The frenzied search for one’s own racism has become a national compulsion.
The Identity Politics Playbook
Behind the culture talk is a singleminded scheme to divide and conquer America.
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Thomas Klingenstein is right that “multiculturalism, like slavery in the 1850’s, is an existential threat”—one that, if left unchecked, will “ultimately destroy America.” He is right to urge his fellow conservatives to make opposition to multiculturalism “the center of our movement.” And he is right to see in Donald Trump’s combativeness and unabashed patriotism necessary counters to the corrosive multiculturalism of our age.
I am not, however, convinced that multiculturalism is the right word to rally the public in this great political battle. The term is, first of all, “somewhat dated,” as Klingenstein himself admits. Debates about multiculturalism peaked in the 1990s and have since receded.
The term is still in use but it doesn’t strike me as having particularly negative connotations in everyday language. When most people hear multiculturalism, they probably think of Chinese New Year and good ethnic restaurants. The term does not do justice to the nasty, divisive and hate-filled ideology against which Klingenstein is warning us.
Even if one were to re-politicize the term “multiculturalism” in the public’s mind, it would still be misleading. Multiculturalism seems to imply a politics in which all are entitled to a cultural identity and in which various cultural groups co-exist, presumably harmoniously.
In truth, as Klingenstein shows, not all cultures are created equal according to today’s multiculturalists. Hyphenated Americans possess authentic and rich cultures which ought to be celebrated in textbooks, museums, and movies. The majority of Americans who are not so fortunate as to claim the mantle of victimhood are denied a culture around which they can rally. We are told that their culture, if one can even call it that, is at best a soulless orgy of consumerism—what Henry Miller called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare—and at worst, racist, sexist and homophobic.
Multiculturalism is also anything but multicultural. It is really monocultural. All Americans should worship at the altar of diversity, oppose hate speech, support (nearly) unlimited Third World immigration, always take the side of the #MeToo accusers, ascribe all disparities in life outcomes to structural prejudice, mindlessly praise whatever Ta-Nehisi Coates says, attack “climate deniers,” and generally blame America, white people, and men for almost all that ails humanity. Those who have the temerity to call into question any of these axioms should be denounced as fascists, white supremacists, and Nazis.
How then should we refer to what Klingenstein calls the “self-immolating idiocy” of multiculturalism? Many on the Right, especially those who came of age during the Cold War, are fond of the term cultural Marxism. There are indeed echoes of Marxism in what Klingenstein calls multiculturalism, most notably in the focus on systemic oppression. The Marxist conception of History and eschatology, however, has been abandoned. Ultimately, the term is now too arcane to become a rallying cry, especially among the young.
I think that “identity politics” packs the most punch. The term, it is true, is also misleading since it implies that all are entitled to an identity of which they can be proud, when in fact only identities deemed to be oppressed are celebrated. But “identity politics” at least makes clear that we are dealing with a political problem—not just a cultural one. More importantly, it has the virtue of having rather negative connotations on the whole.
It is telling, in this regard, that Democratic politicians, who by and large all subscribe to the tenets of identity politics, rarely use the term. And when they do, they try to take the edge off of it. Stacey Abrams, for example, only went so far as to call on Americans to “thoughtfully pursue an expanded, identity-conscious politics” in her recent essay on the subject in Foreign Affairs. The average American may not be able to offer a precise definition of identity politics, but I suspect he knows it ain’t good.
The battle against identity politics will, of course, ultimately require more than just naming the threat. We need to understand how it operates and muster the courage to confront it, knowing full well that unfounded accusations of racism await us. And for this reason, I commend Klingenstein for his thoughtful and spirited essay.