MacLean’s Doubles Down on Identity Politics

identity-politicsMacLean’s makes me feel better about my tax money being used to fund the CBC. Last year, they were promoting the opinion that We don’t need less identity politics—we need more.

Opinion: We need to tackle all our different challenges, and not pretend we all have the same ones—and identity politics help achieve that.

Do they? How do you know?

It’s become one of the most ire-raising terms by what has become an outrage-driven society: identity politics. Often deemed incoherent and vicious, angry columnists and commenters decry it when, say, the Prime Minister of Canada acknowledges that the country has failed Indigenous people, when leaders praise immigrants, or when corporations endorse diversity in their workforce. It’s accused of being inflammatory, fostering censorship and conflict, race-baiting and man-hating—a “poison” infecting the body politic, according to the Wall Street Journal. The rising alt-right, and even violent white nationalism, has been excused or diminished as an understandable reaction to it. Identity politics, opponents say, is itself the problem.

The alt-right is not just a reaction to far left identity politics, it is the far right equivalent.

It’s become a punching bag for some progressives, too. Bernie Sanders has asked post-election Democrats to “move beyond identity politics.” The socialist magazine Jacobin has argued that “the frameworks of liberal identity politics and ‘alt-right’ white nationalism are proving curiously compatible.” Mark Lilla’s new book The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics urges the left to reject “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.” Bill Maher attacked the “cult of diversity” on his HBO show on the same night tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis were chanting “you will not replace us.”

Why is it curious that there are similarities between the identity politics of the progressive left and those of the alt-right? Sanders is an economic socialist in the mold of the (pre Corban) British labour party. The fact that he is calling for the rejection of identity politics indicates that he recognizes that it won’t resonate with a vast swath of the working class in America.

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum claim such talk is divisive, but ignoring inequality only maintains the status quo—it doesn’t make inequalities go away. Identity politics alerts us to the distance we have to go to equality. And in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, the “free speech” debate over former Google employee James Damore’s memo questioning women in tech, and increasing anti-Islamism across Canada, it’s clear that we actually need more identity politics—not less.

Rejecting identity politics is not the same as ignoring inequality. There is little evidence that identity politics improves the status quo or make inequalities go away. The violence in Charlottesville was in part a reaction to the progressive left, or at least was enabled by their attack on southern war memorials. Damore’s memo was a critique of identity politics, not of women. Telling people to shut up will not decrease anti-Islamic sentiment; quite the opposite.

But what is it exactly? Well, consider this joke from the sitcom Friends. After Joey encourages a lovesick Ross to “go to China, eat Chinese food,” Chandler deadpans back: “Of course there, it’s just called food.” Along those lines, identity politics for straight, white (mostly) men is just called politics. That’s the bonus of being dominant—you don’t have to “identify” what you are when you are the default.

This sums up the problem with identity politics perfectly. There are more women than men, so surely for women, it should just be called politics. Whites do have an identity politics movement: the alt-right. By implying that white identity is verboten, you are pushing young white men who are looking for an identity into the arms of the alt-right. Good job.

For everyone else, identity politics merely addresses political issues particular to their subgroups. So it’s just politics for people who are also Indigenous, female, black, brown, Muslim, LGBTQ, Jewish, disabled or members of other marginalized communities facing unique challenges. It is a request to allow other lenses on political life to be seen as holding equal value. It is, as Samantha Bee once put it, “what we used to call civil rights.”

Actual civil rights activists like MLK knew that we have to get beyond skin color. Attacking the straight white male minority is no different from attacking any other minority. It is bigotry. No amount of feminist privilege theory changes this fact.

But civil rights has positive connotations, so identity politics has been weaponized as a term—like political correctness before it—to make it easy to ignore these identity-specific concerns. Semantics have long been one of the right’s preferred tactics, after all, having turned socialism into a slur so effective that when Sanders became the first major-party U.S. candidate to describe himself as such, he was seen as “reclaiming a term that was used to discredit his political ancestors,” according to political historian Samuel Goldman. Ronald Reagan turned liberal into “the dreaded L- word” so effectively Obama was still avoiding it in 2014. “Social justice warrior” or “SJW” has become a mainstream insult online.

Anyone who has been paying attention to Venezuela knows why socialist should be a slur.

Before identity politics also became a pejorative, it was used innocuously in academic circles for decades regarding civil rights movements. American anthropologist Vasiliki Neofotistos defined it as a tool to “stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice.” British political philosopher Sonia Kruks further explained that it does not seek “respect ‘in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.” In other words, equality—not assimilation.

Use of wedge issues to motivate various blocs of voters creates harmful polarization. Respect can be demanded, but it won’t be given unless it is earned. Those who practice identity politics rarely care to earn what they seek to take by political force.

Inequality and assimilation, however, was Canada’s initial modus operandi, a nation founded by white men who considered minorities and women inferior. During my parents’ lifetime, Indigenous and Asian citizens couldn’t vote and women had only recently gained the franchise. It was legal to ban blacks and Jews from beaches and businesses, but illegal for gays and lesbians to have sex. The last segregated black school in Canada closed in 1983, the same year that raping your wife became illegal. The last residential school closed in 1996. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal until 2005. Transgender rights became enshrined just this summer.

And yet, with all this progress, you aren’t happy.

Democracy has a systemic vulnerability: tyranny of the comfortable majority. People vote in their own self-interest, but many do so without even being aware of what others deal with. Stephen Harper echoed many Canadians’ own thought processes when he admitted in 2015 that an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women “isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”

I would go further and say that the vast majority would vote in their own self-interest even if they were aware of what others deal with.

Progress has obviously been made since my parents were born, thanks to the identity politics putting these issues on that majority’s radar.

Identity politics doesn’t deserve the credit.

But inequality remains, and that’s why identity politics still matters. It is not about ensuring, as the National Review claimed in their article about Damore’s Google memo, that “the white male must lose.” It’s about ending the funding discrepancy for Indigenous children because there’s a suicide crisis and because way too many kids wind up in foster care. It’s about police reform because more than half of Greater Toronto’s black population has been stopped in public, and both black and Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in prison. It’s about protecting Muslim and transgender Canadians from hate. It’s about reducing the gender pay gap and increasing diversity across society. It’s about making sure the playing field gets levelled, and that power gets shared.

Political force cannot undo injustice. It can only create more.

Trump has shown us what happens when anti-identity politicians take over. They play their own kind of identity politics—but, for them, it’s just called politics. After all, he’s called for a ban on transgender people in the military, a travel ban from some Muslim-majority countries, and a dismantling of affirmative action policies because he claims white people are the ones being marginalized despite the data to the contrary.

Trump was able to take over because people refused to vote for Clinton, in part due to her divisive identity politics.

That’s why some progressives want to focus on class and stop talking about identity issues, in the hopes that the left can attract more straight white working-class voters who believe they’re threatened by social change. Former White House advisor Steve Bannon’s recent boasts about his advantage over the Democrats captured this dilemma: “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day.”

It’s not that straight white working-class voters believe they’re threatened by social change. Rather, they don’t believe that so-called “progressives” care about them. It’s hard to see how they’re wrong. The working class in the US mid-west who voted for Obama got little help after the 2009 financial collapse. Then Clinton ignored them. As Michael Moore said, Trump was a Molotov cocktail, thrown by them at the establishment.

The Republicans’ grand trick—making white Americans feel like an oppressed minority—isn’t new. The white-race card has been a Republican ploy from their Civil Rights-era southern strategy through the Obama-era Tea Party; Canada, meanwhile, has seen less successful efforts with the Conservatives’ barbaric cultural practices hotline and the Parti Quebecois’ Charter of Values.

Don’t complain about others playing racial politics when you’re advocating doing the same. Effing hypocrites.

As counter-protesters in Vancouver, Boston and most recently London, Ont., stand up together to marginalize white supremacist demonstrations, it seems clearer that identity politics, bringing issues of marginalization to the fore, are as important as ever, semantics be damned. We need to tackle all our different challenges, and not pretend we all have the same ones. Class matters, of course, but if you try to address, say, poverty without dealing with racism, the primary beneficiary is the majority group. That’s how “working class” became synonymous with “white working class.” Trickle-down theory doesn’t work any better on the left than it did on the right.

Many of these counter protesters are anarcho-communists. Their far left rhetoric is going to drive centrists away faster than your identity politics.

Despite conservative claims of pandering, every subgroup deserves a government and society that intervenes on its behalf as much as for the dominant group—one that reclaims, rather than rejects, this movement.

Everyone deserves equal opportunity. Government intervention is largely the cause of our current situation.

And if the point of identity politics is to decrease oppression by increasing equality—a slow but steady process that has been ongoing for a century and must continue, despite the current pushback—it is the way forward to genuinely uniting a nation.

The slow steady progress has little to do with identity politics. Identity politics divides. Calling straight white men homophobic racist misogynists is not going to unite the nation. The more you attack, the more will be driven into the arms of the alt-right.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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