This article makes the case for Count 4 of my indictment of identity politics as set out in J’Accuse Identity Politics. This is the claim that identity politics, far from being progressive in any meaningful sense, is profoundly reactionary in its attitudes to race, to religion, to freedom of speech and debate, and its uncritical celebration of severely oppressive traditional cultures.
In this series of articles, and before that several talks to the Blackheath Philosophy Forum and opinion pieces in the Australian newspaper, I have drawn attention to the strange ideological inversion that has occurred in left-wing politics with the embrace of identity politics over the past few decades.
Old progressive verities have been turned on their heads. The aspiration to transcend race is now denounced as ‘racist’. Affirming the right to freely discuss and criticize religions can lead to charges of ‘Islamophobia’. Cruel cultural practices in both developing and Western societies are ignored, and often actively protected and defended, as integral to the culture of some oppressed group. Free and open debate of contentious issues is deprecated and increasingly hamstrung by the imperative to avoid causing ‘offence’, or to being subjected to the nebulous and constantly changing charge of ‘hate speech’.
This is not the Left I signed up to at the start of my political career in the early 1970s. That Left, with all its defects, at least had certain things basically right, such as the attitude to race and to freedom of speech (with the important exception of the pro-communist element that was then quite powerful through its influence on the trade unions and, through them, the Labor Left).
I have been both appalled and puzzled by this, and I am far from alone. Around the world, a growing number of writers and thinkers with impeccable leftist pedigrees have expressed reservations about, and in some cases have roundly denounced, the ideology of identity politics and its ‘compliance and enforcement’ arm – the system of thought control we have come to know as political correctness.
In conversations with many people who I have known through political involvement over the years I am often surprised to hear strong agreement from people who I assumed would be solidly in the ‘PC camp’. Yet there is generally a pronounced reluctance to express such views openly, especially on the part of academics who are obviously terrified of the social and professional death frequently reserved for ideological heretics.
Some dissident leftists have begun to use the term ‘Regressive Left’ to refer to the identarian ideology. I think this understates the problem. Many of the positions and doctrines nowadays defended by self-styled progressives would have struck earlier generations of leftists as contrary to everything they stood for, indeed as downright reactionary.
An extraordinary ideological hegemony has been imposed such that to offend against the tenets of identity politics, especially in the universities and other educational sectors but increasingly also in other realms – most recently the corporate sector – is to risk social and professional death.
The situation in Western universities is tragic. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cites evidence that universities in America, especially in their social sciences and humanities faculties, have become near ideological monocultures, with university administrators and increasingly students acting as enforcers of the identarian orthodoxy.
Universities were supposed to be places where ideas, including – even especially – unconventional ones can be freely debated. Nowadays they are among the least free places in our society, at least when it comes to debating genuinely contentious issues. Sometimes there is an atmosphere reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with teachers walking in terror of their students (see for example I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me on the leftist website Vox)
Culturalisms of Left and Right
Two Danish authors, Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, have written what in my view is the most illuminating account of these developments with their book The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, now available in English. Their argument is well summarized in an article in the online journal Eurozine.
Here is their central point: Most people nowadays tend to think that far-right ethno-nationalism and identity politics are polar opposites on the ideological spectrum.
But are they, really ?
According to these authors, these two supposedly opposite ideological poles are both fruits of the same poisonous tree, which they label culturalism, the leftist adoption of which they trace originally to the activities of a group of American anthropologists in the post-World War II period who opposed the adoption of the UN Human Rights Charter in 1947 on the ground that its assertion of universal human rights would suppress individual cultures.
This is how Eriksen and Stjernfelt define culturalism:
Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections – even if at the same time they violate individual rights.
In its right-wing version, Culturalism asserts a close tie between culture and ethnicity, with each ideally tied to its own distinct homeland. This ethno-nationalism needs to be distinguished from what some scholars term civic nationalism that decouples national identity from ethnicity and instead ties it to a common core of norms and values, embodied in the idea of a creedal state with the United States as the best exemplar.
The authors describe how in their native Denmark right-wing nationalists defend freedom of speech, but do so in terms of it being a ‘Danish value’, rather than a universal value rooted in the broader Enlightenment that emerged elsewhere and was subsequently imported into Denmark.
That is the right-wing version of culturalism. The ‘left-wing’ identity politics version, in its strong and increasingly predominant form, is equally hostile to a universalistic concept of humanity, and equally insistent that people be seen as essentially products of their culture to which they are bound, and which – with the sole exception of denizens of ‘white’ culture - they are expected to celebrate and refrain from criticising.
The key point of difference with right-wing culturalism is the insistence that a multitude of such cultural totalities can coexist within the boundaries of a single nation state, and must not be merely tolerated but facilitated and celebrated and granted a high degree of internal autonomy, even if, as the Danish authors note, this involves ‘recognition of the most anti-modern and unappetising cultural practices’.
Imprisoned by culture
What does this mean for those who are expected, indeed condemned, to inhabit cultures where anti-modern and unappetising practices are the norm? And how can ‘progressives’ possibly justify this?
Part of the answer is the creation of a fictitious, indeed fantastically benign version of the cultures concerned. We see this in the treatment afforded to indigenous cultures by the identarian ideologues.
Take this characterization of indigenous culture that is approvingly cited in the entry on Identity Politics in the authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Indigenous governance systems embody distinctive political values, radically different from those of the mainstream. Western notions of domination (human and natural) are noticeably absent; in their place we find harmony, autonomy, and respect. We have a responsibility to recover, understand, and preserve these values, not only because they represent a unique contribution to the history of ideas, but because renewal of respect for traditional values is the only lasting solution to the political, economic, and social problems that beset our people.
In the preceding article in this series I describe the tragic consequences that have resulted for indigenous Australians from the adoption of this kind of ‘noble savage fabulation’ (to quote the indigenous academic Marcia Langton). I referred to the work of the anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton, who has worked with remote indigenous communities for over thirty hears and was the main expert witness supporting the aboriginal side in the Wik land rights case.
In his book The Politics of Suffering Sutton describes a severe degradation in the conditions of life in indigenous communities since the policy shift – a change he contends was actually caused by the policy change. Sutton describes how he has seen communities that in the early 1970s were poor but essentially safe and orderly degenerate into dystopian hell-holes of violence, sexual predation, including of children, and substance abuse.
But most impressive is the testimony of a group of indigenous women who are enraged by the persistent failure to take effective action to stop an epidemic of violence in these communities. This failure, they say, is in large part a consequence of the seeming inability of those whose views are shaped by the progressive identarian orthodoxy – government officials, human rights lawyers, feminist activists - to acknowledge the violence inherent in traditional culture. It just did not fit their preferred narrative.
At a press conference delivered in 2016 at the National Press Club these women delivered a severe reality check. In the words of Jacinta Price:
Traditional culture is shrouded in secrecy, which allows perpetrators to control their victims. Culture is used as a tool by perpetrators as a defence of their violent crimes, or as an excuse or reason to perpetrate. It is not acceptable that any human being have their rights violated, denied and utterly disregarded in the name of culture.
There is much more detail about this in my earlier article, but at this point I would like to draw attention to this particularly pertinent plea made by Jacinta Price in a public lecture:
Why is it that we should remain stifled and live by 40,000 year old laws when the rest of the world has had the privilege of evolution within their cultures, so that they may survive in a modern world? Why in these times should there be an ‘us and them’ mentality.
She notes, of those who idealize such cultures and resist change:
Those who argue it must be maintained unchanged as it is the world’s oldest living culture, come from two different perspectives. They are either far removed from it, don’t live it and have no idea what they are talking about or they are the old ones who can’t bear to see their old ways disappear.
She is, in effect, demanding that indigenous people be permitted to be part of the modern world, to be able to look critically at the culture into which they were born, to adapt and make changes - not be condemned to inhabit a static culture, a kind of anthropological museum.
It is hard to think of a human right more fundamental than that, one that should enjoy the enthusiastic support of all genuine progressives. The failure to provide such support, the apparent indifference or denial of cruel and oppressive practices if they are sanctioned by ‘culture’, reveals identity politics for the reactionary doctrine that it is.
Jacinta Price, her mother Bess, and the other outspoken indigenous women deserve to be celebrated for their courageous stand. Instead they have been vilified, denigrated and threatened by the politically correct brigade, denounced as ‘Uncle Toms’ and other epithets.
The leftist Counter Enlightenment
How extraordinary that Jacinta Price’s plea to be part of an evolving, self-critical culture, rather than condemned to inhabit an oppressive anthropological museum, is deemed controversial, or even treacherous, by ‘progressive’ opinion.
The capacity for self-criticism and cultural evolution is one of the main benefits of our Enlightenment inheritance. Indeed the American sociologist and political writer Todd Gitlin considers this its cardinal virtue. In an important article that defends the Enlightenment against its postmodern academic critics he argues:
For this reason, the Enlightenment is, to paraphrase German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, an ‘uncompleted project.’ Crucially, it is self-correcting. The abominations that litter the history of modernity do not refute the value of the Enlightenment. To the contrary. They go to show that Enlightenment has to be fought for by those who believe in it, even when, as in much of the 18th century, it does not win popularity contests, and even when its practitioners commit gaffes.
As Gitlin acknowledges, there is plenty to criticise about the post-Enlightenment societies that for several centuries have dominated the globe, and frequently abused that power. However the ability of these societies to look inward, the self-reflective quality, has meant that such abuses have been recognized and addressed to a far greater extent than in any other culture. As a result, we inhabit societies that combine unparalleled political, personal and intellectual freedoms with material prosperity.
But this is precisely the legacy that ‘progressive’ postmodern academia, with its pervasive and growing cultural influence on the wider society, deprecates. There is something morbidly fascinating in the infatuation of many modern academics with fiercely anti-Enlightenment figures like Friedrich Nietzsche, who divided humanity between people of supreme value and those of no value, advocated ‘new forms of slavery’, celebrated cruelty and deprecated compassion.
Or Martin Heidegger, an enthusiastic Nazi who participated in the purging of Jewish intellectuals during his tenure as rector of Freiburg University during the 1930s. The publication of his black notebooks has revealed him to be more than just an opportunist Nazi but a philosophically committed anti-Semite. Yet an Australian philosophy academic who spoke at the Blackheath Philosophy Forum a few years back told me, in private correspondence, that even with these revelations it is very professionally risky to openly criticize the infatuation with characters like Heidegger. As he put it, you are ‘pushing uphill’ if you try to arrange a seminar or other event that might look critically at him.
The historian Richard Wolin has written a comprehensive intellectual genealogy of the postmodern repudiation of the Enlightenment (The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism). He makes the following remarkable observation:
Surely, one of the more curious aspects of the contemporary period is that the heritage of Enlightenment finds itself under attack not only from the usual suspects on the political right but also from proponents of the academic left. As one astute commentator has recently noted, today ‘Enlightenment bashing has developed into something of an intellectual blood-sport, uniting elements of both the left and the right in a common cause.
Thus, one of the peculiarities of our times is that Counter-Enlightenment arguments once the exclusive prerogative of the political right have attained a new lease on life among representatives of the cultural left. As a prominent advocate of postmodern political theory contends, one need only outfit the Counter- Enlightenment standpoint with a new ‘articulation’ (a claim couched in deliberate vagueness) to make it serviceable for the ends of the postmodern left.
Yet those who advocate this alliance of convenience between extreme right and extreme left provide few guarantees or assurances that the end product of the exercise in political grafting will result in greater freedom rather than a grandiose political miscarriage.
A grandiose political miscarriage
Wolin’s metaphor in the final sentence of the above quotation is apt. How else to describe a state of affairs in which people who imagine themselves to be ‘progressive’ demand that indigenous people accept their that their lot is to inhabit an oppressive traditional culture? And to accept a lower standard of protection for their children than would be tolerated by any group? And to stay silent about the causes of endemic violence against women? All to protect the sanctity of culture.
Or a state of affairs where efforts to end the repulsive practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Western countries are denounced by feminist icons like Germaine Greer as ‘culturally arrogant’, an attitude that has likely contributed to the de facto decriminalization of this hideously cruel practise in circumstances where (as in the UK) it is practised on an industrial scale.
Or where freedom of speech is increasingly circumscribed by the demand that cultural sensitivities not be offended, nor identarian narratives infringed, and where dissenters in academia and elsewhere face increasing persecution. I am old enough to remember a time when the (non-communist) Left actually championed free speech and led campaigns against censorship. Now progressives are the loudest voices demanding the silencing of voices they don’t like to hear, and to an incredible extent have been able to co-opt the immensely powerful social media corporations to this project (as I described in a previous article).
But there has been an even more serious development.
To twist Wolin’s metaphor slightly, we have also seen a ‘grandiose political miscegenation’, in the emergence of an alliance between the Left and militant Islam, to my mind one of the strangest and disconcerting political developments in my lifetime.
The change in the Left’s attitude to religion has been remarkable. It is not that Leftists have become more religious, in the sense of holding sincere religious beliefs. Rather, they have come to view religion as sacrosanct in a different sense, as an aspect of culture that deserves protection, one of what the Danish authors I cited above term ‘closed, organic wholes, … that the individual is unable to leave … but rather can only realise him or herself within’.
At least, this is how religions deemed, like Islam, to be oppressed are treated (Christianity is a different matter – it is part of ‘white’ civilization and thus fair game). In the progressive mind, it follows that internal critics like Sarah Haider, the young American from a Pakistani-Muslim background who broke from Islam and set up a support organisation for others making this choice, must be seen as identity traitors. In the first article in this series, I included video of a talk where Haider describes how she has been denounced by her erstwhile colleagues on the Left as a ‘house Arab’, ‘Uncle Tom’, or the even more sinister ‘Native Informant’ (the latter term crops up with increasing frequency in academic discourse).
In the moral universe of identity politics, people like Sarah Haider, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Mariam Namazie (the British-Iranian founder of the British Council of Ex-Muslims) are the villains, and they must be silenced. Hence we see the latter two repeatedly banned, no-platformed and disrupted whenever they try to speak on university campuses in Europe and the United States. These efforts are invariably supported by ‘progressives’, who prattle on about being made to feel ‘unsafe’ by these women who are subject to constant all-to-credible death threats. Despicable!
And the heroes? These would include people like Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March movement set up to protest against Donald Trump. A hijab-wearing Muslim, she has become notorious for tweeting her support for Sharia law, for absurdly claiming that the Saudi regime is pro-woman, for her support for the fiercely anti-Semitic Nation of Islam movement in America, and saying she would like to rip away the vaginas of women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali (herself a victim of this dreadful practise).
Some progressive! But fiercely defended by the likes of actress Susan Sarandon and author Naomi Klein, and hailed as a ‘change agent’ by former President Obama.
Until recently, the prevailing view of religion in Western societies – and especially in progressive circles – was that a religion was a belief system with tenets that people might accept or reject, but were certainly free to debate. This is part of Enlightenment inheritance valued by secularists and accepted, if not necessarily welcomed, by religious believers.
Religion was contestable, and Christianity, in particular, has had to deal with ‘critical scholarship’ challenging the historical accuracy of Biblical accounts, at least since the early 19th century. It has also had to respond to the scientific revolution, especially Darwinian evolution that offers a different and apparently incompatible account of human origins (though many believers think they can be reconciled).
In the eyes of progressives dogmatic religion, especially when coupled with conservative social movements (such as the National Civic Council in 1950s Australia), or in Francoist Spain, used to attract the epithet ‘clerical fascist’, the ultimate reactionary taint.
However with Islam things are now seen in a fundamentally different light. ‘Islamophobia’ is routinely treated as a species of racism, and therefore deserving severe sanction, a view now orthodox among academic critical race theorists. The UK Labour Party has even promised to make it an aggravated criminal offense, and Canada seems to be on a similar trajectory. Islamophobia has never been properly defined, and is increasingly taken to include not just hostility to Muslims but strong criticism of Islamic beliefs.
The European Court of Human rights recently issued a ruling effectively criminalizing certain lines of criticism of Islam’s prophet, Mohammed. In Australia, religious vilification has been outlawed in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and the ACT. In Victoria evangelical preachers were prosecuted under that states legislation for quoting with the intent of ridiculing passages in the Quran.
We are seeing the introduction of de facto blasphemy laws, something we in the West thought we had parted company with some time ago. This trend is being aggressively pushed globally by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the peak body that represents 57 Muslim-majority states (including the Palestinian authority). Even the United States under the previous administration expressed sympathy with this goal, while acknowledging that the First Amendment precluded any legislative action.
This is a profound change, and one that earlier generations of leftists would have been appalled by. Now all we get from most progressives is mute acquiescence, or active support for such measures.
Conclusion: A thought experiment
Try this thought experiment. Try to imagine how a moderate leftist in the social-democratic tradition (my own position), or a liberal in the American sense, might react on awakening today from suspended animation after half a century.
Say they had just listened to Martin Luther King’s great civil rights speech of 1963 in which he yearned for the day when his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin. Back then, King’s sentiments were seen around the world as the quintessence of liberal progressivism.
Suppose further that the cryogenic experiment were conducted on one of the campuses of the University of California, Los Angeles. Imagine that the subject of our experiment is a member of staff and, needing to be brought up to speed on university policies, is sent on a course on how to avoid ‘microaggressions’, words or phrases that are deemed subtly racist. Such training was recently made mandatory at the behest of University of California president Janet Napolitano.
Our Rip Van Winkle would be amazed to learn that the dreaded microaggressions included statements like this ‘When I look at you I don’t see colour’, or ‘There is only one race, the human race’. Such sentiments are not even to be uttered, let alone debated.
He or she would be equally amazed to learn that many progressives find it perfectly acceptable to treat being white as some sort of pathology, or a moral defect. Old-line anti-racists opposed all discrimination based on skin colour, without exception.
If our Rip was a secularist progressive, he would be flummoxed to learn that defectors from the religion of Islam are now denounced by progressives as traitors to their identity, as ‘Native Informants’, who should be condemned, at the same time as these same progressives celebrate and elevate to leadership positions adherents and defenders of the most reactionary interpretations of Islam.
And what would he/she make of the disparagement of the Enlightenment, and all that it represents?
It would seem like he/she had awakened in some Bizarro World alternative reality.