The Intellectual Dark Web Cannot Defeat Identity Politics

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John Wood Jr.

The Intellectual Dark Web wants to defeat identity politics. But that won’t happen unless it develops a positive concept of identity.

There is something refreshing about the tendency of earnest people to mistake politics for an intellectual endeavor. These days, when the American people are fed a media diet of info-tainment, talking heads, and “fake news”—when public argument prizes purity over objectivity—a mass movement aimed at restoring free thought would appear a welcome intervention.

In many ways, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) represents just such a movement. Heterodox, empiricist, and cross-disciplinary, the IDW serves as a valuable check against the toxins of anti-intellectualism on both the Left and Right. Its members include Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and podcaster; Eric Weinstein, an investment banker at Thiel Capital; and (most controversially) Jordan Peterson, an outspoken critic of speech codes within and beyond the academy.

The IDW’s great foe in the culture wars is “identity politics,” and especially campus identity politics, whose march through the institutions has become more pronounced in recent years.

Yet because all politics is in some sense a matter of identity—our loyalties to groups and causes larger than ourselves—the phenomenon we call “identity politics” cannot be defeated without acknowledging the fact of social identity. Only by recasting identity in more inclusive terms—by focusing more on what we share and less on what we don’t—can the IDW achieve its goals.

First, though, we should get clear on just what identity politics is. The term is notoriously polysemous, admitting of multiple and at times conflicting definitions. Mark Lilla, for instance, defines identity politics as any politics that concerns identity—an extremely broad concept. The Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s count as identity politics, Lila explained in an interview with Steve Paikin, because they integrated “African-Americans, women, gays, into the great American democratic we.” The goal was to enlarge the notion of Americanness so that it included previously marginalized groups.

But after the great mid-century successes and reforms, the movement took on a new emphasis.

In the 70s and 80s there was a shift to a second kind of identity politics, which was more personal, and about myself and my own very complex identity, and also a politics of difference. So rather than it being about bringing us together into a great “democratic we,” instead doubts were raised about the existence of it, and politics came to be conceived of on our liberal side as a politics of groups, of movements, and not party politics with a message that would offer a vision of American destiny that would attract Americans from all walks of life.

What began as an attempt to democratize rights and ideals morphed into form of tribalism that encouraged people to identify their interests with this or that demographic, rather than with the nation as a whole. Consequently, individual identity as an American was subsumed into group identity based on race, gender, and other factors.

That is the version of identity politics that predominates today, and the one Lila criticizes. He fears a politics that does not seek to unify our diverse experiences of American identity into a coherent whole greater than the sum of its parts. Francis Fukuyama agrees, arguing that the great threat of identity politics is not merely its de-emphasis on the individual, but its breaking of our larger identification with the nation:

I think that national identity as a practical political project is really the level at which you need to think about building these communal values, because frankly political power is still organized around these things we call nations, and those political institutions aren’t going to work unless you have those kind of integrative identities.

According to Fukuyama, it’s not the existence of…

Israel’s identity politics is failing voters

Let us set aside the political issue for one moment, which is believed to be the bone of contention between “left” and “right”. On almost every issue on the agenda, most Israelis think, one thing and vote, the opposite.

A the numbers show, most of the Jews in Israel, 53%, support an amendment of the Nation-State law adding an equality clause, and 75% support adding the equality clause to the all basic laws.

Election campaign posters in Tel Aviv (Photo: Associated Press)
Election campaign posters in Tel Aviv (Photo: Associated Press)

Most Israelis, 74%, support the imposition of a core curriculum on ultra-Orthodox education. 72% support public transportation on the Sabbath, in one form or another. 72% are in favor of civil marriage and 55% do not want to marry through the rabbinate.

81% of the Jews in Israel support equality for all streams in Judaism and 60% of the Israelis support an easier conversion process.

62% support egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Let us not underestimate this. It is one of the most divisive issues between Israel and American Jewry.

Interestingly these questions do not reflect a dispute between secular and religious, or between the general public and the ultra-Orthodox.

Some 50% of those who define themselves as religious support civil marriage while half of those defined as Orthodox support a core curriculum in all Orthodox learning institutions.

We can go on. There are many other surveys, and caution…

Letter of the week: Beef with identity politics

Letter of the week: Beef with identity politics
Black Lives Matter protesters march through the streets of Sacramento, California

I have not yet read White Fragility, but, according to K Biswas (The Critics, 29 March) the book seems short on advice for us white progressives who, writes author, Robin DiAngelo, cause “most daily damage” to people of colour.

Of course we must not dismiss identity politics, given its role in securing some measure of equality for minority groups. But a little humility and courtesy would do no harm; it might silence critics. DiAngelo, a former (white) diversity trainer, tells us that her classes triggered “predictable” responses such as “anger, withdrawal and argumentation”. “Predictable” suggests blanket prejudice on DiAngelo’s part. As for “argumentation”, since when has teaching been about accepting the teacher’s words in meek silence?

My beef with identity politics is that not only is it at times divisive, but it also excludes people whose “intersectionality” is not so clear-cut, and who are voiceless: those who are raised in abject poverty, or in abusive homes, or in care, all of which can limit life chances. The cadaverous white woman I see outside a London station is far less privileged than Afua Hirsch, say, or Diane Abbott.

Vera Lustig
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Calls for change

The UK desperately needs a new constitutional settlement as Anthony Seldon asserts (“J’Accuse!”, 29 March). Indeed, the “judicial and executive branches need to be better representations of British society today”, but so does the City and the media. First-past-the-post election systems since the war have largely kept the privately educated and the privileged running the country for the benefit of themselves. Brexiteers from Farage to the ERG are of the same ilk: wealthy people supported by wealthy and secretive hard-right think tanks.

Brexit is a project of the right, for the right. It is an opportunity to create a society that reinforces and extends their riches and privileges by getting out of Europe and replacing what is left of social democracy with a buccaneering alt-right agenda based on laissez-faire economics.

We do need to unify around a common set of values, as Seldon claims. However, not the sectional values of Churchill and Macmillan, but values more in tune with the spirit of 1945 led by someone of the stature of Clement Attlee.

Dr Robin C Richmond
Bromyard, Herefordshire

In his very thoughtful article Anthony Seldon writes that: “Parliament… needs root and branch reform, above all to the upper house, if it is to serve the country properly.” Though the composition of the House of Lords is an anachronism and unrepresentative, with its 92 hereditary peers, 26 bishops of the Church of England, and far too many former MPs, it is the House of Commons that more urgently needs reform.

Our political democracy has failed to modernise and evolve over the past century and, alone among member states of the EU, we still elect our MPs through first past the post.

The result of clinging to this franchise is that the will of the people, to coin a phrase, is hugely distorted and governments can form and rule with 40 per cent or less of the popular vote. Brexit has dramatically exposed the shortcomings of our current electoral system.

John Boaler
Calne, Wiltshire

In addition to the cast of rogues identified by Anthony Seldon, I would like to add one more: namely, the British public. In recent decades we have ignorantly and meekly accepted levels of inequality and poverty not seen since the interwar period and voted for parties that either fail to tackle them or make them worse. We have been complicit in laying the crumbling material foundations for the chaos and division we now experience. We want a Scandinavian or European social settlement but only want to pay US levels of tax, and so we are…

Dori: Liberal identity politics knocked Gonzaga out of NCAA tourney

Josh Perkins #13 and Corey Kispert #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a play against the Florida State Seminoles during the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Thursday. Two days later, Gonzaga got knocked out of the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Texas Tech. (KIRO 7)

I love everything about the Gonzaga basketball program. Great players … and one of my all-time favorite coaches in any sport — Mark Few — at the helm.

Gonzaga was the #2-odds choice — right behind Duke — to win the national championship. But, after this past week, God made sure that would not happen.


We’re witnessing identity politics in extreme, violent forms: Deputy foreign minister

We're witnessing identity politics in extreme, violent forms: Deputy foreign minister
Deputy Foreign Minister AM Fachir (back, seventh from left), and Royal Danish Special Representative for Freedom of Religion and Belief Ambassador Michael Suhr take part in a photo session. (Courtesy of SEJUK/-)

Southeast Asia is struggling to uphold democracy, facing challenges caused by identity politics, which limits freedom of expression and religious that could eventually lead to human rights violations.

“We are witnessing the politics of identity in extreme or even violent form,” Deputy Foreign Minister AM Fachir said in his keynote speech at the Nexus between Religious Freedom or Belief and Freedom of Expression in South East Asia seminar in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Monday.

At the seminar, which was organized by the Journalist Association for Diversity (SEJUK) in cooperation with the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ) and the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD), Fachir said rampant hoaxes and fake news, which were spread on social media, have worsened the situation.

“We need to act against [the situation] […] and action needs to be taken not just by the state, but also by…

Fans React to Captain Marvel’s Radical Feminist Identity Politics – From 1977

The current Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, was originally Ms. Marvel, starring in her own comic book launched by Marvel in 1977 lasting a couple of years. Originally written by Gerry Conway and drawn by John Buscema, it was soon taken over by writer Chris Claremont, who would also go on to turn the moribund X-Men comic book into a genuine worldwide phenomena and Marvel’s most successful title, as well as bringing Carol Danvers into the X-Men title after her own series was cancelled.

Carol Danvers is now known as Captain Marvel and her movie just hit this weekend. It has become somewhat of a hot political potato amongst some – the allegation is that Marvel has taken a classic superheroine character from the seventies and used her for their identity politics and virtue signalling ends, betraying the original character – especially that her costume is from the most recent comics version of the character that doesn’t show off her navel anymore.

And it’s been framed as some kind of modern politically correct, radically feminist diatribe against men and a betrayal of how the character was originally created in the good old seventies.

Which is odd, because all this were just the kind of things that people were discussing back in 1977 as well. Here are few letters from the first year the comic was published, from its letters column, Ms Prints.

It begins with a letter a NASA electrical engineer, Cynthia Walker, who also co-owned a comic book store, objecting to the use of the identifier Ms rather than Miss, at the time an incredibly radically feminist notion that a woman need not be defined as…

Will voters’ ‘identity politics’ choose new Chicago mayor?

CHICAGO — The campaign for Chicago mayor is in a sprint to the finish line with just over four weeks until voters head to the polls to pick a new leader.

The April 2 run-off election will be historic: For the first time, Chicago will have a black woman as mayor.

Candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot are trying to broaden their bases, campaigning in neighborhoods where voters didn’t choose them Tuesday.

Preckwinkle this week released a negative attack ad on TV, while Lightfoot is running a positive message.

But as commercials flood the airwaves, political expert Jon Paul Valadez said the race might just be decided on the ground.

“Where they’re going to be able to pick up the most ground is by being on the ground, having a strong field operation in those targeted wards, putting faces there, having real-life conversations with real people,” Valadez said.

He believes Lightfoot showed crossover appeal on election night — running up big numbers in mostly white Near North Side and lakefront neighborhoods. Preckwinkle held her base near the South Side shoreline.

The rest of the city, however, voted along racial fault lines: White voters on the Northwest and Southwest Sides went for Bill Daley and Jerry Joyce.

Hispanic voters opted for Gery Chico and Susana Mendoza. Large swaths of traditionally black communities chose Willie Wilson.

It begs the question: Will…

Sanders struggles with identity politics among new progressives

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 10: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a news conference on prescription drugs January 10, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Congressional Democrats held a news conference to introduce a legislative package “that would drastically reduce prescription drug prices in the United States.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders catalyzed the Democratic Party’s post-Barack Obama move to the left, and if he were elected president in 2020, it would represent a truly historic swing in the country’s orientation.

Yet among the flaws on Bernie’s resume for many progressives is an unalterable one — he is a white male, and an old one without a cute Spanish nickname. The straight, cisgendered Sanders is burdened by his utter lack of intersectionality, unless being a Vermont senator from Brooklyn counts.

In his announcement interview on Vermont Public Radio, he was pushed on how he can lead a diverse Democratic Party. Sanders cited the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote about judging people by the content of their character and replied: “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for.”

For expressing a sentiment that would have been considered jejune just a few years ago, Sanders was roundly denounced.

Neera Tanden, of the Center for American Progress, thundered, “At a time where folks feel under attack because of who they are, saying race or gender or sexual…

Arthur Miller’s ‘Everyman’ Is an Antidote to Identity Politics

Miller achieved phenomenal early success in 1949 with “Death of a Salesman,” but his work fell out of favor by the 1960s. It was judged old-fashioned—out of touch with social trends, conventional in form and naive in its attempts to universalize identity. But time has a way of changing what audiences find important. Now that formal innovation in theater has itself become old hat, there seems to be a hunger for realism and the possibility of an everyman in the midst of identity politics. While my students noted stereotypical elements in Miller’s plays, particularly with regard to women’s roles, they found the general thrust of the works moving and insightful.

Playwright Arthur Miller in New York, May 1949.
Playwright Arthur Miller in New York, May 1949.

Playwright Arthur Miller in New York, May 1949. Photo: Martin Harris/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Most of my students retain an unswerving belief in the American dream, an idea Miller critiques in his works. Contrary to general opinion, some students insisted that Willy Loman, the striving, suicidal protagonist in “Death of a Salesman,” had a good dream that he simply didn’t pursue strategically.

Others said his dream was skewed because he was living too much through his son and not paying attention to what truly satisfied him. A few students attributed Loman’s problems to the absence of his father. A role model or a mentor, they said, would have worked wonders in giving him stronger values and an improved sense of direction. All seemed to believe that success is possible if the will to pursue it is there and if circumstances are not entirely against the effort.

“The Crucible,” a play Miller wrote in 1953 to protest the investigation of suspected communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee, led our class to discuss the dangers of zealotry. We also read Miller’s…

Letter | Apologize for error, don’t bring up gender politics

I am proud that the City of Santa Cruz, once again, has a woman mayor. And people of all genders make mistakes. Mayor Watkins refused to agendize proposals signed by three councilmembers, the maximum amount allowed under the Brown Act. As a result, the council put them on the next agenda in a public motion. The fact that the council had to override her in public means that her judgement on what the council wanted to discuss was not correct. Councilman Glover called her on her error and it ended up…