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Friday, December 17, 2004

Identity Politics and the Modern Progressive Malaise

Quick note: I wrote this up about two weeks ago, but after umming-and-aahing about it for a while, I've decided to post it now. It's quite long, but hopefully it's interesting.

One topic that has always fascinated me has been the question of identity; how people see themselves, and how they see others. I consider my interest in this topic a logical outgrowth of my historical studies, because so much of history is wrapped up in these questions. Earlier this year I was thinking of writing a book about the ideology of multiculturalism. The plan was to write a critique of multiculturalism, the whole 'embrace diversity!' deal, that was sympathetic to the original ideas while decrying what it has become; more specifically, the idea was to approach identity politics from a centrist perspective as much of the criticism of it has come from conservative critics, many of whom I disagree with. I wrote up a proposal and showed it to a friend in the publishing industry but he said there were simply too many different topics (which was true), so instead of hacking bits out I decided to shelve it for a little while.

One of the central problems with writing about multiculturalism and diversity is that it is hard to pin down exactly what it is; like all other personal faiths and bureaucratic systems it means different things to different people at different times in different places. Nonetheless, there are broad outlines that can be drawn, and so that is what I will be working from in my comments.

My central problem with multiculturalism as an ideological system is that it, in its bureaucratic form (as I discussed here, is precisely that: an ideological system, a self-contained method for viewing the world that comes with its own high mandarins, its own bureaucracy, its own media, its Revealed Truths, and its own faith-based initiatives. I am instinctively opposed to utopian ideological systems that proclaim that redemption and understanding lie upon a single path that all must take (and that recalcitrants should be forced into). In this way I find multiculturalism to be very much in the mold of Marxism and monotheistic religious orthodoxy (both of which I feel it owes a tremendous debt to). Of course, it is doesn't parallel either ideologies exactly; for example it has no idealized paradise state posited as an end goal. What it does have is a deeply-felt, almost mystical, attachment to ethnic, cultural, sexual, and religious diversity as a concept in and of itself.

As far as it goes, I think it is useful to interact with a diverse range of people, to hear and read different perspectives, especially from people who live lives that are quite different from your own. I think that living overseas for so many years has greatly sharpened my perceptions about my native country. Yet, I believe in diversity as a give-and-take process, based on the sharing of ideas through debate and conversation, and one of the central problems I have with multiculturalism as it currently stands as public policy and worthy liberal cause is that it concentrates on only one part of the equation of diversity (of backgrounds) and it neglects the other (of perspectives). It reduces the human condition to a box-checking exercise; despite glorying in 'diversity' it encourages the creation of a purified mindset, a code of correct opinions, actions, and approaches that is every bit as complex and constraining as other belief systems.

More explicitly it assigns moral value to people based on their demographic characteristics. Black, hispanic, asian, gay, female, liberal, Muslim, poor countries - yay! White, male, Christian, conservative, industrialized countries - boo! It is too simplistic a way to boil down people, because everyone is, in some way, more than the sum of their demographic factors. By emphasizing, indeed championing, difference it also causes people to lose sight of their commonalities. By encouraging those isolationists in minority groups who fear assimilation and want to prevent the loss of what they see as their cultural/religious traditions it works to Balkanize society, needlessly creating fears among the majority that new immigrant groups are fundamentally unlike those of the past, and will prove to be indigestible. Inadvertently it benefits majoritarian populists and their plans for reactionary conservatism by providing them with a populist enemy: "here," they can say, "are people who hate themselves and want to bring the rest of us down with them, so riddled with decadance are they."

Cultural change is inevitable, it is simply how history works. No cultural perspective of any kind, ethnic or religious or other, is immune from change over time. This is especially the case in a modern capitalist society, where technological change, economic expansion, and ethnic flux are constantly rewriting the core of society. To claim that it is somehow possible for immigrant groups thrown into the maelstrom of modern American society to stake their ground without assimilating is foolish. To believe that it is desirable is pernicious. Furthermore, it is a betrayal of traditional liberal principles to unquestioningly romanticize 'traditional' cultures, to engage in 'noble savage' nonsense. The entire basis of progressivism is advancement, improvement, and reform - it is simply illogical to believe that one culture (the host culture) must change to accommodate incoming cultures, who should not change at all. Meeting points must be arranged. Although there is much to respect in many traditional cultures throughout the world, none are immune from the need to transform themselves.

In this sense multiculturalism is explicitly anti-individual, despite its origins in the freewheeling radical movements of the 1960's. This is particularly the case in the way it relates to ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities; although it is a positive change to move beyond reflexive demonization of such groups, it is no triumph to then mindlessly sanctify them. Despite loudly and constantly denouncing the paternalism of the traditional order of Western societies it replicates these methods in its approach to its chosen groups of Eternal Martyrs. It presents a certain kind of victimology that must be internalized and adhered to as the only solution to problems. Those who stray from the boundaries as defined by the diversocracy are denounced as self-hating traitors (like Condoleeza Rice or the Log Cabin Republicans). It also legitimizes certain forms of foolish ethnic nationalism, like the academic charlatans who make up parts of the Afrocentric movement and student groups like Mecha who would (rightfully) be condemned if they were white.

As it is a dogmatic approach to life, multiculturalism holds liberalism hostage through an avowed refusal to surrender on approaches to implementing principles, even if those approaches have outlasted their usefulness. It ties the traditional approach to the principles, believing that to back down on the approach means to abandon the desired outcome. A prime example of this can be seen on affirmative action. Pushing the black community towards parity with the majority quite rightly has been one of the most important issues among American liberals since the 1960's. The historical record of the white majority to the black minority in governmental, economic, and personal relations is strewn with shame. That is, I am sure, an uncontroversial position to take. For me, some form of affirmative action is a necessary corrective to the problems that result from this history in the form of social pathologies (family breakdown, crime, drugs, poor health, teenage pregnancy, and venereal disease) that in recent decades have struck poor black communities harder than any others in America. The causes of this social pathology were diagnosed by Senator Patrick Moynihan in his prophetic 1965 report "Why are black families in crisis?" as stemming from the particular dehumanization of slavery as it was instituted in America, the creation of slums in periods of rapid urban migrations, educational and employment discrimination, and the traditionally matriarchal family structures of much of black America.

These conditions among the black underclass have only worsened since Moynihan's day. Incarceration rates are higher than they were, even more children are born out of wedlock, and black urban civil society has crumbled in the face of de-industrialization and the onslaught of drugs. To these people, the ones who need uplifting the most, affirmative action has made little difference. I would argue that this is the result of a serious failure of nerve on the part of America, the shifting of goalposts from the original rationale of affirmative action as a compensatory gesture to the fuzzier concept of promoting diversity. For instance, although Harvard's enrollment is 8% black, a sizeable majority are African or West Indian immigrants or the children of such immigrants, leaving only a minority of students descended from slaves owned in the United States. Affirmative action for college admissions, bringing with it the prospect of entry into the higher spectrum of American society, is sexier than the hard work of repairing the building blocks, which is more important. Ensuring better standards of elementary education in inner-city schools is one part of this, as is improving the environment of black communities by lowering crime and increasing employment, and effecting a cultural shift of the type that Bill Cosby talked about so that more poor black parents take a leading role in their childrens' education; for instance, the success of Asian-American cram schools has had much to do with the rapid upward movement of so many Asians in America. Affirmative action mainly benefits the black middle-class, which is already reasonably well positioned. For the poor, little is done.

This is symptomatic of how as the basis of progressivism has moved away from economic class issues to those of cultural identity the effectiveness of reformism has lessened. Worrying about word choices and how to reflect diversity in every imaginable way is the sort of therapeutic gesturing that doesn't provide what is needed: better jobs, better educational foundations, and better housing. Indeed, much of the identity politics agenda adopted by modern Liberalism actively works against the people it once championed (and still pretend to). The best example of this is the complete lack of seriousness with which much of the American Left treats the phenomenon of massive illegal immigration, ignoring it except to shout that anyone who opposes it is 'racist'. Illegal immigration forces down wages at the bottom of the scale, disproportionately affecting those that traditionally the left most wanted to help. Illegal immigration's main beneficiaries are large American corporations (who get a never-ending supply of ultra-cheap labor that is mostly docile through fear) and Mexico's oligarchy (who get to merrily continue to ignore the idea of improving the lives of Mexico's impoverished majority by shoving hundreds of thousands north every year). There is no question that illegal immigrants need help, but treating it as purely an issue of human rights, and acting like there are no problems beyond 'racism' and 'nativism', prevents the creation of better solutions. The Republicans, although they may posture on the side of helping ordinary Americans, are unlikely to want to irritate their corporate backers by actively targeting those companies that employ illegal immigrants, so, really, this is an area where the Democrats need to take a stand.

Despite choosing not to write a book on it, it is still a topic I am very much interested in, because I feel that the way in which multiculturalism and identity politics have become orthodoxy among the modern progressive movement are both cause and symptom of its current malaise. One of the obvious effects of the 1960's on American politics and culture has been the sundering of the old New Deal coalition. This is a topic for which whole forests have died in discussing, so I need not do more than sketch out an outline of what happened. The coalition that Franklin Delanore Roosevelt built was a combination of the secular priesthood of academia and the intelligentsia, the union movement, the Solid South, the big city political machines, and immigrants and ethnic minorities. The reasons that this coalition died are many and varied. Partly was the result of historical inevitability, part of it was the demographic shifts that benefitted the Republicans, and part of it came from mistakes (real or imagined) committed by parts of the progressive movement.

From the 60's onwards this grand alliance has completely collapsed. First the white South moved tentatively, then in a mighty avalanche, to the Republican Party as a result of the Civil Rights movement and Nixon's Southern Strategy. Then, the economic malaise of the 1970's, the decline of industry (and with it the union movement) and the move to a service-based economy helped Ronald Reagan steal a huge amount of working-class votes for the Republicans (the so-called 'Reagan Democrats'). The mighty political machines of the big cities of the northeast and the midwest also saw their power decimated in this period. Long held by the main 'white ethnic' groups (particularly Irish- and Italian-Americans, but also Poles, Germans, Jews, and others) they were fatally weakened by the great demographic shifts of the period, as working and middle-class whites (always their main constituency) poured out of the old industrial cities into the freshly-built suburbs, and the population in general shifted ever more to the west and south. They were then finally destroyed by the sort of corruption scandals that had rarely touched them before (corruption having been an ordinary part of municipal business since the 19th century), due to greatly reduced tolerance for low-level local corruption from ordinary citizens and federal authorities. During this time period the Republican Party was also working very hard to rebuild itself and broaden its natural electorate, having vowed to transform itself, and America, in the wake of the Goldwater debacle in 1964. In response to these economic and cultural shifts the Democrats have moved ever further to the center on economic issues, leaving the sense that the only clear water that exists between the two parties was on cultural and social issues, an area where (as I explain later) the Democrats are at a definite disadvantage because of the influence, real and imagined, of campus activism and political correctness.

So, via Marc Cooper I was very interested to read this essay by Michael Lind from The Nation. I am going to reproduce it in full, because the editors stuck all the different essays on one page (the rest are either the usual demands for the Democrats to move further to the left, 'America is evil' yawnfests, or plugs for their own particular agendas like Jorge Ramos claiming the election was decided by Hispanics). The relevant bits I want to comment on will be highlighted.

IN AN ERA IN WHICH MOST US POPULATION GROWTH is occurring in the South, West and heartland, American liberalism is defined by people in the Northeast. At a time when rising tuitions are pricing many working-class Americans out of a college education, the upscale campus is becoming the base of American progressivism. In a country in which most working-class Americans drive cars and own homes in the suburbs, the left fetishizes urban apartments and mass transit and sneers at "sprawl." In an economy in which most workers are in the service sector, much of the left is obsessed with manufacturing jobs. In a society in which Latinos have surpassed blacks as the largest minority and in which racial intermixture is increasing, the left continues to treat race as a matter of zero-sum multiculturalism and white-bashing. In a culture in which the media industry makes money by pushing sex and violence, the left treats the normalization of profanity and obscenity as though it were somehow progressive, making culture heroes of Lenny Bruce and Larry Flynt. At a time when the religious right wants to shut down whole areas of scientific research, many on the left share a Luddite opposition to biotech. In an age in which billions would starve if not for the use of artificial fertilizers in capital-intensive agriculture, the left blathers on about small-scale organic farming. In a century in which the dire need for energy for poor people in the global South can only be realistically met by coal, oil and perhaps nuclear energy, liberals fantasize about wind farms and solar panels. And in a world in which the greatest threat to civilization is the religious right of the Muslim countries, much of the left persists in treating the United States as an evil empire and American patriotism as a variant of fascism.

American progressivism, in its present form, is as obsolete in the twenty-first century as the agrarian populists were in the twentieth. If you can't adapt to the times, good intentions will get you nowhere. Ask the shade of William Jennings Bryan.

Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (Basic).

In my opinion, one of the most important factors in the decline of the Democratic Party has been the first thing I highlighted. The decimation of the union movement, as corrupt as it often was, and the 'where-do-we-go-now?' dilemmas of the black civil rights movement after its biggest battles were won, has increasingly shifted the center of gravity of progressive activism to college campuses. And it's been a disaster, as fifteen years of Republicans (and more particularly their allies in the press, on talk radio, and on the internet) gleefully making hay out of the excesses of 'political correctness' show.

The central problem with the greatly increased strength, relatively speaking, of college campuses within the broader progressive grassroots relates to the nature of university life itself. A university education prepares you for what you will do with the rest of your life, or at least train you to use your mind in whatever career you ultimately go into, but the specific form that university life generally takes is as a shelter from regular life. Especially at heavily campus-oriented schools in small towns where students and professors utterly dominate the local atmosphere.

Academia is a wonderful petri dish for ideas, but it is not so good on pragmatism. The old city bosses, crooked as many of them were, were intimately acquainted with the fact that compromise and cutting deals are a necessary part of doing business; they also knew that they couldn't pick-and-choose their constituents, and had to work with what they had.

At schools, however, the university officials have a comparatively much freer hand in deciding who enters their kingdom. So, for instance, they can choose to make efforts to maximise ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity among the student body and among teachers while enforcing ideological orthodoxy in curricular matters through hiring practices. This was graphically illustrated in recent study by Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern of Santa Clara University that showed that Democrats now outnumber Republicans among university professorships by a ratio of 7 to 1. For Democrats the problems created by this state of affairs are two-fold: it hands conservative populists a giant club with which to bash Liberals, and among the Left it creates an echo-chamber culture among the most vocal part of the activist base, entangling activism with grand academic theorizing (of the proper and pseudo varieties) and divorcing it from the broader culture.

Of course, conservatives have their own cultural echo chambers. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, and read websites like Free Republic you can effectively opt out from what conservatives see as the biased liberal MSM. Politically, these sorts of cultural echo chambers are not as damaging for the Republicans, because they do not sincerely want to radically transform American society; their primary goal is economic transformation. Culture-war populism is just window-dressing, as Thomas Frank has pointed out. For the Republicans, it is enough that most ordinary working and middle class whites instinctually recoil from being demonized as eternal oppressors by the sort of guilt-soaked white liberals who seem to exist as a modern analogue to the Flagellants of the Medieval period (punishing themselves to purge their Original Sins of being People of Pallor).

However, Democrats do, sincerely, want to transform America for the better, and so that is why the overwheening influence of multiculturalist orthodoxy is so deadly. It acts against the normalizing effects of assimilation by rewarding communitarianism, it provides grist for the mill for conservative populists to get out the Republican vote for policies that have little cultural impact (while corporate lobbyists are granted a free hand to do as they please), and it divides people rather than bring them together.

|| RPH || 1:50 PM || |