thinking about how identity politics is the new politically correct
July 25, 2016
Of course the old PC is still PC, given how its discussed by people from any place in the political spectrum… But I just read an essay by a scholar I generally respect (I mean… I used his work in my MA thesis so…) on Trump and the US election. All was fine until the third last paragraph where he advises progressives to give up on identity politics, since they are all really about freedom and are general ‘human’ issues. I’m amused that for a man generally insightful about how framing issues Matters he manages to make it clear he’s working within a white supremacist framework (and misogynist too since he also points a finger at ‘women’s issues’). This of course is just a scholarly variation on ‘identity politics’ are divisive. He also isn’t the first white liberal I’ve seen blaming ‘identity politics’ for the alleged fracturing of the Left.
Now… I myself have issue with ‘identity politics’ but not in the same way and not for the same reasons. I tend to dislike identity politics bc they focus too heavily on personal reponsibility and action as a way to address institutional, systemic issues. In other words… the things usually taken as ‘identities’ are almost always a socially constructed term whose function is the regulation and control of a specific population. It isn’t, in actual fact, about our individual identities at all.
Moreover, ‘self’ identification is irrelevant to your membership in such a group, since the entire point is that it is an externally enforced categorization created for the sole purpose of oppressing us. I can already hear someone saying that I’m invalidating their identification as gay, since that word came from the community and they’d be gay even if free. Again, such arguments miss the point. It is about creating a system that can identify and oppress you, it doesn’t actually care where the words come from. Homosexuals want to be referred to as ‘lgbt’? Fine. Makes no difference to the insitutions designed to oppress that population regardless of self identification.
Why? Because what matters is power and who exercises it. This other stuff is window dressing. This is also why recognition for your self-determined identity word is meaningless. By this I refer to the hubbub not too long ago about Obama being the first american president to utter the word ‘transgender’. State recognition of ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians’ (lets be honest bc up to and including now both ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ are still largely ignored), has done very little to actually make either population free.
Anyway, I digress, this post wasn’t supposed to be about me critiquing identity politics but rather discussing the way that ~identity politics~ has become a scapegoat for why the Left is falling apart and is generally a shitshow. White Scholar Man partially does what he claims trump is doing… because his decrying of identity politics as divisive is partially an attempt to try and ‘return’ to some golden age of united progressives.
See… things were better before identity politics, no? All sorts of people worked together towards progressive goals, including the ~poor whites~.
Except that this was never actually a thing. People like White Scholar Man tend to forget (purposefully since I know he’s educated) that ~identity politics~, like feminism (*rolls eyes*), arose precisely because the ‘unified left’ was doing nothing for women other than reinscribing misogyny in a progressive way. That said, the fact that he points a finger of blame at ~identity politics~ also makes it clear that he is talking to white men and only white men. In other words… he wants people like him to be in charge of the ~unified~ progressive left. Again (and arguably still).
The reference to the necessity to appeal to poor whites rather than just chasing after ethnic votes and the female vote, makes it pretty clear that he really doesn’t understand some of the mechanisms that have driven poor whites away from ‘progressive’.
He makes a few mentions to labour history and the importance of unions. Which yes. Unions are super and I think they are important (but their importance shouldn’t distract anyone from recognizing that this economic system needs to be dismantled as a whole and that unions are only a bandaid solution). But of course we also know from labour history that one of the ways that poor white people seek to empower themselves is by mobilizing white supremacy in their favour. This is most explicitly seen with how the irish, southern, and eastern europeans shifted from being unsavoury whites by leveraging anti-Blackness and other mechanisms of white supremacy. Unions played a role in this because early in their history it was a way of shutting Black labour out and keeping jobs for white people.
In other words: poor white people have constantly and continuously used white supremacy to distance themselves from people of colour. The rise of identity politics is not what alienated poor whites. Strangely, this makes poor whites passive agents in history. Like… they were (and are) simply too disenfranchised and helpless to prevent the fracturing of the left bc of divisive issues like racism or sexism. When in reality, they have always actively worked to distance themselves from poc.
The cost of bringing poor whites back into the fold is made pretty clear… all these special interest groups, like Black people or women, need to give up their/our identity politics and stop advocating for the freedom of our respective communities. Instead we should focus on ‘human freedom’ in a world wherein the default human as been a white (cishet abled) white man for centuries. Essentially back to a world wherein it was coherent for a white slave owner to pen a document about how everyone (re: white men) has the basic right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.
Sadly, this isn’t actually an uncommon view from white progressives, although it is often framed in far more subtle ways and not quite as clear as White Man Scholar literally saying ‘no more Black issues’ to saying ‘we need to appeal to poor whites’ (which… how is this not also an ‘identity’ politic??????). Instead we see this usually referenced by a need to return to ‘classic’ liberal values and/or enlightment values. The (usually white men) who say that progressives lost their way bc they’ve lost touch with basic enlightenment values.
Whatever happened to free speech and civil discourse? The clearest way to see this articulated is to read any given moral panic thinkpiece written by white men about trigger warnings and ~the coddling of the american mind~. See also my essay on on the SJW as progressive villain. Being a ~social justice warrior~ is incompatible with enlightenment/liberal values. Us SJWs are have only managed to fracture the left and make everything (for white men) terrible. The SJW is a progressive whose lost all rationality.
Identity are politics is bad because it means that I focus on the whiteness and maleness of most enlightment thinkers rather than the substance of their ideas. Because their ideas have value despite whatever else was going on in their lives. But of course… I don’t think I’ve heard a satisfactory answer for why I should think that a person who literallly owned other people had any understanding of ‘freedom’ worth my time. Nor why I should take it as a non-issue that the person owning people was white while the enslaved people were Black. This seems rather non-accidental and like it is an important detail.
But this is exactly how identity politics have ruined everything… by pointing out a few salient facts and, thus, ‘creating’ divisions where none existed before. Thus, Black issues are born and this is Bad but ‘we’ need to do more to appeal to poor whites. Which is really just to say that the solution to what plagues progressives today is re-centering whiteness. Identity politics, political correctness, and social justice warriors are like the Damned Trinity of the progressive movement.