Mark Lilla’s “The End Of Identity Liberalism” Is The Whitest Thing I’ve Ever Read
A predictable but still fascinating byproduct of the election is the emergence of a new sub-genre of discourse and literature solely comprised of White people attempting to explain Trump’s win without saying the words “race” or “racism.” Its almost as if they’re engaged in some sort of devolved, pre-racial game of Taboo.
“Quick, explain what happened in Ohio and Wisconsin, but don’t use the words ‘angry White people,’ ‘Obama,’ or ‘fried chicken.’ You have 60 seconds! Go!”
And, just like with any other genre, occasionally you have some who exist within the form but subvert it by eschewing its rules and inventing their own. Andy Kaufman. Gertrude Stein. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The McRib.
Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, now belongs on that list.
His “The End of Identity Liberalism” — published last week in the New York Times — is avant garde White obliviousness. He is the Pablo Picasso of performative sobriety. The Frank Lloyd Wright of Whitesplaining.
To wit, instead of ignoring the role race and racism played in this election — as many of his colleagues have — Lilla decided to confront it head on. And, he didn’t just stop there. Lilla added some intersectionality to his fuckshit punch, discussing the roles gender, sexuality, and religious differences also played here. But (and this is where Lilla’s genius exists) instead of just acknowledging that White fear about impending diversity is what swung the election, he acknowledges it…and then blames the diversity. Its ultimately our fault. And “our” in this context is “literally anyone who isn’t a protestant White male.”
He states the premise of his piece in the second paragraph.
In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.
Ultimately, what he’s saying is that liberals failed by putting an emphasis on an acknowledgement and celebration of our differences instead of our similarities. The rest of his piece provides evidence of this assertion.
But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
Note the phrase “the rhetoric of diversity.” I’ll come back to that later.
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
This is not particularly untrue. We (Americans) don’t just exist in our own bubbles. We’re often bubble-wrapped too. But this particular type of narcissism is pervasive and not limited to progressives. It exists in Manhattan and Montana. But it exists for a very real reason. Which I’ll get to later. (I promise!)
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.)
This is peak Whitesplain. The entire paragraph belongs on Whiteplain Mount Rushmore. Instead of learning about history with a context that actually attempts to make it more nuanced, complex, and honest, Lilla implies that the less context, the better. This is the type of thinking that would keep Thomas Jefferson’s slaveowning (and slave children) out of lessons about him, because it would make things unnecessarily complex and distract students from the other really super duper important things he did.
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.
Again, note how “diversity issues” is in sarcastic scare quotes. Mark Lilla really hates diversity. It’s like Lilla and Diversity were dating, and Diversity texted “be right back” to him and never texted him back again. And now Mark Lilla hates her.
This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement — and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs.
Also, note the use and placement of “but” here. He starts the paragraph with a laud of the positive impacts of diversity, but then inserts the “but” towards the end to basically say “but it’s all bullshit.”
Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones.
Shut the fuck up.
My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism — about the “first X to do Y” — is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply.
No, seriously. Shut the fuck up, man.
However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.
SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP. NO. ONE. CARES. ABOUT. YOUR. FUCKING. WEIRD. ASS. EXPERIMENT.
But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.
The point of this entire paragraph — this entire piece, really — can be found in the third sentence here. (“And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny.”) Thing is, Lilla isn’t talking about “Americans.” He’s talking about White Americans. White American men, specifically. Whoever can capture their imaginations the best will win.
The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns.
You know what else can be convenient? The truth. The truth is convenient as a motherfucker. And the “Whitelash” thesis is a true one. This really happened. And it’s really happening.
I’m not going to continue to quote from the piece, because he continues saying different versions of the same thing for the next 500 or so words. Instead, lets examine the “rhetoric of diversity.”
The wrongness of Lilla’s premise is centered in a very specific type of White male myopia that, because he’s an academic, he believes himself immune to. Although he rails against “the bubble,” he’s a product of it. The concept of “diversity” — of wanting it recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated — isn’t just some sort of classroom rhetoric or academic thought exercise. The recognition of and sensitivity to it is vital because it literally saves lives. For the tens of millions of historically marginalized Americans, this isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s about safety. It’s about being able to relax and exhale in our own home. It’s about a pursuit of the most basic human need; one that, for as long as America has existed, has been beyond our grasp. We’re not upset about the election because “our team” lost. We’re upset because this incoming administration — through both their campaign and the decisions made since the election — has promised to provide us with pain. Yet, he fails to grasp that, and distills and limits this entire concept to a high-minded, academic context. Ultimately ignoring that the fight to be recognized as full citizens has been and will continue to be a bloody one.
Diversity isn’t why the liberals lost. It’s because of bubble-wrapped White men like Mark Lilla.