Re: “The End of Identity Liberalism” — whose identity?

Just one week before a Thanksgiving that promises awkward and intense conversations alongside turkey and cranberry sauce, Mark Lilla published an article in The New York Times entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”

This article is concerning on a number of levels, not least of which is its assumption of a white, working class perspective as the default around which the nation should rally in a vow of unity. This piece, by separating identity politics and the nation’s constitutional history, urges precisely the kind of willful forgetting that gave rise to identity politics in the first place. European countries and former empires are equally guilty of forgetting that they crafted their “unified” identities at the expense of “diverse” others who now find themselves largely unwelcome, even though their ancestors were expected to greet with open arms the imposition of British/French/Dutch/Spanish culture and rule. But I digress. I would like to respond to some of Lilla’s key points, and, in particular, to his prescription for a post-identity liberalism:

Lilla argues that “the whitelash thesis,” rooted in a misconception that racism undergirds support for Trump, “is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored.”

- Humor me, for a moment, while I reverse this for a sense of perspective on the underlying double-standard this piece assumes:

The white disenfranchisement thesis is convenient because it absolves white, rural, religious Americans of not recognizing how their centuries-old obsession with white superiority has encouraged religious, racial, and other minorities to think of themselves as a disenfranchised group whose identity (AND RIGHTS) are being threatened or ignored.

In other words, the growing “obsession” with diversity and inclusion was born out of a complete disregard for non-white American communities and their essential contributions to American success. So, if Lilla is arguing that we’ve overcorrected (which I don’t agree with), he is suggesting that rights for too many people is bad for national unity. This is a problem.

Lilla continues, “Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’
 Translated: the omnipresent rhetoric of identity that is not by default white-straight-Christian-etc is offensive to those who have been historically accustomed to the idea that American = white-straight-Christian, and so on. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again and again. People who are annoyed with political correctness are not interested in unity — how can working hard to be self-reflexive about how our words and actions affect those in our communities be politically divisive? And how, exactly, is silencing the very real concerns of American citizens — minority or otherwise — an essential step on the road to unity? unless, of course, that unity is defined by the exclusion of those whose skin, religious belief, sexual orientation, and politics are in the minority?

I’d like to move on, now, to Lilla’s key prescriptions for a post-identity liberalism:
 “We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another.” 
 — This presumes that “issues that affect a vast majority of” Americans are somehow separable from the DAILY realities of systemic racism, sexism, etc, which of course they are for people unaffected by such realities.
 
 “As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”
 — Once again, the author asks that we tiptoe around issues of LGBT and non-Christian religious rights, quietly and away from the public eye so that the average American doesn’t have to leave the comfort of their homogenous and self-reinforcing worldview. And remarkably, this sensitivity is NOT considered political correctness, because the default American citizen around whom a unified identity is to be forged is white, Christian, and straight?
 
 “Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history.” 
 — As such a teacher, I feel responsible to teach my students that being “committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history” means being aware of those who have paid and continue to pay the price for the wealth, status, and power of our nation. Guess what, these include the same citizens whose daily struggles fall under the minor heading of “narrower issues.”
 
 “A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.”

- Lilla is essentially arguing here for greater inclusion, and I simply suggest the obvious in demanding that this be a two-way street. White, rural, religious Americans cannot demand that their voices be heard, that their opinions be respected, if they fail to listen to voices and respect opinions divergent from their own. After all, the “major forces shaping world politics” are inarguably more diverse than may be relevant to white, rural, Christian Americans, unless they can come to see the needs, beliefs, rights, and suffering of people beyond their homogeneous communities as relevant.

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