In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid expands on his argument that the American center-left is gripped by an immoderate ideology based on identity politics. His piece is a response to the controversy surrounding a tweet by New York Times writer Bari Weiss which celebrated the Olympic success of Mirai Nagasu, an American-born athlete, with the comment “Immigrants: They get the job done.”
The controversy was no doubt overblown. But Hamid took the example of the tweet and the vociferous response by an “outrage mob” on social media to make a larger point about how identity politics is creating a condition where “in the place of ideas,” the center-left was becoming fixated on “small differences, indignation, and an infatuation with being offended.”
Within some circles, Hamid’s piece has been well-received at a moment when the demands of political correctness have tested the patience of even the most well-intentioned journalists, writers, academics, and reading public. But the turn against identity politics, as articulated in Hamid’s article, is both superficial in its justification and dangerous in its application.
Far removed from the cheap catharsis supposedly sought by Twitter’s “outrage mobs,” there is a widely-held belief that identity politics can be wielded positively, and that such politics are especially important and reparative at a time when the chasm of political polarization is being expanded by an identitarian outlook rooted not in individual agency, but rather in authoritarian design.
Take the label of “immigrant,” for example. In her tweet, Weiss’s use of the term, though incorrectly applied, was intended to be positive. That same word is, however, increasingly used pejoratively, including by Donald Trump. In a September 2016 stump speech, the then presidential candidate used the word “immigrant” twenty-four times. In all but four of these instances, the word “immigrant” was preceded by the word “illegal” or “criminal.”
In his article, Hamid also overlooks the fact that today’s identity politics derive from the once-radical belief that identity is constructed. This fact should be self-evident. What makes the concept of “identity” political is the recognition that identity is shaped first and foremost by individual choice, as well as social and cultural norms. How we dress, whom we love, what we learn, what we say, how we work, how we play, all coalesce to create the constantly shifting patterns of our identities. Contemporary understandings of religion, gender, culture, and even ethnicity draw their potency from the acknowledgment that identity can be genuinely and successfully sought and found without blind reliance on norms or orthodoxy. It follows that identity politics is not a body of prescriptive thought. And identity, itself, is not “fixed” in the way Hamid suggests.
Perceiving a shared ideological rigidity, Hamid draws a parallel between identity politics and religious belief. He writes, “identity politics and the virtue-outbidding it necessitates often signal the absence of religion in search of religion—with followers mimicking its constituent elements: ritual, purity, atonement, and excommunication.” This allusion to religion is ostensibly meant to vex left-of-center adherents of identity politics, who might balk at the implication that their politics is marked by mindless, irrational devotion.
But here, Hamid draws the wrong parallel. By failing to take the metaphor to its logical end, he misses a deeper and more important intersection. Hamid’s warning, that mimicking religion risks transforming “politics into a question of purity” is perhaps fair. Many people do use virtue-signaling as a means to “jockey for in-group status.” Yet the most salient intersection between identity politics and religion is not the learned rituals or the demand for atonement, but rather the central role of introspection. In identity politics, as in religious thought, it is the internal impulse to examine one’s self and the place of the individual in relation to the world that underpins externalized belief. In this sense, there may be a religious streak in identity politics, but it is not necessarily, and certainly not exclusively, one that reflects religions’ more problematic traits.
This takes us to the question, “Where are you from?” which Hamid raises in order to highlight the hysteria he sees in identity politics. Like Hamid, I am ethnically Middle Eastern, culturally Muslim, and born and raised in the United States. Like Hamid, I have been asked that question many times and the question does not itself offend me.
But the issue is not so much the question, but why it is so routinely asked. The classic scene is easy to imagine. It’s the stuff of countless books and movies on the immigrant experience—a foreigner arrives in a new community and is repeatedly asked to explain their origins. The question “where are you from” not only demands assimilation—the fashioning of identity towards conformity—but also defines its limits. No matter the extent of assimilation, no matter whether they end up representing their “adopted” country in the Olympics, the question is used to circumscribe the “foreigners” experience and identity. That is why, despite Hamid’s protestation that the “precise words used to convey the right opinion” have become unduly important, they must remain so. Wording and intent, even where intent is positive, are not disconnected or separate, especially at fraught historical moments.
The culture war at the heart of American politics today involves two sides. On one side, there are individuals who see and believe that identity is constructed and contingent. On the other, there are those who are told and believe that identity is inherited and natural. In the midst of this culture war, the question “where are you from” is often asked by those in the latter category in order to reaffirm a kind of order, namely the primacy of an individual’s natural identity over the constructed identity.
I present as American-educated, accented, and attired (the product of choices, if socially conditioned). But my physical appearance suggests a non-American heritage. Tellingly, it is the later characteristic that invites the question “where are you from?” The stakes are even higher when this question arises around the intersection of who we are and who we love (orientation, gender, sex) or who we are and what we worship (practice, piety, religion) or who we are and what we are fighting for (race, politics, patriotism). For many inquisitors, individually chosen characteristics are insufficient to define identity at these intersecting points. Despite what a person says about her identity, the interrogator believes it is incomplete. Where the “chosen” identity fails to match the “natural” one, they suspect something that is at a minimum non-conformist, and at the maximum degenerate.
In this sense “Where are you from?” is drawn from the same pool of questions as “Do you believe in God?” or “Are you queer?” or “Are you a patriot?” Such questions are not necessarily offensive. But they are often asked reflexively, precisely because it can be uncomfortable to meet someone whose identity seems to contravene your expectations, politics, and prevailing norms. To extend Hamid’s religious analogy, it is like the moment when the congregant, beholden to dogma, meets the mystic whose union with the divine derives from a fierce and palpable individuality, who defies orthodoxy as a matter of identity.
Hamid concludes by arguing that the “disagreement within the left about the role and relevance of identity” is “dangerous,” “polarizing,” and “needs to be fought.” His mistake, however, is to reduce identity politics to “anti-Trumpism.” Some articulations of identity politics on Twitter might reflect such a distracting “infatuation,” as Hamid puts it. But to slander identity politics at large is reflexive and unfortunate, and unnecessarily diminishes what has been a profoundly emancipatory turn in American political life.
It is concerning to think that prolific thinkers like Hamid, whose own background offers such rich opportunities for introspection, may consider it unproductive or even regressive to expound on the personal as a means to interrogate the political. We can be sure that in the absence of such political thought, the kind informed by an authentic search for identity and an appreciation for its productive role in political life, a much uglier politics will emerge unchallenged. There are real mobs to worry about, but they are not the ones virtue-signaling on Twitter.