Identity Politics and the March Through Institutions

I advise people to RTWT with some frequency, but Mary Eberstadt’s cover essay in the Weekly Standard, “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics,” fully merits the longread.  It is one of those works that moves the discussion of an issue forward with the originality of its insight.

Boiled down to its essence, the essay argues that the roots of identity politics and the emotionalism behind them can be found in the sexual revolution and the decline of the traditional family.  The de-institutionalization of traditional marriage and family causes what Eberstadt calls a “game of musical identity chairs,” and fuels the psychology of loss aversion, which in turn results in the demand for “safe spaces” and the campaigns against “cultural appropriation.”

While I’m still digesting the piece, I have at least two additional thoughts.

First, Eberstadt attaches great importance to “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” a 1977 declaration by black feminists, as a “founding document of identity politics.”  She quotes the statement:

This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

I might characterize the statement more as a founding document of intersectionality in identity politics, but I won’t quibble here.  I will add the statement also refers to the well-known and succinct distillation of identity politics that has its origin in feminism:

A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political.”

“The personal is political” is a phrase that dates at least as far back as 1969.  Various feminists to whom the phrase has been attributed have disclaimed authorship, suggesting it was a sentiment already in the feminist aether for years.  And it is the core idea from which identity politics flows.

Second, while I think Eberstadt’s emphasis on marriage and family is important, her use of the term “de-institutionalization” is also significant.  The family is (or was) the key institution in society, and thus its decline may have the most serious ramifications.  But the Left’s “long march through the institutions” has not been limited to the family.

Regular readers know that my hobbyhorse institution has been education.  Regular readers also know that Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism touches on the subject of identity politics in a number of passages and demonstrates they have emerged in decades prior to the 1960s.  But today’s example is his account of the 1969 takeover of Cornell University:

Black student radicals, convinced of their racial superiority and the inherent corruption of liberalism, mounted a sustained campaign of intimidation and violence against the very institution that afforded them the luxury of an education. President [James A.] Perkins himself was a quintessentially progressive educator. With degrees from Swarthmore and Princeton, he cut his teeth as a New Dealer in the Office of Price Administration. Intellectually, Perkins was a product of the progressive-pragmatic tradition of William James and John Dewey, rejecting the idea that universities should be dedicated to the pursuit of eternal truths or enduring questions. He ridiculed the ‘intellectual chastity’ of traditional scholarship and mocked non-pragmatic scholars — modern-day ink knights — who spent their time devoted to ‘barren discussions of medieval scholasticism.’ Like so many of the New Deal intellectuals, Perkins was hostile to the idea that the past had much to say about the present. For him, the watchword was ‘relevance,’ which in the 1960s quickly led to ’empowerment.’

Perkins believed that universities should be laboratories for social change, training grounds for ‘experts’ who would parachute into the real world and fix society, like the Progressive of Wilson’s and FDR’s day. For these reasons — plus a decided lack of courage — Perkins prostrated himself to fascist goons while he ruthlessly turned his back on those whose educations, jobs, and even lives were threatened by Black Power radicals. *** The black radicals wanted to be taught ‘black science’ and ‘black logic’ by black professors. They demanded a separate school tasked to ‘create the tools necessary for the formation of a black nation.’ They backed up these demands not with arguments but with violence and passionate assertion. ‘In the past it has been all the black people who have done all the dying,’ shouted the leader of the black radicals. ‘Now the time has come when the pigs are going to die.’ Perkins supinely obliged after only token opposition. After all, he explained, ‘there is nothing I have ever said or will ever say that is forever fixed or will not be modified by changed circumstances.’ The first course offered in the new program was Black Ideology.”

Education is thus another example of how the decline of an institution expressly led to the promotion of identity politics.  And while I would never claim to be an expert on religion, a similar claim probably could be made with respect to the decline of organized religion during this same time period.

Nor should this be entirely surprising.  The point of the “long march” was to empower the state at the expense of other institutions.  But these other institutions are important to the formation of individual identities.  The campaign of de-institutionalism waged by the Left thus placed more of a focus on identities like race and sex and left the state as the primary institution for mediating social conflict.  The decline of marriage and the family may be the most significant loss, but it’s not the only one.

[Update: I’ve had some work come up today, so there may be no post for Friday.  If so, have a good weekend.]

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