In 2016 we were introduced to the concept of ‘fake news’.
In 2017 we didn’t need fake news because reality itself had grown so absurd.
The hashtag ‘#notTheOnion’ trended as a way to ensure readers that the outlandish information before them was not meant as satire but rather as a depiction of the new normal.
A handful of examples serves to illustrate: One headline read without a touch of sarcasm that the first ever man gave birth to a baby after being impregnated by a woman.
One article covered a high school girls track meet in which a boy, who was in the middle of transitioning into a girl, competed and won handedly, and the second-place finisher was quoted puzzling over why she felt so out-matched.
Not a few reports were made of teachers and assistants being reprimanded, fined, and even fired for “misgendering” students, or calling them by a gender that they don’t identify as.
A Google engineer was fired for violating diversity and inclusion policies after he submitted a memo containing unconventional ideas.
A “deeply progressive” biology teacher at a liberal college in Washington state was denounced as racist and told to resign because he didn’t comply with demands that he leave campus for a student-led “Day without Whites”.
Several white nationalist conventions saw dozens of several young white men throwing up the ‘Roman salute’ and shouting “Sieg heil”.
The Atlantic Monthly ran a headline pointing out that the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was racist because it passed along a path in which almost no blacks lived.
The sports network ESPN removed an Asian-American commentator named Robert Lee from a game featuring the University of Virginia after concerns that his name would spark outrage from fans troubled by the previous racial tensions in Charlottesville.
An entertainment industry built around sexuality was overcome by reports of sexual harassment and assault from women who made careers off of their sexuality.
College students protested and shut down a panel discussion on free speech because they were afraid the ideas would trigger psychological trauma.
A teacher’s assistant at a Canadian arts college was disciplined as intolerant and transphobic for presenting a debate without taking sides.
A New York Times op-ed explained that, given psychological effects, speech can be equivalent to violence.
And of course there was Trump. Everything he said seemed to outfake fake news. From a playground taunting match with the North Korean premier to challenging the media to figure out the meaning of his “covfefe” typo, Trump was the perfect leader of post-reality 2017.
And the crazed response from his detractors only spurred him on even more. A group that called themselves ‘Antifa’, short for ‘Anti-fascist’, unironically roved around in black masks stealing property, vandalizing, and beating up people they disagreed with.
Indeed, 2017 was the year of the fascist anti-fascists, the fake news that’s actually real.
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Disparate as all of these stories seem, there is a unifying theme—in all of these narratives we find that a common understanding of the way the world works has been abandoned for the sake of given individuals’ social self-expression. In short, 2017 was the year in which identity trumped reality.
We recognize this theme by the name ‘Identity Politics’, which has become something of a universal explanation for all of the bizarre things going on in this world. Trump’s rise to power? Identity Politics. Police brutality? Identity Politics. Transgenderism? Identity Politics.
At its most basic, Identity Politics seems rather benign and almost natural. Jonathan Rauch defined it as “A political mobilization organized around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology, or pecuniary interest.” It makes sense—one’s group characteristics or ‘identity’ is important and should be considered in social discourse. Movements such as the Abolitionism, Women’s Suffrage, and Civil Rights underscore just how firmly planted in our cultural heritage this basic form of Identity Politics is.
But certain forces convened in the mid-20th century that distorted and amplified the premise, ultimately putting us on course for the debacle we see before us. The first is that identity was elevated to the pinnacle of all social, political, and economic concerns, even to the extent of surpassing civic duty, moral obligations, and social cohesion. What started as a compassionate effort to protect the underprivileged and marginalized through charity and grants grew into something of a social and economic juggernaut. Whereas prior to the 1960s people of color and women would try to hide their ‘minority’ status, afterward they would trumpet it—it could mean scholarship money, grade protection, or government contracts. In this very practical way Identity Politics incentivized differentiation, separation, and uniqueness.
The second force is that a person’s identity has become more and more malleable. Coupled with Postmodernist psychologies that questioned the existence of reason and philosophies that questioned the existence meaning altogether, Identity Politics gave license to people to claim just about any identity that suited them. Gender Theory led the charge. What started as the sensible notion that women were as smart and capable as men grew to become the fantasy that all differences between men and women are social constructs. The charge was to dismantle the social constructs so that women could be as successful as men, but the result was an effort to neglect or destroy any differences at all including patently biological ones. Reality was pushed aside for the sake of identity. It has gotten to a point that a man can compete in female collegiate activities or take a woman-only business loan just because he says he’s a woman.
The more influential Identity Politics has become, the more power it has wielded, and the more important it has become for individuals to identify by their group attributes. Even when people don’t derive a livelihood from their identity, they derive social esteem or at the very least attention because of it.
Over the course of the mid-century, Identity Politics steadily shifted from a reasonable extension of politics to a ferocious race to annihilate reality. Affirmative Action, Black Power, Gender Studies, Multiculturalism, Intersectionality, Diversity and Inclusion programs, LGBT Rights, and Black Lives Matter by turns intensified the effort.
These days, identity is a person’s life, and so it is a matter of depriving one’s rights to question that identity. A person should be able to identify as anything he or she wants, even if it contradicts reality. A man says he’s a woman? Just fine. A white American says he’s a Filippino woman and drives around in a Tuk Tuk? Who are you to judge?
Identity is so dear these day, questioning is tantamount to physical violence. Students have successfully lobbied for a pass on tests because their identity had been threatened; people have lost their jobs for misgendering someone; people claim that their existence is denied because someone disagreed with them.
This is why we have seen a rapid curtailing of freedoms regarding speech and thought in the last several years. It used to be thought that speech was harmless and therefore should be left unbridled; now it is thought that sticks and stones are not the only thing that can hurt you. Identity is a social thing—it necessitates acknowledgment and approval from those around. And the clearest way of acknowledging and approving is through speech. And so everywhere we see a push to limit what is acceptable and even legal to say. Insults are classed ‘hate speech’ and hate speech is made punishable by fines or jail time.
Identity Politics tends to grow more frenzied over time by nature—the only way to win is to be different and there is always something else we can do to make ourselves more different. Like a societal Dennis Rodman, we progressively grow more peculiar, more shocking, more repulsive.
So too does it tend to provoke an equally disturbing retaliation in the form of counter-diversity. The increasingly vocal White Supremacist movement in America, as an example, is doubtless a product of the Identity Politics of the last few decades. At least one group has organized a scholarship for underprivileged whites to counter the many other scholarships exclusively for blacks. It makes sense in a twisted way—as long as we’re discriminating for scholarships and jobs and contracts, we might as well be equal opportunity discriminators.
And so the vicious cycle continues: Jim Crow begets Affirmative Action, which begets marginalized whites, which begets White Supremacists, which begets a new Jim Crow. Fascists beget anti-fascists, which turn into fascists, and so on. The desperate onlooker wonders whether there can be a way out.
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In an essay titled ‘America Wasn’t Built for Humans’, columnist Andrew Sullivan argues at ‘tribalism’ is tearing apart our nation. He is basically describing the natural pull of Identity Politics and its destructive tendency in a democratic republic.
While his review of late 20th century fissures is revealing, his premises are wrong. The Founders didn’t just “assume we could overcome” tribalism; they confronted it straightaway, building a nation that was capable of handling—nay—taking advantage of the energies inherent in a diverse people. It is not the Founders’ negligence that left the door open to tribal unrest but rather the intentional dismantling of the Founders’ ideals.
After former ambassador to the U.K. Matthew Barzun returned stateside, he spent time polling U.S. students on what they like and dislike about their country. He said that according to the vast majority of them the most frustrating thing about America today is ‘Divisiveness’. When asked what the most positive thing is, the vast majority of them replied ‘Diversity’.
What is interesting here is that the two words have the same root and are really two sides of the same concept, which can be summed up as the great American Experiment.
Before Deconstructionists hijacked history departments, it used to be taught that the American Founders envisioned a place where persons of all walks of life could live together in freedom, peace, and prosperity. And for a century and a half the leaders and laymen of this country strove to make that dream a reality. The country was by no means perfect as the record of civil strife clearly shows. But Americans were guided by an ideal and slowly if painstakingly moved toward that vision.
The ideal was founded on the simple principle that “all men are created equal”. The Declaration of Independence established it, the Constitution enshrined it, and great leaders from Jefferson to Garrison to King found it the lodestar for their work. It did not mean that all men were created without differences, but rather that through right reason they could look past their differences and connect with all other men. To the founders, one’s identity as a human person is based in something that everyone shared—that is what is to be focused on and that is what can allow such a variety of peoples to coexist in freedom, peace, and prosperity.
And this is the key—tribalism wasn’t sidestepped accidentally; tribalism was held at bay because the Founders intentionally built this country on the principle of sameness under God. Now, the powers that be have refashioned the country around the principle differentness before others. We have traded the Founders’ identity based in reason for a Postmodernist identity based in whimsy.
Thus we find ourselves in an Orwellian world where children are leaders, modesty is rape, and truth is lies. If we are to overcome our tribalism and unite as it was once thought possible, we must give up the new concept of identity and retrieve the former concept. And to do that we must first recall what it is at the very core of identity in the first place and what it means to be human.