Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Scourge of "Identity Liberalism": Mark Lilla Hits Back against His Left-Wing Disparagers

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Scourge of "Identity Liberalism": Mark Lilla Hits Back against His Left-Wing Disparagers

Article excerpt

On 18 November 2016, while Democrats were still mourning Hillary Clinton's defeat to Donald Trump, Mark Lilla disturbed the liberal wake. In a New York Times comment piece, which became the paper's most-read op-ed of the year, the US academic and historian of ideas blamed "identity liberalism" for Trump's victory and accused progressives of being "narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups".

Lilla, who treaches at Columbia University in New York, became a bete noire of the liberal left. But undeterred by this response, he elaborated his argument in short polemical book, The Once and Future Liberal.

I met Lilla, who is 61, one recent afternoon in a cafe in Bloomsbury, London. "I've become a meme, not a human being," he complained of the left's response to his work.

Liberals, he said, had swapped the struggle for electoral power for the pursuit of "cultural reform". As well as holding the presidency and Congress, the Republicans now control two-thirds of US governorships and two-thirds of state legislatures (25 of these with outright majorities). "If they win a couple more, they could conceivably call a constitutional convention," Lilla said. "That's how bad it is. There's nothing to be cheerful about, there's no reason to be optimistic right now."

But is the "identity politics" he denounces not merely the collective action of long-marginalised groups (women, black and ethnic minorities and the LGBT movement)?

"We're a more tolerant society, people are being recognised, we have affirmative action, which is very important--it's our reparations programme," Lilla said. But he warned: "With the rise of identity politics, young people have no coherent views about foreign policy, they don't have a world view about that or economics. The rhetoric turns off the rest of the electorate because you're certainly not expressing any concern about their position and, more than that, you're condemning people as racist, sexist and homophobic by a standard that is impossibly high."

In his book, Lilla writes with empathy of the alienation felt by white working-class voters in deindustrialised US states. Is he not in danger of privileging the grievances of whites above all others? "That argument only works if you assume that any political demand that comes out of the mouth of a white person is motivated by their whiteness ... People want jobs, they want healthcare, they want a fairer economy and they want their views to be, if not accepted or even respected, to be left alone. There's a religious fanaticism about cleaning people's souls that has infected the left."

How did he respond to his Columbia University colleague Katherine Franke accusing him of "making white supremacy respectable"? …

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