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The Ornery Observer
November 28, 2012

Thinking About Identity Politics
by Paul Gottfried

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ELIZABETHTOWN, PA — For several years I’ve been hearing that American minorities acquired a new sense of human worth with Barack Obama’s elevation to the presidency. From all reports, Obama is a black leader who fully represents his race, indeed all minorities, even if like women they happen to be in the majority. When I’m foolish enough to ask those who hold this view if a black Republican or a non-leftist woman could fill the same niche, I typically get a funny look. Obviously being a black, Latino, woman, Jew or a member of another media-approved minority is not what I once believed it to be, about a historical, ethnic or gender identity. The term in question refers mainly to a progressive social agenda.

Any biological fit between the political advocate and the proclaimed identity is merely icing on the cake. Thus the feminist-gay rights activist and congresswoman from a predominantly Jewish district in South Florida, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is seen as most definitely Jewish. By contrast, the Hasidic Rabbi and social conservative, Yehuda Levin, who was once an advisor to Pat Buchanan, may be less clearly Jewish, despite his Eastern European caftan and his long side-locks. Unlike Wasserman-Schultz, who gets high grades from her predominantly Jewish constituents, Levin is referred to in some Jewish papers as a “nutcase” for supporting “anti-Semitic Republicans.” In the same ideological sense, Wasserman-Schultz is female but the far more attractive Michelle Bachmann, who opposes abortion, is not.

For those who may think I’m making light of this term-twisting, let me state they’re mistaken. This classification makes sense if one accepts certain ideological premises. The most important of them is that identities are fluid and, for the most part, social constructs. If a Florida congresswoman, who has been presumed Jewish and white, suddenly announced that she’s a black practitioner of Voodoo, one would have to accept her new self-identification in order to be seen as respectable. The same would be true if Wasserman-Schulze told us that she’s no longer a woman but a hermaphrodite.

I once attended a meeting of academics at which it was explained that it’s silly to think there are two genders when there are really five. Apparently men and women moved back and forth among these fluid identities, even if we falsely imagine that we’re stuck in one biologically determined gender form. While in Germany as a graduate student, I meet morally anxious Germans who insisted they were inwardly Jewish. They were therefore no longer part of a nation associated with Nazi atrocities — and one that agonizes frantically about collective guilt. They were now the proud victims (or surrogate victims) of the Third Reich.

Not only are identities seen as fluid, according to this game of reinvent-yourself. They’re also hierarchically arranged. Clearly being a black woman gives the claimant higher moral standing within the now dominant PC framework than being a Southern white male, whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy. If one picks a new identity, why not chose one that is socially acceptable among journalists, educators, and public administrators?

Of course there’s no need to be burdened by a choice that carries stigma or brings undue discomfort. One should therefore assume a helpful identity, like the Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren who manufactured for herself Native American ancestors, who apparently never existed. This has invested the Massachusetts blueblood and Harvard law professor with victim panache. Even if Warren never had those chic ancestors she’s invented for herself, others may deem her worthy of such forbears by virtue of her politics. Even better, Warren, who looks like a toothy descendant of the Puritans, can always find a new identity if this one doesn’t pan out.

  “One cannot be an acceptable member of an authorized minority group unless one embodies the appropriate politics.”   Most significantly, the group being identified with won’t hesitate to validate those who advance their politics. Although less of an American black than Clarence Thomas or the former GOP gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania Lynne Swann, President Obama is regarded as far more genuinely black because he is a Democrat and has positioned himself on the left. Where would Obama’s career be as a specifically black candidate if he opposed abortions or wished to restrict immigration? One cannot be an acceptable member of an authorized minority group unless one embodies the appropriate politics. Although this may not be a scientific way to identify what is being described, it is acceptable to members of the groups involved.

Moreover, it’s irrelevant whether most blacks and Hispanics oppose gay marriage; the only politicians whom they are likely to support are the ones who support socially leftist positions. That is because most minorities vote overwhelmingly for the left as an affirmation of group identity. They define their collective identity by seeing themselves as standing in opposition to a bigoted majority; and they ascribe to those they oppose “rightwing” views. Although vote-hungry GOP politicians may not like this attitude, I doubt it’s about to change.

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This column was previously published in the Lancaster Newspapers.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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