July 17, 2011
American Exceptionalism and Identity PoliticsBy Jack Kerwick
Dean Malik has recently written a piece for American Thinker in which he contrasts what he calls "American exceptionalism" (AE, from this point onward) with "identity politics." The former is good, he maintains, while the latter is bad.
This essay is problematic for a variety of reasons -- questionable presuppositions and unfair distortions continually rear their ugly heads. First, I will focus on Malik's comments concerning AE. Next, I will turn to his account of identity politics, with particularly close attention paid to his remarks in connection to what he refers to as "white supremacy."
American Exceptionalism (AE)
Interestingly, Malik fails to explicitly define the notion for which his essay is an apology. Fortunately, this in and of itself doesn't pose much of an obstacle to engaging his argument, for what he does say coincides closely enough with prevailing understandings of AE. The idea that Malik appears to champion is the doctrine that America is the only land in all of human history to have been founded upon the principle that such contingencies as race, ethnicity, and religion -- considerations that define the character of every other society the world over -- are irrelevant to membership in that association that we know as the United States.
The historically dubious nature of this statement of America's founding aside, contra Malik, while the doctrine of AE certainly entails the idea of an America that has always "stood for the promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity, and...the cruelties of religious intolerance," it is just as certainly not interchangeable with it.
Even a society all of whose members recognized the importance of racial, ethnic, and other particular bonds -- what Malik disdainfully refers to as "tribal loyalties" -- could just as passionately and stridently aspire to ameliorate "hatreds," privileges owing to "social heredity," and "the cruelties of religious intolerance." Like the Jacobins of the eighteenth century in reply to whose abstract and universalistic ideology Edmund Burke formulated the most eloquent statement of what has since been recognized as conservatism, Malik is guilty of precisely the same charges that Burke leveled against his rivals. Malik is guilty, not just of error, but of hubris.
As Burke observed, by the rationalist abstractions -- "the Rights of Man" and the concomitant idea that only those governments erected upon "the consent" of "the People" were legitimate -- of the defenders of the French Revolution, every government, however benevolent, stands condemned. Similarly, if AE refers to something uniquely American, and if this something is America's "promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity," and "the cruelties of religious intolerance," then what Malik implies is that every other society that has ever existed offers no such relief.
There is indeed much about America for which to be thankful. My admiration for its distinction as a nation is second to none. But surely no one believes that what fundamentally distinguishes our country from every other, what renders it "exceptional," is that we eschew racially, ethnically, and religiously-oriented intolerance while other nations do not.
America's founders were overwhelmingly of a single race, a single ethnicity, and a single religion. They were white, English, and Protestant. They suffered no delusions regarding their identity, and never could have dreamt of any reason why they should be in the least bit apologetic for it. The country of which they were pioneers (not "immigrants") was forged through the very same historical accidents -- bloodshed, violence, slavery -- that characterized the origins of every other human society, it is true, but because these phenomena assumed an inter-racial character in America, our founders were that much more self-conscious of their distinguishing features than they otherwise would have been had their conflicts and achievements occurred within a racially, ethnically, and religiously homogenous context.
Neither is there a shred of evidence that our founders saw themselves as creating a nation within which the members of every conceivable racial, ethnic, and religious group could and would co-exist as equal citizens. Being Christian, it is doubtless correct that they attributed equal worth or equality before God to all persons. But, contrary to the conventional, politically correct, mushy-minded wisdom of our generation, it is anything but a small step from this belief to the conclusion that there is a universal entitlement to American citizenship.
Thomas Sowell -- a black thinker -- once remarked that talk of race more so than that of any other issue taps our rationality. The stellar intelligence, withering logic, and rigorous reasoning that are brought to bear on other issues are conspicuously absent when it comes to this topic. To see both that Sowell is correct on this score and that the doctrine of AE is indeed designed to conceal the racial, ethnic, and religious dimensions of the founding and history of America that its champions haven't the wherewithal to acknowledge we need look no further than Malik's exposition.
After all, Malik does contrast AE with what he calls "identity politics." Judging from the examples he cites, La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus, and such "white supremacist" organizations as Jared Taylor's American Renaissance, to mention but a few, it is clear that the "identity politics" that principally concern him is predominantly racial in nature.
Malik's analysis of identity politics warrants some remarks.
First of all, that Americans have always organized for various purposes along racial, ethnic, and religious lines may not in itself justify this practice; it does, however, put the lie to the notion that it is somehow "un-American."
Secondly, no one has so much as tried to establish that there is anything in the least bit morally objectionable about Americans (or anyone) assembling for reasons of race, ethnicity, and/or religion.
Thirdly, that people feel a closer affinity for their racial, ethnic, and religious brethren no more shows their proclivity for indulging "tribal loyalties and hatreds" and "the cruelties of religious intolerance" than does our partiality toward our own families establish our hatred and intolerance of other families. Presumably, not unlike virtually everyone else, Malik thinks it is a fine and good thing that we tend to love our own spouses and children more than we love the spouses and children of others. And we know that he holds patriotism -- partiality toward one's country -- to be a virtue. However, we are left to ask: if the commitments to one's co-religionists, co-ethnics, and co-racialists are repellent because of the tribalism that they supposedly embody, why aren't commitments to one's family and one's nation not similarly repellant? Why or how are they not also species of tribalism?
Fourthly, Malik refers to the likes of Sam Francis and Jared Taylor as "white supremacists." "White supremacy," he contends, is the product, the effect, of minority identity politics. Interestingly, I think Malik's observation is astute as far as it goes; the problem is that it only goes so far.
Francis and Taylor are both white, yes, but neither are "supremacists." Malik is arguing in bad faith here. It is true that Francis and Taylor, being particularly interested as they are in the genetic foundations of human behavior, focus on IQ differences between racial groups. Yet there are a couple things of which to take note here.
The data on which Francis and Taylor center their attention is exactly the same data that every student of IQ accepts -- statistics that no one from Charles Murray (a Jew) to Dinesh D'Souza (an Indian) to Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams (both black) denies. If there is anything that can be said to distinguish Francis and Taylor from their peers, it is the dominant role which they assign to biology in their analyses of IQ. They may very well be incorrect; I for one take exception to their conclusions. Yet a belief in the error of another's ways is in no wise incompatible with a respect for his intellectual seriousness. For Malik, sadly, the two evidently are mutually exclusive.
Moreover, if Malik really knew anything at all about Taylor and Francis, he would know that even in the terms of their own reading of IQ and race, Taylor and Francis -- like most "white nationalists" -- think that on average Asians, northern Asians specifically, are intellectually superior to whites. The Japanese, for example, consistently register a higher average IQ than whites. So, if Malik remains determined to label Taylor and Francis "supremacists," he should make sure to refer to them as proponents of Asian supremacy.
Fifth and finally, as Malik himself remarks, what he terms "white supremacy" is a reaction to minority identity politics. That blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white groups should organize along racial lines for the sake of advancing their collective interests is enough to provoke some measure of racial consciousness within whites. But when the realization of the ends that racial minorities pursue demands that the government surrender its impartiality with respect to all citizens and substitute for laws that equally bind all of the associates of the legal association that we know as the United States policies designed to benefit non-whites over whites, it is understandable that these same whites should seek to organize similarly.
This, incidentally, is exactly the point made by Vanderbilt University political science and law professor, Carol M. Swain. Swain is the author of a couple of books on "white nationalism," and while she doesn't identify with this orientation, she is remarkably sympathetic with it. It is remarkable that she should sympathize with it mostly because Swain is black. At any rate, she certainly treats it more charitably, more justly, than does Malik.
America is supposed to be "a nation of laws," not of men. What this means is that when the government favors the members of one racial group over those of another, America's character is corrupted. Thus, when identity politics is nothing more or less than the enterprise of appropriating government for the sake of racial favoritism, it is an enterprise gone to the bad. When, however, as in the case of "the white nationalists" that compose the object of Malik's disdain, as well as, say, black civil rights activists in 1950's and 1960's, it is a matter of insuring that government refrain from privileging some racial groups at the expense of others, it is entirely appropriate.
In these latter cases, though, it isn't really identity politics at all of which we are speaking. Rather, it is a movement oriented toward preserving the rule of law.
FOLLOW US ON