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Liberalism’s Crack Up

Mark Lilla, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, criticizes his own side (the left) for derailing itself with identity politics. [1] He says that liberalism’s post-1960s embrace of identity politics resonates with young people in “our highly individualistic bourgeois society—a society that keeps them focused on themselves and teaches them that personal choice, individual rights and self-definition are all that is sacred.”

Lilla, who is a professor of the humanities at Columbia, and who identifies himself as a “frustrated liberal,” says he is struck by the difference between his liberal students and his conservative students. The conservative ones formulate opinions and make arguments based on ideas and principles. The liberal ones, though, base their arguments (such as they are) on an assertion of identity (e.g., “Speaking as a lesbian of color, I believe that…”). Lilla goes on:

Conservatives complain loudest about today’s campus follies, but it is really liberals who should be angry. The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.

There is a great irony in this. The supposedly bland, conventional universities of the 1950s and early ’60s incubated the most radical generation of American citizens perhaps since our founding. Young people were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. Yet once that generation took power in the universities, it proceeded to depoliticize the liberal elite, rendering its members unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it—especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort.

Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. There can be no liberal politics without a sense of We—of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other. If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, share.

And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm.

And:

Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

I am not a black male motorist and will never know what it is like to be one. If I am going to be affected by his experience, I need some way to identify with him, and citizenship is the only thing I know that we share. The more the differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.

The politics of identity has done nothing but strengthen the grip of the American right on our institutions. It is the gift that keeps on taking. Now is the time for liberals to do an immediate about-face and return to articulating their core principles of solidarity and equal protection for all. Never has the country needed it more.

Read the whole thing. [2]

The essay is adapted from The Once And Future Liberal [3], the new book by Lilla, which will be out next week. I’ve read it. It’s short, punchy, and challenging. I think we conservatives have a lot to learn from it too. I’ll be writing about that next week.

The Damore debacle at Google is a perfect example of what Lilla disdains in his book. Google engineer James Damore wrote an impolitic memo criticizing the way diversity is handled at Google. He said there are scientific reasons why Google’s diversity initiatives aren’t working to change Google’s male-female employee ratio. He said clearly that he favors diversity, but thinks that science shows there are more effective ways to achieve it. And he criticized Google for being the kind of place where people who disagree with cultural progressivism cannot speak out.

This got him fired. It also energized the mob of left-wing witch hunters, who piled onto Damore for his alleged sexist bigotry. Much of the hysteria had nothing to do with Damore’s actual arguments. It bashed him on identity politics grounds. Never mind that Damore said in the memo that he favors diversity, and that he thinks racism and sexism are real problems. Never mind that he simply complained that the way Google pursues diversity is unfair to men. And never mind that Google provided the internal forum precisely so that its workers can discuss workplace issues. (These three facts, by the way, are why Damore might well be vindicated [4]in his complaint filed against Google with the National Labor Relations Board.)

Very few of us outside of the scientific community are in a position to discuss intelligently the science involved in this dispute. True, some scientists have weighed in to say that Damore is on solid scientific ground in his memo (which doesn’t mean it was a wise thing to share, given the cultural politics of the workplace). My guess is that most ordinary people see this case and wonder why it is that we can’t discuss Damore’s actual argument. Why was a guy who agreed with his company’s diversity goal but not with how the company goes about trying to achieve that result fired simply for arguing — based on science! — that there is a better and more just way to achieve that goal?

How does this relate to Lilla’s argument? In this way. James Damore made a reasoned argument in his memo. Read it for yourself and see. [5] That doesn’t mean James Damore’s conclusions are correct. Perhaps his premises are mistaken, or maybe his logic is wrong. That did not matter to Google, whose vice president for diversity denounced Damore for advancing “incorrect assumptions about gender.” Google’s president fired him for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”

Sacramento Bee columnist Ben Boychuk points out how old-fashioned liberalism doesn’t stand a chance anymore: [6]

Any conservative who read James Damore’s memo recognized at once that he holds fairly conventional liberal views of the world. But even conventional liberal viewpoints are no longer safe.

Damore did not claim women are “biologically unsuited” to work in tech (as, I regret to report, The Bee’s editorial asserted this week [7]). He didn’t even argue against racial or gender diversity per se. On the contrary, he took pains to make clear in his opening paragraph that he values “diversity and inclusion,” does not deny “sexism exists” and doesn’t “endorse using stereotypes.”

Then what did he say? In brief, that Google’s efforts to achieve 50-50 parity between male and female programmers were unlikely to succeed because a lot of women simply aren’t interested in science and technology fields.

And why aren’t they interested? Not because they’re “biologically unsuited” but rather because there are biological differences that lead men and women down different paths.

Mind you, Damore doesn’t say he’s against the company’s goals for greater gender diversity; he simply argues that the executives are going about it the wrong way.

And that is still enough to get him fired. Why? Because of the left’s identity politics, which keeps expanding the boundaries of things you cannot say, even if you can demonstrate that they’re true, or might well be true. So, when Lilla says that “the politics of identity has done nothing but strengthen the grip of the American right on our institutions,” the Damore debacle provides him with a great example.

In her superb commentary on the matter, [8] Megan McArdle talks about her own experience working as a tech consultant in the finance world, an industry heavily dominated by males, and how yes, it was more challenging as a woman because of the bros. But that’s not why she left that career. She left because the guys were a lot more committed to techie things than she was. She was good enough to do that kind of work, but she just didn’t have the same passion for it that her male colleagues do. So she went to work in a field that she did love with the same kind of passion.

And that, she said, is what’s at the core of James Damore’s argument: not that women are biologically unable to do tech work, but that the kind of detailed work tech personnel at Google do disproportionately attracts males — and that is bound to affect diversity efforts. Yet McArdle says that even if you concede Damore’s point, it’s still probably the case that a lopsided workplace culture can be an unfriendly place for women — and this is a problem.

She ends like this:

And yet, you still have to ask whether shamestorming Damore and getting him sacked was really the best way to convince him — or anyone else — that he’s mistaken. Did anyone’s understanding of the complex quandaries of gender diversity advance? If there were guys at Google wondering whether the women around them really deserved their jobs, did anyone wake up the morning after Damore’s firing with the revelation: “Good God, how could I have been so blind?” No, I suspect those guys are now thinking: “You see? Women can’t handle math or logic.”

The mob reaction did prove that women indeed have some power in tech. But the power to fire people is not why most people get into engineering. Good engineers want to make things. The conversation around Damore’s memo hasn’t made the world a better place, as they say in Silicon Valley. It has just made a lot of people angry.

Yes, and it has probably made a lot of people more likely to vote Republican next time. Mark Lilla can explain why.

 

 

62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Liberalism’s Crack Up"

#1 Comment By Viriato On August 12, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

“And never mind that Google provided the internal forum precisely so that its workers can discuss workplace issues.”

A policy — however wrongheaded — that does not affect the complainer’s ability to perform his or her job responsibilities is not a “workplace issue.” While Damore’s points were valid from a philosophical perspective, they were without merit — and indeed grounds for termination
— in the context in which he made them (the workplace).

#2 Comment By Robert Levine On August 12, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

@Ken’ich:

“These three facts, by the way, are why Damore might well be vindicated in his complaint filed against Google with the National Labor Relations Board.”

Really? How can anyone expect Damore to win with Left-ruled Federal bureaucracy?

Whether by tradition or law (I’m not sure which), the 5-member National Labor Relations Board always has three members appointed by the incumbent president’s party and two members of the other party. The only exception was from 2007 to 2013, when the incumbent president’s nominees were filibustered (or otherwise denied confirmation).

When the Senate approves Trump’s nominees, the NLRB will have a Republican majority. That’s a major reason why informed observers are skeptical of Damore’s chances of winning an NLRB charge.

Karma’s a bummer, no?

#3 Comment By Thrice A Viking On August 12, 2017 @ 8:41 pm

Rod, I’ve never been entirely certain why you and a number of my fellow commenters call SJW types “snowflakes”. I’ve assumed, however, that it’s partly because snowflakes are believed to be unique, and partly because they are “precious” – that is, quite fragile. While we could substitute something like “delicate flower” for the latter (George Will actually used that term to describe a female professor when he was on This Week), it doesn’t seem to mean much in the former usage. When Lilla’s “left” students introduce themselves by such things as “lesbian[s] of color”, it’s clear that they see themselves in terms of classifications rather than as individuals. It may be time to retire the term “snowflake” if my assumptions are at all correct.

#4 Comment By James Hartwick On August 12, 2017 @ 9:36 pm

Even complaining about identity politics is a form of identity politics, after all…

I’m not sure about this. It reminds me of attempts to call any number of various ideologies “religions,” which would make the words ideology and religion synonyms.

I mean, if I am part of a union, and it’s labor issues that basically determine my vote, am I engaging in union identity politics (even if I’m white and Christian and my union includes many people who aren’t)? If all politics is identity politics then identity politics is a phrase without meaning. But I think it is a phrase that does have meaning.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 12, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

This is my day to agree with Gaius Gracchus. The level of sheer emotionality and inability to offer a reasoned, fact-based rebuttal, is indeed disturbing.

Speaking of suggestion boxed, my junior high school had one. At first I was afraid to sign my suggestions, but eventually I did. After several of them had been submitted, the guidance counselor called my mother to discuss them. He was concerned. Mom asked why… were they profane, rude, did they have poor grammar? No, he replied, they were very well written. So, mom asked, what’s the problem? He spluttered and didn’t really have an answer. The next year, I went to high school, my sister entered the same junior high. A few suggestions from her, and the suggestion box was abolished. (Note there was a certain gender parity in all this).

#6 Comment By John Stanwick On August 13, 2017 @ 4:26 am

I agree with this article, though it fails to mention that Damore used the decidedly subjective word “neuroticism” to describe women. While this doesn’t affect his argument or lend any validation to his dismissal, it’s not an ideal term to use in a science-based argument. My point is that he could have make a cleaner and less controversial case that would have given less ammo to the liberal forces of political correctness. Perhaps the outcome would have been the same, but at least I wouldn’t have to cringe at the word “neuroticism”.

[NFR: No, the word is not subjective in the field of psychology. It’s a neutral word used to describe certain traits that can appear in anyone. — RD]

#7 Comment By Robert On August 13, 2017 @ 11:36 am

@RD

“Neuroticism” isn’t a neutral word even in Psychology. Etymologically it was used to describe a person “affected by neurosis” since 1896 ( [9]), and “neurosis” has meant “functional derangement arising from disorders of the nervous system” since 1776 (emphasis mine).

Psychologists knew the implications of the word they chose to use for that particular Big 5 factor. A neutral term would have been “Limbic versus Calm” which is what the website similarminds uses: [10] ; “high-strung versus low-key” ; “stress vulnerability scale” ; etc….

#8 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 13, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

I mean, if I am part of a union, and it’s labor issues that basically determine my vote, am I engaging in union identity politics (even if I’m white and Christian and my union includes many people who aren’t)? If all politics is identity politics then identity politics is a phrase without meaning. But I think it is a phrase that does have meaning.

Fair enough–but the phrase “identity” generally refers to those aspect’s one’s self that are often not chose, or things (like religious faith) that society and law privileges apart from politics.

Race, gender, religion, sexual orientation–these things generally don’t affect (or shouldn’t) one’s social status, and are mostly immutable. (Even if one includes transgenders in the mix, the vast majority only undergo one gender transition–that’s one fewer times than our host has changed churches).

Seeking to engage in discrimination based on these, or objecting to such, are both identity politics. Some identity politics are better than others–I have no problem with believing that BLM advocating against police brutality is preferable to white nationalists seeking to create a white homeland, or disenfranchise blacks by various means. This doesn’t mean I endorse every position taken by BLM (or anyone identifying with them), but objecting to excessive police violence against blacks is politically licit. (As is advocating against police misbehavior in general).

Labor politics, abortion politics, war and pease, environmentalism, taxation, regulation, gun control–these are fundamentally about issues, even if some of them are wrapped up in identity politics today (at some point, the NRA morphed from a culturally-neutral lobby of arms manufacturers, into essentially the White Panthers, engaging in arguments that were obnoxious when presented by D. W. Griffith a century ago).

But no, not all politics is identity politics. And not all identity politics is necessarily bad. But in an era in which the wealthy and their preferred policies are viewed as discredited, you can bet your sweet bottom that capital prefers if identity politics is what dominates our political discourse. Dīvide et īmpera,

#9 Comment By Brendan from Oz On August 13, 2017 @ 7:21 pm

“Rod, I’ve never been entirely certain why you and a number of my fellow commenters call SJW types “snowflakes”. I’ve assumed, however, that it’s partly because snowflakes are believed to be unique, and partly because they are “precious” – that is, quite fragile. While we could substitute something like “delicate flower” for the latter (George Will actually used that term to describe a female professor when he was on This Week), it doesn’t seem to mean much in the former usage.”

Snowflake is a flower, very common around Brisbane but I think also European.

“Snowflake” is a less disparaging (less hateful?) term than that constant call of “Nazi!” so dear to the hearts of Snowflakes.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On August 14, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

My understanding of the term “snowflake” is that it applies when someone bemoans on event or comment that no person of sense or integrity would feel hurt by.

I recall Rod using it when a young man was holding a gun to the head of a grocery store cashier, a customer in the store who was armed told him to freeze, he turned with his gun to face the customer, who shot him, not fatally. The would-be robber’s father told the press that if the customer had a problem with what was going on, he should have just left the store, not interfered to protect the cashier with a gun to her head or, the horror, shot the man with a gun who had been holding it to the cashier’s head.

A snowflake… someone who thinks its just unacceptable to shoot an armed robber in the act of holding a gun to a cashier’s head. Life should be fair and robbers should not be interfered with.

Similarly, people who create great mountains of social resentment out of tiny molehills. The meaning is not unlike “thin-skinned.” I wouldn’t call a person of African descent “thin-skinned” if they strenuously objected to being called n****r, and that includes if the word is being used by another person of African descent. But I would call most of those complaining about ludicrous micro-aggressions “snowflakes.”

Snowflakes melt at 32 degrees, not at 120 degrees (Fahrenheit).

#11 Comment By ZGler On August 14, 2017 @ 5:33 pm

They shouldn’t have sacked him. That only made him an alt-right martyr. Google’s efforts weren’t seriously damaging any white-male prospects at the company, however. His post was concern trolling.

Google’s management rightly determined that having more women engineers (not 50% but more) results in better product and higher profits. Women make up a huge percentage of Google’s end customers. I’m an engineer. Engineers no longer work in isolation. They work in teams on big projects and the teams need people with different talents and perspectives.

Engineering teams especially need people, literate in the technology, who are also good at communication, both oral and written. They don’t only need nose-to-the-grindstone programmers with sharp elbows.

#12 Comment By alan ii On August 16, 2017 @ 3:02 am

Steve N says:

“The most shocking factoid, which is reported elsewhere, is that countries with the greatest equality in the sexes (think Scandanavia) also have the greatest disparity of men and women working in highly technical professions.”

This is an interesting start, would like to know more about this. If tech professions are something of an emancipator in societies that aren’t so equal, then I wonder if in more equal countries it doesn’t fulfil this role as much?

(also im not sure about the other scandinavian countries but there’s high tech emigration from Sweden to London, which may also be a factor)