WASHINGTON: Those of us old enough to remember segregation, understand the nature of identity politics. In those days, judgment of men and women begins with racial identity. Under Jim Crow, many have no right to vote or the freedom to stay in hotels. Signs say “white only” restrooms or drinking fountains. The goal of people of good will was to bring identity politics to an end. As the Rev. Martin Luther King declares,
Fifty years following the assassination of Rev. King, identity politics is back.
Promotion of divisions is by extremists on both the left and right. Their goal is to divide the American people due to their race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity.
Black Lives Matter seeks to isolate blacks as victims. On the right, extremists such as David Horowitz, a former left-wing activist who now heads the David Horowitz Freedom Center, says:
“This country’s only serious race war is against whites. Where identity politics can lead may be seen in the hate-filled social postings of the killer who took the lives of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.”
In his book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” Columbia University professor Mark Lilla criticizes the way left-wing identity movements are embracing the “pseudo-politics of self-regard.” Lilla stresses that the history “of marginal and often minuscule groups,” all of which make it more difficult to embrace policies which advance the common good and the general welfare.
California Governor Jerry Brown tells The Washington Post,
“When you get caught in this maw of identitarian feelings and movements it becomes very difficult to keep at the more general level that unites people.”
In his book, “The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls identity politics:
“The chief threats facing democratic societies, diverting energy and thinking away from larger problems facing our society. How can we come together to solve major problems, if we keep dividing ourselves into smaller factions? Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure.”
In his view, citizenship must be the cornerstone of a renewed national identity, one based on constitutionalism and diversity.
The identity movement has become a dominant force on many college and university campuses.
In their book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt point to a disturbing conviction that lies at the heart of campus identity politics. The notion that each racial group, gender, and sexuality is fundamentally different, destined to coexist at best in separate spaces. The authors lament that this diverges dramatically from the idea of common humanity that informed both the civil rights movement and, later, the drive for gay equality.
In a contest for Washington, D.C. City Council, incumbent Elissa Silverman, who is white, is being challenged by Dionne Bussey-Reeder, who is black.
The newspaper, The Washington Informer, which serves the African-American community and has a circulation of 50,000, captured the dynamic with the headline; “At-Large Council Race Reveals Racial Schisms” and “Prominent Black Women Back Reeder for D.C. Council.”
Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who is black, laments:
“Identity politics and naked racial appeals are, like the air, out in the open and with us. They are the extra visible ingredients in this year’s politics.”
The same is being said about political contests in many parts of the country.
The extremes of Identity Politics
The extreme to which such identity politics and “grievance studies” has gone, particularly in the academic world, is made clear by scholars James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian. They managed to get seven hoax papers accepted for publication in academic journals. They called the experiment “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship.”
The journal Gender, Place and Culture published their article exposing rape culture in dog parks; a feminist journal accepted their paper interwoven with excerpts from Mein Kampf. The contribution of James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian to Cogent Social Sciences, argues that the “conceptual, penis” is “better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a gender performative, highly fluid social construct,” is well received.
Those who promote identity politics are forgetting history
Those who promote the division of identity politics seem to have little understanding of the uniqueness of our history and our ability to create a nation which lacks the “identity” of a typical race, religion or ethnicity. What Americans had in common is a desire to live in a free and open society. A society that respects the rights to be as different or as similar as they chose.
Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that in a town of 8,000 people, residents could speak 18 languages. In his “Letters From An American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782:
“Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
Only in America
During a period of turmoil and division in the 1960s, author Mario Puzo wrote,
“What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries, whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering. Why not? And some even became artists.”
As a young man growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Puzo’s mother, an Italian immigrant, famously asks what he wants to be when he grew up. When he said a writer, she tells him:
“For a thousand years in Italy, no one in our family was even able to read. But, in America, everything is possible in a single generation.”
“It was hard for my mother to believe that her son could become an artist. After all, her own dream in coming to America had been to earn her daily bread, a wild dream in itself, and looking back she was dead right. Her son an artist? To this day she shakes her head. I shake mine with her.”
The U.S. has been an ethnically diverse society from the beginning.
By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were already a minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants made up 20 percent of the population, and there were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, German, Scottish and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots, and Sephardic Jews.
In 1904, the British writer Israel Zangwill wrote the now famous passage that is as relevant in 2018 as when written. It is a prophetic commentary which those who now celebrate division into “identity” groups would do well to consider:
“America is God’s Crucible, the Great Melting Pot, where all the races of Europe are reforming. Here you stand, good folk, think I, when 8 see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your 50 groups, and your 50 languages and histories, and your 50 blood-hatreds and rivalries.. but you won’t long be like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God, A fig for your feuds and vendettas. Germans and Frenchmen, Englishmen and Irishmen, Jews and Russians. Into the crucible with you all. God is making the American.”
The American story at the US Military Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy
Several years ago, I visited the US Military Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, down the road from Anzio, with my son and grandson. The cemetery covers 77 acres. The total number interred there is 7,861, which represents only 35 percent of those who died in combat from the invasion of Sicily to the liberation of Rome. Reading the names of the dead tells us much about the uniqueness of American society. All ethnic groups and nationalities lie here. Headstones of pristine marble with stylized Latin crosses mark the gravestones. Headstones of those of the Jewish faith are marble shafts surmounted by a Star of David.
In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote:
“We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations, we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American, you shed the blood of the whole world.”
As Mark Lilla argues, “identity politics” threatens the uniquely American story:
“National, politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. We need a post-identity, liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. It would concentrate on appealing to Americans as Americans. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.”
Whether it is the “identity politics” of the left or what often sounds like white nationalism on the right, the American idea of diversity, inclusiveness and individual freedom is under assault. The American political tradition is something quite different.
President George Washington on Freedom
In Washington’s letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, he writes:
“Happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving on all, occasions their effectual support.”
As if speaking to our diverse society of today, Washington concludes:
“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.”
This is the American tradition which all of us, liberals and conservatives, should celebrate. Those who would divide our society into warring groups are rejecting that tradition. As some have pointed out,