Election 2016

What NY Times Op-Ed Writer Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About 'Identity Liberalism'

Political correctness is flawed, but its new critics are hiding what prompted it.

Twenty years ago, I literally wrote the book (Liberal Racism) that warned my fellow left-liberals against political correctness and a new, liberal color-coding of American public life. I argued that well-intentioned liberal efforts to revivify ethno-racial identity and “diversity” in American education and politics would fumble American society’s extraordinary opportunities to build an economy and a civic culture that could temper universalism with due respect for ethno-racial wellsprings and group memberships, without succumbing to a defensive tribalism that destroys democratic trust.

The way to civic health, I insisted, wasn’t to corral citizens into “identity” groups bureaucratically on the basis of their skin colors, surnames, and genders but to “vindicate individual freedom amid a robust sense of obligation to the common good.” It’s never been even approached, let alone achieved, without prolonged struggles against concentrations of wealth and power by people who wanted to deepen the meaning and value of citizenship itself.

So it's with bemusement, then puzzlement, and then distaste that I’ve read Mark Lilla’s destructive and deeply perverse rendering of these otherwise valid admonitions in his "The End of Identity Liberalism" in Sunday’s New York Times.

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At first glance, our arguments are so close that if you read Lilla’s essay alongside Liberal Racism's introduction, you might think he's just channeling what I wrote two decades ago. The experience of reading his essay alongside my intro is almost surreal. Even Lilla's insistence that “one of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end” seems a stark vindication of my prophecies of 20 years ago that liberal identity politics would accelerate swift, dark currents distorting and dividing the trans-racial American civic culture that liberal democracy depends on.

But diversity liberalism’s folly is the only “lesson” Lilla addresses. It’s almost as if he were driven, wittingly or not, to eclipse all other, more fateful lessons with an occasional, airy bromide or ceremonial bow to “the common good.” Where does he think the common good comes from? Weasel words and sinuous turns of phrase betray his evasion of the question, and his selective finger-pointing leaves little doubt he’d rather be a mincing critic than a fighter for the common good against its real enemies.

Not everyone has to be a fighter, but if Lilla wanted to nourish a race-transcendent, liberal-democratic civic culture and a vision of citizenship thick enough to rely on, he’d show that Americans have always had to wage disciplined battles for a common citizenship that wasn’t prepared for them by the republic’s founders, who had deep doubts about its viability.

Lilla and I do agree on what’s wrong with identity liberalism itself; we disagree about its importance in imposing or revealing what’s wrong with American civic culture.

“When young people arrive at college,” he writes, “they are encouraged to keep [a racial-identity] focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — ‘diversity issues.’… [M]any assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.”

The first chapter of Liberal Racism, “Life After Diversity,” opens similarly by challenging a Ford Foundation vice president’s claim that “students now enter college with their group identities intact, and they expect the institution to respond accordingly.”

I write that the Ford officer's assumption “that your skin color signals a ‘group identity’ is now liberal doctrine. It drives the color-coding of American public policy and civic culture, and it is a colossal blunder.” I warn that while “claiming to oppose ‘historic racism,’ the liberal ‘diversity’ project defaults on America’s promise, sometimes by reinforcing racial ‘awareness’ on campus and on the job in ways even segregationists might applaud.

“Constraining us all to define our citizenship more and more by race and ethnicity in classrooms, workrooms ,courtrooms, newsrooms, and boardrooms,” I write, “today’s liberalism no longer curbs discrimination; it invites it. It does not expose racism; it recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it…. And it dishonors liberals own heroic past effort to focus America’s race lens” against conservative pieties about color blindness that concealed monstrous injustices.”

I wouldn’t change a word today. But in Lilla’s hands, this same hard lesson winds up eclipsing the other, larger lessons about how and why so many Americans voted for Trump and against conservative as well as liberal orthodoxies and establishments. He’s duplicitous or myopic about what causes those wrongs and what to do about them.

Somehow, he tells us airily, “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

“Somehow” and “slipped” are weasel words that suggest he’s mistaking the symptom of liberal panic for the serious disease in the body politic that’s prompting it.

For example, he writes that Hillary Clinton slipped too often ”into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.”

In other words, the problem isn’t mainly or only that those whites are racists, even though some of them certainly are; it’s that “identity liberals” dismiss them as racists and have read Trump’s victory as a “whitelash” against racial progress.

I can agree with Lilla that that’s the wrong reaction, not only because many Latinos voted for Trump but also because they and many whites simply don’t want to be corralled into ethno-racial holding pens by curriculum writers and policymakers.

To secure full citizenship for everyone, labor, suffragist, civil-rights, and other social movements’ have had to wage disciplined but ecumenical struggles against concentrations of wealth and power that, mindlessly or malevolently, inflict and feed upon divisions in the common civic culture. Throughout our history, wounds to civic comity and democratic rights have had to be stopped and healed, across lines of color, gender, and religion.

“Diversity” liberalism has taken its eyes off that prize of a common citizenship, but its failure is reactive, not causal, to riptides whose force Lilla discounts. It’s disingenuous to announce that identity liberalism must be “ended” unless one also announces that the protocols and practices of wealth and power against which it's reacting must be ended, too, or substantially reconfigured. Lilla doesn’t exactly defend those arrangements; he simply doesn’t mention  them or wonder how they’ve come into play. Therefore, he gets identity liberalism’s history, current causalities and contexts wrong.

That includes his own context as an academic preoccupied with campus identity liberals’ failings. When he writes that “the fixation on diversity in our schools and the press hasproduced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life,” he seems not to notice that his own academic narcissism of small differences has distorted his awareness of conditions outside of his self-defined academic group.

Preoccupied with the latter, he insists that “diversity”-besotted campuses diminish not only their students but, through them, other citizens who are subjected to politically correct strictures on adults. There’s enough truth here to mislead millions of Americans who already resent campus freedoms for reasons of class envy and cupidity and are looking for someone and something “safe” to blame for what’s happened to them beyond campus gates.

Return for a moment to his complaint that “By the time [students] reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.”

Hello? Few college students, especially in the decades when conservative, pre-“diversity” campus administrations and assumptions governed their alma maters, have ever thought very hard about social class, war, the economy, and the common good; except, perhaps, in wartime or when strong off-campus movements provoked them as well as the larger society. (Read my account of "The Coddling of the Conservative Mind"—scroll to the section, “Look Who’s Been Coddled.”)  

Two wrongs don’t make a right; liberal political correctness that inhibits open inquiry and expression shouldn’t be excused because it has long had a conservative counterpart. But having taught undergraduates at Yale for more than 15 years now, and having been an undergraduate there when it was all-male and virtually all-white, and having witnessed the recent savage, false narrative about coddled progressive cry-bullies that critics of campus liberalism built around a video of an outrageous incident last year, I won’t be easily convinced that what’s wrong on campus now is worse than it was before identity liberalism was in vogue.

And I certainly won’t be convinced that what’s wrong now has anywhere near as much to do with “identity liberal” pedagogy as it does with market pressures that have baked conservative premises and practices into students’ expectations and calculations and into much of the curriculum. Visit any Ivy League Economics 101 course or classes in microeconomics, statistics, computer science, and most social sciences. The homunculae economicae and the number-crunching "methodologues" at the podium may not be flag-waving conservatives, but neither are most of them liberals or leftists, except in the "color equals culture" sense that big corporations embrace for management and marketing purposes.

Diversity itself is an industry, and universities increasingly are run like corporations whose faculty are employees and students are "customers," as several unfortunate Yale memos actually put it. Increasingly, students at the expensive colleges are customers, fully expecting amenities and accreditations that they think they’ve paid for: The thousands of visits per capita to vapid websites and malls that they made before matriculating have annealed them against whatever a few campus Marxists or postmodernists on the faculty can impart. Before 2008, most seniors at most Ivies flocked yearly to recruiters from investment banks, consulting firms and their ilk.

This has brought some realities to campuses that Lilla should acknowledge and lament as loudly as he does political correctness. First, the more market-driven a university, the more likely it is to restrict freedoms of expression and inquiry, and the more that students expect those restrictions, not least because still other market pressure are deranging society beyond the campus gates. Second, despite all the encroachments I’ve just mentioned, universities remain among the few places in America where the premises, protocols and practices of neoliberal and conservative dispensations can still be interrogated and examined rigorously, rationally, and openly. Isn’t that precisely why universities have been targeted so relentlessly by lavishly funded, extensive and provocative conservative campaigns for “individual rights” and “free speech” in education, but not, say, in corporate workplaces?

Lilla makes a crocodile concession to this reality, noting that “Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the ‘campus craziness’ that surrounds such issues,” but he quickly adds that “more often than not they are right to.” Then he hastens to regret that reporting like Fox's “only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus.”

He doesn’t tell the half of it. “Couple flees campus in free-speech chill,” Fox News reported in the utterly false narrative about developments at Yale last fall that much of the rest of the news media also swallowed hook, line and sinker in credulous and/or duplicitous narratives that I had to work pretty hard to discredit.

Lilla expressed no such regrets about condemnations of campus liberalism in 2009, when he participated in a Chronicle of Higher Education discussion of why liberal academia spurns conservative scholars. On many campuses, he complained. a pervasive ideology still normalizes "liberal" views that are actually rather narrow and arbitrary.

Yet critics of the liberal academy can’t claim so easily now, as David Brooks did in 2002, that America "houses its radical lunatics ... in [academic] departments that operate as nunneries for the perpetually alienated." Not only do market forces rule; well-funded nunneries for failed, aging neo-cons and their young adepts are sprouting or entrenching themselves at Yale, Duke, George Mason, Claremont- McKenna-Pomona, Chicago, and elsewhere.

I describe some of these efforts at Yale in “The Coddling of the Conservative Mind.” All across America, conservative activists and national-security functionaries teach undergraduates to read Thucydides as a prophet of the war on terror and to pursue national-security state networking through public dissimulation that hobbles the openness of inquiry and expression conservatives claim to defend. Yet when Lilla acknowledges larger societal problems, including Trump’s victory, he blames a lot of them on campus political correctness. For instance, he tells us that pc “has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.”

This apparent concession to the benefits of affirmative action isn’t meant to be convincing. What he really wants you to think is that if journalism has decayed, “identity liberal” pedagogy is to blame. There is some truth here, and in Liberal Racism I devoted a chapter to “Media Myopia,” objecting to “reporting the news in the language of racial groupthink, applying different standards to people of different colors – in the name, ironically of ‘inclusion.”

But in the 20 years since I wrote those words, far more powerful reasons for news reporting’s decay have manifested themselves. As in the academy itself, these forces reflect market pressures, not political correctness. Such pressures certainly had a lot to do with the ratings-obsessed news media’s abject surrender to Trump’s racist and sexist rape of the civic culture. In parsing that victory, Lilla might have noted capitalism’s influence with more than another crocodile tear over demagogic populism. Instead, virtually everything he writes about the failures of “diversity’ pedagogy echoes the talking points of the conservative, high-capitalist campaign to criticize and indeed caricature that pedagogy.

That campaign, whose premises, provenance and practices I’ve described at length here on AlterNet in "What the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say" and in the American Prospect, has been highly effective in distracting many otherwise sensible but stressed Americans from the deeper, more virulent and damaging undercurrents I’ve been sketching. Whether wittingly or as what Lenin called a “useful idiot,” Lilla helps the campaign by parroting all of its talking points.  

I don’t know why he sidesteps the much larger problem: people in supposedly prosperous democracies retreat from the public sphere into defensive camps of color and gender when public life is being deranged by the casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive, degrading marketing that produce lethal store-opening rampages the day after Thanksgiving, massacres in schools and on streets, road rage, gladitorialization of sports and entertainment, mass incarceration, and the derangement of political discourse by reality-TV show artists who seem credible as national tribunes. Sovereign citizens are being reduced to notionally sovereign consumers who are really more like flies trapped in spider webs of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered, pick-pocketing and tracking machines.

Trump’s victory owed a lot less to liberal racism on campuses and in the media racism, which is far more a symptom than a cause of the riptides that are leaving Americans too ill to bear either their sicknesses or their cures.

Lilla might respond that even if liberals’ falsely compensatory identity politics can’t explain or justify the capitalist injustices I’ve sketched, these liberals are compounding their own elitist hypocrisy by doubling down on blaming Trump’s victory on racist “whitelash”: “A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis,” he writes. “This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. … The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become."

He adds that "the whitelash thesis 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. 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.’ Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Lilla tangles himself up in writing that conservative whites have been provoked by the omnipresent rhetoric of diversity into playing a kind of racial identity game. He doesn’t tell us what might have provoked “identity liberals” to play that game in the first place and to provoke it in others.

Let me help. Even if a denigrated racial identity is little more than a social construct imposed on people of certain colors and cultures, it can become all-defining for anyone whose ancestors and elders have been subjected to it, the more so if it has been tempered by a protective communal lore and love, and soon it binds everyone it touches, including those who imposed it.

The danger is that the defensive side of the imposed-upon identity will insist, “I am excluded, therefore I am”—reinforcing an identity that inclines its bearers to impose memories of past oppression unnecessarily onto new openings and opportunities in ways that diminish them and others who interact with them.  

In Brooklyn in the 1970s and ‘80s I had dispiriting, sometimes enraging experiences with blacks who diminished themselves and others in these ways. But I never forgot that the Ku Klux Klan and admirers or fellow travelers, such as Jeff Sessions, antedated liberals’ “rhetoric of identity” by hundreds of years. The worst thing about it is that this long imposition was sometimes masked by promises of safety and even comfort and affection as long as every group kept its place, with a label on its face.

That was conservative identity politics, practiced with iron discipline beneath bromides about the common good. The harmony was fraudulent not only because it was imposed socially but because it was enforced economically and therefore, inevitably, violently.

So Lilla needs to acknowledge not only that white racism antedated and ensured what’s worst in liberal “identity politics” but also, more importantly, that it was a consequence of economic exploitation, not liberal condescension.

We haven’t solved the problem of economic exploitation. We’ve merely kept moving it around. Now, more than ever since the Second World War, global capitalism has abandoned millions of whites for reasons having nothing to do with racial resentments on either side of the color line. Trump’s victory was part of a misplaced response that rode currents of racism more than of resistance to economic overlords who still hold the keys.

In Brooklyn I got to know quite a few of these provoked white men. I wrote about them in The Closest of Strangers and most recently in an essay on AlterNet last March that explained Trump’s rise in their terms. The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their lives as they or their parents lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have blossomed into open resentment seeking the targets.

Their losses had many causes, and Lilla isn’t entirely wrong to note that one of them is that too many writers  have always ignored, dismissed or disdained Trump’s supporters and compounded their distress with turns of a phrase or clicks of our brokers’ mouses, arching our eyebrows in faint but unforgotten disdain or simple civic inattention that’s excised by stereotypes, and, occasionally, by empty shrugs and solicitous sighs over depictions of Bubba’s distress.

Liberals who’ve fared a little too well in our regime of casino-like financing, predatory lending, and degrading marketing to be all that serious about reconfiguring its inequities and injustices at any expense to themselves may grasp instead at morally symbolic, tokenistic gestures against racism that don’t imperil their prospering from arrangements that increasingly divide whites from whites, as well as whites from blacks and—owing to liberals’ moralistic but limited interventions— blacks from blacks, and women from women.

But what Lilla himself doesn’t acknowledge is that both sides cling to race – whether they’re liberals trying to justify themselves morally or white workers who feel provoked by the liberals’ smugness—because both sides will do almost anything but stand up to the immensely powerful and seductive capitalist injustices. White conservatives imagine elitist liberal favoritism toward blacks as the main source of their distress, even as they bow to Trump and others who’ll give them jobs building new infrastructure while robbing them of benefits, overtime, and liberties they don’t even know are in danger.

Those who do resort to virulent racism against non-whites and venomous attacks on their hypocritically self-serving, elitist enablers remind one of the old European apercu that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” In that sense, “whitelash” could become real and analogous. Lilla discounts it by denying its reality and, when it rears its head, by denying its causes. Tossing off a lament or two about demagogic populism, he refuses to name the only course of action that might actually mitigate racism and sexism instead of stoking them —a new New Deal, more integrationist than the original, coupled with a vigorous “Americanization” program that would draw new and old Americans together instead of driving the liberal half of the negative feedback loop to provoke the other half into playing a race card that most of its members would rather not play.

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Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).