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Monday, May 28, 2018

Neo-Marxism [feedly]

Is there a trend toward 'identity'  as opposed to 'class' politics? is it a step towards a broader coalition, or a more divided one?


A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan delivered a blast against "neo-Marxism":

The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement, that absent fatherhood and a cultural association of studying with "acting white" are part of the problem — themes Obama touched upon throughout his presidency — is now almost a definition of racism itself. And the animating goal of progressive politics is unvarnished race and gender warfare. What matters before anything else is what race and gender you are, and therefore what side you are on. And in this neo-Marxist worldview, fully embraced by a hefty majority of the next generation, the very idea of America as a liberating experiment, dissolving tribal loyalties in a common journey toward individual opportunity, is anathema.

There is no arc of history here, just an eternal grinding of the racist and sexist wheel. What matters is that nonwhites fight and defeat white supremacy, that women unite and defeat oppressive masculinity, and that the trans supplant and redefine the cis. What matters is equality of outcome, and it cannot be delayed. All the ideas that might complicate this — meritocracy, for example, or a color-blind vision of justice, or equality of opportunity rather than outcome — are to be mocked until they are dismantled. And the political goal is not a post-racial fusion, a unity of the red and the blue, but the rallying of the victims against the victimizers, animated by the core belief that a non-"white" and non-male majority will at some point come, after which the new hierarchies can be imposed by fiat.

Matthew Yglesias rightly complains about Sullivan's suggestion that Marxism lurks behind the movements for gender and race recognition. Jonathan Chait has been making an even cruder version of this argument for a while, telling us that the "campus left" has borrowed its extremism from Marxism, and would likely drag us all off to the gulags if we ever got a chance. This theory marks a weird and unfortunate alignment that is taking place between a particular strain of center-to-center right opinionating and the "Intellectual Dark Web" crowd. Zack Beauchamp's description of how Jordan Peterson

elevates battles over political correctness and free speech into existential struggles over Western society. He is very literally arguing that if the "postmodernists" win, if people start using others' chosen pronouns, we're one step closer to modern gulags.

could be applied just as aptly to Chait, and likely, with modification, to Sullivan too, (the "hierarchies … imposed by fiat" bit sounds sinister but is notably weaker than gulag rhetoric; Sullivan is clearly angrier about race than he is about gender).

You could, I suppose, treat Sullivan's, Chait's and Peterson's arguments as serious claims to be taken seriously, pointing to the specific situations where campus leftists have indeed behaved like arseholes, and extrapolating this into a general trend of angry, intolerant and indeed totalitarian illiberalism on the march towards possible victory. Frankly, I think that that would be granting unwarranted respect to nonsense. These claims seem to me to instead be rhetorical attacks which illegitimately treat reasonable claims for recognition as if they were steps on a journey towards dictatorship. Contrary to their framing, they are fundamentally illiberal, in the small 'l' sense of liberalism, intended to justify existing power relations against people who would reasonably challenge them.

Where this becomes most clear is in Sullivan's previous post, which is particularly aimed at Ta-Nehisi Coates. Sullivan begins by praising Coates, sort of, before describing him as the exemplar of a "tribal" dynamic, where the "individual is always subordinate to the group," leading to the social exclusion of Bari Weiss's "Intellectual Dark Web," a group of "non-tribal thinkers who have certainly not been silenced, but have definitely been morally anathematized, in the precincts of elite opinion." Sullivan laments that something important has been lost:

But then I remember a different time — and it wasn't so long ago. A friend reminded me of this bloggy exchange Ta-Nehisi and I had in 2009, on the very subject of identity politics and its claims. We clearly disagreed, deeply. But there was a civility about it, an actual generosity of spirit, that transcended the boundaries of race and background. We both come from extremely different places, countries, life experiences, loyalties. But a conversation in the same pages was still possible, writer to writer, human to human, as part of the same American idea. It was a debate in which I think we both listened to each other, in which I changed my mind a bit, and where neither of us denied each other's good faith or human worth.

It's only a decade ago, but it feels like aeons now. The Atlantic was crammed with ideological opposites then, jostling together in the same office, and our engagement with each other and our readerships was a crackling and productive one. There was much more of that back then, before Twitter swallowed blogging, before identity politics became completely nonnegotiable, before we degenerated into these tribal swarms of snark and loathing. I think of it now as a distant island, appearing now and then, as the waves go up and down. The riptide of tribalism can capture us all in the end, until we drown in it.

I grew up outside America – which means that many aspects of the American argument about race don't come easily to me. I also don't know anything first hand, obviously, about the personal relationship between Coates and Sullivan, which I suspect colors their interactions too. So take these caveats as a health warning regarding what follows. Still, I think it's quite plain that Coates has a very different memory of his interactions with Sullivan than Sullivan's depiction. A week before Sullivan's piece, Huffington Post published a transcript of a conversation at the Atlantic about the hiring and rapid firing of Kevin Williamson. Coates says:

I got incredibly used to learning from people. And studying people. And feeling like certain people were even actually quite good at their craft, who I felt, and pardon my language, were fucking racist. And that was just the way the world was. I didn't really have the luxury of having teachers who I necessarily felt, you know, saw me completely as a human being.

This extends not just from my early days as a journalist, but if I'm being honest here, from my early days at The Atlantic. You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand? I couldn't speak in a certain way to Andrew. I couldn't speak to Andrew on the blog the way I would speak to my wife about what Andrew said on the blog in the morning when it was just us…. I learned how to blog from Andrew. That was who I actually learned from. That was who actually helped me craft my voice. Even recognizing who he was and what he was, you know, I learned from him.

I don't have the privilege of being able to look into Sullivan's head, but it is hard to imagine that his piece about Coates and tribalism was not an angry and hurt response to Coates' claim that he, Sullivan, was a "fucking racist."

In juxtaposition, Sullivan's and Coates' pieces provide a miniature history of how a certain variety of self-congratulatory openness to inquiry is in actual fact a barbed thicket of power relations. What Sullivan depicts as a "different time" when "neither of us denied each other's good faith or human worth," is, in Coates' understanding, a time where he was required to "take seriously" the argument that "black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people" as a price of entry into the rarified heights of conversation at the Atlantic. The "civility" and "generosity of spirit" that supported "human to human" conversation is juxtaposed to Coates' "teachers" who didn't see him "completely as a human being." What was open and free spirited debate in Sullivan's depiction, was to Coates a loaded and poisonous dialogue where he could only participate if he shut up about what he actually believed.

Juxtaposing these two gives us a very different understanding of Sullivan's claim that "identity politics [have become] completely nonnegotiable," and we are all being pulled down by the "riptide of tribalism." The imagined paradise of liberal discussion from which we are being torn was only a paradise for some; others were there on sufferance, or not allowed in at all. Sullivan's hostility to "tribalism" reflects his unwillingness to confront the rather sordid politics of his own position, and his past and continuing history on race and intelligence.

Sullivan, Chait, and, I suspect many other soi-disant centrists and centrist liberals are now converging with Peterson and the whole sorry crew of white men on the Internet shouting out against the oppression of Social Justice Warriors. This allows them to delegitimize – and hence avoid having to seriously confront – hard criticisms of their own positions. If they want, it's perfectly reasonable for them to push back against what they believe to be excesses. Gender activists and race activists are human too, which means that they surely may be wrong, and may certainly behave stupidly, or badly. But claims that "neo-Marxists" and "campus leftists" are looking in general to build gulags, impose hierarchies by fiat and the like are themselves both bad and stupid rhetoric, which undermine rather than reinforce the commitment to open debate that they claim to hold so deeply.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed