Friday, May 19, 2006

The Identity Politics Trap

Robert S. Boynton opens his review of "The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual" by Eric Lott with a list of books "that questioned the path taken by postwar intellectuals." For the Left,

[b]ooks like these posed a challenge: Engage the realities of American life on a serious intellectual level or accept the fact that you are no more (or less) than an academic expert who has mistakenly equated professional standing with social relevance.

As is drearily common these days, Lott's book seems to be another example of the incredible shrinking left trying to purge itself further in the name of ideological purity.

Lott's primary target is a phenomenon he calls "boomer liberalism," a version of Left Conservatism he coined in a 1999 Transition essay of the same name. He defines it as a "‘progressive osteoarthritis' of the mind—a boneheaded degeneration of the radical spirit and one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first-century United States." For Lott, a professor of American studies and cultural studies at the University of Virginia, boomer liberalism isn't a symptom of America's problem but the problem itself.

... So who counts as a boomer liberal? Anyone with whom Lott disagrees.

Boomer liberals fall into three groups, or what he terms three "basic structures of feeling" (a po-mo fudge if ever I've seen one): neoliberal historicists, neoliberal Marxists, and neoliberal culturalists. What is their collective crime? Some (Berman, Marcus, Gitlin) draw on the legacy of the '60s to establish their authority; others (Jacoby, Miller, Frank) are, essentially, reformers whose positions are merely "anticorporate," not "anticapitalist." Few are pure or radical enough for Lott.

The crime, in this conception, is a "wholesale rejection of identity politics."

What, then, is the appropriate role of identity politics? It is in this question that the cynicism and condescension of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual become apparent. While Lott is right to point out that the "motive of identity-based movements" was not merely to "take their place amid the honorable (and now expanded) left," his historical determinism blinds him to the possibility—the fact—that identity politics is as likely to come to fruition on the right as on the left. Enlisting C. L. R. James as a comrade ("the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among [African Americans] to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States"), Lott is puzzled by the scarcity of "black counterpublic spheres" existing "outside the contours of American liberalism." For all his radicalism, the one thing Lott can't imagine is a group of people choosing a political option he has not himself vetted.

As Murray or Ellison could have told him, Lott's black counterpublic sphere does exist and has long been fairly conservative. He completely ignores the inconvenient fact that a significant portion of African Americans hold positions to the right, not the left, of mainstream liberalism. While rarely voting Republican, roughly 30 percent of African Americans identified themselves as conservatives from 1992 to 1997, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. In 2000, that number increased slightly, to 31 percent. Surveys of politically contentious issues have consistently corroborated this. According to recent Gallup polls, nearly 60 percent of African Americans favor the death penalty, 85 percent support school choice, 46 percent are against any legal recognition of gay relationships, 73 percent favor parental-notification laws to restrict access to abortion, and 77 percent feel that minorities should not receive preferential treatment to make up for past discrimination.

And there's the danger, isn't it? You can empower people, but you can't make a deal with them to always agree with you.