Saturday, September 8, 2018

Another jab at 'identity politics': The anti-democratic sentence at the end of the Sept. 5, 2018 anonymous op-ed

Pundits had much to say about a Sept. 5, 2018 op-ed published by the New York Times and written by a Trump administration insider whose name the Times is protecting. The op-ed writer styled himself (I presume it is a man, for reasons that will appear below) as someone who resists Trump's agenda by quietly sabotaging his boss from within the system. Most responses tended to critique whether this is really resisting or just enabling.

This sentence in the op-ed drew particular attention: "There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more." Not everyone admires these Republican policies, after all. The same day the op-ed was published, Eric Levitz complained in New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer that this anonymous official apparently believes "that making it easier for payday lenders to scam the working poor, lowering the corporate tax rate, and increasing America’s military budget (which was already larger than every other major power’s combined) are such morally urgent goals, it is worthwhile to risk autocratic rule for the sake of advancing them:" Charles P. Pierce made the same point in Esquire, translating these policies as "poisoned water, more of the nation's wealth catapulted upwards, and a massive new Navy in case Yamamoto comes back from the dead."

No one seems to have picked up on the op-ed's last line, however. The anonymous writer said: "But the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans." Given the position, this must be important. It doesn't obviously connect to the rest of the article's message, which should raise eyebrows all the more. Why is it there? How does the writer go from admitting that the amoral, incompetent president is being played by his own aides (of which the writer is one) to exhorting ordinary Americans to "shed" their personal identities?

Here's my theory. The writer knows that not everyone agrees with the Republican policy agenda. He knows that he, a rogue aide, is doing a job for which he was not elected. (If he was elected, rather than appointed, to any political position, the job he was elected for wasn't the job of subverting the president's agenda.) He knows that many people will take issue with him on the policy areas he mentioned and others that he didn't mention. So he flips the blame around. According to his account, if there's a problem here, it's not that the president is amoral and incompetent, nor that he's enabling this president, nor that he's pursuing some policy agenda. No, he says, the real problem is that "everyday citizens" criticize him because they are playing "politics" and have identity "labels" that polarize them against him. If they would just "ris[e] above politics," "shed the labels," and act like real "Americans," that would make a "real difference" — to him, of course, because then they wouldn't oppose him.

Here's the problem. There are plenty of ways that people are marginalized because of their identities. Some types of oppression rise somewhat organically as side effects of systems new and old, while other types of oppression result more directly from policies that are chosen and implemented by powerful people right now today. Whether discrimination and power inequities are intentional or not, they certainly take place. Our identities matter.

The author is picking up on a trope against identity politics. This trope blames people for their own oppression and for not getting the political leaders who will help them. If they would just stop having those identities, they wouldn't be oppressed, and their neighbors and politicians would actually want to talk to them and help them. But as they persist in having identities, they continue to manifest oppression against themselves, their neighbors vote against their interests, and their political leaders are likewise disinclined to represent them fairly.

This anonymous, unelected, self-appointed guardian of good policy and saboteur of bad policy: Just what does he think a politically transcendent, label-shed, generically American policy is? Why, whatever he says it is. He is the generic American. He's defending interests that make sense to him. Any "everyday" person who hopes to see their own interests represented by a politician is accused of dragging the country down into "politics" and causing division through "labels."

(As just one of many possible examples, see Katherine Stewart's op-eds that are occasionally published in the Times. So-called religious liberty initiatives, which she prefers to view as examples of "religious privilege," are attempts to "target specific groups of people as legitimate objects of contempt." While people denied services at one business may find those services at another, "what they won’t get back is the equal dignity to which they are entitled — and that’s the point.")

So, what this anonymous writer is saying is fundamentally anti-democratic. He claims to constrain an autocratic president, but his own tendencies are equally autocratic. He has no interest in representing the actual interests of actual people. He orders us to sit down and shut up. He doesn't want to know who we are. The uniqueness of each of us is a threat to his predefined idea of what it means to be "American."

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