The New Yorker interviews Mark Lilla about his controversial critique of identity politics

Historians in the News
tags: Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal



Related Link What Mark Lilla Gets Wrong About Students

... Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, who, on November 18th, published an Op-Ed in the Times declaring, “One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must bebrought to an end.” His article, written while Clinton voters were stillin a kind of disbelieving haze, outraged not a few readers of the paperwith its blasts at “the fixation on diversity in our schools” and the“moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that hasdistorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifyingforce.” Lilla is hardly indifferent to injustices against women, theL.G.B.T.Q. community, and people of color, but he claims that too manyliberals and leftists, indulging in a politics of “narcissism,” are“indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

Lilla, who has expanded that article into his new, brief book, “The Onceand Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” insists that his is the pragmatic view: that inorder to secure progress for overlooked and oppressed peoples—in orderto advance a liberal economic, environmental, and socialagenda—political power must be won, which means that elections must be won. At themoment, the Democratic Party—from elections for the White House to statelegislatures—is failing. The Democrats, he says, were once the party ofthe working class; now the Democrats are largely a loose coalition ofeducated coastal élites and minorities. Why is it now possible to driveacross the country for thousands of miles without hitting a blue stateor county? How did the Democrats lose a decisive number of Obama votersto someone like Donald Trump? Lilla believes that identity politics is acentral part of the answer.

When I read Lilla’s book and then talked with him for The New YorkerRadio Hour, I found much to disagree with, not least his cuttingdismissals of “social-justice warriors” or movements like Black LivesMatter, which he sees as a “textbook example of how not to buildsolidarity.” Lilla was once an editor at The Public Interest and aneoconservative on domestic issues, though not on foreign policy; DanielBell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were his elders andallies. He still writes with marked ambivalence and irritation about thecontemporary left, particularly as he sees it on university campuses. Beverly Gage,Adam Gopnik, Michelle Goldberg, and others have already deliveredserious critiques of Lilla’s argument about identity politics.

And yet there’s little question that Trump and the distorting lenses ofthe right-wing and white-nationalist media have succeeded in inflatingthe “threat” of identity politics and political correctness as a keycomponent of their rhetoric and electoral strategy. Steve Bannonrepresented Trump’s id on this subject and made it a centerpiece ofTrump’s campaign, his Inaugural Address, and the early months of hisPresidency. Lilla, who disdains Bannon for myriad political and moralreasons, also thinks that he may have a tactical point. And this iswhere our conversation began.

REMNICK: We’re speaking a couple of weeks after Charlottesville, and a lotof things are converging all of a sudden, not for the first time:history, politics, identity. How would you rate the nationalconversation we’re having at the moment, when it comes to race,identity, and politics?

LILLA: Well, I wouldn’t call it a conversation. It’s an overused word.I’m a little tired of it.

REMNICK: “The national conversation.”

LILLA: “The national conversation.” “We need to have a conversation”about something—which is a euphemism for avoiding something and a realconflict. But it’s something that’s been simmering below the surface fora very long time—it’s not that we haven’t been talking about identityissues. But to see this flash out from the right, very suddenly, justbrings home, I think, the incendiary nature of this, and how, whenpassions are excited about identity issues, conversation stops. Not manyjournalists picked up on this, but the demonstration was actually aquotation of a demonstration in May, 1933, when Nazi students, shortlyafter Hilter’s appointment as Chancellor, marched through the Universityof Berlin at night, with torches, into the courtyard of the university.That’s where the famous book burning took place. They knew exactly whatthey were doing. ...




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