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Bernie Sanders and Mark Lilla Take On ‘Identity Politics.’ One As-A-Jewish-Woman Responds.

As a Jewish woman, I ought to begin, this being a post about ‘identity politics’, the buzz-phrase of the moment. As a Jewish woman. As a poodle owner. As a person who goes back and forth about that one pair of high-end leggings. As someone grasping at ways to sell anti-fascism to a surprisingly unreceptive American public.

What follows is a tale of oversimplifications. First, we had former Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders, whose post-election dismissal of identity politics was less extreme than first reported, but still… yeah, a bit of a dismissal. A bit of a dismissal not just of identity politics, but of the urgent need for a female president.

Then we had Columbia professor Mark Lilla’s outdated-and-‘problematic’-but-not-fascist New York Times op-ed, which — in the fine manner of many a liberal anti-‘PC’ manifesto – hovered between a sensible critique of certain left tendencies, and obliviousness in the name of ‘universalism’, landing squarely in the latter category. Because it is a problem when the left fails to recognize suffering that can’t be attributed to a particular identity category. And I don’t just mean white men’s suffering – I mean anyone’s suffering that doesn’t have a specific identity angle.

But Lilla’s notion of a “post-identity liberalism” seems like maybe not the best anti-racist strategy, and at any rate, Trumpism is “identity politics.” And — because he felt he couldn’t just reach out to center-right types, but also had to alienate the left? because obtuseness about trans issues is a culture-wars identity marker? — he tosses in a remark dismissive of trans people’s right to use the bathroom, mistakenly attributing a controversy to identity-crazed progressives, rather than to right-wing bigots who were the ones interfering in liberty there to begin with. Long story short: It was an article with issues.

Cue Katherine Franke, also a Columbia professor, in the LA Review of Books. Franke’s essay — in the fine manner of many a preaching-to-the-converted left manifesto — hovered between a sensible (and necessary!) point about the continuity between white supremacy as in our society’s systemic racism and white supremacy as in the Nazi rallies feting our president-elect, and a troubling claim of equivalence: “In the new political climate we now inhabit,” wrote Franke, “[David] Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown.”

Later in the piece, Franke calls Lilla’s stance “a liberalism of white supremacy,” explaining:

“It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction. It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of ‘common interest’ can and should be built.”

I think Franke’s point is an important one — we live in a society that baseline treats some people as human beings, others not so much, and this is seen even in liberal discourse. Or, rather, I wanted that to be her point. Instead, the continuity argument swung over (in my reading of it, at least) to conflation.

Franke’s point, in turn, got summed up as follows:

What’s the takeaway? For this, I turn to… Jewish history. Specifically, to what exactly the relationship was between anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. This much may seem obvious – the Holocaust was super anti-Semitic! Which… of course it was, but that’s not quite what I mean. What I mean is, as I learned through reading and seminars while studying for my doctorate, there was anti-Semitism in the atmosphere all along. It was around before, during, and after the Dreyfus Affair, and World War II, and up through today. So, while anti-Semitism certainly informed the shape totalitarian awfulness took (and still takes, evidently), it’s not quite right to say that anti-Semitism caused the collapse of freedom, in Europe then, in the US today. There was plenty of anti-Semitism among Dreyfusards and Allies because… society was (and is) anti-Semitic. It’s possible both to say that anti-Semitism is always wrong and to make a distinction between fascism and problematic-ness.

So, too, with racism, patriarchy, and the rest. Society is baseline awful in any number of ways; beneficiaries of any form of relative advantage are baseline going to be oblivious about this. This doesn’t mean that in the name of anti-Trumpism, the problems with Sanders’s remarks or Lilla’s theorizing get a pass. It just means we need to be clear on who’s who in all this. On who’s fighting Trumpism in ways that aren’t the greatest, and who’s simply on board with America’s craptastic new path.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected]. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.


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