On Identity Politics, Black Lives Matter, and What Lies Beyond Liberalism

John Locke, granddaddy of liberalism

I’ve been reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a foundational text of the rightward turn (which I’ve described before on this blog) that we’ve witnessed among many conservative intellectuals—particularly among Catholic intellectuals, but perhaps best exemplified by the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher. Dreher took the title of his influential treatise, The Benedict Option, from the last chapter of After Virtue. MacIntyre is no simple conservative, and his thought is much more subtle than most defenders of integralism. It is also much more difficult. I will doubtlessly have more to say about After Virtue in the coming weeks. I mention it now only because MacIntyre’s book imagines an ideological space beyond the individualist, market-driven, classical liberalism that has dominated so much of Western thought (and theology) for at least three centuries. MacIntyre advocates a much more communitarian conservative ethics, and his vision has inspired a numerous conservative thinkers to reject libertarian fantasies and attack liberalism outright. Because these thinkers frequently admit traditionally leftist policies into their vision of society, some commentators have mistakenly argued that this represents a leftward turn in conservative thought. I would argue that, to the contrary, it represents a further shift to the right (again, I refer to my earlier post, linked above).

Typically when commentators describe post-liberal tendencies in contemporary politics, they point to both the right and the left. On the one hand, Trump and Putin; on the other, resurgent Marxism and an identity politics that seems to subordinate the individual (the central locus of liberal politics) to groups, particularly racial, ethnic, and sexual identity groups. I have written against democratic socialism elsewhere on this blog but have not yet addressed identity politics, which is a much more nebulous phenomenon. In general, my position is that identity politics in the West was essentially created by anti-black and anti-indigenous racists to subsidize the political power of white people, particularly in nations with a history as settler colonies. In other words, white identity politics was the original identity politics. Large systems of anti-black racism were built and enforced, most famously in the southern United States and in South Africa, though obviously this occurred all over the West. (Even someone who is uncomfortable with the term “systemic racism” must admit that slavery, Jim Crow, and apartheid constituted massive, society-wide systems.) The racists who built and enforced these systems sometimes found a home on the political left (re: the Progressive era), sometimes on the political right. By the late twentieth century in the United States, the formal, organized political forces that explicitly endorsed white identity politics—former Dixiecrats, for instance, but also urban Democrats who claimed to speak for working class whites—found a home in the Republican Party. And nobody complained about identity politics until blacks began to leverage their identity in order to assemble political power.

In short, when I hear people complain about identity politics, my typical response is “Give me a break.” Nobody (well, nobody except radical abolitionists and anti-racists from across the political spectrum) said “boo” about identity politics when it was practiced to allocate and redistribute political power from blacks to whites. But now that we’ve reached a moment when black identity can be deployed to silence political opposition, thoughtful people are suddenly very concerned about identity politics and the deteriorating liberal democratic order.

All that being said, I am one of those white people who worries about the subordination of individuals to groups (here’s something: the overwhelming majority of black intellectuals who support Black Lives Matter worry about this, too). Nobody should be punished or rewarded simply for their group identity. This idea has animated the Civil Rights movement from the days of Frederick Douglass all the way to the protests against the murder of George Floyd. Charges of reverse discrimination against whites often, upon closer examination, reveal mere complaints about policies that attempt to unravel the systems that unjustly allocated power to whites in the first place. Another way of looking at it: anti-racist work is trying to undo identity politics.

Last week, Ross Douthat wrote an editorial in the New York Times lodging familiar conservative complaints about the threat to liberalism posed by the recent protests and riots (or “uprisings,” if you prefer that nomenclature). He was writing in response to Tom Cotton’s now notorious op-ed advocating for the use of military force against the rioters; I won’t go into that here. Douthat begins:

The force transforming Western liberalism has many hashtags, many slogans, many admiring and pejorative descriptions, but no single name that everyone can recognize as a singular description of the thing itself. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, social justice and intersectionality, anti-racism and the “great awokening.” “Cultural Marxism” and “SJWs” and “identity politics.” Political correctness, of course, and more obscurely “left modernism” and “hyper-liberalism.” Like the blind men feeling different portions of the elephant, the words all capture something, but the form of the animal remains a bit fuzzy, with a generally familiar shape but tusks and trunks where you don’t necessarily expect them.

One particularly useful phrase belongs to the cultural critic Wesley Yang, who calls the transformational force “the successor ideology” — meaning that it represents a possible successor to liberalism, like Marxism in the last century, but also that it’s inchoate and half-formed and sometimes internally contradictory, defined more by its departures from older liberal ideas than by a unified worldview.

Douthat goes on to describe the useful, reformist, downright liberal policies being advocated by “many” on the social justice left and by the Black Lives Matters protesters. He lists these policies, such as defunding local police departments in favor of refunding the numerous educational and social institutions that have been pillaged by Republicans for the past half century. Such policies are the main thrust of the protests—that’s precisely what they’re asking for, and it makes the reader wonder what is left over to criticize. Douthat arrives at that in his eighth paragraph (I apologize for the length of the following quotation, but I want to do Douthat justice):

But part of the anti-racism movement is seeking much more than just changes to policing. It’s interested in spiritual renewal and consciousness raising — something evident from the revivalism of so many protests in the last week — and its capacious definitions of racism imply, in the end, not reform but re-education, not interracial dialogue but strict white deference, not a liberal society groping toward equality but a corrupt society being re-engineered.

As I write this column, the No. 1 best seller on Amazon is “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo, a white anti-bias educator for corporate America and the public sector who has spent decades trying to eliminate bigotries and microaggressions and “implicit bias” among white employees. The No. 2 and 5 best sellers are works by Ibram X. Kendi, an African-American theorist of anti-racism who urges his readers to reject not only bigotry but what he calls the racism of “assimilationism” — meaning any strong emphasis on minority self-improvement or self-sufficiency, any strong hope in education and upward mobility as a salve for racial ills.

DiAngelo represents the revivalist aspect of anti-racism: The anti-bias workshops she runs have uncertain efficacy, but their real purpose is to offer a spiritual ladder to their white participants, with people of color on hand (as Kelefa Sanneh noted in The New Yorker) “as sages, speaking truths that white people must cherish, and not challenge.”

Kendi, meanwhile, represents the revolutionary aspect: In Politico last year he imagined a constitutional amendment establishing a “Department of Anti-Racism … comprised of formally trained experts on racism,” that would be “responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity,” for monitoring public officials who express ideas the experts consider racist and for using “disciplinary tools” when “policymakers and public officials” remain recalcitrant in what the department labels bigotry.

Whatever this is, it is not Barack Obama-era liberalism — indeed, under Kendi’s definitions, some of Obama’s views might merit disciplinary action — but a much more revolutionary successor.

These are the markers, writes Douthat, “not [of] a liberal society groping toward equality but a corrupt society being re-engineered.” Douthat worries about the calls for “strict white deference.” Perhaps he encountered those memes that instructed whites to stay at the back of the protests and to not speak unless they were given permission by one of the black leaders. Perhaps he read any number of articles instructing whites to learn and understand more about the black experience, only to pivot to the observation that whites can’t actually understand the black experience. Perhaps he has been told to defer to victims of racism when defining and describing racism. I admit, as a white person, I sometimes find those memes, articles, and instructions a little irritating, or insulting, or problematic. But here’s the thing—those memes, articles, and instructions hardly represent the thrust of the issue at hand, which is (as best as I can tell) the matter of black lives and how cheaply those lives are treated by the most powerful people in our society: the police, the authorities, government officials, &c.

Douthat describes all the ways these insidious, anti-liberal ideas are creeping into the culture at large, not through the institutions of political power (after all, he notes, Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential nominee) but through the institutions of cultural power: in Ivy League universities, in Young Adult fiction, even in the pages of the New York Times‘ news section. Not the opinion pages, mind you; Douthat finds those to be reliably liberal. Instead, it’s the hard reporting that has adopted the vocabularies and presuppositions of the successor ideology. This, he remarks, is a new and worrisome development.

I don’t entirely disagree with all of Douthat’s critique of this ideology and its online permutations. I worry about liberalism quite a bit, actually. I find “cancel culture” by turns annoying and alarming: at times it seems like an obnoxious fad, at other times it truly does seem (as its conservative critics would argue) like a shadow of a shadow of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, albeit infinitely tamer and more amusing. Certainly Twitter has become a site of farcical “struggle sessions,” except that generally it’s only people’s feelings that get hurt. (To preserve my own feelings, I tend to avoid Twitter as best I can, a practice I can’t recommend enough.) I most likely wouldn’t get involved with a crowd that unilaterally decided to tear down a statue; that’s just not in my personality. And I agree with Douthat that any activist who considers Barack Obama dangerously right-wing is dangerously out of touch with the society he inhabits. The cries that Obama too engaged in all sorts of inhumane policies fails to impress me in the face of the sheer political nihilism of the Trump administration.

What surprised me most about Douthat’s editorial, however, was that he wrote such a lengthy piece in such a concerned tone over the collapse of liberal norms. Because Douthat is precisely one of those conservatives I described at the beginning of the previous section, one who looks longingly to a post-liberal order wherein power might be seized from the people and handed to something very much like the Church. To his credit, he admits as much toward the end of the piece:

I am not myself an old-fashioned liberal, so in certain ways I’m the wrong person to write a stentorian defense of the marketplace of ideas, the old Op-Ed page ideal. In the conflicts between liberalism and its would-be inheritor I have generally taken a detached approach, recognizing — as someone with non-liberal commitments of my own — all the reasons people might be drawn to the successor ideology, all the things it offers that a somewhat exhausted liberalism does not: a clear sense of moral purpose, a thrill of solidarity, a spiritual horizon for ordinary human life.

(In case you missed it, the second link in that paragraph is to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

As of this writing, I believe that, of all the forms of government I’ve studied and observed, liberal democracy is pretty much the best. That being said, I have some non-liberal tendencies, too. My faith, I hope, trumps my commitment to liberalism (as does my devotion to my wife and family and any number of other things that are very important to me). So now that all our cards are out on the table—now that we’ve established that we’ve all got non-liberal commitments—surely we can begin to agree on when and how to peak behind the curtain and see what lies beyond liberalism. And certainly one of those times to entertain our non-liberal tendencies is when matters of life and death are at stake.

Isn’t that what all these protests are ultimately about? Aren’t we talking about a matter of life and death? Okay, so the anti-racists are pushing us to reconsider our commitment to a few liberal precepts. If it’s not appropriate to suspend liberal commitments to the sacred (if largely theoretical) autonomy of the individual when black people are being killed on a regular basis (or suspend liberal commitments to the second amendment when mass shootings become a recurring feature of our society), when is it appropriate? Drag queen story hour?

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