Mark Lilla’s book against identity politics continues to draw the fire of liberals

Historians in the News
tags: liberals, Identity Politics, Mark Lilla



Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

Related Link What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics By Mychal Denzel Smith 

Donald Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio is only another of the hastening steps on his not-so-long march toward an authoritarian presidency. However incoherent his intentions, he’s bent on becoming a tyrant — or at least trying to become one. And too many of us who know this are clueless about how to stop him, at least partly because we’re obsessed with secondary, almost irrelevant developments. Sometimes it seems as if we’d do anything but confront the most important challenge. Let me try, starting with how liberals have been dodging the full truth.

That haplessness in the face of a real challenge was on display at the Washington, D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose on Sunday evening, as Columbia professor Mark Lilla held forth on the dangers — and as he sees it, the evils — of racial and sexual identity politics before a seemingly contrite white audience. That was until a questioner asked him if he realizes he’s riding the crest of a lavishly funded, brilliantly orchestrated conservative campaign, led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, to inflate identity politics’ noxious excesses in “politically correct” demonstrations on campuses in order to distract us from the far-greater dangers closing in on us.

Lilla, promoting his book “The Once and Future Liberal,” mostly ducked the question, at first pleading ignorance of the campaign and then insisting, with something like circular logic, that liberals need to acknowledge that those noxious excesses do hobble their chances of winning elections. A week earlier, The New Yorker editor David Remnick pushed him to justify his sweeping, sardonic dismissals of today’s social movements and campus racial and sexual protocols on the grounds that they insult and alienate voters in aggrieved, white, working-class communities like the one he grew up in.

It’s an old argument (one I made 20 years ago at the same Politics & Prose bookstore). The argument still has merit, but is correcting the politically correct really what we should be doing now in the teeth of Trump’s attempted political lockdown? Or should we, like Lilla’s questioner at the bookstore, be focusing instead on what’s really causing the injuries and resentments that carried him to the White House?

“When I read Lilla’s book and then talked with him for the New Yorker Radio Hour,” Remnick notes, “I found much to disagree with, not least his cutting dismissals of ‘social-justice warriors’ or movements like Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a ‘textbook example of how not to build solidarity.” Remnick questioned Lilla’s antipathy to social movements and to the follies of campus “political correctness” that Lilla thinks drive many of those movements.

Lilla acknowledged that part of the problem of campus “correctness” is driven by late-adolescent groping for identity and communal belonging, and that factors unrelated to identity politics are indeed in play. But his conversation with Remnick ends where it should have begun. It doesn’t ponder the far more overwhelming factors that are driving Trump’s march. ...




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