Identity Politics and the End of Meaning

It has been more than a year since Madonna proclaimed at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. that: “Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House. But I know that won’t change anything.” Her rant that day may not have changed anything, but it certainly spread like wildfire on the national news networks as the opening shot of women’s all-out war on Trump.

But what is this war really about? Is it mostly about a woman’s right to choose? Since the March planners refused to allow pro-life women to participate, one might think so. Yet, until very recently, neither President Trump nor the Republican Party has taken any official side on the abortion issue. More likely, this war is really about identity politics and what Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla has called “The Liberal Crackup.”

Lilla traces the origins of identity politics to a slogan of the feminist movement during the 1960s: the personal is the political. “Originally,” Lilla observes, “it was interpreted to mean that everything that seems strictly private -- sexuality, the family, the workplace -- is in fact political and that there are no spheres of life exempt from the struggle for power… But the phrase could also be taken in a more romantic sense: that what we think of as political action is in fact nothing but personal activity, an expression of me and how I define myself. As we would put it today, my political life is a reflection of my identity.”

Certainly, this “romantic” definition fits Madonna’s rant. She was not really planning to “blow up the White House;” she merely wanted to reaffirm her already well-established public identity as a femme fatale. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if she had followed her threat at the Women’s March by breaking into a soaring rendition of “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.”

Such egocentrism, Lilla explains, “was an innovation on the left. Socialism had no time for individual recognition… Even the early movements of the 1950s and ‘60s to secure the rights of African-Americans, women and gays appealed to our shared humanity and citizenship, not our differences.” In the 1970s, Lilla notes. when “Blacks complained that white movement leaders were racist, feminists complained that they were sexist, and lesbians complained that straight feminists were homophobic… It was then that less radical liberal and progressive activists also began redirecting their energies away from party politics and toward a wide range of single-issue social movements.”

Focusing attention on the members of his own profession, Lilla argues that “The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. It is that they have gotten students so obsessed with their personal identities that, by the time they graduate, they have much less interest in, and even less engagement with, the wider political world outside their heads.”

This, then, is what Lilla apparently considers a primary cause of “The Liberal Crackup.” As he concludes in his final paragraph: “The politics of identity has done nothing but strengthen the grip of the American right on our institutions. It is the gift that keeps on taking. Now is the time for liberals to do an immediate about-face and return to articulating their core principles of solidarity and equal protection for all. Never has the country needed it more.”

Sadly, the time for such an about-face is way too late. Writing in the November 2017 issue of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, Matthew Continnetti has cited some of the most egregious liberal-left attacks on traditional American values:

  • At the Democratic National Convention in 2012, a majority of delegates opposed any reference to God in their party platform
  • In 2014, the Affordable Care Act forced the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees under a mandate that violated the free exercise of religion.
  • Also in 2014, Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla because he opposed same-sex marriage.
  • In 2015, an Oregon judge fined a small Christian bakery $135,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
  • By March of 2017, Democrat legislative majorities in19 states and the District of Columbia had passed anti-discrimination laws that let transgenders use public facilities corresponding to their gender “identity” instead of their gender at birth.

Perhaps even more significant have been the ubiquity of Facebook and the smartphone-induced epidemic of “selfies” -- technological innovations that have launched our nation on what may be an irreversible path to “special interest” balkanization. No matter where you go in Blue State America, you will see people staring at, tapping and/or swiping their smartphone screens, often completely oblivious to what’s going on in the real world around them.

In her January 12, 2018 Wall Street Journal article on when parents should give children smartphones, Betsy Morris stresses that the goal of Facebook and Google “is to create or host captivating experiences that keep users glued to their screens, whether for Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat or Facebook. A child” she adds, “can understand the business model: The more screen time, the more revenue.”

Morris cites three recent studies that reveal “Nearly 75% of teenagers had access to smartphones… unlocking the devices about 95 times a day” and spending “close to nine hours a day tethered to screens large and small outside of school.”  As a result, Morris warns, “When to allow children a smartphone has become… as significant as when to hand over the car keys.”

Morris drills deeper into this parental “dilemma” by focusing on several specific case studies of individual parents in such major cities as Austin, Texas; Palo Alto and San Francisco, California; and Syracuse, New York. Most of these parents were prosperous professionals with jobs in the health care and high-tech industries.

Like any good investigative journalist, however, Morris avoids passing judgment on any of these parents and makes a point of listing several smartphone features parents find beneficial, such as the following:

  1. “Many parents are thrilled with the benefits technology delivers for their children. Programs and games teach arithmetic, foreign languages and logic. Online books are nearly limitless.
  2. “Smartphones offer children greater independence, with apps that allow parents to locate them instantly. They also make it easy to keep parents at bay.
  3. “Children set up Instagram accounts under pseudonyms that friends but not parents recognize. Some teens keep several of these so-called Finsta accounts without their parents knowing.”

Items 2 and 3 are not really beneficial, though, for they limit parental monitoring and encourage childhood deception. This only further isolates children from their parents. In another Wall Street Journal report titled “Zuckerberg’s Dilemma: When Facebook’s Success Is Bad for Society,” Christopher Mims has taken a closer look at these features.

According to a survey conducted in early 2017 by the U.K.-based Royal Society for Public Health, Mims notes, “all but one [social media] service had a negative effect on mental health. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the Facebook-owned Instagram all pushed survey participants to contrast their lives with others, a phenomenon known as social comparison.”

Another negative side-effect of Snapchat and Instagram is “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. Researchers like Jacqueline Rifkin of Duke University say this occurs when someone sees photos of “a missed social event on social media, which leads to both diminished enjoyment of one’s current experience and greater expected enjoyment of the missed experience.” In other words, FOMO is another symptom of the self-inflicted isolation and loneliness associated with addiction to social media.

Since time immemorial, the family has been the most basic unit of human society. Open and trusting communications among family members is the seedbed of a thriving culture and the essential catalyst of every advanced civilization. But what happens when highly sophisticated artificial-intelligence systems and hidden algorithms are introduced into the seedbed by authoritarian corporate entities like Apple, Google, and Facebook. In this environment individual identity and freedom of expression -- even independent thought -- are obliterated.

In the meantime, the college professoriate continues to make students “obsessed with their personal identities” that civil discourse no long has meaning.  As Wall Street Journal columnist Steve Salerno observes, “Civility, you see, is a manifestation of the white patriarchy. Spearheading this campaign are a duo of University of Northern Iowa professors, who assert that “civility within higher education is a racialized, rather than universal, norm… their core contention is twofold: One, that civility, as currently practiced in America, is a white construct. Two, that in a campus setting, the ‘woke’ white student’s endeavor to avoid microaggressions against black peers is itself a microaggression -- a form of noblesse oblige whereby white students are in fact patronizing students of color.”

Since Salerno’s article was first published on January 2, almost 2,000 comments have been posted to the online version. Perhaps the most succinct comment was the one posted by Sarah Clinton on January 8: “Damned if you do and damned if you don't.”

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