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For Once, The Identity Politics Orgy Ended Well

With Americans pained by both civic violence and cases of police brutality, the times call for leaders who support law and order and justice. Joe Biden has found such a person in choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate.

But getting there was not half the fun. It was not fun at all. As often happens in Democratic campaigning, the process deteriorated into a self-harming orgy of identity politics.

For starters, Biden should not have vowed early on to pick a woman. Then black activists — backstopped by the woke white left — demanded that the woman be "of color." Both groups framed such a decision as a "reward" for black women who, they say, are the "backbone" of the Democratic Party.

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Danziger: Wheel Of Fortune

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.com.

The Identity Politics Red Herring

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

In the aftermath of the November 2016 elections, the term “identity politics” has been thrown around repeatedly with many progressives suggesting that the Electoral College defeat of Clinton by Trump was the result of some sort of Democratic Party obsession with that concept.

I am not known as a defender of the Democratic Party, but in the post-November summations the whining about identity politics has become both misplaced and obnoxious. Various pundits, in suggesting that the Democratic Party over emphasized so-called identity politics at the expense of some sort of pure class politics (meaning a politics focused exclusively on economic injustice) obscures the fact that there has been an on-going struggle within the Democratic Party—let alone the USA as a whole—to ensure it is broadly representative. Does anyone have to be reminded that the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy? The party of the so-called Solid South? A party that had a very uneasy set of alliances that included those, like President Roosevelt and those like Senator Strom Thurmond?

The fight to make the Democratic Party a more representative institution was not a fight around advertising but was directly connected to the demands of historically excluded groups to be included, not as window dressing but as central players. This entire history is being denied in the name of upholding some sort of supposedly pure fight for economic justice.

“Identity politics,” as a term, is being used as a way of describing a set of politics that challenges specific forms of oppression that exist within capitalism; forms of oppression that go beyond the boundaries of the economic. The use of the term “identity” complicates matters because it is subjective, i.e., it assumes that certain struggles are driven by people or forces that have a specific distinctiveness that connects them with that issue. Among other things this fails to take into account that various so-called identity struggles inevitably bring in allies who are not from that specific constituency.

What passes for identity politics should actually be understood as social justice struggles that aim for consistent democracy and become, as a result, component parts of the larger class struggle. These are not battles around one’s identity. This is not self-indulgent activity by people who, for whatever reason, do not recognize the importance of economics.

This is what has made problematic several statements by Bernie Sanders both prior to and following the November 8 election.

Shortly after the election, in response to a woman who asked about becoming a Latina senator, Sanders offered a complex answer. He acknowledged the need for more women elected officials and elected officials of color. But he said he wanted to make sure that they were focused on the working class. He ended by suggesting the need to move away from identity politics.

One can agree with Senator Sanders that it is critical to move beyond any sorts of politics that is simply about “faces” in high places. And, when looking at the totality of the senator’s remarks, there is important value. But because of the lack of a consensus about the actual nature of so-called identity politics, Sanders’ proposal to move away from it is, at best, confusing. Identity politics, at least the way that it has been used as a term since the election, describes a politics that asserts the need for representation of historically marginalized and oppressed populations; and the representation of their issues. In that sense, what we are discussing is social justice and not something that should even be described as “identity politics.” It is more a politics of inclusion and for democracy rather than a politics of distinctiveness or uniqueness.

Capitalism is founded on classes and class struggle. Class struggle takes place over the basic question of the control of the means of production, distribution and exchange and, more generally, the control over the social surplus  But if someone stops there one misses actually existing capitalism. Capitalist states do not exist as some sort of economic abstraction but are rooted in specific histories. Those histories include multiple layers of oppression, some inherited from previous social formations (and modes of production), and others developed specifically within the context of emerging capitalism. In both cases, however, these forms of oppression, e.g., patriarchy; racism, have become central features of the manner in which actually existing capitalism operates.

This understanding is essential since it helps us break with a common notion within the left and progressive movements to see matters of racism and sexism/patriarchy/male supremacy, as the equivalent of add-ons to an otherwise stable capitalist system. Metaphorically, racism and patriarchy have become for many progressives add-ons to a preexisting structure that can actually operate in the absence of these forms of oppression.

Let’s start with racism. Racism was not an add-on to U.S. capitalism. From the English occupation of Ireland leading to the development of North American capitalism in the 13 original colonies, racism emerged as a form of both oppression and social control essential for the growth and preservation of capitalism.  To suggest that racism is unnecessary for the operations of U.S. capitalism—a notion that should have been dispelled on November 8, 2016 at the latest—is to suggest that a person can survive in the absence of lungs. The absence of an appendix, yes. The absence of a gall bladder, yes. The absence of lungs, forget it.

When the Movement for Black Lives emerged in the context of the struggle against police brutality, this was not about identity or identity politics. It was not as if African American youth awoke one morning and decided that because of their blackness they needed to undertake this struggle and that this struggle was, for the sake of argument, more important than a struggle for jobs or around income inequality. The Black Lives Matter movement undertook a struggle against white supremacist/racist oppression and in favor of the notion of consistent democracy. It challenges a basic foundation of the U.S. capitalist system; a foundation that ensures that through the preservation of a racist differential in treatment between so-called whites and so-called people of color, the elite can guarantee that they have a standing army of people—white people—who believe that the system operates in their interests. The Movement for Black Lives also energized other segments of the population that saw in the battles around police lynchings and abuse, a democratic struggle with which they must be in solidarity if they are at all serious about transforming the U.S.

When Puerto Ricans have risen up to challenge the austerity that is being imposed on their island nation that is not identity politics.  It represents a set of politics that is against national oppression and colonialism. It is a set of politics that challenges the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States. This is not a subjective judgement by Puerto Ricans, but is a reflection of a reality that they face that is resulting in the massive depopulation of the island in the face of the current crisis.

The fight over the future of Planned Parenthood is not a struggle resting on the identity of women. It is a struggle over patriarchy/male supremacy and democracy. It is a struggle over the basic question of who control’s a woman’s body. The fight around Planned Parenthood is part of a larger struggle that certainly predates the emergence of capitalism, but it is a battle around an oppression that has been incorporated into the manner in which actually existing capitalism functions. This is a fight to expand the bounds of democracy and the ability of people to govern their own futures.

One can even return to the example of the Latina who asked Senator Sanders about becoming the first Latina senator. In a country that provoked a war with Mexico in order to seize the northern third to half of the country; that imposed Jim Crow-like conditions of racial segregation on the absorbed population of Mexicanos and Native Americans; a country that continues to present Latinos—unless they are from Cuba—as an omnipresent threat to the future of the U.S., the rise of a Latina senator has profound significance. Certainly someone with right-wing politics would not be helpful. But in the context of a gathering of Sanders supporters, while it is essential that the political content of any candidate is emphasized, we do not need Sanders offering a caveat about the dangers of so-called identity politics, particularly if he is not going to clarify precisely what he means in using that term.

There is an unfortunate belief among many progressives that class politics is about economics in a narrow sense. Thus, a demand against Wall Street and its elite is considered class politics. A Chicano demand in the Southwest for land redistribution or the protection of long-held Chicano land rights is frequently described as identity politics, or worse.  As a result you have some progressives who seek some sort of pure, race-neutral alleged class politics that supposedly will unite the dispossessed against the elite and will not confuse them with dirty matters such as race and gender. In the late 19th century this approach was in evidence in the Populist movement. In the early 20th century this was manifested in the Socialist Party. In more recent times it has been characteristic of the work of many of those who hail from the legacy of the iconic Saul Alinsky. And it was certainly in evidence during much of Sanders’ campaign for the presidency.

A progressive or radical class politics—that is, a politics rooted among workers—actually has more to do with who is on the side of the oppressed. The U.S. has a significant history where white workers have been more than willing to battle employers, but then would turn against workers of color. An infamous case in point was that of the International Seamen’s Union (late 1800s-mid1930s), led by Andrew Furuseth, that was rhetorically radical but vehemently anti-Asian. The fact that a politician, union or some other individual or institution raises the clarion call of economic justice does not, ipso facto, mean that they are embracing progressive class politics. They may just as easily be engaged with right-wing populist politics.

Class politics is about power and an opposition to all forms of oppression. In that sense genuine progressive class politics is the strongest advocate for democracy and against inequality, marginalization and oppression. It does not treat ostensibly non-economic forms of oppression as somehow secondary. Nor does it dissect those other forms of oppression in order to identify the pure economic essence in order to glorify that.

Progressive and radical class politics, then, is about building the sort of bloc that can undertake social transformation. To the extent that there is an “identity” it is an identity as the oppressed; the people; the dispossessed. The specific oppressions, be they racial, national, gender, religious, do not evaporate or become absorbed but rather contribute to the emergence of a broader identity for the bloc that seeks to change the world.

An analogy I have often used is that based on the work of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader from the early 19th century. Tecumseh concluded that there was a moment underway in which the western spread of white settlers could be stopped, or at least blunted. At the same time he realized that this could not be done by any individual tribe or, for that matter, by a loose alliance of tribes. What was necessary was the construction of, in effect, a Native American nation-state that could act in concert against the settlers. This did not mean that the Shawnee or the Cherokee, for instance, would disappear, nor would their cultures evaporate. But the construction of a bloc to defeat the settlers would necessitate a different and overarching way for the Native Americans to look at themselves and to look at the outside world.

In this sense, the challenge at the moment is not clarifying or reclaiming identity politics as a term. The challenge is actually two-fold. The first is to recognize that the struggles that much of the mainstream—and many progressives—condescendingly or innocently put under the banner of “identity politics” are struggles for social justice. They are interconnected with battles for economic justice but they are not somehow less important. In order to understand U.S. capitalism, one must appreciate the nature of these battles against multiple oppressions and the manner in which they intersect or are interlinked, even with the acknowledgement that the economy underlies any assessment of the capitalist system as a whole. To borrow from the late French Marxist Louis Althusser, the situation is overdetermined.

The second challenge is to realize that in the current moment, the attack on what is termed identity politics arises precisely from those who wish to diminish the centrality of struggles for social justice  It is those who believe that there is some sort of race-neutral progressive populism that can unite us all who fail to understand the profound lessons of U.S. history.  The struggle is not linear; it never has been  The struggles against economic injustice frequently overlap with various struggles for social justice. If we want to win, a strategy must be constructed that recognizes that the system is multidimensional and cannot be challenged on one front alone.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a talk show host, writer and activist.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

IMAGE: People celebrate the passage of the minimum wage for fast-food workers by the New York State Fast Food Wage Board during a rally in New York July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid  

The Unholy Crusade Against Political Correctness Was All The Cover Trump Needed

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

From the autumn of 2015 through the end of Donald Trump’s vulgar, violence-invoking, free-speech-threatening ascent to the presidency, a broad swath of America’s chattering classes and upscale college alumni consumed itself in denouncing something different. Instead of taking alarm at Trump’s many breathtaking threats to quash freedoms of dissent, the chorus of conventional wisdom panicked about the “creeping totalitarianism” that former Harvard President Lawrence Summers warned was being insinuated into American life by (drum roll…) sanctimonious liberal college students and campus elders and by recent graduates in the media and government.

It was a massive, almost desperately determined avoidance of facing what was actually threatening our freedoms.

The year-long public paroxysm over the scourge of racial and sexual political correctness was ignited in September, 2015 by “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a widely read essay with a scarifying subtitle: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”

The public psychodrama climaxed 14 months later with Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism,”  which blamed Trump’s “repugnant” victory primarily on a condescending, censorious liberalism that privileges racial and sexual identities which many Trump supporters viewed as marginal, deviant, and worse. Liberals had forced “diversity” down Americans’ throats; now, “real” Americans would vomit it back out.

The “Coddling” and “Identity Liberalism” articles became book ends for what Greg Lukianoff, co-author of the former and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—an organization supported by right-wing funders, as I reported here in AlterNet, celebrated as “an epic year” for their brilliantly orchestrated crusade to blame politically correct parenting and pedagogy for asphyxiating free speech and other rights in education and, by extension, in public life. That crusade was reinforced by some breast-beating liberals, and it was hijacked by opportunists such as Trump himself.

To be sure, liberal “identity politics” has sometimes thwarted the open inquiry and expression that liberal education and democracy should defend, and it has sometimes diverted effective responses to the serious threats to freedom that are now upon us; As the author of Liberal RacismI’ve long warned against such political correctness.

But during the campus free-speech crusade’s “epic year,” Lukianoff and his co-author, the business psychologist Jonathan Haidt, scurried like itinerant preachers from campuses to green rooms and lecture halls across the country, brandishing First Amendment claims and professions of academic heterodoxy while casting college students and deans as the most dire threats to open inquiry and expression.

Many journalists joined the crusaders in prowling campuses with video-cams and open notebooks to construct what Yale President Peter Salovey, in an address to freshmen this September, assailed as “false narratives” about threats to freedom of speech on campuses. Although Salovey didn’t mention anyone by name, he surely had in mind some of the tall tales about brave students and professors being silenced and martyred on altars of free speech by politically correct hordes.

Even as growing public awareness of murders of unarmed black men (by police, vigilantes, other black men, (and, in my view, by National Rifle Association lobbyists against reasonable gun-control) spurred the Black Lives Matter movement and introduced justified racial activism into the supposed self-indulgence of campus protests, millions of Americans remained fixated on a video Lukianoff had shot of a 20-year old black student hurling imprecations at a professor and on others’ characterizations of black college students as “privileged.”

By the time Trump joined in denouncing political correctness – even while abusing his own freedoms of speech to humiliate and silence others and encouraging supporters to do likewise — the crusade against identity politics was all-too obviously diverting effective public responses from the real danger at hand.

Now the unfolding horror show of Trump’s transition to the presidency is revealing political correctness to have been only one symptom,  among others far more virulent, of the wide-ranging corruption of American public discourse and politics. Those who are still gloating over liberals’ comeuppance and who think Trump has expanded their freedoms of speech by speaking his mind about smug liberals will soon find themselves gulping instead of speaking their own minds about, say, Trump’s collaborations with cronies on Wall Street or with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, or about his promised crack-downs on freedoms of the press and of speech, and his likely moves to roll back public and private-workplace rights and benefits and to abrogate judicial and congressional checks and balances.

In the cold light of 2017’s dawn, the passing year’s “free speech” crusade looks a lot like other paroxysms that have gripped American upper-middle classes whenever civil society has been under great stress. At such times, self-appointed keepers of conventional wisdom have ginned up public paroxysms of alarm and rage at selected internal enemies whom they blame for the crisis.

In the 1690s, it was witches, hysterical women and girls whom Puritans said had been taken by Satan. From the 1840s, it was Catholic immigrants, whom a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884 said were besotted with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” In the 1920s, it was anarchists, Reds, and unwashed immigrants, including pushy Hebrews. In the 1950s, it was American Communist spies for Stalin, the Satan of that time. In the 1960s, it was hippies and traitorous opponents of the Vietnam War. Since 2001, it has been American Muslims and, in 2003, critics of the Iraq War. And, of course, in every decade before and since, it has been feral, riotous blacks.

This sorry progression of scapegoating should have warned otherwise-intelligent people against the “free speech on campus” crusade and other recent stampedes against scapegoats. Yet many of the same pundits and propagandists who’ve crusaded for “free speech” this year also sneered at Ned Lamont’s campaign of 2006 against Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a champion of the Iraq War; they also lambasted the political psychologist Drew Westen for wondering, “What Happened to Obama’s Passion?,” in his column accusing the president, quite fairly I think, of deferring too much to government shut-down artists during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.

Some of the same critics disparaged Occupy Wall Street protestors who forced a public reckoning with this country’s increasingly illegitimate and unsustainable inequalities. Even as these same critics bewailed political correctness this year, they found time and reasons to assail Bernie Sanders’ campaign against those illegitimate inequalities.

No matter whether such spasms against internal dissent are orchestrated impulsively and demagogically or coolly and strategically, they always egg on many who are fretting that the society they’ve made their peace with is unravelling and who want someone “safe” to blame.

Always, these crusades also draw some support from breast-beating, finger-wagging liberals (Mark Lilla now prominent among them) who hope to stave off the worst by condemning whatever’s most noxious on their own side of the spectrum. Twice this year, professors at small, leafy, upscale undergraduate residential colleges told me that political correctness is much worse than I’d reported. No doubt, they were right about their colleges. But they let their local grievances eclipse the larger dangers gathering force beyond their campus gates. And some journalists let their own ambivalences about college skew their assignations of blame.

Now, though, with Trump’s inauguration impending, the conventional-wisdom keepers’ “epic year” may have been their last hurrah. No longer is there much seductive, thrilling relief in assailing “cry-bullies,” teenaged “snowflakes,” and “smug liberals.”

No longer can this year’s paroxysm help the crusaders to shrug off their earlier paroxysms during the run-up to the Iraq War, whose opponents they harassed in 2003; or during the 2008 financial meltdown, whose most-powerful perpetrators they excused in a frenzy to blame public-sector accomplices; or the government shutdown efforts of 2011 that they contrived to blame on those like Westen who were pleading with Obama to rouse the public against a do-nothing Congress.

They won’t be able to keep on blaming such scapegoats for the casino-like financing, predatory lending, and intrusive, degrading consumer marketing that are really causing our crises.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a’prey, when wealth accumulates and men decay,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1777. “You can’t build a clear conservatism out of capitalism, because capitalism disrupts culture,” Sam Tanenhaus, the biographer of the conservative icon Whittaker Chambers and, soon, of William F. Buckley, told a less-than-receptive audience the conservative American Enterprise Institute in 2007.

True, today’s turbo-capitalism isn’t the only danger. Greed, the lust for power, tyrannical empires, and technological upheavals were part of human history long before there was capitalism. One might argue that there has always been a festering hole in every civilization’s soul.

But today’s capital is deepening the hole because it’s less entrepreneurial than it is ensnaring, trapping us like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing and surveillance machines.

Why not direct the next crusade against those creeping threats to our liberties? The dispiriting answer lies in stampedes like the one for campus “free speech” that abetted Trump’s triumph instead of advancing Americans’ freedoms.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of “Liberal Racism” (1997) and “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York” (1990).

IMAGE: Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump rally through Times Square, Manhattan, New York, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Bria Webb