Mark Lilla’s Care and Feeding of the White Man

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I’m always suspect of thinkers who do their best to make it difficult for you to determine where they actually stand ideologically. Columbia University’s Mark Lilla is one of those thinkers. A former conservative turned liberal who claims to be apolitical, when Obama was elected he mourned the death of intellectual conservatism in America, and gave as his bona fides the fact that he had sneered at protest movements during the Nixon administration three decades before that.

That was a piece after he changed his political leanings. So I’m more than a little doubtful about his New York Times piece today demanding the death of “identity politics” on he left, and blaming it for giving Cheeto Nixon the White House.

The piece reads like a brochure for Lilla’s mourned intellectual conservatism. In it, he blames the left for not attempting to embrace the full diversity of Americans–here meaning the surface diversity of conservatives (and when you boil it down further, white people), while in the same breath labeling the desire on the left for attempting to embrace the diversity of Americans as the seminal “problem” in American politics.

You can’t have it both ways. Intersectionality is a thing. (That is, by the way, the term Lilla is  attempting to avoid by using, instead, the handy conservative epithet, “identity politics.”) The majority of Americans exist in multiple social and racial realities at the same time. We all have emotionally meaningful personal alliances that are obvious and not-so-obvious to outsiders. What matters for politicians and anyone else who wants to win us over is covering all of those bases to let us know that they understand the full picture of who we individually are. Not pulling the bases up off the field and plowing the field under. The Democrats may have played intersectionality the wrong way, but the takeaway can just as easily be that the left should have reached out more concertedly to the hidden diversity on the right, not just their skin color, as Lilla implies.

During the campaign, Clinton made repeated calls to the concept of one America working and moving forward together. Lilla completely ignores this. And if you believe that lowered turnout by Democrats who figured Clinton didn’t need their help to win the Presidency and votes diverted by third parties are what cost Clinton the election–as many observers do–then everything Lilla says becomes moot. I’m one of those people. Blaming the Democrats loss on their party refusing to make Republicans happy is clearly upside-down logic.

Moreover, I am troubled by the “little experiment” he says he undertook–deciding to read only European newspapers for one year. He “discovered” that those European papers did not frame the news in “identity politics” terms in the way that American media do. Given the rise of populism across Europe–and really, the fact that the principles that we uphold in the United States are by dint of our founding, a protest against the tyranny of the majority–I have a very hard time believing he would have expected to find anything different. That’s not an experiment. It’s a foregone conclusion and it isn’t meaningful.

Finally, there’s an undercurrent in his entire piece, and it’s a very troubling one. It surfaces most obviously when he’s talking about the women’s suffrage movement. When talking of American women winning the right to vote in 1920, he delegitimizes their success as women by forcefully noting that The success of all protest movements in our nation is empowered directly–and the implication is only–by the way that our founding fathers set forth our foundational documents.

When you reduce that contention down to its most basic message, Lilla’s entire piece becomes very nearly an apology for the neonazi “alt right.” (Which, of course, is the entire danger of maintaining yourself as an “apolitical” thinker.) In essence, Lilla is saying that white men are the basis of power in America, always have been, are now–and most disturbingly given the coddling of white America that Lilla demands of Democrats–always will be.

Lilla could easily have titled his piece, “Keep white men happy in America or suffer the consequences.” It’s an attitude that negates every single civil rights movement in our history, denigrates legal protections that keep a majority of Americans with intersecting minority identities safe from discrimination and harm, and burns bridges we have yet to cross to widen the scope of civil rights and social justice.

Lilla’s piece grinds a dangerous axe while tying to pretend that there is no axe. I don’t buy into his crap at all.

Neither should you.

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What do you think?