Sunday, January 20, 2008

Mistaken identity

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are running neck-and-neck in the Democratic primaries, but to listen to the media, once you get beyond the horserace aspects of the Presidential elections this year, there's nothing more important than the fact that one candidate is "black" (although it's unclear what that means here) and the other a woman. Those mere facts are supposed to emblematic of something that no one can quite articulate.

There's both more and less here than meets the eye.

Identity politics has little rational basis, although the larger forces that drive identity politics are easy to pick out. While it's supposedly about identity expression, identity politics is really about identity weakness. People with real identities just take them for granted, and their politics is expression of their interests and principles - identity itself plays no direct role. Identity politics is for people who need politicians to mirror back to them something strictly talismanic or symbolic. It asks politicians to boost or create identity, which of course they can't. While identity politics doesn't require it, mixed with the late-welfare-state cult of victimhood, identity politics becomes a powerful expression of resentment. The welfare-regulatory state (including its media wing) encourages victimhood, so naturally we get more of it.

Until the 1960s, the most powerful form of identity politics in American life was the white supremacism of the post-Civil War South, expressed in practical form as the "Jim Crow" system. Unable to take it out on the Federal army or the Union at large, the defeated South took it out instead on the newly-freed and largely defenseless ex-slaves. (The early history of the Ku Klux Klan is testimony to this fundamental fact about the Jim Crow era.) Americans outside the South eventually acquiesced in this system, accepting the proposition that the South was "peculiar" and knew better, anyway - besides being ambivalent about race themselves. Resentment over defeat and despoilation by the North was the prime determinant of Southern politics until the end of World War Two. Even politicians who were conscious of the self-destructive nature of this system (like the young George Wallace) were unable to break with it. Only larger social change, after 1945, could undermine it. The triumph of the civil rights movement, climaxing with the 1964-65 civil rights and voting laws, also marked the end of the South's "different-ness" from the rest of the country. By this point, no one alive was left who remembered the Civil War or Reconstruction, and an end came to the days of Southern refusal to celebrate the Fourth of July (the same day as the fall of Vicksburg in 1863) or Thanksgiving (a New England holiday made national by Lincoln, also in 1863).

The most important contemporary identity politics in American life is the politics of race, although the appeal of race hustling has been fading for the last twenty years; even the mainstream media no longer jump when Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton say something. The most striking thing about Obama is that he's "post-racial." His life is a testimony to the declining importance of race in America in the last generation. OTOH, as a "black" politician, Obama seems to feel he has to play that big Race Politics Wurlitzer, because somehow, he's supposed to. Doesn't pushing those keys and buttons constantly remind everyone of the very thing we're supposed to be overcoming? The Race Politics Wurlitzer has a century-plus legacy, largely destructive, behind it. Wouldn't it be better if Obama just walked away from it? Doesn't he have any other tunes or instruments to play? Of course he does, but as the media inflate his importance beyond his slender national political career as a freshman Senator, playing old familiar tunes on a familiar instrument is tempting - sort of like comfort food.

Hillary Clinton's case is more straightforward. Her political career is built on the man to whom she is married. While she plausibly claims to have feminist beliefs, her career is no exemplar of feminism. The older custom of women occasionally getting into political power by family connections has produced a variety of women leaders - few truly bad ones, and a few (like Britain's two greatest monarchs, Elizabeth I and Victoria) who proved outstanding. Such achievements are real, but they are not feminist. OTOH, figures like Margaret Thatcher are feminist icons, perhaps in spite of themselves. They owe nothing to marriage or relatives.

There's nothing irrational about identity - it just is what it is. But identity politics is inherently irrational, and usually reactionary to boot, no matter how dressed up it is otherwise. It seduces us into a deadend of absurdities and paradoxes.

POSTSCRIPT: Having drafted this posting, I discovered that Christopher Hitchens had a short piece in Friday's Journal about just this topic. It's lucid and sensible, as Hitch typically is.

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