Identity Politics and the Eternal Banality of the White-Dude Pundit

[Welcome back to the blog after a summer writing recess in these parts. To celebrate the beginning of another year of regular posts, I’ve included extra profanity and GIFs for your viewing pleasure.]

In these profoundly unsettling times, where the current presidential administration and congressional majority have declared war on large swaths of American society, one can be forgiven for feeling anxious, under siege, frightened about their future. Communities of color, immigrants new and older, those who identify as LGBTQIA, students, the ill and financially precarious–many of them warned of the violence and oppression they faced, and warned us that violence and oppression would expand into the public square in ways that would seem unthinkable to those who’ve never had to worry about being on the receiving end of those processes. And, in what has been both pathetic and eminently predictable, white pundits–most of them male, all of them privileged–have been wringing their hands, armchair-quarterbacking with a furious intensity that only the smugly unempathetic elites can muster in their unearned self-assuredness. And they have SOLUTIONS, y’all. So. Many. Solutions.

How does the left recover from the assault of revanchist white supremacy over the last nine months? What are the recipes for progressive political victories? How do we defeat this buffoonish blend of know-nothing fascism? You might think that there are templates drawn from experience: the Movement for Black Lives and its remarkable ability to mobilize around not only specific issues of police violence but force a long-overdue reckoning with structural racism. Or perhaps the Women’s March during the inauguration, which drew out a huge contingent of new activists who were suddenly energized to take steps they wouldn’t have contemplated a few months prior. Or even Occupy Wall Street, whose cultural and economic footprint has far outlasted the height of the movement’s presence in Zuccotti Park. Yes, you might think that. But according to the Arbiters Of The Way Things Are–like Mark Lilla–you would be WRONG.

By now, you’ve probably seen Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and common man of the streets, in one of his recent intrusions into the media pimping his new book, The Once and Future Liberal, where he mines a fictive past that only a former Reagan Democrat and neoconservative white man can create for liberalism and uses it to flog the current progressive landscape with injunctions to abandon both its core ideals and increasingly effective tactics because non-liberal white people are uncomfortable. And now he’s on the cover the upcoming Chronicle Review, lamenting that Trumpism is what happens “when students only see themselves.”

The most revealing explanation of Lilla’s motivations and arguments comes from a relatively feisty conversation with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. In it, Remnick holds Lilla’s feet to the fire on occasion, and thus forces Lilla to at least unintentionally acknowledge the inconsistencies and utter bankruptcy of his white-Reaganite-jeremiad trying, and failing, to dress itself in big-boy clothes. “Identity politics,” which seems to be for Lilla any discourse that doesn’t center the needs and aspirations of people who look like him, is root cause of liberalism’s malaise. If only, he argues, the left possessed the dogged discipline of Steve Bannon and his ilk–then victories would come rolling in.

Remnick: What do you mean used by a moment like this? There is a quote recently that Steve Bannon, of all people, delivered: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I’ve got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focussed on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” And you have said that it works for them—it being identity politics—but it doesn’t work for us. And there seems to be some link—not that I’m saying that your politics, by any chance, are anything like Steve Bannon’s—but you’re saying a similar thing, aren’t you?

Lilla: I just think it’s an objective fact. I mean, he has no reason to lie about this. And the past two generations of our politics, I think, demonstrate exactly that.

I don’t know why Bannon envy is so seductive to pundits like Lilla…actually, strike that. I do. But Bannon envy–He’s a svengali! Look at how he’s organized his base! If only we could put our finger on the pulse of the True American like he can!–is a death trap for progressive political strategy and anyone purporting to be serious who embraces it should be studiously ignored if not outright ridiculed. However, Mark Lilla is a wealthy white man who has mastered an academic affect and convinced gullible editorial gatekeepers that he has something original to say, so here we are. Simply put, the reasons for Lilla being foisted upon our public discourse are the same reasons a wife-beating racist Goldman Sachs banker who likes nazi cosplay and looks like he’s coming off a nine-day bender has been anointed a deep thinker.  But Lilla is in too deep to see the irony involved in his argument that Bannon is the best interpreter of left politics.

What Lilla’s Bannon-envy has wrought, then, is an uncritical acceptance of the idea that white nationalism works for the right, so it ought to be catered to if the left wants to claim political power. Sure, he makes the necessary disclaimers (I’m not endorsing Bannon. One of my good friends is black. Or something). But Lilla is explicitly against “identity politics,” because it prevents “us” (the ways in which Lilla uses first-person pronouns in this interview is a huge tell, by the way) from “coming together.” According to Lilla,  “to address those problems with politics, we have to abandon the rhetoric of difference, in order to appeal to what we share, so that people who don’t share this identity somehow can have a stake, and feel something that other people are experiencing.” In this mushy, Hallmark-worthy prescription, Lilla imagines black people (to use his example) who suffer inequities at the hands of law enforcement to stop focusing on “difference” and instead emphasize how these inequities are a threat to “our shared values.” This is basically saying that “white people” can only “have a stake” in fixing this issue if we ignore the fact that this is an issue that stems from WHITE PEOPLE’S RACISM AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE. Lilla naively assumes that whites would feel like they have a stake in, for example, protesting the murder of Philando Castile is only we didn’t emphasize that Castile was a black man. This is, to use a technical term, dumb. If US history has shown us nothing else, white people’s “stake’ in being white is all too often enough to trump a potential stake in anything else. To surrender the critique of structural racism in favor of an anodyne argument of “it’s not fair to someone of any color” is to cede essential ground in the battle for justice and equal rights in this country, and it takes equal amounts of casual racism and hubris to make that argument with any sort of serious intent.

In this vein, a particularly revelatory passage from Lilla comes in his attempt to defend his critique of the Movement for Black Lives:

Lilla: Well, to read the full passage of what I said about Black Lives Matter, I said, “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There’s no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.” I’m totally onboard with that.

Remnick: So what did Black Lives Matter do that you’re, at best, ambivalent about—and very critical, really?

Lilla: And then I say, “But there’s no denying that the movement’s decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and its law-enforcement institutions and to use Mau Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence played into the hands of the Republican right.”

Here; let me translate: “How dare those uppity negroes go beyond what I deem decorous and argue that if black lives matter in policing they should matter in society at large? I mean, don’t they know their place? In case I’m not clear enough in my disdain, I’ll throw in a dog-whistle allusion to “Dark African” Mau-Mauism because, honestly, white people like me are afraid of “savagery.”

So  “Identity Politics” are now, Lilla implies with this telling choice of metaphor, the province of scary dark people. And that, he whines, is no recipe for political power–which he cannot seem to imagine being attained without white consent. “The distinction I’m trying to make—between analyzing a social problem and developing a political program in order to win power—people who are in movement politics fail to see the distinction, I think,” he confidently declares. To believe this, of course, one must believe that movement politics of a far more sinister stripe hasn’t produced the right’s political dominance and legitimated its loathsome tactics for decades. Lilla’s implicit norming of the worldview of people like him paints anything else as deviant, and his whiteness overrules all else in his critique of the social movements that, in his view, may have “laudable” goals, but have not stayed in their place. If you want to really understand why it was the white moderate for whom Martin Luther King, Jr., saved his most scathing critique in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, here you go.

The most frustrating aspect, in an interview so full of them it threatens to spontaneously combust, is Lilla’s lament that “we live in a visionless society.” Yet in his very next answer, he reveals his real problem with so-called “identity politics”–they don’t build winning coalitions. This, of course, pays no heed to the three million vote margin that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by, and it also ignores the overall national majority Democrats receive in congressional elections. Lilla blames the products of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the Electoral College on lefty kids who “cannot see beyond themselves,” which may be the best example of projection you’ll ever see in The New Yorker. So why do “identity politics” threaten Lilla’s dream of winning coalitions? Because they pander to people he thinks are icky, I guess. Here; I’ll let him explain:

Lilla: […]An election is not about self-expression. It’s not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It’s a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do. Your rhetoric has to be mobilizing, and it’s got to mobilize—

Remnick: But you can imagine how outraged a transgender person would feel about such a tactic?

Lilla: Of course. Of course. And the situation of transgender people can be very, very difficult, especially young people, who feel trapped in a body. And suicide rates are terrible, and homeless rates are terrible. But let’s be concrete about this: transgender people make up less than one half of one per cent of the country. There is no electoral group that we’re trying to mobilize.

Lilla seems to have forgotten how effectively-mobilized and far-reaching the protests against HB-2 in North Carolina were; maybe he can ask Pat McCrory about that. But even more egregiously, Lilla is arguing that if there’s a group that doesn’t make up a significant numerical bloc, then defending them cannot be a progressive priority. Tough luck, transgender people; Mark Lilla doesn’t think you vote in large enough numbers for him to defend your humanity.

It needs to be said right here: if your politics make you believe that people are only worth advocating for if they vote in large enough numbers, then fuck your politics.

The last portion of the interview is Lilla complaining that the chief problem with “identity politics” is the “narcissism” it breeds, which is quite rich coming from a former neoconservative who thinks highly enough of his political acumen that he wrote a book to scold the entire left side of the political spectrum. But the whole thing, as is the case with the related op-eds and book arguments, is first and foremost a stunningly blithe exercise in hubris, racism, and a condescension that borders on belligerent. Lilla is trapped by his childish definition of “identity politics” that equates it with “how people feel about themselves,” and thus misses a welter of larger platforms, unified actions–the very visions he seeks!–because he refuses to believe that people who aren’t white male Ivy-league humanists are capable of formulating them. He exhibits the fundamental lack of empathy and imagination evident in so many other tut-tutters of a similar demographic.

But most of all,  Lilla cannot discern the screamingly obvious fact that an elite white centrist male telling others to abandon “identity politics” is in itself the most potent strain of identity politics there is. And this renders his entire prescription a steaming pile of intellectual garbage. It is a stupidly disingenuous take at best, a destructive and malignant one at worst. Promises to take care of things “once we achieve power” are a fool’s game. The Left listens to these voices of smug white condescension at its peril. But the nature of white privilege is such that mediocre screeds like this, ones that ignore both history and current evidence, are the coin of the realm, so long as they scold silly children or narcissistic leftists or women and people of color who still don’t know their place. There are better days ahead for the Left, but they will not come from listening to bad #NotAllWhites takes, or from alienating the very people who are the backbone of genuine, direct progressive action.