Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

‘Identity politics’ is a recent term used to describe political interactions that are as old as the nation. The term, freighted with criticism, condemnation and scorn, was coined, more or less, coincident to ongoing civil rights struggles: the stunning victory of gay rights and same-sex marriage; the less stunning ongoing stalemate of woman’s rights and #metoo politics; and the one step forward three steps back of race relations.

Although the term ‘identity politics’ was not in use when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in the 1770s, it was on just such ground as identity that the Statute was built. In that time, a man who did not believe in the Anglican Church (the dominant church in Virginia at the time the Statute was written) would be forced to pretend he did, or at least pay a duty to the Church, to get by. It doesn’t really matter what he did believe in, or if believed anything at all, what was important was the public face of his support. Jefferson wrote the Statute to forbid this imposition and clearly and cleanly separate church and state. After a long and bitter political struggle, interrupted by the Revolutionary War, the Statute was implemented in Virginia and it later informed James Madison’s inclusion of the First Amendment in the 1791 Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

The Statute begins as thus;

“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness… “

Opposition in Virginia to Jefferson’s Statute was widespread and made upon entirely predictable arguments: chief of which was that Thomas Jefferson was merely trying to legally enable his purported atheism and that such atheism was not a legitimate foundation to make a claim of right. Jefferson may or may not have been an atheist (though he was said to consider himself a deist, which distinction was lost on many of his opponents) but the supposed identify fostered upon him was used in an attempt to refute the Statute and bar its implementation. This is only another iteration on identity politics and contains some of the same arguments that continue to this day.

The rationale for the Statute, however, had nothing to do with the scope of personal beliefs held by Jefferson. Rather, Jefferson questioned, whether the government should be in the business of forcing men to lie about who and what they are? This was neither freedom nor true democracy but begat, as he wrote into the actual statue, ‘habits of hypocrisy and meanness.’

When government and/or religion was allowed to force an identity upon members of the populace the government was going to habituate citizens to, first, ‘hypocrisy’ in that people were forced to wear a mask that did not reflect their true identity and, secondly, ‘meanness,’ not in the more modern sense of cruelty but as a want of excellence and a deference to the mean — the lowest common denominator, we might say today. Or, perhaps better to say, the very opposite of diversity. Jefferson’s main point was that these habits of hypocrisy and meanness are detrimental to individuals and to the institutions — church or state, or both — they may wish to serve.

But the dilemma was this: even those ardently in favor of enlightenment ideals, and many of those who were opposed to Jefferson did share those ideals, didn’t want to ally themselves with atheism. In the late 1770s atheism was simply not a legitimate ‘identity.’ Many who would have agreed with Jefferson on different particulars did not see that such ‘habits of hypocrisy and meanness’ would be enabled: it is not an enforced hypocrisy to require someone to act against something they can not legitimately express.

Recently Francis Fukuyama has written about identity, and the politics that derive, as though they are something new and modern: a demimonde postmodernist ideology rooted in an undeserved resentment. (Although he leapfrogs Jefferson and the entire Enlightenment to reach back to antiquity to describe them. The irony practically falls all over itself.) Fukuyama describes identity politics in terms of thymos, a Greek word used by Plato (via Socrates). thymos which sometimes is loosely translated to ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritedness,’ — as a portion of the soul itself — is placed somewhere between the two other portions we call raw appetite and the portion we term cold reason. And, although that is a very wide spectrum, the point I think that Fukuyama is trying to make is simple: thymos is not reason. It is this purported lack of reason that allows a criticism of ‘Identity politics’ as mere unthinking resentment.

Fukuyama very loosely describes thymos as a self-reference, or self-judgment, upon worth by an individual and the strength of reaction, indeed even hostility, that arises when the world doesn’t meet that perception. All of this might be a valid frame of reference except that Fukuyama takes this broad perspective and narrows it to two, and only two, political traits: first, megalothymia or identity craving external validation of superiority and the will to enforce that supposed superiority, and isothymia the individual identity disrespected and resentful.

At a superficial level, Fukuyama is not wrong: for example, in our time there is a fading hegemony, grasping at the remaining wisps of social, economic and cultural purchase, framing the debate in terms of reward and control; On the other side, simply, real people stating that they’ll go ahead and define themselves — thank you very much — and will act accordingly. Maybe this is what is meant by megalothymia and isothymia. However, the predicate assumptions of those now opposed to ‘identity politics,’ of whom Fukuyama is really only a tepid ally, are deeper and two-fold: first, is Fukuyama’s notion that enlightenment liberalism has solved history; and secondly, if history is solved those now seeking to foster their identity and shape history are illegitimate in trying to deal with a problem they don’t really have.

Much as opponents of Virginia’s Statute viewed Jefferson’s purported motives and who refused to act in a way that might be favorable to atheism, today’s opposition runs along the same lines with respect to homosexual and women’s rights and is finding blatant and forceful push-back by a group called Black Lives Matter.

Where Fukuyama is wrong is ignoring the clear facts that identities can be, and often are, imposed and this imposition has the affect of suppressing other identities… that the truer meaning of megalothymia might involve hegemony acting like hegemony. After all, ‘slave’ is an identity nobody would choose for themselves but it’s how we think of several million inhabitants of the antebellum southern United States. The Commonwealth of Virginia attempted to impose the identity of ‘Anglican’ upon all of its citizens. Jefferson himself might have called George III’s attempts to dismiss the label of ‘democrat’ as this sort of identity forcing.

Anytime you scratch at identity, or the term Fukuyama’s uses as impetus, thymos, you find another Greek word, hypokrites, the word describing an actor which simply means ‘one who wears a mask,’ because in Greek drama all the actors wore masks. Where Jefferson’s fear was that imposing a religious mask, and the same religious mask, inculcated habits of mind that were detrimental to freedom, both individual and collective, our modern day fears run along the same lines, but about sexuality and gender and denies outright anything resembling intersectionality.

Perhaps the seminal act of ‘identity politics,’ predating even Jefferson, is the use of the very word ‘Indian’ to describe inhabitants of the continent of North America. Columbus, the story goes, was looking for a direct passage to India and, when he landed upon the Americas he assumed he had found it. Even the term ‘Native American’ is faintly ridiculous as the very word ‘America’ has Italian roots. This is why Senator Elizabeth Warren, without even meaning to, created such a kerfuffle over claiming Native American heritage. She may have done it as a form of pride and as a celebration of the anti-racist act of her parents: They chose to elope rather than succumb to the racist denial of the man who would become Warrens paternal grandfather.

While Senator Warren’s claim of Native American heritage may, indeed, have been based upon an oblique kind of pride, Black Lives Matter, which as a cultural and political movement, is a straightforward attempt to simply refuse the mask, the hypocrisy, and, especially, the meanness, altogether. Black Lives Matter is a direct statement, and protest that holds on to a simple truth in the face of all manner of untruths and confusions, born in, and perpetuating, these same habits of hypocrisy and meanness Jefferson spoke of so many years ago.

As Black Lives Matter gains wider consciousness the attacks on ‘identity politics’ grow more strident. The prominence of the term ‘identity politics’ comes in the wake of the successes of the gay rights movement and the widespread adoption and acceptance of same-sex marriage. For the greater part of modern history homosexual men were forced into exactly these habits of hypocrisy: the hegemonic requirement, often enforced most viciously, was that homosexual men — publicly and privately — wear the mask of ‘heterosexual.’ Much as with atheism in the 18th century, homosexuality today remains seen by many as a choice or as a deviance that can be wished, or prayed, away. If homosexual men are just choosing to be lascivious and libertine then why should they be given even the respect of isothymia? It is not hypocrisy to force them to wear a mask, the logic goes, if the face they have on is an illegitimate mask already.

Black Lives Matter was born in the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and seeks to rip away the mask of innocence that is automatically conferred upon White men and which is, just as automatically, denied to Black men. It is no coincidence that Black Lives Matter lives in the ages long shadow of a proactive identity politics on the right, and one the bleeds into the left. First, there is a species of hypocrisy common to the South where monuments to defeated Confederate Soldiery are held up as ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ when in fact they are no more than outright and deliberate Jim Crow terrorism. The seemingly benign masking a clear malignity.

Less overt, but more insidious, instance of proactive hypocrisy is the much caressed notion of being ‘color blind.’ It is a form of identity denial cloaked in magnanimity, a post-modern noblesse oblige, if you will: A way of recognizing that skin color will be a problem, unless there is a display of generousity in deliberately overlooking it. It is a pernicious mask because it has a sense of fairness to it that is, however spurious, attractive to those on the left who might wish to consider themselves fair-minded. The term itself, ‘color blind’ arrived in the blistering dissent to the manifestly awful Plessy v Ferguson authored by the Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, himself a scion of a prominent slave-holding family in antebellum Kentucky. Perhaps a more modern way of understanding this type of hypocrisy is to imagine someone trying to successfully manage cognitive dissonance (a term that was not available to Thomas Jefferson but which he — author of the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ as well as slave owner — must surely have felt). The dangers of such cognitive dissonance lie in both the hidden self (accompanied perhaps by an agenda) and the contortions, moral, legal and ethical that need to be made to subsume the self to the mask. This sort of cognitive dissonance is often both painful to bear and inflictive of pain to others. Jefferson understood this. Fukuyama does not.

Further, we should all — by now — be well acquainted with the fact that such hypocrisy can never be successfully managed for very long. Black Lives Matter is a clear willingness to confront that cognitive dissonance, that hypocrisy and that meanness. It is no small irony that Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy v Ferguson was a man so light-skinned he could ‘pass’ for White, requiring the train conductor to ask after his lineage before he acted, making deliberate the discrimination. If that isn’t identity politics then what is?