The Dark Magic of Identity Politics
The rise of identity politics in the west has lead to an increasing weaponizing of race for political purposes. In these United States Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” is one of the sturdiest bunkers against this tide. And the intersectional crowd knows it.
MLK’s clarion call for a colorblind society was never meant to be taken as a call for a colorless society. He did not envision a world without culture or difference. His ethic didn’t assume a naïve view of race. But the beautiful vision he so eloquently spoke forth into the zeitgeist was an aspirational ethic. An ethic of fairness and justice whereby a person would be judged by what they had done. Both good and bad. That a person’s character would be the ONLY measure by which they were measured.
But the political uses of intersectionality undermine this vision. These so called “oppression Olympics” turn race into the primary measure of a person. This is the whole point of identity politics. Identity comes before everything else. And any clear eyed person should be able to see that this is clearly a societal regression.
Because MLK wasn’t really saying anything new. He was cashing in the promissory note that had been written to all Americans by our founders. The last founding father, Frederick Douglas, eloquently explained it like this:
“Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs!”
One of the most fundamental things about humanity is the right to fail. This is the story of Adam and Eve. Failure is a sign of human worth and dignity. The failure of Adam tells us that humanity is designed to aspire. And we see the fullness of the aspirations God built into our nature in the second Adam, Jesus the Messiah.
We were built to fail, and by our failings to learn and grow. As Nassim Talib has argued we are anti-fragile. We are the kind of thing that benefits from hard knocks. Being propped up by society in artificial ways takes away our dignity. This is the fundamental lesson we should have learned from America’s ongoing experiment with the welfare state. As Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, and many others have argued our system actually provides disincentives for those on welfare to find work, and more tragically to pursue marriage and family life.
But real success, dignified success is only possible through failure. Churchill said it perfectly: “Success consists in going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Most don’t realize that Churchill was one of the primary drivers behind the creation of the English economic safety net. A welfare system designed to catch and help those who have fallen, whereas our system was supposed to raise up. These are markedly different projects. Our system is more of a spider’s web that entraps, not a net that catches us when we fall.
Identity politics washes all this rhetorical and philosophical genius away. It seeks to deny inherent dignity by replacing it with a political façade that props up minorities. Clarence Thomas’ dissenting opinion for Obergafell vs Hodges was roundly mocked on the left. Since Thomas is black he is expected to show solidarity with any and every minority group. The irony is that he was showing far greater solidarity with minorities by dissenting. The most brilliant piece of reasoning on Obergafell came in just a few simple lines from Thomas:
“[s]laves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”
The brilliance of this reasoning comes in part from Thomas’ refusal to play identity politics with his own racial heritage. And by doing so he made the philosophical underpinnings of American Civil Rights clear as crystal. If you are human you have dignity. Period. Full stop.
The most intelligent rebuttal to this argument came from Law professor ILya Somin in an OP Ed for the Washington Post.
“Thomas’ failure to consider the distinction between justification and enforcement is at the root of the weakest part of his opinion…It is certainly true that slaves and victims of unjust internment did not lose their right to dignity, which, as Thomas emphasizes, stems from their “inherent worth” rather than a decision made by the government. But it is pretty obvious that slavery and internment violated that right.”
He is obviously right to contend that the brutal racist form of chattel slavery that used to exist in these United States is not dignified. It did terrible violence against human dignity. But he was wrong to deny that Thomas hadn’t considered the distinction between justification and enforcement. Because Thomas was responding to the conflation of the two concepts.
In the case of slavery these two ideas are easily seen and utilized. Justification is the image of God, or less theologically explicit natural rights. Either way humans are the kind of thing that have intrinsic worth. This was not enforced for slaves in America. Today, because of the post Civil War amendments, slavery is illegal in these United States. A justification was provided and an enforcement added. Simple and straightforward. But Obergafell is completely disanalogous to that legal situation.
The Obergafell decision did not grant dignity to homosexuals, because dignity can’t be granted by human law. But it may have provided for them to live in a more dignified manner. And so on its own Somin’s point seems to stand. The justification of human worth, via dignity, comes first then the enforcement of Obergafell. This argument makes sense. It just doesn’t make sense as a response to what Thomas was arguing. Because Thomas was pointing out what the court decision did. They were creating, not recognizing, justifications with enforcements.
Justice Kennedy, et al, created a justification by creating an enforcement. So in a sense Somin is correct to say that Thomas isn’t distinguishing between the two. Because really Thomas is pointing out that the Obergafell decision wasn’t distinguishing between them either. They were claiming that enforcement granted justification. This is the nebulous game of legal realism. A philosophy of law that is completely beholden to philosophical materialism.
This is exactly how identity politics works its dark magic. By naming things. By placing things into categories. Then othose things, having been organized according to the intersectional hierarchy, become inviolable. The categories come first, the reality comes second. Reality is constructed to fit the desired framework.
It’s a power game. Pure and simple. And too many have fallen under this insidious spell. The post Civil War amendments had nothing to do with identity. But they did have to do with construction. Conservatives often decry post modern social construction theories. And rightly so because they are often nonsense. But the truth is that society is constructed. Gender is constructed. It’s just not merely constructed. Humans are the kind of thing that have to be formed. We do not get correctly formed by accident or through materialist deterministic processes.
That is why laws matter. They cannot make us good. But they can help us be bad, as we’ve seen in the US’s experiment with welfare. But they can also mitigate the effects of sin and hold us accountability for wrong doing. That is a social construction, of the healthy and normal variety. That is why the 14th amendment matters. That is why Roe v Wade matters. That is why public policy matters.
This is why the aspiration to a color blind society matters. The Hodgetwins are a black comedy duo, and yes they are twin brothers. They regularly appear on Louder with Crowder. And fair warning their comedy stylings are not for everyone. They are irreverent to put it mildly. But they’ve made a profound point about white privilege. They say yes white privilege does exist. But it isn’t what most people claim it is. When a white person says or does something its evaluated just as it is. On the merits or demerits. When a black person says or does something its evaluated in light of skin color.
They’re right. This is one of the worst things about identity politics. It turns what should be a color blind society into a color only society. Which means that the majority skin color gets treated as normal, everyone else gets treated as special. So Douglas’ plea to allow black Americans to just be left alone gets pushed aside.
Thomas Sowell has argued that its very hard for black academics to truly move up the economic ladder. There’s not much money in Academics, but what opportunities are made available come through excellence of intellectual work. But black Academics are actually denied opportunities within the western academy because they are privileged by universities. Sowell’s argument is actually pretty simple and utterly horrifying. Basically if you’re a black Academic you’re treated as special from the get go and this means rapid institutional advancement via boards, committees, chairs etc. Every committee needs a person of color so every non white professor straight out of a doctoral program gets pulled in all these directions. But Academic careers are built on the principle of publish or perish. In order to be respected in the Academy you need to have actually accomplished something. But black professors are not allowed the space to be academics. They are immediately turned into politicians. They cease to grow intellectually, which is a life long process for all professors. They are literally prevented from flourishing because of their blackness. This is truly awful and it has impacts on the lives of their children as well. It decreases networking possibilities, book writing, even job opportunities. If you aren’t doing research then whatever school you’re attached to could become a prison. No one is interested in hiring professors that don’t do research.
Recently we saw a very public, very embarrassing, example of how color blindness would improve our society. An exchange between two black political commentators: David Webb and Areva Martin. This is the Washington Post’s coverage of the incident:
“The exchange was posted to Twitter by Webb on Tuesday afternoon. He is heard in the interview saying, “I’ve chosen to cross different parts of the media world, done the work so that I’m qualified to be in each one; I never considered my color the issue; I considered my qualifications the issue.”
Martin responds: “Well, David, that’s a whole other long conversation about white privilege, the things that you have the privilege of doing, that people of color don’t have the privilege of.”
“How do I have the privilege of white privilege?” Webb asks.
“David, by virtue of being a white male you have white privilege. This whole long conversation, I don’t have time to get into — ”
Webb then interrupts her to let her know he’s a black man, causing Martin to take a pause.
“You see, you went to white privilege; this is the falsehood in this,” Webb replies. “You went immediately with an assumption. Your people, obviously, or you didn’t look.
Martin apologizes repeatedly for her false accusation, adding that “her people” gave her the wrong information.”
Martin isn’t as good at her job as Webb. Because she’s bought into identity politics. She can’t even take responsibility for making such a stupid remark. She has to blame “her people” for giving her the wrong info. This exposure of Martin’s fragility was only possible because they couldn’t see each other on the radio. Race was removed as a factor and when it became arbitrarily reinserted disaster ensued. Maybe if Martin had been allowed to fail this wouldn’t have happened. And that’s the privilege white Americans have. We are allowed to stand or to fall. Thomas Sowell has also chronicled how well black Americans were doing before the progressive era began. Back when Douglas’ philosophy was being listened to, even with the evil of Jim Crow, black Americans were clearly on their way to success. They still are. But the progressive policies of FDR, LBJ and all their acolytes caused a lot of regression.
We need to let people be more than their identities. We need to let them just be people.