Speculation: How exactly are identity politics dangerous? What can be done about it?

As always, everything below is subject to change, esp. considering that in Aristotle there is a distinction between envy and jealousy that I forget which might make a number of these arguments invalid.

1. A colleague, whose judgment I refer to in matters of Shakespeare, Herodotus, Homer and a number of other thinkers, said his fundamental concern for America is our embrace of tyranny through identity politics. According to him, populism starts at a level of recognizing oneself as part of a nation within the nation, then subjecting oneself to a tyrant who will liberate the smaller nation from the larger whole.

I don’t think my colleague is essentially wrong, but I think we need to sort a few things out before assenting to this picture. Firstly – factions have always existed, including violent nationalistic factions that never quite adapted to American life but are now assumed to (cf. Martin Scorsese, “Gangs of New York,” “The Departed”).

Secondly, people who really get into identity politics typically aren’t the brightest, to be sure. People who really get into anything without some way of checking themselves aren’t the brightest, giving away their independence for the sake of being governed wholly by another. But it seems in this age of NPR and “The Daily Show” that there’s too much cynicism for identity politics to rule as easily as it does. Granted, there are lots of people who don’t listen to or watch NPR or “The Daily Show,” but the major point is that our age doesn’t stress humility or obedience as much as seeming independent. It seems like people who sign up for crusades that involve identity politics attempt their own selfish gain – they use hateful rhetoric to induce guilt trips, or the thinly veiled threat of violence to get immediate gains.

Thirdly, Josh brought up the critical point – Nietzsche in “The Genealogy of Morals” talks about how morality came about: clergy saw people that were naturally good, got envious, and constructed codes of laws in order to make others believe that natural goodness and strength were bad things. Nietzsche is telling a nonsense story for another point entirely, but the notion of envy as something willed is key here. People can imagine someone or something to be a problem and establish a will to hate. That will to hate can become codified.

On that third point, then, we have to ask where the codification lies. It is true that there are idols for nationalisms of all sorts currently, but take note of our first two points – we live in an order, in America, that allows for factions and promotes a cynical sort of reasoning whereby our individual gain is a good. Identity politics is believed by most Americans to be their expression of right: the complete contempt for the Founders which we see in academia causes many within academia to be tuned out by the majority of their own students. Inasmuch as the Founders are criticized, it is perhaps because people feel they didn’t take their own logic far enough.

2. Now I’m obviously not saying the American Constitution gets people to hate, or worse yet, use hate as a tool for material gain. I am saying it promotes a culture permissive and in some ways promoting the excesses of identity politics: it replaces the moral imagination to a degree with the willingness to use others for material gain. Once that logic is fully accepted, though, why shouldn’t people put bullets in each other for a few dollars?

My colleague is exactly right in denouncing identity politics. The notion that it is “right” to hold other people in a nation hostage through the threat of riots (physical violence) or smearing others’ names (violence that makes trust impossible) can only push the rest of us to violence. Violence becomes the only logical response of those of us who want to stand above, since groups practicing identity politics for the sake of selfish ends can’t back down: like the Nazis, they have to make good on their threat in order to keep stealing.

I do want to distinguish between two types of identity politics, for we haven’t seen America turn into a battleground of violent factions yet. My suspicion is that this hasn’t happened because identity politics in America are a product of utter decadence for the most part. One thing you see on the Internet are perfectly comfortable people who should be happy making all sorts of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories up, or denouncing Christianity just because they can, or promoting Third World despots from countries they can’t locate on a map as saviors of humanity. If there’s one reason to really have one’s stomach turn regarding America, it’s that we’re willing to make up all sorts of crap not even to be right, but to make sure no one else who stands for anything could possibly be correct.

There is another brand of identity politics, one where the issues are those of survival. We’re seeing that in Israel and Gaza right now, and Robert Kaplan has discussed it very nicely: the curious thing is how Iran holds more sway in Gaza than Egypt.

While I am not at all sympathetic to Hamas, and do want to see them completely crushed once and for all, notice that their delusional hatred of Israel and the West isn’t stemming from decadence. No one wants to live in Gaza except some nutcase Israeli settlers.

Kaplan writes that instead of being crushed, the ideology running Hamas can be undermined over time. I think he unwittingly made a larger point about how we arm ourselves against identity politics, and in fact against hatred generally — for all our talk about education, there are very few of us actually sharing our knowledge and trying to bring forth serious questions, and fewer of us reading. I wonder if the progress made in Iraq and Afghanistan can be maintained if people don’t read and debate things like the Federalist and Jefferson there. I’m not saying they have to accept that stuff, but they have to at least show awareness of it, or risk falling into the democratic mode of tearing anything that could be higher apart, that democratic excess nowadays asserting itself through the populist sharia.


  1. I believe that The reason Iran Holds so much sway can be taken Back to Darius and The Persian Empire. Persia and Egypt were both in the Nation Building Stage. The Arabs and Persians Have never gotten along and Hamas is An Opportunist Terrorist Group.
    They have no loyalties to anyone but themselves The “Race” Card is alive and well. As long as the press humors them by referring to them as “Palestinians” They are a forerunner to Al Queada and terrorists

  2. interesting. identity politics can be a feature of our system if we collectively value the way others exercise their rights: a populace with diverse interests and beliefs is much more robust in the face of authoritarianism. this is touched on by madison in federalist 51.

    “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority — that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. The first method prevails in all governments possessing an hereditary or self-appointed authority. This, at best, is but a precarious security; because a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major, as the rightful interests of the minor party, and may possibly be turned against both parties. The second method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.”

    the problem i see is not with permissiveness but polarization. there are precious few places where two people with opposing views can really wrestle them down to their bones: instead we see two separate medias catering to each side and little cross pollination.

  3. It has always been my belief that self-determination made a cuckold of democracy because it merely allowed nations to pick a new master. If we go into places like Iraq and Afghanistan there damn well better be some Lockean concept thrown into that place or else the idea is done before it is started. I agree with AK that this needs to be fixed: we don’t need to supply these people with more tyrannical groups they can choose from like a dinner menu — they need power besides the vote in a national election to pick dubious factions.

  4. Identity has both an evil and a good side. It can be a reasonable response to domination but it can also become a runaway excuse mechanism for doing nothing.

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