Wednesday, November 30, 2016

All Politics Is Identity Politics

A great deal has been said, and no doubt will continue to be said, about "identity politics" as the source of the Democratic disaster in this year's election.  In fact, it has been expanded from an explanation for the election's outcome into a general critique of the Democratic Party, and especially the so-called corporate wing of the party:  that it's big on promoting the individual rights of its demographic components (e.g., marriage equality, immigration reform, equal opportunity for women in the workplace), and willing to neglect components that might threaten the pockets of its corporate donors (principally, unions).

As a critique, it's not entirely unfair.  The problem with the fact that both of the country's major political parties depending heavily on corporate money (in the GOP's case, almost entirely on it) is that, effectively, you end up with two economic Republican Parties.  That's why both parties had to deal with major populist revolts this year:  decades of neglecting the needs of what we used to call blue-collar workers finally caught up with the political system.  And the only reason this is surprising at all is the fact that, by and large, our major sources of news are every bit as corporate in their vision and thinking as are the donor and political classes.

But what exactly do we really mean, in the first instance, when we talk about identity politics?  We are accustomed to using the term in connection with every major (and a few minor) demographic classification of our society.  Except one.

White male Christians.

Historically, our culture does not specifically identify white male Christians as an "interest group." They are not identified as a subsegment of society needing special attention; by the value system that has prevailed in America (and around the world) for hundreds of years, they are society.  They are at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, organizing political and economic activity and, through culture and religion, defining our most fundamental believes.  And always doing so by the subjugation of anyone who isn't a white male Christian; not accidentally, but purposefully, without actually admitting the nature of what they are doing (tyranny), or the means by which it is accomplished (force).

As this author in the New York Times explains, in American society, white has always defined itself in opposition to people of color, thereby making "white" the unconscious default assumption for what constitutes a human being in America.  But that process isn't limited by skin color, as I am pointing out here, it is also defined by gender and religion (and, as a component of the latter, sexual orientation).

It is only because whites in general are becoming an American minority that they are finally beginning to appreciate what should have been obvious all along: that we have been practicing identity politics from the very beginning.  We have pretended that only white people are "people," and that, within that framework, white male Christians are a higher order of people simply for possessing those demographic characteristics.  It's actually written into our Constitution (Article I, section 2, clause 3); no one with any intellectual or personal integrity can pretend that we have not been practicing identity politics all along.  The faces of our Presidents, all by themselves, tell this story as well.  Forty-two white men.  One black man.  All of them Christian.

It's probably impossible to escape the reality that all politics is identity politics.  Politics is ultimately about the affairs of the people, however it may be practiced.  But what we desperately need, especially now, is to view identity in terms of issues, and not in terms of so-called "immutable" personal characteristics, such as demographic categories.  As time passes, demographic majorities become minorities, and vice versa.  Even property ownership is hardly immutable; land becomes exhausted, factories close as technologies become outdated, and people's needs change, thereby putting whole industries out of business.

If today's problem is joblessness, or low incomes, or college affordability, or the availability to access health care, then let's work across and outside of are demographic zones to solve them.  All of these are problems whose impact respects no particular set of demographics.  All of these are problems big enough, and complicated enough, to require the resources and ingenuity of all of us. Like it or not, all of us are stuck with each other, and all of us have an impact on one another.  We might as well acknowledge that fact, and start to make it work for us.

And, given the truth that climate change effects not only the entire human race, but the planet itself, I suggest that our new "identity politics" be defined by a single term:  life.  All of us share it. And all of us will be dead without it.  And, if we truly care about it enough, we'd better get our ourselves, and our traditional prejudices, and fight as hard as we can to preserve it.

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