Preliminary note: what has been exercising me lately is the question whether there is a deep common root to the political identitarianism of the Left and the Right, and if there is, what this root is. Nihilism, perhaps?
. . . my identity as a person trumps my identity as an animal. Part of what this means is that it would be a false self-identification were I to identify myself as a member of a racial or ethnic group or subgroup. For if a person identifies himself as a white male or a black female, then he reduces himself to what fundamentally he is not, namely, an animal, when what he fundamentally and most truly is is a person.
My right-wing identitarian sparring partner reasonably objects:
This is puzzling to me. If I 'identify' myself as a man, or a human being, I don't think I'm reducing myself to anything. I'm just stating an obvious fact about myself or, if you prefer, myself qua mammal or living organism or something of the kind. Is there some contradiction or tension between 'I am a human being' or 'I am an animal' and 'I am a person'?
Later on in his comments he says that "to defend an identitarian position in politics" it is not necessary to engage with the metaphysics of personhood. I am inclined to disagree.
No Escaping Metaphysics
As I see it, practical politics presupposes political philosophy which presupposes normative ethics which presupposes philosophical anthropology which is a discipline of special metaphysics. Philosophical anthropology, in turn, finds its place within general metaphysics. Rationally informed political action requires a theory of the human good that needs to be grounded in a theory of human nature which itself needs embedding in a comprehensive metaphysics. And if the political action is to be truly ameliorative, then the theory of human nature had better be correct. For example, the terrible scourge on humanity that Communism has proven to be flows from the Left's false understanding of human nature.
But before getting in too deep, let me concede some points to my interlocutor. I concede that if he tells me he is a Caucasian male, then there is an innocuous sense of 'identify' according to which he has identified himself as Causasian and male, and that in so doing he needn't be 'reducing' himself to anything in any pejorative sense. He is simply giving me information about his sex and his ancestry. He is simply pointing out a couple of his attributes.
By the same token, he can identify himself as a citizen of this country or that, a member of this political party or that, an adherent of this religion or that, or an adherent of no religion at all. And so on for a long list of essential and accidental attributes: military veteran? blood type? Social Security number? Take larger and larger conjunctions of these attributes and you get closer and closer to zeroing in on the individuating identity of a particular human animal in society, that which distinguishes him from every other human animal.
Personalism and False Self-Identification
But what I am getting at is something different. Not WHAT I am objectively viewed in my animal and social features, but WHO I am as a person, as a unique conscious and self-conscious subject of experience and as a morally responsible free agent, as an I who can address a Thou and be addressed in turn by an I. (M. Buber) I am a subject for whom there is a world and not merely an object in the physical and social worlds.
The question concerns the 'true self,' WHO I am at the deepest level. Who am I? A mere token of a type? But that is all I would be if I were to identify myself in terms of my race. This is one example of what I am calling a false self-identification. A tribal black who identifies himself in his innermost ipseity as black has reduced himself to a mere token of a racial type, a mere instance of it, when being an interchangeable token cannot possibly be what makes him the unique person that he is. After all, there are many tokens of the type, black human being.
Not only does he reduce himself to a mere instance of one of his attributes, he reduces himself to a mere instance of one of his animal attributes. It is qua animal that he has a race, not qua person. But we are not mere animals; we are spiritual animals.
Such false self-identification is a form of spiritual self-degradation.
And the same goes for whites who seek their true identity in their racial 'identity.' That is a false self-identification because who I am as this unique individual cannot be reduced to being a repeatable and interchangeable token of a type. The reason, again, is that (i) there are indefinitely many tokens of the type, white human animal, but there is exactly one me, and (ii) a self-identification in terms of a bodily attribute pertains to my animality but not to my spirituality.
Suppose I address a black man or woman as a person. When I do that I am precisely not confronting an instance of black human animal with all the stereotypes that go with it. I am then attempting an I-Thou relation with the black man or woman and not an I-It relation with an instance of black human animal. I am showing respect for the person.
There are many types of false self-identification and I oppose them all. On the present occasion I come out against racial self-identification. You cannot be in your innermost ipseity (selfhood) white or black, and any such self-identification is false. Now what does this have to do with identity politics?
Connection with Identity Politics
First of all, what is identity politics? Logically prior question: What is politics? Politics is the art of achieving the common human good in the public sphere. Human flourishing is not possible apart from social interaction and when that interaction is public, as opposed to private, we are in the political sphere. Such interaction is both cooperative and conflictual. So perhaps we can say that politics aims at maximizing cooperation and minimizing conflict within a given society for the benefit of all involved.
Identity politics, however, is not concerned primarily with the promotion of the common human good within the public sphere but with the empowering of particular factions within it. An oppressed group will seek power to alleviate its oppression. Think of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA in the '50s and '60s. The identity politics of that movement was understandable and probably necessary for blacks to make the progress they did. Blacks exhorted each other to stand tall and take pride in being black. Some of us are old enough to remember the "Black is beautiful" bumperstickers of that era.
Before long the Civil Rights movement turned into a hustle with race-hustlers such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton leading the pack. Long story short, the instrumentally necessary identity politics of the Civil Rights movement came to displace politics in its proper sense which has to aim at comity and the common good and not at the appeasing of aggrieved parties. No surprise, then, at the rise of white resistance to the excesses and absurdities of Affirmative Action with its reverse discrimination, minority set-asides, and race-norming.
But tribalism is tribalism whether black or white. Our only hope is to get beyond tribalism. (I am not sanguine.) But when I pointed this out to my interlocutor and some of his fellow travellers a year or so ago in these pages, I was shocked, SHOCKED (well, not really) to find them disagreeing me. They apparently think that whites need their own tribalism, their own White Pride, their own consciousness-raising.
This makes no sense to me. How can you take legitimate pride in what is merely an element of your facticity (in Sartre's Being and Nothingness sense of 'facticity.') You had to be born somewhere, to some pair of parents or other, of some race or other, of some sex, and so on. You're stuck with that. If you need to feel pride, feel pride in what you have done with your facticity, with what you have made of yourself, with the free accomplishments of yourself as a person, as an individual.
Common Human Good?
I wrote, "Politics is the art of achieving the common human good in the public sphere." But can we agree on what the common human good is? Not if we are identity-political in our approach. Can we even agree that there is such a thing as the common human good? Not if we are identity-political.
If who I am at the deepest level of the self is a white man, if my race is constitutive of my very innermost ipseity, then I have nothing fundamentally in common with blacks. But then conflict can be avoided only by racial segregation.
It is worth noting that one could be a white -identitarian without being a white-supremacist. One could hold that one's innermist identity as a person is racially constituted without holding that white identity is any better than black identity.
I hope it is becoming clear that we cannot avoid in these discussions what my sparring partner calls "heavy-duty metaphysics." Whether you affirm or deny a common human good, you are doing metaphysics. And if metaphysics gets in, theology is sure to follow. Justin Dean Lee in his review of Mark Lilla writes,
. . . any serious — that is, internally coherent — movement away from identity politics and toward a robust discourse of the common good requires that we reintroduce metaphysics into our politics. This entails granting theology a privileged place in the public square at a time when most of the left and the far right are loath to grant it any place at all.
Nihilism as the Common Root of Left and Right Identity Politics
So, to recap: Justin Dean Lee rightly says we cannot have a politics of the common good without substantive agreement on what the Good is, or how it might be known. Liberalism, in both its classical and progressivist forms, is agnostic on that question, or at most assumes things (“all men are created equal”) that cannot be sustained absent a shared commitment to a metaphysical ideal. Last week in Paris, talking about these things with Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher said that he sees no exit for the French, because they have concluded as a society that there is no realm beyond the material. Most Americans would deny that they believe this, but that’s not the way we live, not even Christians. It is true that we Americans are not as far gone into atheism as the French are, so we still have time to recover. But to recover, you first have to recognize the problem. You first have to recognize that the way you are living as a Christian is not going to survive the prolonged encounter with liquid modernity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Spencer are both atheists who have found a strong source of belief in their respective races. Spencer, a Nietzschean, has said that Christianity is a religion of the weak. They have drawn the line between good and evil not down the middle of every human heart, as that great Christian prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did, but between their race and the Other. There is immense power in that kind of tribalism, and it lies in large part because it denies the fallenness of one’s own people. Where in contemporary American Christianity can we find the resources to resist falling prey to the malign power of racialism, in all its versions?
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Only a strong Christianity can counter this nihilistic tribal religion. But this we do not have today.