is to “educate so that people no longer find others strange and threatening, and thus are willing to share power, we need to change our tactic.” First, “we have to create an environment that fosters political tolerance and allows for people to engage in discourse without fear of being punished or vilified. Second, we need to make a real effort to incorporate a range of viewpoints and perspectives into the conversation.”

That doesn’t mean inviting the KKK to campus, she added. “But we do need to make sure the academy is not a giant echo chamber for liberal views, disconnected from the rest of society.”

For the “purpose of education, we need to have some conversations about difference. But we need to have many more conversations about our common values and shared humanity.”

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University who wrote in his own recent essay for Inside Higher Ed that today’s students are too “diversity sensitive” and that educators should help them “understand diversity as a social theory, not a sacred goal,” said Friday that he found Lilla “largely on target.”

Lilla “pinpoints what is the great weakness of diversity thinking,” Bauerlein said of the perceived insularity of young voters. “It doesn't give us a rich, multicultural plurality in the public square that maintains differences but makes them a source of joy and pride. Instead, it produces group niches in the public square, with lots of parochialism and posturing, and measures of cynicism and suspicion.”

Regarding Lilla’s treatment of the “whitelash” argument -- that eventually everyone will join in identity politics, including the groups against which such politics originally worked -- Bauerlein said he “nicely marks the irony of other groups criticizing rural whites for their self-dramatizing victimhood.”

John K. Wilson, an independent scholar of academic freedom who wrote a highly critical book about Trump, took a different view, saying that if liberals “stop talking about race and identity and discrimination, it won’t stop the alt-right from talking about race in ways that still promote the delusion that white people are an oppressed group. We need a deeper understanding of oppression that includes class, but not one that pretends racism no longer exists.”

While too many campus diversity efforts are “superficial and stupid, aimed at avoiding controversy rather than confronting and encouraging it,” ending identity politics will only make “diversity more of an empty slogan,” Wilson added. The solution? Or, rather, what it’s not? Silencing talk about identity “because it upsets too many conservative white people” -- what Wilson called the “political correctness of the right.”

“The problem we face is not a fixation on diversity, but a fixation on avoiding diversity,” he said. “There is no conflict between the liberal fight for racial justice, women’s rights, gay rights and the liberal fight for economic equality. Not only can we fight for justice on all fronts, but we must do so because they are often interconnected.”

Kenneth Monteiro, dean of country’s only freestanding College of Ethnic Studies, at San Francisco State University, said Lilla’s piece was largely unoriginal and white supremacist in its framing, a kind of coded catnip for those already predisposed to his line of thinking. For example, Monteiro said, Lilla’s exploration of how diversity should shape “our” politics “only parses from a white perspective.” Monteiro also challenged the assertion that schools are “fixated” on diversity, when, he said, the vast majority (using Lilla’s example) of high school history curricula are still devoted to white people. Over all, Lilla seemed to treat “diversity as a euphemism for people of color” rather than a truly inclusive concept.

Monteiro argued that identity liberalism doesn’t really exist, but is another neat, marketable euphemism for someone or something that doesn’t conform to an “acceptable role as defined by white nationalism.” Such language is like “intellectual crack cocaine to a culture addicted to it for generations,” he said.

Not all of Lilla’s critics found his arguments worthy of response, however. Asked to share his reading of “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he “couldn't find enough in the writing” to warrant one.

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