On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, five generals assumed the presidency of the country. The period is generally called the Military Dictatorship. Although it ended more than 30 years ago, this period is still influential in Brazil’s political environment. A part of the Brazilian right still praises the military regime as a golden period in Brazilian history. A part of the left still condemns the regime as the darkest period in our history. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the current president of the republic, is an admirer of the military regime and considers that not only was this necessary but also beneficial for the country. Dilma Rousseff, the former president impeached in 2016, was an urban guerrilla during the military regime and as far as I know, she has never publicly regretted this episode of her biography. Hardly a week goes by without the mainstream media and left-wing observers warning that Bolsonaro intends to strike a blow and reinstitute the dictatorship. Although the military regime was undoubtedly striking in the Brazilian reality, I would like to remind you today that Brazilian history did not begin in 1964.
1935. Brazil is governed by President Getúlio Vargas. Vargas came to power in 1930 through a coup. Defeated candidate for the presidency that year, he did not accept the result of the elections and with the support of the army, he took the power. Vargas was provisional president until 1934 when he was indirectly elected by Congress to remain in office. Vargas is pressured on the one hand by Integralistas, a group with fascist characteristics, and on the other by the Communist Party of Brazil. Faced with this scenario, with support from the USSR, the communists led by Luiz Carlos Prestes decided to take power by force.
The attempted coup took place between November 23 and 27, 1935. Low-ranking leftist militaries revolted in barracks in several cities in the country, including the capital Rio de Janeiro. The military who participated in the coup attempt believed that the working class would support them. The Communist International, in particular, saw Brazil as a “semi-colonial” society, in which a revolt against the government would be enough to lead the population to a spontaneous upheaval. That’s not what happened. The coup d’état had no expressive support from the population and the revolutionaries were soon defeated by legalistic forces.
The consequences of the coup attempt were dire. Luiz Carlos Prestes could not accept that his movement had simply been poorly organized and that the population did not support communism. There had to be a culprit. Prestes decided that it was the fault of Elza Fernandes, code-named Elvira Cupello Colonio, then about 16 years old. Elvira joined the group of communists of the 1930s under the influence of her boyfriend, Antonio Maciel Bonfim, code-named Miranda, general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party. Prestes suspected that she was a police informant and decided that she should be killed. Elvira was murdered by strangulation on March 2, 1936.
In response to the coup attempt, Vargas hardened his regime, effectively becoming a dictator in 1937. The entire period from 1930 to 1964 would be deeply influenced by him.
After 1935, the Brazilian army became progressively more anti-communist, culminating in the 1964 coup.
There is no doubt that the leaders of the movement were paid (and very well paid) by the Comintern. There is no doubt that they were aided by foreign spies, mostly Europeans.
I don’t want to fall into the Tu quoque fallacy here, but my experience is that Brazilian leftists hardly remember the country’s history before 1964. Many criticize the anti-democratic character of the regime that was established in the country that year. Many denounce that the 1964 coup was carried out with US support. But I don’t remember many leftists making similar criticisms to the 1935 coup attempt.
I don’t want to be unfair. I have friends who identify themselves as leftists and who value democracy. But I must say: socialism can start democratic, but it inevitably leads to dictatorship. This is the only way to have their plans realized. People don’t seem to have learned that in Brazil. Or in other parts of the world.
- The rise of millennial socialism Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman
- Class is still the defining force shaping our lives Kenan Malik, Guardian
- Are the Russians forging an ’empire’ in Africa? Maxim Matusevich, Africa is a Country
- Against conservative cultural defeatism David French, National Review
The last polemic in Brazilian politics was due to a testimony of Damares Alves, chosen by Jair Bolsonaro to be his minister of human rights. In a video that is available on YouTube, during a religious service, Damares tells how in her childhood, between 6 and 8 years of age, she was systematically sexually abused by someone close to her family (some sources I found say that the abuser was her uncle). To add to the sexual abuse, the criminal also exploited her psychologically: he told Damares that if she denounced him, he would kill her father. He also said, taking advantage of the religious beliefs of Damares, that she would not go to heaven because she was “impure.”
Damares tells that she unsuccessfully tried to ask for help from people in her family and her church. She would frequently climb a guava tree in her backyard to cry. When she was 10 years old, she climbed that same tree, having rat poison with her, in order to commit suicide. She tells that this is when she saw Jesus, coming to her. Jesus climbed the tree and hugged her. She felt accepted by Jesus, and she gave up the suicidal ideas.
Damares went on to become a lawyer. For many years she has been defending women who like her are victims of sexual abuse. Because of the violence she suffered as a child, she can’t bear children. However, she adopted an Indian child who would otherwise be murdered by her parents – some tribes in the Amazon believe that some children must be murdered at birth due to a series of reasons. Damares saved one of these children.
Someone cut from the video only the part where Damares says that she saw Jesus from the guava tree. The video went viral, and “crazy” is one of the milder insults directed at Damares on social networks.
In sum: the Brazilian left makes fun of a woman who was sexually abused as a child. Damares’ religious faith helped her cope with the pain. To be honest, I am usually skeptic about stories like the one she told. But what does it care? Somehow her faith in Jesus helped her to cope with one of the most horrendous things that can happen to a person. But it seems that Bolsonaro’s political adversaries have no sensitivity not only to a person’s religious beliefs but to the violence women and children suffer. When the violence does not fit their cultural and political agenda, they don’t care.
As I wrote here, Liana Friedenbach, 16 years old, was kidnaped, raped, and killed by a gang led by the criminal Champinha. Defending Liana, Bolsonaro wanted laws to be tougher on rapists. Maria do Rosário did not agree with Bolsonaro, and even called him a rapist. Bolsonaro offended her saying that “even if I was a rapist, I would not rape you.” The left in Brazil stood with Maria do Rosário and condemned Bolsonaro. The same left today mocks a woman who was sexually abused in her childhood, but who grew to help women in similar situations. Instead, they prefer to make jokes about Jesus climbing guava trees.
Those who know that they stand to benefit by immigration in the forms of cheaper goods and more affordable services may still oppose immigration on broad cultural grounds. Many think the nation is endangered by immigration and that the state should actively protect he nation even if immigration is economically advantageous. This idea is about coterminous with traditional xenophobia, usually perceived in English as a sort of neurosis. Nevertheless, it may also be well reasoned. It’s useful to separate cultural objections to immigration into two categories. There are objections based on revulsion and others based on the fear of cultural dilution.
Cultural revulsion toward immigrants is part of general anxiety about strangers that may be hard-wired in all humans: Babies do dislike most new faces. Once, the strangers prove harmless, the revulsion may dissipate quickly. Sometimes though cultural revulsion centers on tangible issues, including the immigrants’ own well articulated beliefs and customs. That’s especially true where culture intersects with the political system or with the moral order of the host country. Two examples. First, separation of church and state, of religion and government, is a pillar of American democracy (and of several other democratic countries, such as France). It’s a guarantee against a form of despotism historically familiar to people of European background. (The founding Pilgrims saw themselves as refugees from religious persecution, after all.) The separation acts like a firewall protecting us from old horrors still fresh in the collective memories of literate Euro-Americans. It was not so long ago that my own ancestors were burning people alive for wrong thinking, I know. (Not that I am not tempted today.)
So, other things being equal, I would rather not be surrounded by people for whom this customary belief is alien or indifferent. Other things being still equal, I would be slow to admit immigrants from a religious culture where this separation is itself religious anathema. Many Muslim immigrants come from countries where the lawful punishment on the books for apostasy is the death penalty, administered by the state, of course, by government. I realize it’s rarely applied but it’s on the books and it probably slows down the impulse to look out of the window of one’s own religion. In some of those countries, atheism is considered apostasy. This kind of attitude may be both widespread and tenacious. I will never forget a street demonstration of Pakistani attorneys shown on TV protesting the fact that apostasy was not punished by death in their country. The same happened ten years later in Bangladesh.
Even those secular immigrants from Muslim areas who deplore the fact that apostasy is a capital crime in their country of origin probably still have a sense of moral normalcy that differs much from mine. I suspect they would go easy on milder forms of government interference in the religious sphere, and vice-versa. I fear that they would not rise against certain abnormalities, government punishment of particular religious or irreligious stances, for example, as fast as I would, and others who come from a secular society. As a case in point, I take the public declarations of major French Muslim organizations following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. To my mind, mixed with sincere expressions of regret, was the suggestion they favored religious exceptions to the constitutional French principle of freedom of expression.
At a minimum, I am concerned that even nominal foreign Muslims would be a drag in a fix, or in some fixes. Frankly, I mean that I would expect from them on the average a degree of social obscurantism not compatible with their level of education. Thus, the professor and television personality Tarik Ramadan, an elegant and articulate man of culture, was the face of intellectual Islam in the French speaking world until recently. When confronted by a French journalist not long ago, however, Ramadan famously weaseled out of condemning the stoning of adulterous women. (I saw the relevant video.) It’s hard to make him my trusted neighbor although I am sure he would do the right thing if my house were on fire.
Here is my second example of cultural revulsion toward immigrants, an apolitical and non-religious example: In a wide swath of Africa, little girls are routinely subjected to a painful, grotesque and dangerous form of genital mutilation misleadingly called “female circumcisions.” (One of my sources of information is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoirs, Infidel. I have read others over the past fifty years. Ali reports that she was subjected to this atrocity herself. I have known personally two victims of the practice.) Like many other Americans, I think there is a point where peaceful coexistence with routinely committed crime becomes complicity with the same crime. I don’t want to live anywhere near people who practice this custom. Even those from the same groups who do not practice it but tolerate it in the name of tradition are unacceptable to me. (Incidentally, it is not a Muslim custom although many practitioners believe it is.) I don’t even want such people to exist undisturbed in the polity to which I belong. For this reason, I would rather have in my neighborhood 5,000 new illegal Mexican immigrants than one hundred Somali admitted legally. My preference based on revulsion illustrates how there are concrete different cultural reasons to oppose immigration not rooted in blind, ignorant “prejudice” or “pre-judgment.” But overt public discussions are often limited to the feared cultural dilution large immigration may cause that I consider below.
Under current conditions of political correctness, where a religious test may be unthinkable, my objections regarding the separation of religion and government would lead, of course, to the easiest solution, the exclusion of most Muslim immigrants. President Trump tried this on a small scale in 2017 and 2018, with a small minority of potential immigrants. The decision was first frozen in the courts and then thawed. As I write, it’s not being implemented. Exclusion is an extreme solution and probably not necessary. I think I could devise a test about separation of religion and government if I were asked. The test would be given to anyone without exception seeking to emigrate to the US. It’s far from a ridiculous proposition. When I first came to this country there was a test to spot Communists. However effective it was in such spotting, it kept many European Communists out, from prudence. I knew some personally.
Culture Dilution (or Erosion)
There is also the fear without a name, or without much of a name, that lurks in the background of many animated discussions of immigration. Much of it is taking place on-line. It’s the fear that one will find oneself a stranger in one’s own land and, ultimately, that one will disappear to some extent, and one’s children to a larger extent. It’s the fear that one’s children’s children will exist as one’s descendants in the flesh alone. This fear is puzzling because it’s always true that children are unlike their parents. It’s difficult to figure why people are so attached to their collective vertical membership, to that identity. (The Lebanese author, Amin Maalouf, explores this issue poignantly in his 1998 Violence and the Need to Belong -Time Warner – English edition: 2001) It’s difficult to fathom why parents wish their children to be like them although they, the children, will surely live in a different world. It’s even more difficult to understand why, at a given time, people choose, put forward, one of their memberships, that one, over the several others available. Why, “American” rather than say, “college professor”? Why “mother” rather than “vegan yoga practitioner”? (The April 2018 issue of National Geographic addresses tangentially some issues of identity.)
This apparent amorphousness of the underlying belief does not mean that identity matters little. Perhaps, the reverse is true. As I pointed out, it’s at the center of the concept of nation. Emotion-based reactions may be all the stronger because people don’t know what they are thinking, only what they are feeling. That’s one reason the concept of “nation” and associated symbols give rise to intense discussions. Many realize that their knowledge of their own country is spotty but they know what they feel when the national anthem is played. Curiously, of all the collective identities available, the national identity is one of the most heavily invoked, by Americans, certainly, but also by Bosnians, and possibly, even by Haitians. It seems to rise instantaneously in the presence of the culturally different. It matters so much that people kill and die for it. It also motivates them to play good soccer (“football”) as the splendid team from tiny Croatia demonstrated in the 2018 World Cup. (It came in second, after France.)
Once, I wrote a scholarly article and traveled half-way around the world to deliver it at an academic meeting, mostly for the pleasure of reading aloud the Greek title I had devised for it:
It’s the fear that that which is inside your head will be stolen, that which makes you a member of your group, so that you will cease being yourself. No doubt, it’s real enough to deserve its own name. The presence of many immigrants bearing a different culture activates this fear.
The fear of cultural dilution is not necessarily all futile. The mere presence of immigrants often actually waters down perceptibly the host culture including, first in some haphazard ways and then, in its most valued features: That which was important still is important but less so. New and different facts of life crowd out the old. Suddenly, your diner coffee, heated for hours on end, tastes just as bitter as it always did but now, you realize it. Several of the local AM radio channels play only rancheras during your commute instead of news in English. Soccer partially replaces football. The girls who used to stand on the sidelines and cheer football players now play soccer themselves. Your own children may grow up playing only soccer. They accuse one another of being “offside” when they score that goal but they don’t mean what you think they mean. Your world is still there but it’s become a bit faint; its vivid colors are turning toward black and white. Baseball will still be played but its big events will have to compete for television time with God knows what, not activities you condemn necessarily, but activities that don’t ring a bell for you, Norwegian curling, for example.
Not everything is negative in involuntary culture change. I have mentioned elsewhere how immigrants will enrich the national culture, in matters of food and of music, most obviously, and even with respect to manners. A large influx of immigrants in one’s native culture is like a forced journey in place though. Some people like to travel; others just hate it and there is probably no remedy for the latter’s rejection. To accommodate them, probably – probably – requires that immigrants be admitted slowly, in small numbers at a time. Below, I consider in a limited way actual hostility toward immigrants.
Note: I may not be the right person to gauge attachment to the culture one grew up with. Like many an immigrant, I may be more indifferent to it than most. Those who love the culture of their mother country usually don’t leave and, if they do, they return. I am the other kind of immigrant although, frankly, I often miss tête de veau sauce ravigotte. (Don’t ask!)
Gains from Cultural Hybridization
Here is a sort of immigration fairy tale: In my town of Santa Cruz, California, a long time ago, landed separately two musicians from Morocco, one from the mountains and one from the gates of the desert. How these two musicians arrived here specifically, I am not sure. I sort of know how each got his green card; it may have been the old fashioned, honorable way, on their backs, so to speak.
Both were very well trained on several instruments in their traditional music, the music of the Amazigh minority to which they both belong (also known as “Berbers,” a name they don’t like.) They sing and compose in their native language, Tamazight, but also in English, in French, and in Arabic. They formed a tiny band. They played in the streets, in cafes, anyplace that would have them. Soon, they felt their duo-plus format was too constraining. One by one, they recruited local musicians with different skills and no training at all in Moroccan music, or in anything approximating it. The music they played changed, of course, it changed gradually in particular under the influence of the Western recruits. It became somewhat “inauthentic,” as the busybodies would say. After fifteen years, the group had the nerve to enter music festivals in Morocco itself. In 2015 or 2016 the group won a national award in that country. The group is called “Aza,” which means “Renaissance” in their language. (Please, buy their album on-line.)
The point of this story is that those two immigrants enriched in obvious ways, not only American culture, but world culture, if there is such a thing. They invented a new sound, a sound no one in the world had ever heard. It’s also a sound that may never have come into existence without them. This story makes me proud as an American. I want more such invention.
[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 9]
The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”
The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:
[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.
“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.
“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.
“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”
Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.
So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).
That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.
According to all accounts, Karl Marx was not an easy person. Basically, he had the habit of making the life of all around him miserable. However, as Joseph Schumpeter (himself far from being a Marxist) loved to point out, he was extremely well read. This allowed him to build a complex economic theory focused on factory workers, without ever (or almost ever, at least) stepping into a factory. Life for a factory worker in 19th century Britain was not easy, and Marx was very able in pointing that out. His economic theory, however, was a complete failure, as Ludwig von Mises aptly pointed out.
Marxism should have died in the mid-20th century when it became clear that all socialist countries are poor and oppressive. However, it survived as cultural Marxism. People like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and everybody in the Frankfurt School were not interested in economics. Instead, they wanted to study culture. The oppressed were not the factory workers anymore, but the social minorities. Libertarians and Conservatives should sympathize with that. It is true that women, non-whites, and homosexuals suffered a great deal in the masculine, white, heterosexual West. To point out that they suffer even more outside the West is not particularly helpful. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, as with much of original Marxism, cultural Marxism is only good at pointing the problems, not at offering solutions. Modern civilization, as Sigmund Freud very well observed, is full of discontents. This is an old argument. Rousseau points out how modern civilization is cruel. Voltaire answers that, as cruel as it might be, it is still better than the alternative.
Our problem today is that cultural Marxism was successful in pushing the Overton window in their favor. That was precisely Gramsci’s objective: to fight “bourgeois” cultural hegemony with Marxist cultural hegemony. To a great degree, he succeeded. We need to fight the cultural war. As much as modern life can be bittersweet, I still haven’t heard a better alternative. Besides, as a Christian, I have to say with Saint Augustine that men have a “God-shaped hole” that no civilization – Modern, pre-modern or postmodern – can fill. But still, I enjoy the things that capitalism, capitalism that originated from the Protestant ethic, has to offer.
If you only read left-leaning newspapers, things might appear dismal in Brazil right now. But I am very convinced that it isn’t so.
With former president Lula in jail, it becomes more and more likely that Jair Messias Bolsonaro will be Brazil’s next president.
I already wrote about Bolsonaro here. To sum things up, I don’t think that he is a libertarian champion. Far from it. There are many things about Bolsonaro that will displease those who are more market-friendly. He is still too nationalistic in his economic thinking. He fails to see how awful the military government in Brazil (1964-1985) was (even though the alternative – Brazil turning into a South-American USSR – was even worse). But Bolsonaro represents something extremely important: the left is losing the culture war in Brazil. After decades of hegemony in Brazil, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School seem to be on the ropes. People are so sick and tired of cultural Marxism that they are willing to elect someone whose agenda is to fight against it.
Maybe a world with Bolsonaro president is not the best of worlds. Maybe he is very much a Brazilian Donald Trump. But it is certainly good to know that cultural Marxism is turning against itself and that now Brazilians might be willing to elect a president that, although only moderately market-friendly, is not ashamed to call himself a conservative.
“Identity politics” have been an intensely large obsession of the American left or the past forty or so years. Academic leftists have devoted their entire careers and even the organizations of their departments to studying notions of identity and the specific history and interests of certain identity groups—such as women’s studies, African-American studies, and other similar programs. The Democratic Party has put special emphasis on mobilizing various minority groups based on identity, focusing on “Women’s issues” such as abortion or “the needs of the African-American community” such as police reform or “gay rights” to get a certain of segment of voters to turn out in elections.
Yet, with the election of Trump, many moderate leftists are questioning the utility of identity politics. Mark Lilla had a prominent recent piece in The New York Times declaring the “end of identity liberalism.” Lilla’s main criticisms of identity politics focus on it as a “strategic mistake” in electoral politics and how it has made liberals and progressives “narcissistically unaware of conditions outside of their self-identified groups,” particularly white, middle class, working men in the Midwest. Matt Yglesias, meanwhile, responded by sounding off that all politics is identity politics, people always organize themselves in interest groups, writing that “any plausible account of political behavior by actual human beings needs to concede that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity rather than detailed policy proposals.” The left, he says, can’t abandon identity politics because “[t]here is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”
Those on what is traditionally considered the “right” end of the political spectrum (ignoring the specific phenomena of Trump voters and alt-righters, that is) tend to be dismissive of the whole project of identity politics. This approach is embodied by Robby Soave’s recent article in Reason claiming that identity politics is just a form of tribalism that seeks to subvert individual rights and overall social welfare to the tribalist demands of some salient group people self-identify with. Soave also sees the rise of Trumpism as itself a form of identity politics for white men, a claim which I’ll address at length in a moment.
What is one to make, then, of identity politics in the Trump era? First, it seems there is considerable confusion about what identity politics even is in the first place. Lilla, for an example, seems to imply that the left’s obsession with appealing to minority political coalitions is merely a strategy for winning elections. Soave thinks it’s pure tribalist and collectivist ideology, and Yglesias defines it so broadly that any political mobilization at all is considered identity politics. How are we to understand what operative definition of what is commonly called “identity politics” is most useful, or at least is closest to how its commonly used in political discourse?
Lilla and Yglesias understanding, it seems, misses the point about why so many leftists are so passionate about identity politics. People who are interested in cultural dramas and issues related to group identity are not just Democratic strategists in campaign war-rooms, but, as I mentioned earlier, academics, and “true believer” bleeding-heart progressive activists. It seems to me that identity politics—at least at first (and still is in the minds of the true believers post-1960s progressivism)—is not about an election strategy. It’s certainly become that for Democratic strategists, but it originally was motivated by the old liberal concern with ending the misery for stigmatized groups. Identity politics is not merely a political strategy, but a strategy the left used for getting rid of racism, homophobia, and otherization of outgroups in society at large.
The idea is like this: try to get, for example, white people to sympathize with black people by getting whites to recognize that black people have their own meaningful web of cultural associations which is just as valid as those of the dominant culture. Its roots are in cultural studies academia, such as the writings of Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser. Essentially, identity politics is rooted in philosophical attempts to end prejudice through emphasizing “cultural recognition” of despised groups. As Richard Rorty wrote in describing this strategy:
It helps, when trying to recognise a common humanity in a person of another gender, class, or ethnicity, to think of them as having as rich an inner life as one does oneself. To picture such an inner life, it helps to know something about the web of memories and associations which make it up. So one way to help eliminate prejudice and erase stigma is to point out that, for example, women have a history, that homosexuals take pride in belonging to the same stigmatised group as Proust, and that African-Americans have detailed memories of the battles which make up what Russell Banks calls “the three hundred year War Between The Races in America” – the sort of memories whites are currently learning about from Toni Morrison’s novels. It helps to realise that all such groups wrap a comforting blanket of memories and traditions, customs and institutions, around themselves, just as do classical scholars, old Etonians, or members of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Thus treating identity politics just as a way to get electoral coalitions out to vote, and also (as Soave does) as simply tribalism ideology when it was started as a strategy to mitigate tribalism, misses the point about why the left is so passionate about these cultural issues. It isn’t simple collectivism nor Machiavellian political strategy, but (hopefully) genuine concern for stigmatize groups that mobilizes this obsession.
Of course, as Rorty well-recognized, this way of ending prejudice is not the only way nor is it the most effective. First, it does make the left appear as this overly sensitive “politically correct” group of elitists who care little for the concerns of working class whites. As Rorty wrote that the left’s preoccupation with cultural identity politics would mean “the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.” Indeed, most of why Lilla is concerned that identity politics has failed so spectacularly as an electoral strategy is that it has isolated progressives from middle America.
More importantly, however, is that emphasizing cultural difference has failed spectacularly at its initial aim of ending prejudice. The whole point of Soave’s Reason column is that leftist identity politics has become its own form of tribalism and have given rise to the right-wing identity politics of Trump. Not only have leftists often gotten so caught up in the identity politics language game that they call their own (such as Bernie Sanders) white supremacists for not playing along, it has created its own prejudice backlash. If your way of getting straight white males to recognize non-straight white males as worthy of equal treatment is to say “Those who are unlike you have different cultural values that are worth being celebrated and protected,” the response of straight white males is to say “Do not I also have a different culture worthy of being celebrated and protected?”
Indeed, this type of rhetoric is at the heart of the rise of the alt-right. It isn’t mere hatred of others that is animating this new populist, fascist movement (though that is certainly a concerningly large part of it), it is that they are making this hatred seem legitimate by couching it in terms of advancing “white interests” in a very similar rhetorical manner that the left has pushed the interests of minority groups. Richard Spencer’s “mantra” for the alt-right is “race is the foundation of identity” (emphasis mine) and calls himself an “identarian.” Even outside the small niche of the alt-right, average Trump voters often say they want a way to express and defend their identity—whether it is in the form of white nationalism or in forms of defending Christian “religious liberties” as its own identity coalition against gay rights.
Soave is correct that left-wing identity politics has given us this right-wing identity politics, and it is something Rorty himself saw as a potential consequence of this approach. In his 1998 book Achieving our Country, he explicitly predicted that the white working class would become disconnected from the academic left, and would “start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots[.]” He also predicted that when this strongman assumes office, “gains made over the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out.” It is no coincidence that this sounds quite a bit like Trump.
It’s not surprising that emphasizing differences between the majority and a scapegoated group would mean that the majority group would start taking “pride” in its difference from the scapegoated. Of course, anyone who understands systemic power structures or how sociological hierarchy works understands why this response is not the same. There is a difference between cherishing the cultural differences of a scapegoated minority and using institutional power to coercively protect the cultural interests of the majority group at the expense of the minority. But you can’t expect a white adolescent basement-dwelling troll on 4-Chan or even a working class white voter from central Michigan to understand and fully internalize that difference, and they are likely to be very reluctant or overtly hostile to acknowledging it. All the alt-right has done is take identity politics and turn it against its original aim to advance the exact tribalism leftists have been trying to use identity politics to end.
A better strategy the left could have used was the strategy the old left used through classical feminism, abolitionism, the sixties Civil Rights movement, or some new progressives through the more pop-culture current of the gay rights movement. Rorty describes it beautifully:
Another way is to get the prejudiced to see the stigmatised as having the same tendency to bleed when pricked as they themselves: they too worry about their children and parents; they are possessed by the same self-doubts, and lose self-confidence when humiliated; their difficulties in moving from one stage of life to another are much like everyone else’s, despite the fact that their life-chances may be minimal. These ways of emphasising commonality rather than difference have little to do with “cultural recognition.” They have to do with experiences shared by members of all cultures and all historical epochs, and which remain pretty much the same despite cultural change.
There’s no real way for bigots to co-opt this approach to advance their bigotry. In fact, it explicitly avoids framing the discussion not as some necessary “culture war” between an oppressive majority and an oppressed minority as current identity politics rhetoric implies and alt-right identitarians have assumed as their rallying cry. Instead, it emphasizes the need to end culture wars in the first place by progressing people’s sentiments to stand in solidarity with an ever-growing chunk of humanity—it seeks to replace simple identity with empathy.
Is this approach still in the vein of “identity politics” as we currently understand it? If we take Yglesias’ understanding, sure it still “concede[s] that politics has always been practiced largely by mobilizing people around salient aspects of group identity,” but it seeks to make salient aspects of group identity as banal as possible, to make people stand in solidarity based off empathy for everyone’s common human shortcomings rather than based off who they happen to be culturally similar to, to make one’s ingroup as inclusive as impossible. It certainly isn’t tribalist or collectivist as Soave is concerned. Though it still recognizes diversity as important, Rorty still explicitly says that we should see this diversity “as a diversity of self-creating individuals, rather than a diversity of cultures[.]” This liberal (and classical liberal as I see it as drawing off of Hume, Smith, and Mill more than anything) vision is one that is both pluralistic and individualistic.
Is this, however, a winning electoral strategy, as Lilla is concerned? I’m not sure. Tribalist urges of racism are certainly very powerfully woven into how humans have psychologically evolved, and perhaps in our current broken discourse of race relations it isn’t the best electoral strategy. There is, however, some reason for optimism; popular support for gay rights is at an all-time high, after all, and this was probably more a function of the victory of emphasizing the similarity of love between gays to that of straights then getting straight allies to march in gay pride parades. Regardless of electoral outcomes, shouldn’t the goal of civil discourse not be to win elections, but to ensure the most just, peaceful, and prosperous civil society—the zero-sum game of coercive politics be damned? Leftists should try to change the current broken discourse, rather than try to work within it to gain political power.
California has a large population of 38.8 million. For comparison Canada has 35.1 million residents distributed among its 10 provinces and the New England states house 14.7 million yankees in six states. With such a large population it is not surprising that the state has several regions with distinct cultures. This in itself is not sufficient merit to split up the state. One of the wonders of a liberal republican form of government is that diverse populations can coexist so long as they are treated equally before the law and have the freedom to exercise their various cultures. The problem is when these cultural differences lead to different public policy demands.
Consider for example the issue of abortion. In most matters of religion it is sufficient to allow different faiths to practice their beliefs so long as they keep to themselves. Why should non-Jews care if Jews must follow kosher dietary restrictions? The same cannot be done with abortion though. Those who believe, often due to their religious inclinations, that abortion is murder cannot tolerate its practice among those of other faiths or atheists. What is to be done?
One option would be to break up California. Although those on both sides of the abortion debate exist across California, there is also quite a bit of spatial correlation. See here. The Central Valley and Inland Empire counties both have significant portions of their populations favoring abortion limitations. Both regions also have low support for same sex marriage, see here, so it is safe to assume that their cultural differences with the rest of California is not on just one issue but several important public policies.
I would caution those who propose splitting up California between its inland and coastal regions. Both the Central Valley and Inland Empire may be culturally conservative, but the inland northern counties do not seem to fall in line. Nor would I recommend the Coastal/Inland split for those concerned about partisanship, see here. The San Francisco Bay Area, Northern Coast and Los Angeles are liberal strongholds but the Central Coast and Orange-San Diego region aren’t.
Similarly a North/South split would do little to help address regional cultural differences. The North/South split would usually split the state apart at San Luis Obispo-Kern-San Bernardino county lines. This would lead to the conservative Central Valley being lumped into the same state as ultra-liberal San Francisco. Meanwhile the Inland Empire and Orange-San Diego counties would find themselves sharing a state with blue Los Angeles.
What would be a good split then?
I personally favor the creation of four new states. Jefferson (the northern coastal and inland counties), San Francisco (the bay area states), Los Angeles (LA County), Central Valley (everything between Fresno and Bakersfield roughly) and the rest of southern California.
Given that any division would have to be approved by Congress the new states of Jefferson, San Francisco, and Los Angeles would have to be gerrymandered in such a way as to ensure they are blue states and maintain as many electoral votes from old California as possible. The Central Coast would likely be gobbled up between LA and San Francisco. This gerrymandering would be needed to get Democrat votes who would otherwise be against losing all those electoral votes. Although Democrats would get two more seats in the Senate the Republicans could favor the deal in order to sweep extra electoral votes from the Central Valley and Southern California.
Although the split would be less than perfect, it would still grant greater say over public policy to the conservation counties.
Thoughts? Further maps on Californian public policy opinions can be found here.
P.S. In regards to the water issue, I like to think that the split of California would lead to a revision of the Colorado River Compact and related laws in order to create a more market oriented process for water allocation. I can dream can’t I?
Note to my overseas readers: Recently a bright woman who has her own show on a television network reputed to be conservative stated in a sarcastic manner that Santa Claus is white and so is Jesus. “Live with it,” she added meanly. The liberal media have been in a rage ever since. They don’t quite know how to accuse others of racism toward a person (Santa ) who may not exist. Below is my own poisonous contribution.
I see no reason to compromise in the current culture war (“Kulturkampf“): Santa Claus is obviously white because he comes from pre-Turkish Asia Minor where everyone was white. Santa was almost a Turk, just a little too early, that’s all. Along the way, he got redesigned in Bavaria, white too. Jesus was also white although he looked suspiciously Jewish. I mean by “white” that both would have easily sat in the front of the bus in Alabama in 1950. Now, to be fair, one of the magi (so-called “wise men”) visiting the baby Jesus from Persia may have been black, as in “African.” Go figure!
And no, he was not depicted as a servant as a way to demean people with sub-Saharan African ancestry. Don’t even go there! He was one of the “rois-mages” in French; that means “king.” That’s all there is to it. In fact, I am pretty sure he brought baby Jesus gold as a gift. Not bad!
In my view, if other racial groups want to claim either a Santa or a Jesus, they will have to invent their own. I look forward to an Asian fat man who brings presents, for example. (But what will he ride?) And we could easily use another Savior, perhaps a girl with African features. They are all welcome to borrow both Santa and Jesus in the meantime but they may not (NOT) change their identity by force. (When your neighbor lends you his plate, you are not supposed to paint it over.)