Friday, July 01, 2005

How the American Taliban Plays the Game of "Identity Politics."

I have been reading an excellent book by Martha Minow, Not Only For Myself (1997), which outlines the pitfalls of "identity politics" and offers some suggestions for more productive movements to fight oppression. In her first chapter, she enumerates many examples of how "identity politics" has been appopriated in the service of "more oppression" rather than less.

Anyway, because I am a student of Continental philosophy, particularly french feminism, I am well-versed in Judith Butler's, for example, criticism of claiming an "identity" as a strategy for political protest. For example, asserting that I am a strong, powerful woman--as a strategy to combat pervasive stereotypes that women are feeble-minded or passive might seem like a good way to rally women together and mend my sense of self-esteem. However, things get messy quicky. For example, what traits should I hold up as exemplary of being a woman? And, if other "women" don't possess, nor want to possess, those traits, aren't I starting up a battle of "authenticity"?

Consider the following examples, all of which I have heard uttered:

"You shave your legs? You clearly want to give into the patriarchal culture!"
"Oh, why do you wear make-up?"
"You read books written by men? Why not read women authors, who do a better job telling our stories."

These are just a few examples. Of course, it can go another way. For example, a traditionalist, wanting to preserve Victorian notions of femininity might be puzzled with my decision to study Philosophy or, heck, enjoy Playstation.

Months back when I attended the 2nd Annual Conservative Conference at Gettysburg College. Several of the speakers spent their speaking time pointing out the oppressiveness of liberals on College Campus. David French, the president of FIRE gave reports of his righteous campaign to quash "speech codes" on campus and campus policies that deny the rights of Christians. In fact, I remember vividly his story of being outraged that his part of his student activity fees at Harvard Law School went to "pay for abortions" or that his law professors referred to fetuses as "clumps of cells." The thrust of his speech was to highlight the way the big, bad, oppressive liberals are silencing and oppressing Christians and their right to express their own views. French was utilizing the "identity politics" strategy, while simultaneously criticizing the effects of "identity politics," such as speech codes.

Consider this quotation from Martha Minow (a liberal, who, yes, is criticizing folks who might put things like "speech codes" in place--I know an anathema to folks like Dan Flynn who represent campus liberals as a Nazi-like thought police) :

Identity politics, at least the contemporary kind that emphasizes victimization experiences, risks directing all energy and time to pain without moving through recovery, action, and reconnection to larger communities. When identity politics takes the form of using excuses based on past victimization, it may actually make it difficult for others to remember and acknowledge past wrong doings and harms.

In a press release, issued by FIRE, after forcing Princeton to acknowledge a Christian club, David French said

In light of the increasing number of cases involving censorship and repression of religious students on campuses across the country, we commend Princeton for quickly responding to our letter and for fulfilling its promises to respect students’ freedoms of expression, association, and religion.

My colleague, Ricardo, pointed out in his blog entry, "What the Conservative Movement Needs to Learn to Govern Effectively," how the right uses the language of an entrenched group in a few weeks ago. I think Ricardo got it right. However, I wanted to expand on this and show how the whole, wretched game of "identity politics," the one the American Taliban decries, is in fact the very strategy they use.

One more example of how they play the game of "identity politics": consider today's NY Times article "G.O.P., Democrats in Its Sights, Is Grooming Black Candidates. So, to win more "black Democrats" over to the Republican party, the G.O.P is putting money and energy into candidate like Lynn Swan. Here again is identity politcs at work (as well as some crass assumptions about what motivates people). By putting a "black face" in front of a crowd of African -Americans, the G.O.P hopes to show them that black people can be Republicans and that Republicans' mirror African-American's interests. This will work, presumbably, because crucial for membership in the category "African-American political interests" requires black skin. And, if you have black skin, then you automatically have "street cred" with other African Americans, hencem you automatically represent their political interests.


Again, David French was utterly convincing in his criticism of hiring practices at major universities that you shouldn't hire formerly oppressed groups just because they will be more qualified to teach, say, women's studies or black history. And yet, the G.O.P. will use identity politics any chance it can to garner support for its cause.

I am sure that I don't have to point out to you all that the interests of most G.O.P. members--given they control the House, Judiciary and Executive Branch, are far from being unrepresented in government. "You're not suggesting that all G.O.P.s are the power elite are you," I can hear my American Taliban friends already. "We are oppressed and we are righteous to fight for full recognition of our rights and to quash out those oppressive viewpoints that silence us."

The American Taliban will only get "street cred" with me (ha! as if that is possible) when they go back and read the long, extensive history of feminist philosophical debates on "identity politics." Shit, we were over that like 10 years ago!