I’m still trying to grapple with the attacks on Reverend Todd Eklof and his book The Gadfly Papers. In late June an Open Letter was released deploring the book. The Open Letter has now been signed by more than 400 Unitarian Universalist ministers (including, I’m sorry to say, the minister of my own UU congregation). The Open Letter is a shabby and cowardly document, for a number of reasons. I’ve already blogged about that. Today I want to take a closer look at one sentence in the letter:
All politics are identity politics, and when the default is white supremacist patriarchy, we must trust the experience of those who are targeted.
The word “targeted” is odd, but I don’t want to get into that. I want to put the opening assertion, “All politics are identity politics,” under a microscope. What is meant by the phrase “identity politics”?
Let’s start with the wikipedia definition. It seems pretty clear to me:
Identity politics is a political approach and analysis based on people prioritizing the concerns most relevant to their particular racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, social, cultural or other identity, and forming exclusive political alliances with others of this group, instead of engaging in more traditional, broad-based party politics.
I would go a bit further. It seems to me that it’s an essential feature of identity politics that when your identified group finds itself struggling (for rights or for the basic necessities of life), those who stand in opposition to you are also identified, by you and by your group, as belonging to some other specific group, a group that has some shared features by which they can be identified.
At this point, as Eklof points out in his book, the temptation is to jettison logic in favor of an emotion-laden but faulty generalization. The example he gives is this: (a) Muslim terrorists organized the attacks of 9/11. (b) Darius is a Muslim. (c) Therefore, Darius is a terrorist.
When presented in this naked form, the logic is obviously false, and most people will have no trouble recognizing it. But this type of false logic is a feature of identity-based politics.
We can see this clearly in the bizarre accusation that all white people are part of something called “white supremacy culture.” You may think this is a far-fetched assertion, but I assure you, this is exactly what a vocal faction within Unitarian Universalism does in fact maintain. Their “logic” takes the same form: (a) Some white people are racists. (b) You are white. (c) Therefore, you are a racist.
Identity politics, as an activity, invites the participants to ignore the many individual differences between people. Identity politics wipes away nuance in favor of broad-brush generalizations. People are seen not as individuals but as members of a group, and an assumption is made — an unwarranted and often grotesque assumption — that all of the members of a given group are fundamentally alike with respect to whatever matter is under discussion.
As a result, accusations are made that any objective observer would see are obviously wrong. We can see this trend at work, for example, in the idea that cis-gendered people should not be allowed to speak about the transgender experience or about transgender issues. This is not a theoretical example. An article in the UU World magazine — an article that was very sympathetic to the issues facing trans teenagers — was attacked by trans activists within the UU community, specifically because it had been written by a cis-gendered woman rather than by a trans spokesperson. The content of the article did not matter to the attackers. What mattered was that the writer was part of the wrong identity group.
In the same way, two men holding a seminar at the Liberal Religious Education Directors Association Fall Conference in 2017 were attacked not for the content of their presentation but because they were both white males. (This incident is also discussed in Eklof’s book.) The attackers were presumably acting to “de-center white privilege,” to use a popular catch-phrase. If you’re a white male, the assumption goes, you are part of the white supremacist patriarchy. You are automatically an oppressor. Anything you may say is part of your oppressive agenda, whether you realize it or not. And if you try to defend yourself against such an accusation, the specifics of your defense need not be considered or replied to, because your defense is simply another of your oppressive tactics. This is identity politics in action.
I will note in passing that Todd Eklof is a white male.
As part of my research into the sad and upsetting affair of the attacks on Eklof’s book, I started thinking about the repeated assertions, in the Open Letter, that the book causes “harm.” The word “harm” is used seven times in the first three paragraphs of the Open Letter. The question I asked myself was whether a book can ever do harm.
The harm, it seems to me, lies not in the expression of ideas in a book but rather in the actions that are taken by impressionable people after they read the book. Words are not harm; actions are harm.
I think we can make one or two narrow exceptions to this idea. A book that contains instructions on how to build an explosive device that will kill a bunch of people in a crowd — yes, such a book would qualify as causing harm. Its social benefit would be zero, and its ideas would be narrowly directed toward causing death and destruction. But it goes without saying that Reverend Eklof’s book is not in that category.
In pursuit of the question of books that cause harm, I happened to mention Mein Kampf. Clearly, if only indirectly, it caused enormous harm. It caused harm because people were swayed by its poisonous ideas and then took action based on those ideas. So I figured, gee, maybe I ought to read Mein Kampf before I call it a harmful book. I like to be on solid ground when I talk about stuff.
Here’s what I think is worth pondering, and the real point of today’s little excursion: The entire intellectual framework of Mein Kampf is identity politics.
As a young man, Hitler was passionately devoted to the German people. He was living in Vienna, which is in Austria, not Germany, and he was distressed by the awful living conditions of the poor in Vienna. They were predominantly German, of course, at least by culture and language, and he dreamed of a unification of Germany with Austria in which the German people could be lifted up, economically and philosophically, and could embrace their noble German heritage.
The notion that Germans are somehow special is identity politics, but Hitler went further. Toward the end of the second chapter of Mein Kampf, he documents how he began to see (to fantasize, really) that the oppression of the German people in Vienna was due to the machinations of the Jews. Again, this was identity politics. He identified the Jews not as individuals with varying characteristics but as a homogenous group. He specifically dismissed the disagreements between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews as irrelevant. They were all Jews, and therefore they were all guilty of degrading the marvelous German culture and oppressing the downtrodden German people.
There’s a lot more in the book than that. Hitler struggled to arrive at a coherent idea of how the Social Democratic Party, the Marxists, and the trade unions could all be part of an anti-German conspiracy. The answer he came to was, of course, they were all run by Jews.
It’s a tragic tale, if you read it in a certain way. It’s a memoir of a man who was obviously intelligent and obviously very concerned with the suffering of the ordinary people around him, yet who was emotionally unbalanced to the point where he found an easy answer.
He found his answer in identity politics.
I will leave it to you to consider for yourself the extent (if any) to which today’s practitioners of identity politics are falling into the same error that Hitler fell into. One always wants to be cautious about comparisons with Hitler; they’re too easy, and often they distort the discussion. But I do think it’s clear that Hitler adored identity politics. Make of it what you will.