Saturday, January 17, 2015

Against Identity Politics

In honor of Benjamin Franklin's birthday, this post will consider the problem of Identity Politics. The Founders -- and Franklin in particular -- was alert to the danger that the American colonists would form up into small antagonist camps.

Different groups of colonists had different grievances with the despotism of King George III. The merchant classes were concerned about George's monopolistic restraints on trade. The famous Boston Tea Party had much to do with the merchant classes' profits from illegally imported tea, which they feared they would lose when mandated to only accept tea from the East India Company. The poorer classes were concerned about their lack of political voice. They railed against the theft of income by regressive taxes. The Stamp Act tax, for example, injured those of limited wealth to a greater extent than it did more affluent colonists.

In many respects, the merchant classes and the poorer classes were natural adversaries. And it is an example of the genius of the Founders that they were able to bridge these differences and create a coalition in favor of violent secession from the British Empire.

Against the danger of a spirit of faction arising that would break the coalition, Franklin famously warned, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Today, the American people face a similar crisis. The only hope of enacting sweeping political change is that a broad-based grassroots movement will come together and remain united by common purpose. And I need not demonstrate to you that the need for sweeping political change exists, beyond pointing out that in a recent poll 73% of Americans agreed that our government is on the side of corporations and not on the side of average citizens. In a recent poll, an unprecedented number of Americans identify themselves not as Republicans or Democrats but Independent voters: 43% identify as independents, which is the greatest percentage observed since the question was first put to voters in 1988 (source).

One important engine that drives a spirit of faction among American voters is a phenomenon known as Identity Politics. Self-described feminists are inclined to vote for female candidates, African-Americans are inclined to vote for African American candidates, and Latino(a) voters are inclined (or so it is believed) to vote for politicians who toss in a few words of Spanish during their speeches.

As the 2016 election cycle nears, it seems almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will become the democrats' nominee for president. This is a shame because there are numerous candidates who'd be better choices: Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and Rocky Anderson are each fervent opponents of Wall Street influence, whereas Mrs. Clinton accepts money from Goldman Sachs. The three men mentioned wish to curtail American military involvement abroad, whereas Mrs. Clinton seeks, or has sought, military action against Libya, Syria, and Iran.

Now, there are also better qualified women than Mrs. Clinton to run for president, such as Elizabeth Warren and Jill Stein. But Mrs. Clinton has cynically used her husband's economic and political influence to make herself a nationally recognized figure, and conspicuously drapes herself in the mantle of feminism.

Identity Politics is dangerous because people who fall victim to it lose their critical faculties. They regard Mrs. Clinton as a champion for women's rights even though she clearly is not. How could anyone who supports trade with China or the Transpacific Partnership be called a a champion for women's rights? We know that women in China are enslaved, undergo forced abortions and are so bereft of hope that they throw themselves from the tops of the Dickensian factories where they are obliged to labor. We know that some of the member nations of the Transpacific Partnership enforce laws that disenfranchise women.

Turning now to the gist of this post, let's consider the ideology of race and gender which forms the basis of Identity Politics. The question is whether "racism" and "sexism" provide the best explanations for social inequality observed when we compare whites and African Americans or compare men and women.

One can hardly deny that the legacy of slavery has harmed African Americans greatly. One can hardly deny that African Americans continue to be disadvantaged in American society. Yet, in looking at the historical context which gave rise to slavery, we see the machinations of Southern oligarchs who sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

In looking at the historical context which gave rise to American gender inequality, we see the brutal factory system that emerged in 19th century America. Women were asked to live in factory housing, work long hours, and accept low wages. Northern oligarchs, such as the owners of the infamous Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

In looking at the context which gave rise to the plight of Latino/a Americans. The situation clearly deteriorated after President Bill Clinton enacted NAFTA. Local industries were devastated; the illicit industry in drugs has thrived, and desperate Mexicans seek to flee the disastrous conditions that exist in their own country by crossing the border into America. NAFTA was the brainchild of multinational oligarchs with influence in American government, who sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

Am I glossing over the fact that African Americans are in fact denying economic opportunities because of the color of their skin or that women are in fact denied opportunities because of their gender or that Latino(a)s are denied opportunities because of their refugee status and language barriers and skin? No, I am not. Instead, I will suggest that discrimination on the basis of these characteristics finds its origin in a mentality which regards some human beings as having less inherent worth than others.

And it is plain that, although ACTUAL racial and gender discrimination exist, there are some instances in which it is merely PERCEIVED. A woman may, for example, be denied a job for some reason other than her gender. An African American may be denied a job not because of the color of his or her skin, but because he or she is the victim of historical forces which have resulted in his or her having a poorer education. Or perhaps the African American lacks the genteel refinements by which a member of the upper class decides the kind of person with whom he or she would prefer to work. When racism is only perceived and has little ACTUAL impact, we have upper class African Americans sending their children to the best colleges. There, they will learn to embrace the class system and like Barack Obama or Clarence Thomas or Condoleeza Rice, because active participants in the system which drives the poor further into poverty and concentrates the wealthy into fewer and fewer hands.

We know that the burden of poverty is disproportionately shouldered by women, African Americans, and Latino(a) Americans. But poverty is also borne by whites. Visit the southern states and one will see that the legacy of Southern Oligarchy continues to blight the existence of whites belonging to the lowest castes of society. Visit any American prison and you will see a larger number of white men than you might expect if your only experience with prison is what you see on television. And these men are not violent, on the whole, nor frightening; what is more commonly the case is that they are broken men, with their eyes perpetually downcast out of fear of catching the attention of a correctional officer or fellow inmate, with little hope of successful reintegration after they are released.

In conclusion, then, I will suggest that there is a cause that ought to be embraced by 99% of Americans, with unity of purpose and passion. I do not believe that this unity exists today.

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