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Campus Identity Politics: Useful Critique or Repressive Regime?

Learning from James Baldwin and Andrew Sullivan on the uses and abuses of identity politics.

February 13, 2018
 
 

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, my favorite piece of nonfiction, is essentially the story of a dinner that Baldwin has with Elijah Muhammad in the 1960s. Baldwin accepts the invitation because the corrosiveness of white racism had boiled his blood to the point where he understood Elijah Muhammad’s black rage.

But once he was actually at the dinner, listening to Nation of Islam leaders talk in a serious manner about white devils and black separatism, he began to have other ideas. While he understood the anger at the root of this worldview, and the necessity of no-holds-barred criticism of white racism, he didn’t want to live in Elijah Muhammad’s world. In fact, he considered it downright frightening.

The challenge might be summed up like this: “Don’t be so quick to overthrow the Shah, you could wind up with the Ayatollah.” 

The Fire Next Time helped me understand the difference between a critique and a regime. When a worldview functions as a critique, the best way to approach it is to wonder what it illuminates about the world. But when a worldview functions as a regime - when it becomes the world – it has to answer questions at a higher standard: Does this regime provide benefits to the widest possible number of people? Does it offer reasonable protections to those who would be at its margins? If you were behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, not knowing your identity before you entered the world, would you choose to live in it? Is this a better order compared to other orders we can imagine? Do you trust the people who propose to run this world?

That last question I think is especially relevant in the James Baldwin/Elijah Muhammad case. My reading of The Fire Next Time is that Baldwin found usefulness in Elijah Muhammad as critic, but did not want to live under Elijah Muhammad as King.

This brings me to Andrew Sullivan’s incisive piece in New York Magazine. Sullivan is basically saying that campus identity politics, once a useful critique for bright young minds to consider, now threatens to become a repressive regime. Like Baldwin, Sullivan understands the anger behind identity politics – a response to what he calls the “psychological hazing from the bully-in-chief” – but he does not want to live under its rule.

The alarm that Andrew Sullivan is sounding makes me think that he is playing James Baldwin to the Elijah Muhammad of campus identity politics

I found Sullivan’s piece especially useful in the manner it clearly states the terms on which a liberal democratic order functions and how those contrast with the terms that identity politics proposes. Here are two examples of the contrasts Sullivan draws:

  • “Liberals welcome dissent because it’s our surest way to avoid error. Cultural Marxists fear dissent because they believe it can do harm to other people’s feelings and help sustain identity-based power structures.”
  • “The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment – untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights – are now routinely understood as mere masks for ‘white male’ power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites.”

For me, Sullivan’s piece raises several sets of questions.

One, does Sullivan adequately grapple with how the liberal democratic order has not only failed but intentionally violated several identity groups – blacks, women, gays, immigrants, Muslims, Native Americans, etc – to the point where many members of these groups live in profound fear and/or deplorable conditions? Is such an order really a success? Is it really worth the effort to save?   

Two, is the manner in which Sullivan contrasts the liberal democratic order and the identity politics worldview accurate, or is he exaggerating to the point of misrepresenting a paradigm that he dislikes?

And three, is Sullivan right about the possibility of campus identity politics becoming a regime? To illustrate, Sullivan writes: “If (campus) elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large.”

For me, at least, it is instructive to remember that Baldwin closes The Fire Next Time by calling not for outright revolution but for a deep and loving reform of the existing order:

“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

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