Don’t worry — this column is not about Donald Trump. Not exactly. Yes, he is the worst thing to happen to the world since anthrax. But all of the material I’d been carefully collecting about him for use in this column has been scooped up by other writers: the Mencken quote about Americans finally achieving their dream of a White House “occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” Tom Freeman’s commentary with the sober sounding title, “An Analysis of Donald Trump’s Election Win and the Prospects for his Presidency,” that consists entirely of the word “Fuck.” (“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck...”) I was beginning to worry that I’d be left with nothing to say.
Enter Mark Lilla with a New York Times op-ed piece titled “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in which the author, a straight, cisgender, white guy, blames the Trump disaster on everyone else. A Columbia professor, Lilla speaks from the very definition of the word privilege. Gazing out from his Ivy League perch in Morningside Heights, he sees a world in which that much-reviled blend of discourse and action known as “identity politics” led to the election disaster.
“In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing,” Lilla writes.
Oh, really? What was Hillary’s big mistake? According to this straight white guy, “she tended on the campaign trail to… slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT, and women voters at every stop... If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.”
In other words, she shoulda paid more attention to undereducated white people and the white religious right, as though the latter group of absolute hypocrites had any intention of voting for her to begin with. No, the self-proclaimed devout “Christian” crowd went with the lying scumbag with a stripper wife, as we all knew they would.
Lilla holds a particular contempt for trans folks. When in doubt, blame the most vulnerable. “How to explain to the average voter” — by which he means undereducated straight white people (in other words, himself without the education) — “the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them?,” Lilla asks.
No, Professor Lilla — college students already have that right by virtue of being human. Nobody is “giving” it to them. That they are exercising that right is what you object to, and yes, I’ll say it: if you weren’t such an ostentatiously straight white guy you’d have a little compassion and respect for them.
He continues to harp on the oppression of trans people as taking attention away from real problems, which of course have nothing to do with anything as parochial as gender oppression.
“However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly our own.”
What exactly is that fate, one is forced to ask? Lilla doesn’t bother with that troubling question, because the answer would make him look as heartless as he evidently is. The Times itself covered the story. As Liam Stack wrote in August, “since the 2013 military intervention that established former Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s ruler, at least 250 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people have been arrested in a quiet crackdown that has shattered what had been an increasingly vibrant and visible community. Through a campaign of online surveillance and entrapment, arrests and the closing of gay-friendly businesses, the police have driven gay and transgender people back underground and, in many cases, out of the country.”
To Lilla, this account of the persecution of LGBT Egyptians and the signal that persecution sends to everyone in Egypt “contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future.”
Lilla goes on and on, declaring at one point that “identity politics… never wins elections,” forgetting entirely about the two-term president named Barack Obama, who was elected precisely by the various “identities” that made up the Obama Coalition. He totally tips his hand later, when he writes, “To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.”
What exactly does Mark Lilla suggest we do when the elimination-obsessed right legislates one of the most personal aspects of our lives — which bathroom we must use to avoid being arrested? Identity politics didn’t produce the infamous North Carolina anti-trans bathroom law. The straight white right did — the identity that isn’t called an identity because it’s the “average.” And in the election of Donald Trump as president, one state in particular stuck out as bucking the trend: North Carolina, where the governor’s race is as of this writing still too close to call. Even if the bigot McCrory wins in the end (and he’s losing as I write this), I’d call that a victory for specifically trans-friendly identity politics.