The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.
But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced 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. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they 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. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)
When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this 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.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which 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. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?
A reader sent in this good piece by Noah Rothman at Commentary, talking about the women’s march and identity politics. Rothman says Lilla is right, but it won’t do any good because the contemporary activist left doesn’t understand the world except through the lens of identity politics. Here, he talks about the chronic virtue-signaling on the left:
These are secret handshakes designed to enforce exclusivity. This is not the stuff that makes for a broad-based political movement, but that is not the point. The left allowed itself to be consumed by the myth that a racially diversifying America would provide liberals with an enduring majority. In embracing this fiction, the far left’s most committed identitarians have erected a noxious racial hierarchy. Members of the identity-first left don’t seem to see how their obsession with hereditary traits has stolen from them personal agency and collective political potency. Perhaps they haven’t noticed it yet. They will soon enough.
Meryl Streep is not a brave liberal. Michael Eric Dyson is not a brave liberal. Mark Lilla is a brave liberal.
UPDATE: I didn’t have time to post this last bit before taking one of my kids to a sports event, but I want to add something that the activist and academic left cannot seem to understand: the principles they uphold justify the Alt-Right’s identity politics too. If you believe that it’s fine to advocate for political advantage for members of your tribe, based on nothing more than their racial, sexual, or gender identity, then you have no standing to fault Alt-Rightists for doing the same thing.