Identity Politics, Whether We Want Them Or Not
If I commented on everything people were saying about the Covington Catholic/Nathan Phillips debacle, I’d write about nothing else. I would like to focus on this essay by Zack Beauchamp at Vox. He concludes with a comment that I completely agree with:
The Covington controversy touched on some of America’s most powerful identity-based hot buttons. It continues to dominate the headlines because it, more than the vast majority of actual policy fights, hits on the real issues that motivate people politically. It is an example of the way identity is not just one force in American politics today, but the fundamental one.
I don’t want it to be, and you probably don’t either. But we don’t get to choose this battle. This is what you get when the bases for classical liberalism evaporate. In Spain last week, I talked to a man who had grown up in a communist country. We spoke of the culture war, especially in America. He grew visibly discouraged.
“I grew up always looking to America as the country that defended the individual,” he said. “It was a liberal country. Now it seems like that is gone.”
He was using the word “liberal” in the broadest sense — meaning a country that puts individual rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights, and so forth, at the center of its politics. He’s not wrong to see liberalism, in that sense, dying in America. Patrick Deneen wrote about it eloquently in Why Liberalism Failed. Liberalism failed because it succeeded in “liberating” the autonomous individual, unencumbered by anything but his immanent desires. Turns out people can’t live like that. There’s a reason that liberalism emerged from Christianity — as John Gray and many others have observed, “human rights” are just a secularized version of Christian teaching — but we are discovering that liberalism may not be able to withstand the end of Christianity as a meaningful force in the West.
It’s interesting to read Beauchamp’s account of the Covington Catholic controversy, because he’s a young left-wing Washington journalist who seems to be trying honestly to understand what just happened, and what is happening. In this excerpt, he describes what’s happening in a scene from a lengthy videotape of the scene (linked to in his piece):
According to Sandmann’s statement, he and his classmates were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial to board buses back to Kentucky. While waiting there, the Black Israelites hurled obscenities at the Covington kids — calling them ”dusty ass crackers” and “a bunch of incest babies,” among other foul things. Instead of walking away, the Covington boys decided to respond with a round of group cheers — and, mystifyingly, the chaperones let them.
It’s hard to tell in the videos what [the Covington students are] saying, but they clearly get riled up. At one point, a student rips off his shirt as the rest cheer and jump.
I can see how Beauchamp can’t make out what they’re chanting, but it’s clear to me. They’re chanting at the Black Israelites, “We got spirit, yes we do! We got spirit, how ’bout you?” Bog-standard high school pep rally stuff. It is worth noting that the black radical haters were shouting racist and obscene insults at the white Catholic kids. Should they have ignored the provocateurs, and walked on? Yes. One of the first things people who move to the big city from small towns learn is not to be baited into confrontations with nuts like that.
Anyway, the student was doing a haka dance, which has become a common thing at football games. Just before the kid does that, the Black Israelite speaker shouted taunts saying that the boys were afraid to come closer to them because they (the Israelites) are protected by invisible angels. The boys clearly think this is all one big joke, hence the haka dance.
These were teenage boys, though, in Washington from out in the hinterland for what might well have been the first time. Had this been a case of the Westboro Baptist Church loons shouting abuse at a group of gay and lesbian students, would Beauchamp had expected them to walk away? Yes, that is the only realistic and sensible thing to do with people like the Westboro cultists, or the Black Israelites, who thrive on confrontation. But notice that the boys did not seek this confrontation.
That was when Phillips, the Omaha elder and a retired Marine, decided to intervene, and marches into the space between the two groups. Somehow — it’s not clear from the footage — Phillips and his small group get fully surrounded by Covington students.
They get surrounded because they walk straight into the group! Seriously, watch the video for yourself. The boys clearly don’t see anything hostile going on, and seem to think it’s all in fun. They are not reacting in a hostile way to him, only smiling and bouncing around.
Here’s a different video, which picks up just after Phillips began banging his drum (and where the first one leaves off). It shows Phillips beating his drum inches from Sandmann’s face. Sandmann doesn’t threaten him; none of the kids do — not even a couple of minutes into the video, when one of Phillips’s comrades starts cursing the kids and gets racial with them. That video is NSFW because of the foul language of the Indian (not Phillips; his comrade). And, because of the anti-gay, racist taunts of the Black Israelites.
Beauchamp writes, of the first video:
If you watch this footage, focusing especially on the way Sandmann interacted with Phillips, you can see why it instantly captured national attention. A bunch of white kids joining in Native chants is problematic to begin with; doing it in a heated moment, with one of the boys up in a Native elder’s face, creates an even more disturbing impression on first viewing.
Seriously? “Problematic”? Because of cultural appropriation? The boys, who didn’t seem to understand what was happening, were trying to chant along with the Native man who inserted himself into their midst. The reason the boy was “up in a Native elder’s face” is because that’s where the Native elder put himself! Phillips didn’t say anything to them at all; he only walked into the middle of them chanting and banging his drum. What were they supposed to have done?
The only thing I can see that the boys did wrong was not walking away from any of these people. The thing is, these kids never had a chance. Here’s why, from Beauchamp’s piece:
“A crowd of white teenage boys wearing MAGA hats is, to certain groups of people, inherently threatening,” writes Quinta Jurecic, a sharp commentator at Lawfare. “Once a campaign prop, a MAGA cap now fronts for such raw evil,” writes David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire. Alyssa Milano, an actress and leading #MeToo activist, was even more blunt: “the red MAGA hat is the new white hood.”
There we have it. These boys forever surrendered the benefit of fairness because they wore MAGA hats — which is to say, because they openly support the elected president of the United States. Beauchamp again:
But on the whole, the core commentary that you heard from left-liberal social media was ideological rather than personal. The incident served as a kind of perfect morality play for people on the left: MAGA hat-wearing wealthy young kids versus dignified Native elder.
Beauchamp is describing here why left-liberals reacted in a particular way. I wish he had pointed out that there is no evidence that these boys chanted the things Phillips claimed, in this video in which he is weeping. There is no evidence at all that he was harassed. The videos that have been released from all sides indicate that he wasn’t harassed.
Unless, of course, you believe that the hats the boys wore advertising their political convictions constitutes harassment. As some on the left do. Here’s an infamous tweet by a Disney producer:
Morrissey later deleted the tweet and apologized, for which he deserves credit. Still, think about the kind of culturally sophisticated adult — the producer of Disney’s Beauty And The Beast — whose first reaction is to imagine the gruesome mass murder of teenage boys over their political views. What kind of career would Jack Morrissey have in Hollywood if he had said that about any other group of kids but white Trump-supporting males?
(It is important to observe here that in media interviews, Nathan Phillips flat-out lied about what happened. But that’s beside the point of Beauchamp’s piece; he’s analyzing why people responded as they did.)
Now, Beauchamp goes on to analyze the reaction from the Right, including (but not limited to!) what he terms a “white-male Christian persecution complex”. Beauchamp writes:
That view connects to a broader assumption shared by many conservatives: that white Christian men are a persecuted minority in modern America.
To non-conservatives, this sounds absurd. White men are the country’s most powerful and privileged citizens. The party they dominate currently controls two and a half branches of government, and they sit in a disproportionate number of powerful seats in the private sector. But in this argument, conservatives follow a maxim generally attributed to the late provocateur Andrew Breitbart: “Politics is downstream from culture.” By this, Breitbart meant that the balance of power in day-to-day politics is determined, in the long run, by the cultural ideas that shape the way people approach politics.
Wait, stop right there. Beauchamp seems to believe that “Christian” is synonymous with “white” and “male.” Most believing Christians I know do not believe the Republican Party is an advocate of Christian interests; we vote Republican because at least the GOP doesn’t actively try to harm us. There are, of course, quite a few grassroots Republicans who have faith in the GOP. I would refer them to a story I tell in my book The Benedict Option: about meeting with influential Christian conservative Congressional staffers months after the Obergefell ruling in 2015, and asking them what the GOP was going to do to strengthen religious liberty now that traditional Christians had lost the war for gay marriage.
The answer was: nothing. I left that meeting knowing for sure that we were on our own. One big reason for this is that the party is afraid of its donors, who tend to be more socially liberal than the base. The powerful “white men” of Beauchamp’s narrative are not traditional Christians. Try to find socially and theologically conservative Christians in corporate America. Shoot, try to find them in influential right-wing institutions like The Federalist Society, whose membership is overwhelmingly libertarian, not conservative.
I point this out because it indicates a massive blind spot in the left-liberal vision: the belief that to be white and male and to identify as a Christian makes you a social conservative. Anyway, Beauchamp is not wrong here:
With liberal elites largely in charge of the country’s entertainment and higher education, in the Breitbart-conservative view, that means they control the commanding heights in our society. Hollywood makes films with social justice messages, universities teach left-wing ideas about race and religion, and even mega-brands like Gillette make ads about “toxic masculinity.”This makes society as a whole more secular and liberal, producing a social system that ends up discriminating against white Christians by (for example) forcing them to bake cakes for gay couples.
The Covington incident, in the conservative view, is a clear example of how the truly powerful in America marginalize the hated white Christian male. The clearest articulation of this came from Rod Dreher, a writer at the American Conservative magazine. Reacting to a hyperbolic anti-Covington comment from screenwriter Michael Green — “no one need ever forgive [Sandmann]” — Dreher had this to say:
Michael Green is a man of significant power. He tells stories on film for mass audiences. This is his attitude: to demonize for eternity teenagers — teenagers! — who may have made embarrassing, politically charged mistakes in public. This is the kind of person who is in charge of telling stories to Americans about America. Because of the great power he has to shape a culture’s morals and memories, what Michael Green is saying here is more evil and dangerous than anything a bunch of hooting knothead teenage boys did in Washington.
This idea, that liberal elites are arrayed against white Christian men and using their cultural power to shame and harm, is another reason conservatives are so incensed. In the Covington boys, conservatives don’t see the powerful; they see the persecuted.
But is that idea true? What infuriates me about left-liberal dogma is the idea that individuals don’t matter, nor do circumstances — that guilt or innocence is a matter of which tribe you belong to. Yes, I know people on the Right do this too. But we are supposed to train ourselves not to do that. We are supposed to be tolerant of dissent. The new Left does not do that. Beauchamp goes on:
Backing down not only involves giving in to conservative reworking but also ceding to an implicit moral schema where reputations of these young white boys are more important than the harm they inflicted on Phillips (who was filmed crying after the confrontation) or the problems with systemic privilege overall. It becomes a fight not about one incident but about the fundamental lines along which our social sympathies should run.
This is extraordinary. The white boys inflicted no harm on Phillips, at all! Many on the Left have this idea that those kids, by virtue of being white and male, have to bear all the sins of whites and males. Is there any more illiberal principle than that? No parent, or any race, class, religion, or political worldview, wants to live in a world in which his or her children are vilified and made objects of a national hate crusade simply because of their race, class, religion, or political worldview. It’s deeply unjust, and it’s frightening.
Day after day we see evidence that the Left — which, yes, does command the heights of cultural power — is talking itself into carrying out acts of hate against whites, males, Christians, and conservatives. Guess what: It’s true even if Breitbart says so. As with the Kavanaugh hearing, the Covington boys incident is prima facie evidence that if you are part of a demographic that it is okay to hate, the cultural leaders in this country will turn their rhetorical guns on you and blast away.
Believe me, I would trade the Senate and the presidency in a heartbeat for the power that the cultural left holds. They are remaking society. Last year, in the heat of the Kavanaugh hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, having seen what the left in the Senate and in the media tried to do to Kavanaugh, exploded:
Graham articulated what was obvious to conservatives — even conservatives like me, who had no interest in the Kavanaugh nomination, seeing him as just a standard-issue Bush Republican: that this sham of a process showed what the Left would do to any of us who stood in their way.
And now, what was done to the Covington boys — minors who were in DC to participate in an honorable American civic ritual: peaceful protest — shows us once again what is in store for us.
When I was in Spain recently, I saw what happens when the Left holds unchallenged power in the institutions of culture in a society. There’s a new political party there, Vox, which is widely held by the political and cultural establishment to be “far right” — this, because they object to immigration open borders, and they think that it’s not fair for the government to force Catholic schools to teach radical gender ideology. A man I met who is well-informed about both Spanish and American politics told me that Vox’s overall program is to the left of the American GOP, but they are demonized by the Spanish establishment.
Another man I met told me about a relative who works in law enforcement on the front lines of the immigration crisis in Spain, processing illegal migrants from Africa. He sees every single day how these young men arrive in Spain, and are then let go to melt into Europe. The only Spanish party objecting to this is Vox. So he voted Vox in the Andalucian elections — and because of that, he would be considered a neo-fascist by a lot of power-holding Spaniards.
It’s madness. And it’s destroying liberal democracy. As I keep telling you, in Spain of the early 1930s, the persecution of Spanish Catholics by the new liberal Republic — and the burning of Spanish churches and convents by mobs, while law enforcement watched — ultimately drove Catholics and traditionalists into the arms of Franco. If this is what the left really wants — an America where white people, men, traditional Christians, and teenagers that wear MAGA hats — are considered guilty without trial — then why should those who stand to suffer unjustly from this “social justice” order support it? Beauchamp cites these tweets by a prominent feminist:
Here’s a clue, Rebecca: stop telling these people that they, their husbands, their brothers, their sons, their fathers, the people in their neighborhood and their church, are evil because they are white, male, Christian, and/or conservative. Justice, like empathy and charity, is not a zero-sum game, nor is it something that inheres in groups.
What I find especially telling about this controversy is how so many on the Left hold those boys guilty of bringing all this onto themselves just for wearing those hats. I would not wear a MAGA hat, and would not want my kids wearing one. But I wouldn’t want my kids wearing a pussy hat either. Whatever political message they happen to be sending with their clothing, as long as they are peaceable, they deserve respect — and they should respect others. That’s what we all used to believe, back when America was a liberal country.
What has happened to these boys strikes a resonant chord within me, because it reminds me of an extremely unpleasant encounter I had in Washington in the early 1990s. I had had a good day hanging out with three female friends, all liberal Democrats. We were eating a late lunch, and for some reason one of them brought up abortion. They knew that I was a new Catholic, so one of them asked me what I thought about abortion. I told them that I was pro-life, but didn’t want to argue about it.
That was just about the last word I got in at the table. They all unloaded on me, included one who had been a good friend since I had moved to DC. One snowflake in the group began to speak of me as if I were an object, saying that she felt “afraid” to have me, a pro-lifer, at the table. This was 1994! I finally got sick of the self-righteous abuse, threw money on the table to pay for my meal, and walked out. I never saw two of them again. The third, who had been my longtime friend kind of apologized later, but said that to be honest, as a pro-lifer, I deserved it.
I’ve lived long enough now to see that sentiment go from being an extreme view put forth by politically engaged liberal feminists in their twenties to being completely mainstream on the Left, and advocated by men and women at the heights of cultural power. This is not going away; as Beauchamp says, “identity is not just one force in American politics today, but the fundamental one.”
Old-fashioned liberals — that is, people like me who want to support a system where folks are judged by the content of their character, and as individuals — are increasingly looking like suckers. I deeply hate this, but I’ll be damned if I can see a way out. I am not going to support with my vote or anything else a social and political order that condemns me and my children and my neighbors, putting our liberties and even our physical safety at risk over our religious faith, our political views, and/or the fact that some of us are male.