The New York Times opinion pages today seem engaged in some sort of war against diversity and “identity liberalism.” As I understand, “identity liberalism” causes people to think less of the common good, and instead to conceive of themselves in some sort of divisive narcisstic navel gazing where none can see the broader public interest. This seems to cause resentment among those left unmentioned by the high priests of diversity (white working class voters), though, incongruently enough, it seems also to be the case that we are deceiving ourselves into a sense of moral superiority if we think that somehow “whitelash” explains the election results. Even worse, we need to learn speak in a language of common purpose, but, incongruently enough, this seems to involve understanding more about white working class voters and how important religion (i.e. Christianity) is to them.
This, of course, is not about transcending identity at all, those of us who are not white, not working class, and not Christian might point out. A criticism that somehow in our hyper politically correct diverse centered universe we’ve ignored some important identities and permit aspersions to be cast about such persons, is potentially a trenchant one. I have no doubt the first kid from his high school in some small town in rural Pennsylvania feels as out of place at Harvard Law as a black student from an underprivileged urban neighborhood. But that is completely different from a criticism that we speak too much in the language of identity, and to take from that a lesson that we need to know more about blue collar people and how religion motivates them. To suggest that somehow we are spending too much time learning about transgendered people in Egypt, which is divisive, and not enough about how evangelical Christianity motivates white people in Alabama, which is unifying, is not to suggest we need to forget about identity, but rather that those of us with different identities need to forget all about ours and conform ourselves to white, Protestant America. This might explain why the article ends with the ideal of Rooseveltian liberalism, a risible analogy about which I’ll have more to say in a minute.
Douthat’s criticisms of diversity, to their credit, recognize this cost, and concede that effectively pre identity liberalism of the type represented by Roosevelt is nothing of the sort, and that it is, instead, assimilation and subjugation to a soft white Anglo Saxon Protestantism. In his telling, there is something necessarily illiberal to which liberalism must cling, and while at one point in US history that might have been this sort of white Protestantism, the inherent racism, misogyny and religious intolerance that is at the very heart of non-identity liberalism caused a rethinking of this in the 1960’s. This creates the crisis in which liberalism finds itself, because there’s nothing particularly transcendental about diversity on its own terms, and unless it can find something transcendental, it is purely material and procedural politics.
Two points, from an unabashed Muslim defender of the liberal order, and an advocate of that which is repeatedly referred to as “identity politics.” First, I’m rather lost in how that which we seek in embracing diversity does not transcend material and procedural politics or, even stranger still, that it is somehow divisive. The first article seemed to dismiss the story of of Sally Mursi, the transgendered Egyptian, as just some sort of narratively appealing and yet politically irrelevant story, and I teach her story (oh yes, apparently it is also reasonable to ridicule me by referring to her by the pronoun of her choice the first article indicated, so shoot away), so let’s start there. First, nobody intelligent teaches her story to learn something about material or procedural politics. The identity liberalism piece referenced above admits this, and wants to know how students will ever understand Egypt’s current movements by reference to this marginal figure of no political power. Answer: they won’t. We aren’t trying to show that, nor is anyone I know who teaches the story of Sally Mursi suggesting that a course or a lecture on politics in modern Egypt needs to include her, or, that if it somehow did, her story would be the centerpiece around which Egyptian politics centers. That would be idiotic, as idiotic as suggesting Egyptian politics is irrelevant because it doesn’t center around the transgendered. What we’re showing, or I am showing in law school anyway, is how legal decisions and legal determinations and legal interpretations affect actual human beings. And in so doing, incidentally in my course and more frontally in others less legal in orientation than mine, is building emphathy. So yes it’s an ideological project. I want my students who were raised in conservative Muslim households quick to dismiss sexual unorthodoxy as deviant and unnatural to just think about how their position, reflected in traditional interpretations of texts, affect people like Sally. And it’s not for material and procedural political reasons, it’s very much the core of what we believe a tolerant society is about, and it runs far deeper than procedural politics.
Moreover, I find absolutely unfathomable that somehow identity politics is divisive. How many transgendered Egyptians do you think I teach? Building empathy for others is as universal, as human, as transcendent as it can get. And anyone who thinks we’ve built walls and not bridges by referring to people as Muslim Americans and Arab Americans and gay Americans and Chinese Americans and Jewish Americans and African Americans and Latino Americans might want to stop to consider just one thing. In these dark days, as I, as a Muslim, start to fear where the nation is heading and what my place in it might be, I have heard remarkable expressions of empathy–from white students and gay ones, Latino professors and Jewish ones, in moving editorials from George Takei reflecting on their families’ experiences and urging us not to make the same mistake twice to editorials of rage at recent appointments written by black journalists that reflect my own feelings, but conveyed much more articulately. They aren’t Muslim, not a one, and yet, they understand empathy, and empathy is not divisive. By contrast, are you really going to tell me that those who resist our diversity embracing multiculturalism are doing so because they really would prefer to be part of some unifying message that attracts all Americans? Is that a fair description of the campaign the Wall Builder ran? We’re supposed to believe that the racism and misogyny and ethnocentrism was incidental and it is only our convictions of our own moral superiority that causes us to think otherwise. Personally, I don’t feel morally superior. I feel scared. And somehow, as I noted in my last post, it seems to me most of those voters knew that, and didn’t care. Perhaps if they had learned a little more about the transgendered in Egypt?
Which brings me to my other objection, which is in the contention that identity politics is some invention of the left which we need to find a way to get past in order to find common cause. That’s not how I see things. In fact, my community came out 3 to 1 in favor of George W. Bush in 2000, and I don’t think that is because of his embrace of some particularly progressive form of multiculturalism, some sort of hostility to the whit-ces-het people of good will who then are driven rightward. No, we as a community (not me! not me!) bought the myth. We figured W. himself obviously made a point not to scapegoat Muslims, and so this sort of post identity politics would work out okay for us. Then a black man got elected, after having to deny four million times over that he was a Muslim, a term which in that particular context might as well have been substituted for “child molester.” “They keep saying Senator Obama is a Muslim. It’s not true! No, please, understand, he’s a Christian! You can vote for him!” Then there was the Ground Zero mosque, then Muslim registries and Muslim bans bandied about and now the incoming NSA director does not even think Islam is a religion. And the problem? Apparently us being divisive, by thinking about our own religion so much. Not only was it politically shrewd for the Democratic party to see this and say nice things about Islam (and Latinos and blacks and gays and . . . . ), it would have been the act of a political imbecile who would do anything else.
So let’s go back to where we started–on post identity liberalism and how we’re all supposed to come together, black, white and Latino and everyone else, on a platform like Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which will unify us all in a fashion that is independent of identity. That’s the image we’re left with in defense of this notion–Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941 unifying all the Latinos and blacks and whites and men and women, Americans all.
I have a different image though. I imagine just the same scene back when Roosevelt first told us of his Four Freedoms. I imagine some Japanese Americans sitting rapt listening to it, completely sold on the Four Freedoms, never feeling more American than they did at that moment, prepared to serve the country, and defend it, and speak English, and eat at McDonald’s, and do all the good things that good Americans do. Because it’s not about identity, right? That’s the KKK, we liberals don’t think like that, right? We believe in freedom to speak, and to worship and to be free of want and fear. So, when the first soldiers came for them, on the same Roosevelt’s orders, only a little over a year later, what do you think they were thinking then? What when this horror was justified by a supposedly liberal Supreme Court, in the Kohrematsu decision, written by one of the court’s desegregationists? Post identity liberalism indeed.
Forgive me, but there’s no such thing as a liberalism that exists independent of identity. It’s either a white Christian liberalism, to which we are supposed to assimilate, and forget about our identities. But they won’t forget ours, not when Pearl Harbor gets bombed or the WTC is attacked or a black man is elected president. Then, all of a sudden, our identity is what makes us suspect, and the whole ugly lie reveals itself. Or it’s a liberalism that not only tolerates, but embraces, the differences among us. So, fellow others, the next time someone tells you they wish you’d just play down your religion and ethnicity and join with him on a program that builds infrastructure because that’s a common cause and shouldn’t we cooperate and strive together on common causes that are independent of our identities, I have but one word I want you to remember. Kohrematsu.