Personally, I don’t know quite what to make of the current debate over “identity politics.” When I was a much younger man (as in forty years ago) it was very much the thing. Everyone in my little political circle thought that it was extremely progressive, and just what we needed to move us all along the route to utopia. Thus, we parroted the calls for Black Power, Women’s Power, Hispanic Power, Gray Power (elder liberation), and even Green Power (in those days the reference was not just to ecology but also to Quebecois nationalism. Get it? French frogs? And, no, we didn’t invent it. The term was their own).
And I suppose, on some level, I still sort of feel that way. But, I will admit that there have been problems with identity politics. I will confess that I have seen it divide progressives at times when we should have stood together. And, yes, I will also confess that sometimes when I have read the critiques of identity politics, I have been impressed if not always convinced by the logic of the authors.
Case in point is this piece in The Intercept, How Identity Politics Has Divided the Left: An Interview With Asad Haider by Rashmee Kumar. Haider is known for his attacks on the concept of identity politics, or perhaps rather for his attack on the way that identity politics has split the Left and rendered it ineffective. His most recent book on the subject is Mistaken Identity, Race and Class in the Age of Trump.
Haider has taken considerable heat for his thesis, and Kumar doesn’t let him off the hook, asking several pointed questions. Yet, she is open to his arguments, and, bluntly, even if she weren’t, he is remarkably articulate and defends himself very well indeed. And he brings up some excellent points, such as the defacto silencing of dissent (or even just the expression of ideas) in Progressive and Radical circles by “calling out” or “trashing” individuals — particularly white males — for real or imagined transgressions of privilege. “The funny thing about calling out,” he notes, “is that it doesn’t work because it centers all the attention on the white man who engaged in whatever transgression is being morally condemned. It also creates an atmosphere of tension and paranoia so that even people who aren’t white men may feel nervous about speaking because they might say the wrong thing — and get trashed. So it’s a question that people who are involved in organizing have to take seriously, that white men have to take seriously.”
Instead of identity politics, he calls instead for “a new universalism,” that would acknowledge but bridge the differences of our various identities. He admits that this might not be an easy thing to achieve, “it would necessarily involve challenging economic inequality and the class structures of American society.”
Is he right? Or, even, is the “universalism” he envisions at all possible? I must confess, I don’t know. It is an attractive idea, but it is also uncomfortably familiar to me. It sounds rather a lot like the naive positions that some activists took in the 1960s and 1970s, when we believed that we could somehow overcome our divisions by idealism alone. That didn’t work out well.
But, who can say? Maybe this time, at last, activists will finally figure out a way to get the job done …to unite…without, in the process, yielding to the all too seductive pleasure of mutual exclusion.