As liberalism confronts the power of identity politics, what can save it?

Carolyn Moynihan
July 17, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

Last month, Black Lives Matter protestors in the English city of Bristol toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbour. London sculptor Marc Quinn was sympathetic; to show solidarity, he made a sculpture of Jen Reid, a black protestor (who was happy to cooperate) and the figure appeared on the plinth where Colston's had stood.

Wrong move! Bristol's black mayor, Marvin Rees, said the future of the plinth had to be decided by the people of Bristol, so the statue would have to be removed . Black artist Larry Achiampong said the Marc Quinn effort was "a sad joke". Quinn had missed the point that BLM is about redistribution of power; the white sculptor could (should) have used his wealth to support some young black artists to make a replacement for Colston. "Sometimes the best thing you can do when you're part of the problem is just stop," Achiampong advised.

The pain of being a liberal today

It's awfully hard to do the right thing today, even if you are a bleeding-heart liberal. Or any kind of liberal: 153 of varying shades signed an open letter recently warning that the "free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted." Twitter-shaming and panic among institutional leaders are seeing professors dismissed, journalists censored and writers "in fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement," they said.

One of the signatories (as we have already noted on this site) is progressive feminist and famous author J. K. Rowling. Not all the literacy and GDP she has personally generated for Britain could save her from the disgrace of insisting that a natal male could not become a woman and go barging into women's loos.

Another is Bari Weiss, a Jewish journalist who has since resigned from an editorial role at the New York Times, publishing a letter of resignation in which she did not spare that bastion of left-liberalism her own brand of public shaming.

The New York Times buckles before the mob

Recruited by The Times in the wake of the 2016 US election as part of an effort to connect with an America that had, shockingly, elected Donald Trump, Weiss apparently did her best to bring the voices of "new writers, centrists, conservatives and others" to its megaphone. But she was soon disenchanted.

Rather than openness to a wide range of ideas, she found that "Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences…" ("Why edit something challenging to our readers … when we can assure ourselves of job security … by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and to the world?")

She was bullied by some colleagues for "Wrongthink" and for "writing about the Jews again", and smeared on Twitter as a "a liar and a bigot" – behaviour that was not corrected by The Times hierarchy and amounted in the end to "constructive discharge". Others, she says, have learned to self-censor and stick with the narrative. Sympathisers on the staff write to her privately about the "new McCarthyism" that has taken root at the paper of record. Weiss advises:

"All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they'll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you'll be hung out to dry."

The Economist vs the new ideology of race

If The New York Times is buckling to the mob – and at the moment, none is more powerful than Black Lives Matter – The Economist, as the self-styled standard bearer of classical liberalism, has taken a strong stand against anti-racism power tactics. It is clearly worried about the current scene.

In a leader of July 9 headed "The new ideology of race", the paper calls this ideology "a dangerous rival" to liberalism that has "emerged from American universities" and is "spreading out from the academy into everyday life. If it supplants liberal values, then intimidation will chill open debate and sow division to the disadvantage of all, black and white."

The Economist agrees that racial inequality is "shockingly persistent," that the race ideologues have "some valid insights" and that remedies are needed, but denounces the way it seeks "to impose itself through intimidation and power." Silencing critics, viewing everything and everyone through the prism of racial power, insisting on absolute equality of outcomes will not solve America's problems, the editorial continues. It only gives oxygen to "some on the right" who exploit race as a tool and drives allies away.

The answer? Liberalism, of course. Despite occasional mistakes like imperialism and slavery, liberalism asserts the dignity of the individual, the equality of all people, fosters a diversity of voices and uses facts and evidence to help the weak take on the strong. Hence the unprecedented progress humanity last has made in the last 250 years, says The Economist . And, to show goodwill, it has come up with a Briefing on practical suggestions for tackling America's racial economic inequality.

However, a third article amplifying themes in the leader ends on a far-from-confident note. Having traced the failure of American liberalism to deal with the legacy of slavery and its attempts at affirmative action from the 1960s, the essay confronts the "revolutionary implications" of critical race theory.

Since its rise in the 1970s, CRT has merged with ideas about gender, sexuality and disability in the postmodern cocktail called "Theory". The swizzle stick in this heady mixture is the concept of "intersectionality" – the overlap in interests between say, blacks and women.

Because of its emphasis on groups at the expense of the individual, and on power at the expense of evidence, debate and the rule of law, amongst other things, Theory is at odds with liberalism – and progress itself. Not everyone agrees that they are incompatible, but The Economist does not seem convinced. It concludes: "Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one."

Can liberals change their spots?

Liberals are not used to being the underdog; they are accustomed to setting the social agenda and being on the winning side of the culture wars. Some American liberals even deny that there would be a culture war if it weren't for the "polarisation" caused by "Trump" and "the far right"; liberals and conservatives would still be rubbing along together like they did back – when?

The truth seems to be that liberalism has been drifting "left" for at least 60 years and itself opened up the ideological gap. It was liberals who came up with eugenic and racially-motivated birth control programmes, and later justified the relentless logic of the Sexual Revolution even as it destroyed working-class and black families – while their own carefully-formed families stayed intact.

Liberalism smiled upon the decline of marriage and religion, and upon the destructive consumerism and pornographic entertainment culture that took its place. It did not seem to care that economic policies threw working men on the scrapheap and killed communities.

Then, having knocked traditional cultural and economic supports from under people, it indulged the identity politics where increasing numbers of people find a home. But not all such groupings – not, for example, white nationalists or the angry incels who can't find a romantic partner. No, only those in the sexual and racial categories.

And now, when identity politics turns on liberals and bites them, they are shocked and hurt. And just quietly they are appalled that their culture and its whole history is regarded as disposable, and that they have nothing of worth to offer except their repentance.

However, if liberals really want, to quote The Economist, "an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible," there is something they can try: cutting conservatives some slack.

In a Twitter thread responding to the Letter on Justice and Open Debate , Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony complained that the signatories had excluded conservatives from their project and taken swipes at them in the letter, apparently still thinking they can work with "neo-Marxists" (identity groups).

Conservatives have their own sins to atone for. But to save democracy, says Hazony, "liberals need to grant legitimacy to conservatives (even when they don't like them much) and conservatives need to grant legitimacy to liberals (even when they don't like them much). Nothing else is going to work."

If there is a better suggestion, let's hear it.