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August 08, 2009

Identity Politics

The classical liberal ideas of individualism, individual rights, property rights, “negative liberties,” and limited government date back hundreds, even thousands, of years. They find their roots in the Greek and Hebrew conceptions of the higher law, the Scholastic thinkers, the Levellers’ ideas of self-ownership and natural rights, the political theory of John Locke, the economic analysis of Adam Smith, and the political institutions of the American Founding. To suggest that the case for freedom and limited government — or the application of that theory to contemporary proposals for the expansion of government — must be attributable to racism is uncharitable, ahistorical, thoughtless, and indeed contemptible.

It cannot be the case that every parody of a president who happens to be black is racist. And it is not good for democracy to try to counter every opposing argument with such a blood libel. The good news for advocates of limited government is that our opponents are displaying a striking lack of confidence in the actual arguments for their proposals. If they thought they could win a debate on nationalizing health care, or running trillion-dollar deficits, they wouldn’t need to reach for such smears.

- David Boaz

Probably the saddest thing about this post is that the folks who prompted it will never know it was directed at them. I'm not sure they're even capable of recognizing who they are and the poisonous standard they're advocating.

And predictably, some very wonderful and thoughtful readers whose comments I've enjoyed greatly over the years will wonder if it was prompted by something they said. So before I start, let me say that nothing that happened at VC is behind this. I'm writing it to keep my head from exploding, and to avoid burning some bridges that probably should not be burned. Think of it as therapy.

Identity politics isn't just a tactic of the Left. They are the ones who openly champion it, but I see the same behavior from some on the right and more since last November than at any time I can recall in the past. That's what happens when you convince yourself you're under attack: you circle the wagons and convince yourself that anyone outside your defensive crouch is the enemy.

The irony, at times, is almost too much:

Us Versus Them is a game the Republicans have been playing for a long, long time, since the dawn of civil rights and class warfare, but one thing hasn't changed: "Them" are always the bad guys, trying to destroy "our" way of life, "our" country, "our" values. It's the Five D's: Declare, Divide, Demonize, Dehumanize, Destroy.

•Declare the criteria you don't like about Group X that makes them different.
•Divide the people into Us Versus Them.
•Demonize the other group as the Enemy.
•Dehumanize them by classifying their actions as something horrific.
•Destroy them with the people cheering you on.

It's been the heart of the GOP for a very long time. The tactic is wildly effective, especially when you can accuse the other side of engaging in the exact same behavior as part of Demonize and Dehumanize (and it makes it difficult when fighting back not to fall into the trap of engaging in that behavior yourself, especially in a format like a blog where you have the podium all the time.)

And yet, given the constant assaults on groups that disagree with them, you have to start assigning these behaviors to some people in the GOP anyway, if only to recognize what is going on so that you can deal with it. Part of the problem is that fighting back inevitably leads to the "staring at the abyss" moment where the abyss stares back, and you risk becoming what you have fought against. It's by no means limited to the GOP. I've seen people go over that edge, and it's not pretty. I've gotten close myself.

Still, it's something to think about, if only to recognize when the GOP is doing it.

Funny. Having recognized that "us vs. them" is a universally human failing, some folks might have flashed on the most important reason for thinking about it: to recognize when you're doing it.

This, in a nutshell, is why I've argued for the past few months for fidelity to conservative principles. If your dividing line between right and wrong conveniently shifts according to whether someone else is "one of you" or "one of them", you have no defense against "Them". The rule of law can't protect you and all it takes to render you alone and defenseless is a determination that you're not one of Us.

It's not just race. It's politics, or what job someone does, or any one of a million factors we tick off to inflate our sense of self worth, be part of the group, reassure ourselves that we're the only ones who "get it". The other side, of course, are crazy, immoral, lazy, shiftless and stupid and anything done to them can be excused by the notion that they're not really worthy of simple human decency. You can impute the worst possible motives to them on no evidence but the desire to confirm your own biases.

The thing is, none of us will ever really know what another person thinks or what his motivations are. We haven't walked a mile in his shoes and we have no idea what makes him get out of bed in the morning.

We don't know what his dreams, his hopes, or his fears are.

If the only way you can defend your ideals is to convince yourself everyone who doesn't agree with you or doesn't belong to whatever insular subgroup of the human race you number yourself among is stupid or crazy, this ought to be a giant clue that you haven't thought out your position well enough to defend it on the merits.

It's a big old world and everyone has their role to play in the enormous learning curve of history. Odds are that as smart as we all think we are, you don't really have a grasp on the big picture from wherever you stand at the moment.

So the next time you begin to feel like you're one of God's anointed, try stepping outside your own skin for a moment. A little humility would go a long, long way to making this imperfect world - filled with imperfect people - a far better place to live.

Posted by Cassandra at August 8, 2009 08:43 AM

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Don't make me exhibit humility. You wouldn't *like* me when I'm humble...

Posted by: Bill-BruceT at August 8, 2009 01:15 PM

I don't believe I've ever read a political blog and agreed with the entire post, but this came close. The only thing that I could possibly add to this post is that there's a very simple and 'oft forgotten solution to people's delusion on self superiority, common sense. It used to be the driving force of this country, our biggest product, and most profitable export. Today, however it is more scarce than gold and no price can possibly be placed on its possession.

-Just a thought-

Posted by: Matt M at August 8, 2009 02:42 PM

"And when all the laws of England are flat, and the Devil turns 'round on you, where will you hide then?"

Posted by: Foxfier at August 8, 2009 05:05 PM

Amen, Foxfier.


Posted by: Cassandra at August 8, 2009 05:12 PM

It was, of course, the laws of England that put St. Thomas Moore to death. He was executed under the Treason Act of 1534.

Posted by: Grim at August 8, 2009 05:32 PM

Thomas More was the King's good servant, but God's first.

He would not perjure himself at the cost of losing his immortal soul. We all have to, at times, answer to a higher power.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 8, 2009 05:54 PM

Just so, Don. It's merely an irony that the "rule of law" he passionately defended was the instrument of his destruction.

However, the law is not good on its own. If it is well written, and enforced morally by the just, it can be a good. Alternatively, it can be badly written; or used immorally. Either way, the thing he trusted to for his defense -- the Rule of Law -- was the very thing used to put him to death.

Posted by: Grim at August 8, 2009 06:11 PM

Here's the whole conversation, sorry it's so long:

Arrest him!

-For what?

-He's dangerous!

-Libel. He's a spy!

-That man's bad!

-There's no law against that.

-God's law!

-Then God can arrest him.

-While you talk, he's gone!

Go he should, if he were the Devil, until he broke the law.

-Now you give the Devil benefit of law!

-Yes, what would you do?

Cut a road through the law to get after the Devil?

Yes. I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned on you...
...where would you hide, Roper,
the laws all being flat?
This country is planted with laws from coast to coast...
...Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down...
...and you're just the man to do it...
...do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then?


I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.

Posted by: Foxfier at August 8, 2009 06:33 PM

More a meditation on the results of destroying laws to promote your own view of good, than any special faith in the inherent goodness of laws.

Posted by: Foxfier at August 8, 2009 06:35 PM

On using power in defiance of the law, yes. And in fairness to Moore, his execution was delayed somewhat because of the law: he was able to use it to baffle two or three earlier attempts to arrest and kill him.

Finally, though, they arranged a way to do it legally.

Posted by: Grim at August 8, 2009 06:46 PM

(Sheesh, Cassandra. If I'd checked here before I wrote my last blog post instead of after I could have saved myself about half the words and just put in a link called, "What I wanted to say, only much better".)

I view with increasing disquiet the attribution of racism to those who oppose Obama. I worried about this during the campaign when the "race card" was so much in evidence and was pleasantly surprised when that disappeared post-election and for the first six months of this Administration. If those charges become a standard tactic again, I fear the political atmosphere will get much, much uglier - hard as that is to imagine.

Posted by: Elise at August 8, 2009 06:47 PM

We are only 6 months into the Obama Administration.

Of course it will get worse.

Cheer up.

Watch MSNBC sometimes (as hard as it might be to stomach). That's where you will see the offical media/party line.

The shape of things to come.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 8, 2009 07:49 PM

"Racist" is being rapidly and continuously re-defined until means whatever someone or anyone wants it to mean.

Under those terms, I've reconciled myself to being racist.

Posted by: Donna B. at August 8, 2009 11:16 PM

I'm a racist -- I *like* watching horses run...

Posted by: BillT at August 9, 2009 12:32 AM

Wow! I got the Banish Thee! a long time ago but still come back from time to time. I think this is probably, almost certainly, the most insipid and stupid post you've written.
"You can impute the worst possible motives to them on no evidence but the desire to confirm your own biases." One could do that or one could simply weigh the evidence and draw conclusions from that evidence. I don't know about you, but I don't have much trouble attributing motive and malice based on the evidence presented to date. Your mileage may vary.

You go on to venture that, "The thing is, none of us will ever really know what another person thinks or what his motivations are. We haven't walked a mile in his shoes and we have no idea what makes him get out of bed in the morning." as if that means anything! How bland of you. You're not usually so obtuse. We have been fighting a particular enemy since 9/11. Do you really mean that we have failed to understand that enemy? I don't know about you but I thoroughly understand what motivates that enemy and what he thinks. Politics in this country is not different only more of the same. There are some in this country that want to control. The rest of us wish to be free of such. The current crowd in power appear more and more to be those that want to build a Mordor here in the gentle footsteps of the USSR, Cuba and Venezuala.

I don't see myself as anointed but active vocal dissent with those who rule should not be shunned as racist or intolerant.

Posted by: Curtis at August 9, 2009 12:53 AM

Wow! I got the Banish Thee! a long time ago but still come back from time to time. I think this is probably, almost certainly, the most insipid and stupid post you've written.

Must you offer credentials to show you're a good judge of stupidity in posting?

Given that *I* haven't been asked to leave, it must take great effort to be told to scram....

Posted by: Foxfier at August 9, 2009 02:00 AM

The only thing saving you is that you like foxes and Mamma Gkika...

Posted by: BillT at August 9, 2009 02:02 AM

...and the only thing saving *me* is that I move fast enough to make trivet-flinging a challenge.

Posted by: BillT at August 9, 2009 02:04 AM

Curtis, what in the heck are you talking about?

I don't recall ever 'banishing' you, or even suggesting that you should leave.

The point of this post (since you seem to have missed it) is that it's fine to disagree with someone on policy, and to say so. But when you extend that to "I know why he/she believes that - it's because they're a racist/they're insane" you're using the same stupid rationale the Left uses to cut off debate: "We can ignore them - they're crazy/they're racists". If you disagree with someone you ought to be able to argue the merits of your position rather than personally attacking the messenger.

Not really sure why you decided to ignore the part of my post that says "THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYONE OR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENED AT VC", but since you appear to be determined to take the post personally despite having been told up front it has nothing to do with you, there's really not much I can do to disabuse you of that notion. You seem to have decided to ignore anything that contradicts what you want to believe.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 9, 2009 07:59 AM

I have a pair of charming rogue house cats that weigh about 20 pounds each-- does that count for anything? Not that Mama isn't a good enough reason to keep most ANYONE around....

Posted by: Foxfier at August 9, 2009 11:17 AM

Those aren't rogue housecats -- they're renegade raccoons...

Posted by: BillT at August 9, 2009 11:47 AM

What I always find fascinating about the Left is that they just never realize when they are being racist and elitist. Barbara Boxer's recent run in was a perfect example. But, she is politically correct, ergo, barely a word is said. On the other hand, the most innocent of statements spoken by those deemed to be politically incorrect are immediately picked up as being racist or elitist. Trust me, I've been hammered with it.

Over my working career, I have had one charge of being a sexist brought against me, and that was proven to be unfounded. I get a fairly high management job with a particular government agency, and I had 5 charges of sexism and racism brought against me in one week. They did not want to be managed, so, bring out any weapon you can. One woman, and she was white, brought racism charges against me 5 times in 10 months.

The problem is, most of the management in government has quite literally never worked anyplace. They are either scared to death of the unions, or, were union reps along the way. In any event, that was an agency that could easily be cut by a third to half and still functioned without any notable changes in output - and I proved it by a work study. Needless to say, I am gone, and they are there. Oh, well, I could go on, but why bother?

Posted by: RIslander at August 9, 2009 02:33 PM

We are only 6 months into the Obama Administration.

Of course it will get worse.

Well, I certainly see why your parents named you "Brouhaha" instead of "Ray of Sunshine". On the other hand, perhaps it will get bad enough so that - as Donna implies - the term "racist" will become meaningless.

As for MSNBC, I'm afraid that's simply beyond me. My blood pressure, you know.

Posted by: Elise at August 9, 2009 02:39 PM

Cassandra, one of the things I have always liked about you was your ability to get into the meat of the matter, and your courage in defending your position, stating it or looking at it from another POV. Then you mentioned Joe Lieberman.

I was...SHOCKED and AWED.

Hopefully, we find more in common than we do that divides us.

Good post.

Posted by: Cricket at August 9, 2009 06:53 PM

Right on Cassandra.

Posted by: I Call BS at August 10, 2009 12:09 PM

Hopefully, we find more in common than we do that divides us.

Well, that is my hope anyway.

Ironically what made me angry enough to write this post had nothing to do with politics. I will never understand what makes some folks so insular and unthinking. That's not directed at anyone here, because the incident didn't involve anyone here.

It takes an awful lot to make me really angry. I expect last week didn't help matters much :p It was directed at me as much as anyone else.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 10, 2009 06:54 PM