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The Republican obsession with “identity politics”



Last night, it was reported that Steve Bannon said he would “crush the Democrats” for talking about “identity politics.”

What is identity politics?

Sometimes we find different phrases used to describe the same thing; people with different points of view will prefer one or the other. The old adage “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is an example.

Another is “identity politics.” When it’s used by right-wingers, as it was Monday in the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial, it’s pejorative: “identity politics…seeks to divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender and even religion” and, as such, is a “poison” and a “pathology,” the editorial thunders.

There is, of course, an entirely different way of interpreting the phenomenon, and that is in terms of the freedoms promised by America’s founding documents. The Declaration of Independence declares that “All men are created equal” and are “endowed” with the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And the Constitution provides “We the People” with “a more perfect Union…in order to establish Justice.”

It is through these founding documents that the importance of what Dr. King called “the arc of the moral universe” must be appreciated. America started out as an exclusive white men’s club, in which others had no rights. Over the course of centuries, groups that had been disenfranchised have successfully lobbied for, and attained, their share of “Justice”: non-land-owning men, women, blacks, gays, children, Native Americans, the handicapped, immigrants, religious minorities, transsexuals and so on.

Surely this has been a happy development in our history. Greater freedom and liberty for all! The “shining city on a hill” Reagan loved. The “new birth of freedom” Lincoln celebrated in the Gettysburg Address.

So is the continuing struggle for Justice for all Americans a treasured part of the nation’s inheritance? Or is it the Wall Street Journal’s “poison” of “identity politics”?

It cannot be both. I choose to interpret the fight for freedom as the highest, most idealistic promise of what America always has aimed for. We are all Americans, yes, but we each of us also are members of many sub-groupings, and you cannot have justice in America if you take away the fruits of liberty from any of those groups and reserve them for the privileged few. I am a member, myself, of several sub-groups that have long suffered under the oppressive yoke of straight white male Christian dominion. I celebrate that we have managed to throw off that yoke, to lighten its load so that Americans everywhere can breathe more freely.

Yet Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal takes an opposite point of view. For them, the struggle to liberate each American represents an “obsession,” a “problem,” a “cudgel” of “identity politics,” which is “the politics of division.”

It might be well to understand this recalcitrance in light of Murdoch’s own situation. He is a white man. An old, straight, rich white man, upset at seeing the old order of his yesteryear shifting. It’s only natural for him to watch his hold on power disintegrate and find it “poison.” He is a Christian apologist, strongly pro-Catholic, a subscriber to a religion that has spent the last thousand years purging perceived heretics, often through murderous means. I suppose if I were an old, straight, rich white Christian man, with no capacity for moral empathy, and little respect for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, I might feel the same way. “What right,” I might ask, “do these bumptious minorities have to ‘destroy democratic trust and consent’ [the Wall Street Journal’s words] in our great America? Why must we suffer these fools, with their marches, divisive demands and fake news?” I might, if I were mentally impaired, join one of those white supremacist Christian nation clubs and fire up my tiki torch to march under the banner of the swastika.

But that is not who I am, thankfully, nor do I think it is who you are, or the majority of us. But as we have seen, that is who some Americans, represented by the likes of Steve Bannon, are, and, far more dangerously, it is who and what our current president is. So the next time you hear somebody complain about “identity politics,” understand what you are really hearing. It is a screech of protest by selfish people afraid of losing their hegemony. It is the rage of disbelievers in the American commitment to “justice for all.” It is the cry of moral monsters.

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