Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 22 August 2020



Identity politics has shattered America


I first noticed the depths into which the American left had descended during the build-up to the inauguration of Donald Trump in January 2017. The Million Woman March scheduled for the day after was supposed to be the first step in the fightback leading to 2020, a broad base of people campaigning on mainstream issues and showing Trump that he still had a fight on his hands.

Within minutes, the vision was being pulled apart by forces that, I fear, the Democratic Party leadership still doesn’t understand. Black women objected to the name of the march because it was the same name as that used for a largely black march in 1997. One poster on Facebook regarded this as “cultural appropriation” while another described it as “white supremacy disguised as white feminism”.

As activists started pulling out, the name was changed to the Women’s March, but minorities continued to feel “uncomfortable” walking alongside white women, given that 53% of this group had voted for Trump. White women — particularly those of a Democratic persuasion — retaliated, appalled that they were being singled out. “You’re no better than Trump supporters,” one wrote.

As these skirmishes ricocheted through the internet, other factions piled in, with yet more boycott threats and recriminations. Even though the march went ahead with an impressive 4.2 million people, a headline in the Washington Post called it “The somehow controversial women’s march in Washington” — a classic understatement.

I mention this because it indicates, however tenuously, how identity politics is tearing America apart, and is likely to continue to do so regardless of who is elected in November. On this side of the pond, we tend to focus on the alt-right white nationalism of Donald Trump. The president has played on white fears, stoking racial tensions in often shocking ways.

But while Trump has demeaned his office, the left has played its own deadly game, only with a different and mutating set of identity grievances. This isn’t just about the trans movement, but “intersectionality”, where oppression is said to be proportional to the number of minority identities a person embodies. On this rubric, black women are more subjugated than white women, black trans women more than black women, and so on in what has been called the “oppression Olympics”.

So desperate are people to commandeer minority status that Elizabeth Warren, briefly the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, took a DNA test to show that she was between 1/1,024 and 1/64 Native American Indian, explaining to the public in 2018 that one of her great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great (great?) grandparents was indigenous. In a society based on shared interests, this toenail of DNA would have been irrelevant. In today’s America, based on every kind of difference, it was endlessly portentous.

It is for the same reason that the LGBT movement became LGBT+, then LGBTQ, then LGBTTQQIAAP. It is difficult to know what term to use today because the cause is adding letters faster than the German mark added zeroes during the 1920s hyperinflation.

Twenty years ago, people would call themselves Irish-Americans, Pakistani-Americans or Italian-Americans, but the emphasis was on the second word in that couplet. Americans were proud of their heritage but more proud of the identity shared with millions of others by virtue of what they saw as the honour of citizenship and commitment to the constitution.

The joint crime of left and right has been to shatter this identity, focusing, instead, on narrower identities based not on shared beliefs, but immutable traits such as sex, race, ethnicity — and their intersections. Because these characteristics are unchangeable, they cannot be bridged or shared, and are jealously policed, based on “lived experience”. This is what caused such deep tensions on the Women’s March, and explains the explosion of allegations of cultural appropriation.

A few weeks ago, Morgan Bullock, a black American dancer, was castigated as a “racist” on social media. Her crime? She performed a beautiful Irish jig that went viral. Or take the trend of shaving one’s eyebrows so that they are slightly thinner at one end — yep, one eagle-eyed activist read racism into this, too, a point missed by the wider world until he ignited a firestorm of protest. Apparently, the technique “appropriates Asian beauty features”.

I’m sorry, but this is madness. The left insists that identity politics is necessary. It points to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the feminist cause a little later. It says, not without reason, that the unifying rhetoric of the republic — that all citizens are equal before the constitution — always had a strong element of hypocrisy. Black people were denied rights for centuries, as were women.

Yet, it doesn’t seem to see the fundamental difference between the movements of the 1960s and the surrealism of today. Martin Luther King, a great African-American (emphasis on “American”), sought to build bridges, not erect more barriers. His vision was for a society where blacks and whites were treated the same; where colour mattered less, not more. It was the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam who were the precursors of today’s identitarians, for they insisted upon irreconcilable differences, demanding a separate homeland for blacks within the borders of America.

And this is where identity politics is headed today, not least with the phenomenon of “neo-segregation”. Last year, Harvard staged separate ceremonies for students of colour and Latinos, while Brown University celebrated its “blackalaureate” and Columbia its “Black” and “Raza” ceremonies. One review found that 72% of colleges hosted segregated graduations and 42% had segregated residences for black and minority students. The left, needless to say, regards this as a celebration of diversity — a catastrophic misreading of that important concept.

November’s election takes place against the backdrop of the shattering of American identity. Identity politics in the UK, although troubling, doesn’t yet come close on the Richter scale of divisiveness, or match its McCarthyite dynamics. Given Trump’s serial incompetence, Joe Biden is faced with an open goal. But if he wins (his cognitive capacity remains an issue), his primary task will not be facing down the Trumpian right — hopefully that brand of grotesque populism will come to be seen by Republicans as an aberration. No, his challenge will be facing down the identitarian left.

Let me re-emphasise that America has much work to do in combating racism and other scourges, particularly in the south, but this reinforces the point: social progress is impossible in a society retreating deeper into hermetically sealed silos. Is it any wonder that Congress has lost the capacity for bipartisan action, or that special interests loot the republic as progressives on both sides of the aisle bicker over whether to add an X to LGBTTQQIAAP?

When a nation is divided against itself, it loses strength, virtue and any hope of collective action. America can become great again only by ditching its identity obsession.

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