There is nothing as disconcerting to an identity warrior
as having his victimhood taken away and given to another.
Identity Politics has spread like a measles epidemic within the far left of the Democrat Party. But what is it?
Identity Politics is a political ideology with a religious-moral overlay. It seeks to unite groups of traditionally-powerless people who share common characteristics—-such as race and gender—-into aggrieved collectives. The source of grievance is oppression by powerful groups in society, often associated with the white race and male gender. Identity Politics highlights the social inequities that reflect this oppression.
Identity warriors want members of aggrieved groups to adopt a narrative of suffering and oppression, and to clamor for redress from the powerful groups that have victimized them. The zeal of identity warriors and their constant appeals for “social justice” are reminiscent of religious fanaticism, with its self-assurance and intolerance of alternative narratives.
Marxist Origins of Identity Politics
Although the term Identity Politics originated in the 1970s, it has its origins in socialist theory as expounded by Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx saw injustice and poverty in every modern society. Behind it all, was an epic conflict between a capitalist class (the owners of the means of production) and a working class (the proletariat). The injustice lay in the expropriation by the capitalists of the wealth created by the workers.
Marx was a utopian. He believed that, as the rich capitalists grew ever richer, and the proletariat ever poorer, the proletariat would rise to overthrow the capitalists. The capitalist state would then be replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, and eventually a just society in which every worker would contribute as he was able, and draw upon society’s resources to the extent of his needs.
Marxist theory was supported by a segment of the intellectual class in developed western countries where capitalist systems developed initially. Paradoxically, Marxism had its greatest application in the less-developed east—-Russia and China.
By mid-twentieth century, the disastrous results of Marxism could no longer be denied. Marxism, or its political embodiment, Communism, had led to economic deprivation, barbarism and death on an unprecedented scale: Stalin’s purges, China’s Cultural Revolution, and smaller scale societal disasters from North Korea to Cuba. Formerly-Marxist intellectuals abandoned Marxism out of necessity.
As Marxism became unviable, intellectuals and the reformers who followed them, repurposed Marxism into a contemporary progressive ideology. Identity Politics is a key element in this repurposed ideology. In the new identity version, the epic struggle between capitalist and proletariat has been replaced by a new struggle between oppressed and oppressor. The first groups to be identified as oppressed were people of color and Third World people. The oppressors were white supremacists and colonizers from the developed world.
The intellectuals and reformers set out to sell this narrative to oppressed groups. The tools were consciousness raising and action. As members of oppressed groups came together in consciousness raising collectives, they gained an understanding of their oppression and ways in which the powerful classes had exploited them. Just as Marxism had led to revolution, so too this new consciousness has led to mass societal change. Identity Politics reformers encouraged groups to take action in the form of demonstrations, political action, community organizing, demands for redistributive government policies, and at times, violence.
So Many Identities
Identity Politics warriors have their approved and unapproved groups. Approved groups—-for example, racial minorities—-consist of those who have been traditionally oppressed and exploited. Disapproved groups are those who have oppressed and exploited the approved groups—for example, white people, especially males.
To the Identity Politics warrior, there is a moral imperative to set things right. That can only be done by helping oppressed groups become conscious of their oppression and the identity of their oppressors. Ultimately the goal is to transfer power away from oppressor groups to oppressed groups and to establish “equity” among groups.
The poison pill of Identity Politics is that human populations can be divided into innumerable separate identities.
People of color were early-comers to Identity Politics as they sought to end discrimination and exploitation by white people. They were followed by feminists who taught that women were oppressed by a male patriarchy. As these groups became successful in the public sphere, new groups emerged. Gay men, and then lesbians, looked to the national liberation movements of people of color and to the ideology of feminist liberation as models for their own liberation. Whereas racism and male patriarchy were the villains of people of color and women, heterosexism and homophobia were the culprits in the oppression of gay and lesbian people.
It didn’t stop there. Today there are growing constituencies of progressives at war with a variety of societal oppressions, some that stretch credulity. For example, progressive opponents of “lookism” argue that overweight people and those who do not meet cultural norms of beauty are oppressed in the same way as people of color, women and gays and lesbians.
There is reason to believe that more categories will emerge as hitherto invisible groups discover the advantages of a narrative of victimhood. Other divisions are: the native born versus immigrants; rural versus urban; young versus old; educated versus uneducated; coastal elites versus those who live in the hinterland; religious versus secular; blue collar versus white collar; homeowner versus renter; and government versus private sector workers.
Narratives of oppression have already emerged that include most of these groups.
Identity Politics is Unstable
Identity Politics is a way for the less powerful to wrest power and societal reward from the more powerful. Because the rewards are great, there is a constant push to redefine identity groups to create new classes of aggrieved persons. The underlying narrative of oppression justifies demands for societal redress.
But there is only so much redress available. There are limited resources. As the public sphere becomes crowded, earlier groups are no longer able to make their unique claims or even to get attention. This inevitably leads to conflict among identity groups. There is nothing as disconcerting to an identity warrior as having his victimhood taken away and given to another.
Examples abound of this clash of identity groups and their competing claims. In the 1960s, socialist groups did not display the reverence that the left today has for gays and lesbians, nor the automatic assumption that gays are oppressed. Socialists of that era believed that homosexuality was a defect of capitalist society that would disappear after the proletariat revolution. In any case, to socialists, the very idea of gay identity was harmful because it distracted from the true work of socialism, that is, the class struggle between capitalist and proletariat. The socialists of that time delegitimized the validity of gay redress, as a way to eliminate a competing identity group.
Affirmative Action is another area that has seen rancor among competing identity groups. While blacks and Latinos are generally supportive of Affirmative Action, some Jews and Asians are not. Jews and Asians have been casualties of Affirmative Action policies that disadvantage them in favor of other groups. To the extent that blacks and Latinos have benefitted from Affirmative Action, they are loath to yield the benefit to competing identity groups. This is inevitable in a world with a limited number of jobs and a finite number of seats in colleges and universities.
I have seen a video on the internet that provides a visual representation of competition among groups for an oppressed identity. In a ten second clip, a white man holds a sign that reads, “All Lives Matter.” A black man approaches and repeatedly knocks the sign to the ground. Black identity warriors respond with anger to “All Lives Matter” signs, not because they disagree with them, but rather because they resent other groups stealing their thunder. They realize they are in competition with other oppressed identities.
Another example: For another post on this site I recently researched the history of Otto Warmbier, a young man detained and eventually murdered by North Korean authorities. I was stunned to read articles by some black authors, clearly furious with the public sympathy garnered by Warmbier. To one author, Warmbier, a white Jewish man, was a member of a privileged elite and thus undeserving of sympathy. In this author’s perspective, Warmbier could not be a victim. This black author was unwilling to share her victimhood, especially with a white Jewish man, a member of a group considered by identity warriors to be irredeemably privileged.
Different Rules for Different Folks
Identity warriors divide the world into the oppressed and oppressors. The oppressed are deserving. Oppressors are not. It follows inevitably, that in order to set things right, different rules are applied to different people, depending on their group membership. To the identity warrior this is social justice.
Affirmative Action is the poster boy for this approach. At many universities and colleges, different admission standards are applied to racial minorities. This ethos has become so entrenched in society, that the legal system—-right up to the Supreme Court—-has supported this dual system of standards. This is done in the name of fairness, as an effort to redress historical injustice.
This differential ethic has permeated many layers of society. For example, well-meaning identity warriors have demanded diversity in the workplace, as well as in educational and governmental institutions. Diversity means that every corner of public life must include a mix of people of different races, ethnicities, genders, and so on. The only way to achieve this is to hire and promote on the basis of identity group, a violation of the rule of “the most qualified” for the job.
The very lack of diversity is taken as proof of societal failure and as a call for corrective action. But, as economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, this dynamic runs counter to real differences in the interests and capacities of men versus women, whites versus people of color, and so on. For example, men prefer working with things and women with ideas. That is why the field of engineering is dominated by men and social work by women. The only way to “correct” this imbalance is to modify rules of entrance and advancement into occupational fields, for example, to encourage women engineers and male social workers. But is that a good thing?
My alma mater—-a department in a prominent Midwestern university— has gone so far as to encourage people of color, sexual minorities and LGBT persons—-to apply for admission. Presumably, school administrators will apply more lenient admissions standards to them.
A related phenomenon is the blind willingness of identity warriors to overlook bad behavior in presumably oppressed groups, behavior that is routinely condemned in groups they see as oppressors. Feminists have made a bizarre practice of this. For example, they turn a blind eye to misogyny in the Muslim world while savaging any man in the west who displays even a hint of sexism. Thus, feminists rarely condemn the myriad restrictions imposed on Muslim women or their second class status in Muslim societies. But they condemn western men for “mansplaining” and for making mildly insensitive comments about women’s appearance or interests.
In women’s marches we have seen feminists celebrating Muslim women by donning hijabs, apparently oblivious to the desires of millions of Muslim women to be free of male-imposed constraints. Would they like a man to tell them they will never be permitted to feel the wind in their hair?
I once attended a Cultural Appropriation workshop given by a group of far-left women. They indignantly lectured their audience about the injustice of white woman wearing hairstyles associated with women of color. When someone suggested that black women often straighten their hair to look more like white women, one presenter shot back, “That’s different. People make fun of black women’s hair.” That is, the presenter believed that because black women are oppressed, a different set of rules applies to them. This is Identity Politics justice.
The End of Identity Politics
Identity Politics is doomed to fail.
Increasing categories of identity groups will clamor for the special status of victim, with its associated societal rewards. But with so many victims, the identity warriors will eventually run out of oppressors. Inter-group competition for victim status and resentment over differential rules will engender inter-group conflicts. These conflicts will bring the whole game down.
There is a better way:
- Return to the ideal of Universalism. In every sphere of public life, set one standard for everyone. In our nation’s history, rules have been set by powerful groups to advantage their own interests over those of others. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon universalism. It is an ideal we should work toward. It is the only way to ensure a just society.
- Base all public policies on a single national identity as Americans. This should be practiced in schools, government, and the workplace. These policies do not denigrate or suppress group identities based on categories like race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. They simply return us to an earlier time in our history when we exercised our separate group identities privately in our homes, religious institutions and affiliation groups. Everywhere else we should be Americans. We should not be able to predict an individual’s political preference by his race, ethnicity or national origin.
- Rehabilitate the word, nationalism. Identity warriors have turned nationalism into a dirty word. Extreme nationalists—-like Nazis or White Nationalists—-promote identities that are racist and blame others for society’s ills. Healthy nationalism is nothing more than love for one’s country. It is moderate and selfless. We need more of it. That is why President Kennedy advised the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That would be a refreshing change from the shrill demands by identity groups for special consideration.
- Retire the term “cultural appropriation.” There is nothing more valuable to a society than the mixing of cultural elements from diverse origins. We should stop our obsession with “stolen” hairstyles, recipes, music, dance, and other cultural elements. Rather, we should recognize that all human populations at all times in history have engaged in constant borrowing, mixing and adapting of cultural elements from various groups.
- Abandon attempts to redress long-distant historical grievances. It makes sense to compensate people who themselves, rather than their ancestors, were unjustly deprived of liberty or property. But reaching back into the distant past to “correct” injustice is a losing game.
The rules are never clear. Which groups deserve redress? From whom shall they get it, and in what form? Should today’s Americans—-most of whose families arrived in the US long after slavery was abolished—be taxed to pay reparations to other Americans whose great-grandparents were slaves? All of this leads to a morass that will foment resentment among groups.
- Judge people as individuals, rather than members of a group. No one should be judged by the beliefs, practices, or behavior of others. Locating the source of society’s ills in group identity is the very definition of racism and sexism. To say the problem is white racism is to be racist against all white people. To say the problem is the male patriarchy is to be sexist against all men. To say the problem is heterosexism is to blame all heterosexuals.
Here is the alternative. Judge individuals by three simple criteria: character, ability and achievement.