Manage episode 377864627 series 2428301
German-American political scientist Yascha Mounk joins associate editor Rachel Lu to discuss his book The Identity Trap.
Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. This podcast is a production of the online journal, Law & Liberty, and hosted by our staff. Please visit us at lawliberty.org, and thank you for listening.
Hello, welcome to Liberty Law Talk. Thanks for joining us. I am Rachel Lu, an associate editor at Law & Liberty, and my guest today is Yascha Mounk. Yascha is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations. He’s also a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and he has a new book that we’re going to be discussing today, the Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. Yascha, thanks so much for being with us today.
Thank you. I look forward to our conversation.
Great. So, in this book, you talk about a phenomenon that I think will seem familiar to all our listeners, but they may be used to calling it something else. They may think of it as identity politics or maybe wokeism. You have your own term. I think it’s your own term that you coined. You call it the identity synthesis. So maybe you could start by telling us: why do you see this as the preferred term? What is being synthesized here?
Yeah, so first of all, look, I don’t think that a lot depends and turns on exactly what we call it, but at the moment, in the conversation about this big ideology that has arisen seemingly out of nowhere and come to have this tremendous influence on American society and culture and politics, we don’t really have a way to refer to it that is politically neutral. So the way in which this conversation is polarized is with various terms like wokeness, which originally actually were put forward by people who believed in that ideology, who defended that ideology but have now become a kind of cudgel where the moment you say that, a lot of the audience stops listening, and you’re in danger of sounding like an old man who’s shouting at the cloud.
So, just for purposes of his book, for the purpose of his conversation, I think we should have a politically neutral term like liberalism or conservatism or all kinds of other terms so both people who embrace those ideas and people who criticize those ideas are happy to say, “Yes, that is the label for this set of ideas. I might like it, but you might not like it. We can have a conversation about it.” So that was sort of a first impetus behind saying, let’s just coin a new term.
I think it’s called the identity synthesis. I think that term makes sense for two reasons. First of all, this new ideology we’re talking about is fundamentally about forms of group identity like race, gender, and sexual orientation. It sees the world through the prism of those identities. It thinks that we should act much more strongly on the basis of those identities. It thinks that that is the key concept through which to think about and engage with the world or what identity should be in there. And synthesis really goes to my argument about where those ideas come from, that it is not, as some people have claimed, a form of cultural Marxism where you take the Marxist tradition and you take out class and you stuff in these identity categories and you get where we are.
It’s actually a strange synthesis of ideas in postmodernism, post-structuralism, and then critical race theory. But if you understand those three traditions and the main concepts within them, you really start to see the main themes of what I’m calling the identity synthesis or, if you prefer, of identity politics or wokeness that have become so influential in recent years.
Right, so you go through that intellectual history in the first section of the book, and I thought that was pretty interesting. You seem to see it basically as a synthesis of four different components that you talk about, right? You start with Foucault, and then you talk about people like Edward Said, and then you start talking about critical race theory, and then finally a section on intersectionality.
I was just going to say, incidentally, do you ever feel this sinking sense of possible futility when you start an argument with a plan to engage Foucault? There’s always this feeling like, okay, there’s been a signal from the beginning, “I don’t agree to the standards of rational discourse.” So then you’re wondering, “Where is this conversation going to end up?” But I think you do a really good job of bringing all of those pieces together. Can you say just a little bit about why those things came together so well? Why was it so natural for those things to fuse into one synthesis?
Yeah, I don’t know that it’s natural. I was originally trained as an intellectual historian. That’s what I did for a lot of my undergrad and part of my PhD. And when you look at past political moments in which people think these 10 different beliefs naturally go together, there’s something that makes that combination of ideas compelling at that time, that helps to explain why people believed that particular set of things. But there’s also always quite a lot of contingency in why it is for various political imperatives and various kinds of political developments that that set of ideas came together.
So I do think that these have now fused in this really impactful way, surprisingly impactful way in the mainstream of our society, but I don’t know that it was inevitable. And in an interesting way, some of these thinkers that I talk about and portray actually end up being quite critical of what becomes of their ideas. So, one of the sections I have at the end of part one of the book is Careful What You Wish For. And again, it’s not atypical in intellectual history. A lot of the people who make a set of ideas happen and who are at the root of them in certain ways end up turning around and saying, “Hang on a second. That’s not what I was hoping for.”
But to give you a little bit of a sense of what these ideas are, yes, I mean, Michel Foucault starts with a broad rejection of what he calls grant narratives, of the structuring accounts of how society works and what is true in the world. And he rejects, as one part of that, philosophical liberalism, the basic tradition underlying our political system of liberal democracies, or if you prefer, of democratic republics. But he also rejects Marxism, which he thinks of as another grand narrative, and that’s not an idle rejection. It’s one that cost him politically and intellectually in his time because the most famous intellectuals are Jean-Paul Sartre, who are contemporaries of his in Paris and were very much influenced and embracing of a Marxist tradition.
And Foucault goes on to make a few points but get the train in motion. One of them is ironically to be quite skeptical of identity categories. Foucault is, in our contemporary terms, gay. He thinks that the idea of a homosexual, the idea of that label, is overly simplifying and he thought we should be very skeptical about it. And the other is his emphasis on political discourses. He doesn’t think of political power as simply traveling from the top down but rather as being exercised in everyday conversations and the way we talk about things and the kind of concepts we use. I mean, this podcast is an exercise of power in Foucauldian terms.
And that gives you the building blocks of a radical rejection of a lot of contemporary institutions, a lot of assumptions we have about the world, but it’s also curiously apolitical, right? It leads Foucault to think, “But there really can’t be any particular improvements of the world because there will always be this kind of power discourses, and that’s sort of inevitable.” And so then, a lot of his story consists of how the subsequent traditions respond to and adapt Foucault to their own purposes. So first, Edwards Said says, “Yes, Foucault is right about discourses.” That is how the West has orientalized a lot of the East; that is how it has justified colonial oppression, but the point is to change that. So, I actually want to introduce a politicized form of discourse critique where that really becomes a form of political battle. And we see the effect today of that.
For a lot of people in academia but also in a public sphere, what it is to do political battle today is to praise or critique the Barbie movie. What it is to be a feminist is to argue over our cultural interpretations of things and the categories we use in order to talk about the world. That is a contemporary echo of that politicized form of discourse analysis. In another step within the reverse colonial tradition, Gayatri Spivak, a theorist who was born in Kolkata in Bengal in the east of India but teaches at Columbia University, says, “Look, I’m deeply influenced by this postmodern rejection of stable identity categories.“ She agrees that the essentialist account of what makes a woman or what makes somebody black, what makes somebody Latino, these are all to be viewed with tremendous skepticism. But she says the really oppressed can’t speak for themselves. Somebody has to speak for them and to speak for them, we need those kinds of identity categories. And so she sort of suggests the slightly puzzling term of strategic essentialism.
And what that is is to say, look, on a philosophical level, these essentialist accounts of identity are wrong, but for strategic purposes, we should act as though were true. And again, you can see the echo of that in contemporary social justice activism. Something you’ll hear very often there is race is, of course, a social construct of race, which I broadly agree, but once you’ve acknowledged the untruth for this essentialist account of race, you then go on to talk about the world and to analyze the world as though race were absolutely true and were really structuring institutions of our contemporary society in every respect. That is really the thing we need to teach people to lean into.
So I think that’s all very helpful, and I think it’s really interesting the way you lay them on the table, all these different contributing theories, especially because what you end up with is kind of a synthesis, although you might also just say it’s a little bit of a mashup. Different pieces get picked from out of these different philosophies because they answer certain questions people are asking in our time or because they seem to serve certain maybe politicized purposes. But there are various ways in which the pieces that we’ve picked up have tensions internally and also tensions with many of the goals and priorities of the people that are using them. And you can see that more clearly when you look at those different strands, to some extent in isolation, although obviously, that’s never completely possible.
So maybe then we should move to the next section of the book where you talk about what, in some ways, is the really shocking thing, which is that this strange mashup of ideas from these different postmodern and maybe post-colonial thinkers went very mainstream in America. Suddenly, this is getting adopted by a wide range of different institutions. And I think this is really hard for Americans, especially conservatives, to understand. We can sort of see how young people and university professors get worked up about ideas like this, but when you see corporations and law firms and the mainstream media and school curricula all reflecting these ideas, that’s a very confusing thing. And it happened so fast, with whiplash-inducing speed. So maybe talk a little bit about: why did that happen?
And so perhaps there’s one step in between, which is the emergence of critical race theory, which is, in some ways, a more subtle and sophisticated set of ideas than is portrayed by some of its critics, but it’s also a much more radical set of ideas than its defenders on the left to claim. So, in a weird way, I think it’s a theory that today, in public discourse, is sort of caricatured as much by its defenders as by those who attack it.
Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory, really makes his name by rejecting Brown v. Board of Education and what he calls the defunct racial equality ideology of a civil rights movement, arguing that because the civil rights movement did not bring the advances for African Americans that he had hoped for, and because there were some real injustices in terms of how the desegregation of schools played out, especially for black students who often continue to be effectively segregated and under-resourced schools, perhaps we should have aimed for schools that were separate but truly equal. So it’s really a very deep rejection of the universalist ideals, but rather than, as the civil rights movement hoped, we should try to live up to the universal ideals of our constitution, making sure we stop excluding people from the enjoyment of those kinds of provisions, he says, “No, that’s never going to happen.“ So we really need to have those separate institutions. We need to treat people more, not less, on the basis of the group of which we’re a part. And that, of course, becomes very fundamental to a lot of contemporary practices, especially around equity.
And then there was Kimberlé Crenshaw, who talks about the idea of intersectionality, which starts off just as a recognition that oppression or disadvantage you might suffer goes beyond a combination of characteristics, that when present in combination, they have a larger effect, which is something that social scientists might express by the idea of an interaction effect as something that is not very controversial, but in the interpretation of what intersectionality means, we quickly then get to the idea that if I stand at one kind of intersection of identities and you stand at a different intersection of identities, especially at one that somehow gives you more disadvantage, I really won’t be able to understand you at all.
And so you add those sets of ideas, and you really start to have the contemporary identity synthesis. The rejection of absolute truth in Foucault, the politicized form of discourse analysis in Said, the embrace of strategic essentialism in Spivak, the rejection of universal values and neutral rules in Bell, and then the broadened understanding of intersectionality as meaning we really can’t understand each other in Crenshaw. That gives you a lot of the themes of what becomes influential, but you’re right. Kimberlé Crenshaw herself, in the early 2010s, wrote an article celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRT, and she says, “It’s great we have a lot more influence in universities that we could have imagined, and things have really changed and transformed, but of course, Barack Obama doesn’t agree with us at all. He’s at odds with the fundamental tenets of CRT because he’s too moderate, and society as a whole is not listening to us at all, and so we are never going to have influence in the mainstream.”
She writes this in the early 2010s, and yet 10 years later, you have these figures who are much less sophisticated, it has to be said, much more popularized, even more Manichean, like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi at the top of New York Times bestseller list and giving these corporate trainings and talks for a lot of the S&P 500 companies in the country, and these ideas really being enshrined in the heart of American culture and society. So how does that happen? How, over the course of 10 years, does it go from the advocates of this ideology themselves saying, “Of course, we’ll never influence the mainstream,” to conquering the mainstream in many ways?
That’s the question I ask in the second part of the book, and I have a few answers to that. One is about the short march of the institutions. So, one is the fact that by 2010, a lot of students, especially at elite universities, were deeply steeped in these ideas. Some of that is because they are a gender studies major, a media studies major, or an African American studies major, where these ideas are often particularly present. Some of it is because of distribution requirements, where even if you are an engineering student, the one class in sociology you take and the one class in the humanities you take really is focused on a lot of these ideas. A big part of this is because of administrators who are actually more progressive and more illiberal than faculty members at these universities, and they come to have a larger and larger role in the education of students.
And so slowly, this cohort of students becomes a member of institutions, particularly in institutions that hire disproportionately from elite universities, that have a workforce that skews young, and that has a self-conception as being somehow particularly moral, whether they’re in the nonprofit sector or whether they’re tech companies like Google that say, “Don’t do evil.” They find it hard to push back against the demands of their employees. And so those kinds of places come to be very quickly under the influence of the younger staff that is deeply imbued in these ideas. That’s one part of the story.
I think that’s very plausible, and I enjoyed this section of the book because, really, this is a question I’ve thought about, and I don’t feel adequately able to answer it. I think everything you said about that is correct, and yet I still don’t feel totally satisfied. All right, so there are young people walking in, they’re making certain demands, they’re criticizing their companies on social media. That creates tension and so forth, but why weren’t there more adults in some of these rooms?
Why couldn’t more senior people just say, “No, we’re not going to have endless trainings where we urge people to search their souls for bigoted attitudes they’re pretty sure they don’t have. No, we’re not redrawing our entire mission statement around disparate impact analysis. We’re just not doing that.” It’s a little bit strange that there weren’t more such people. And maybe they were out there, but they just didn’t feel like they were able to say what they really thought. But why did they not feel they were able to say that?
Yeah, and that’s been one of my disappointments. I mean, I’m an immigrant to the United States. I came here to do my Ph.D. for a year in 2005 as a student and then to do my Ph.D. in 2007, and I’ve been really struck by the way in which many of the ideals that I thought were structuring the institutions of these countries at that time have been thrown overboard very quickly. And many of the people who, in a way, socialized me into those values and ideals then were not willing to stand up for them 10 years later. I’m struck when I go to France, which has a set of smaller Republican ideals, which I agree with in part and disagree with in part.
I think it’s a complex set of ideas, but I’m struck by the fervency with which the French elite still hold onto and believe in those ideas and the way in which, for now, they are actually willing to stand up for them. Sometimes, in ways that are perhaps wrongheaded and inflexible, but in ways that also give me a lot of respect and actually inspire a lot of confidence in the idea that they will be able to maintain them. I’m struck in the United States by the fact that that really hasn’t been the case, and I think there are many different causes for that. One of them is that actually, the basics of civic education have become sparse, not just that you can go from middle school and high school without learning all that much about the US Constitution and the ideals that inspired it, that we’ve stopped teaching a lot of these things at universities. That for a long time, Harvard University did not have a course on the American Revolution, for example. And so a lot of people don’t really understand what values undergird our institutions. I mean, that’s one part of it.
I think a part of it was underestimating those movements where, especially at the beginning, it was very easy to say, “Oh, well, I have these employees who keep insisting on this thing. I don’t really understand it, and perhaps I’m a little bit opposed to it, but what harm can it do?” Let’s make this concession, and then once you’ve made the first concession, you think, “Let’s make the second concession.” So I think nobody expected the amount of power that that would take on so quickly, and that’s, I think, one of the things that made people not resist at the beginning. And then ones that had a lot of power and that captured institutions in part like mainstream media outlets that then made it harder to stand up for them because every time you did, it would result in very negative press coverage and so on.
But I think there’s a third thing, which is that when you had the student movement in the 1960s, there was an establishment that thought of itself as an establishment and that thought of itself, at least in certain respects, as conservative. And so they could look at that student movement with a little bit of distance and say, “Look, perhaps we are even right about some things.” Perhaps the country became better by incorporating some of its ideals, but also rejecting other ideals because there were these people who were saying, “Hey, we’re the adults in the room, and we are responsible, and we’re going to stand up to this.“
Because many of the people who are in charge of the institutions today see themselves in some ways more as the inheritors of the student movement than they do as the inheritors of the elite of the 1960s because they see themselves… Even the rhetoric in the corporations. Why are you climbing the corporate ladder? Well, the truth of it is because you want to make money and have a mortgage to pay and want to give tuition to your kids, but you have to frame it in terms of, “I’m changing the world and making a better place, and I’m this values-driven person,” and so on. Because there’s been this transformation in the self-perception of these decision-makers. I think they just found it much harder to say no. They sort of had this loss of realistic self-perception about what their role in society is.
The role of decision-makers is to be curmudgeons who are pushed into saying yes every now and again, but whose instinct is to say no. And the role of young people is to be students who ask for annoying stuff. That’s fine. But part of what happened is that the establishment gave up on what its natural role was supposed to be.
That seems exactly right to me. That’s really interesting. You mentioned that you were trained as an intellectual historian. I actually was also but as a medievalist. So I studied medieval philosophy, but you know for a long time they didn’t really study medieval philosophy in mainstream philosophical departments because people had this idea that there wasn’t really much interesting philosophy in the medieval world. It was all just religion, so it wasn’t worth studying. And then people started to realize, well, actually, there is some really interesting stuff there, but to understand it, you have to think about how that dovetails with the religion. The religion does impact what questions are asked and then what impact the answers have, but it’s all combined in a complicated way.
So moving this to our present time, I do sometimes think of identity politics or wokeism as a kind of religion. Sometimes people associated with it see that as a smear, but in my mind, it’s not really a smear. First of all, I don’t really see religion as a bad thing. I’m a practicing Catholic. But also, it’s just for me a natural way of thinking about why certain ideas have as much power as they do, why they catch on and have a social impact. And in this case, it seems to me very much like what you were saying, that there are many people who had this idea that being a good person and living a good life requires you to take this position of protecting oppressed groups and especially protecting them over and against established conservative or traditional powers that are preventing them from getting what they deserve.
Of course, that does sometimes happen, but if you see that as your entire paradigm for how you live a good life, then you may go out there looking for bad guys that need to be slain even if there aren’t any, and finding cases of people that are oppressed who maybe don’t have as severe problems as you think. It’s really your need for that narrative that’s driving that quest, and that can lead to some very unfortunate consequences. So maybe what we really need then is to shift those paradigms so people can understand, sure, sometimes you need to stand up for oppressed people, but that’s not the only thing worth doing in society, and so you need to appreciate the value of other projects as well.
Yeah. Two thoughts on this. The first is that I oppose something I see among many of my friends and colleagues, even those who are somewhat critical of these ideas who have a framing of it as, well, they have the right ideas, but it’s just going a little bit too far. And I think that’s both rhetorically and substantively wrong. I think it’s rhetorically wrong because I understand the response by people to say, “But there are these injustices in our society that are real.” There are racial injustices and so on, and how do you mean we’re going too far in being against racism? There’s no such thing as going too far in being against racism. We should be 100% against racism, and it deserves all the effort we can put in to overcome it. And so that’s why rhetorically, I think this idea of it’s just going a little bit too far is misguided. I myself am committed to being as strongly against racism as we can be.
The second point, more substantively, is that these ideas are not taking us too far in the right direction. They’re taking us in the wrong direction. There’s a fundamental disagreement, for example, about how to build a society where it’s more just and racial as well as other terms. And that is a disagreement that runs in part through the black political tradition in the United States, where there has always been what I regard to be the most inspiring part of a tradition, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King and beyond, of people who call out the hypocrisy of a country that in its origins paid lip service to beautiful ideals but did not live up to them.
Frederick Douglass was invited to speak on the 4th of July and ask: how can you celebrate these values of freedom and so on while there were still people enslaved in this country, but whose remedy was always to live up to those ideals, who said the right response is not to rip up the Constitution and say this was, in certain respects, the hypocritical documents, so was not worthwhile. The remedy is to recognize that these ideals are, in fact, the right ones and to make sure that all human beings, irrespective of race, come to be in the enjoyment of the Bill of Rights and of other provisions of a constitution. That’s why he called free speech, which has bizarrely come to be termed or perceived on the left as just a partisan conservative value, the dread of tyrants, because it is what allows the truly marginalized, the truly oppressed, to stand up for their equal treatment.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King pointed out that the check that had been written to African Americans by the Bank of Justice was fraudulent. But he didn’t say, “Let’s rip up the check,” he said, “This check should be cashed. We deserve to be included in these rights.” The people that I’m talking about, people like Derrick Bell and others in this tradition, certainly the more simplistic, modern-day incarnations like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, want to rip up the thing altogether. They think that to make progress, we have to burn down the Constitution. We have to really radically reject those principles. And so that’s not going too far in the right direction—that’s going in the wrong direction. That’s the other important thing to say here, I think.
I want to talk for a moment about your question about religion. So, some really astute and insightful observers of this question say that wokeness is a religion in the literal sense. Not that it has religious qualities, but that it literally is a religion and that, as John McWhorter puts it, those who agree with it should be thought of as the elect, that people think of themselves as the elect because it has these religious connotations. I disagree with John because I think that there have always been political traditions that take on a quasi-religious significance for some of the most fervent believers. Marxism was not a religion, I don’t think. It’s not helpful to think of Marxism as a religion, but certainly, some of the people who were Marxists and communists in the early 20th century and beyond believed in these ideals and believed in the virtue of its leaders with the kind of fervency that is also true of certain religious believers.
So I don’t think the fact that you see this quasi-religious element of the movement, the fact that disagreement with certain core ideas of the ideology is perceived in many progressive circles as a kind of heresy. None of that, I think, should lead us to the conclusion that it literally is a religion. But what it certainly does for many people is to fill a religion-shaped hole. Europeans like to think of Americans as really Puritan, and they tend to think of that as being because Americans are more religious than Europeans on average. But I think the real Puritan nature of contemporary America is in the moral structure of how we treat heretics, particularly how the left treats heretics. It’s the idea that we have to have this morally pure community, and if somebody disagrees with one of our tenets, then they are a danger to the moral health of a community, and at all costs, they must be expelled. That is a kind of Puritan moral imaginary, which ironically today is strongest sometimes among people whose substantive beliefs about sexual morality, for example, are the furthest away from that of our Puritan ancestors.
So I think you’re right when you say that it fills a religion-shaped hole in people’s lives. It functions in some ways like a religion. There are clearly significant differences, and whole books have been written about political religion, sometimes titled Political Religion, so you’re certainly right that this is not unique in that sense. Now, we don’t need to get into this, but of course, in America, this partly becomes controversial because we have both bodies of law and then also conversations surrounding our treatment of religion, so you end up thinking things like, “Well, I send my children to parochial schools so that they can be taught about our religion. I pay a lot of money for that, whereas my progressive neighbors send their kids to public schools where they can learn all about the ideologies that they support, but the state pays for that.”
So then you have all these questions about, well, is that fair? And what kinds of protections and restrictions should be on each of these different sets of beliefs? And if you end up in a situation where you have a progressive woke left lining up frequently against religious traditionalists in your culture wars, then what’s the fair way to handle that situation? So a lot of those questions end up coming into play when you start thinking about the parallels between religion and certain sorts of deep political commitments that end up functioning for many people in a similar sort of way to something like religion.
But I wonder if it would be interesting to transition from that to talking a little bit about civic religion because that’s sort of a middle ground here that I know you have a lot of thoughts about. You’ve said in this book, but also in some of your previous works, that you see it as valuable for a nation to have some sort of civic nationalism, a kind of moderate patriotism that’s built on common goals, a shared culture. And this can be valuable, obviously, because it brings us all together with something that we share and hopefully with goals that we can all work for, so it can be a foundation for some sort of civic life together. What do you think are the most promising aspects of American culture in history that could ground that kind of a civic nationalism or patriotism, whatever we want to call that?
So I like to joke that I am a German Jew, so nationalism did not come naturally to me. And I certainly, at one point in my life, thought that the world would be a better place if we were able to move beyond and overcome those forms of national attachment.
But I think we’ve seen plentifully in our politics in the last decades that, first of all, we need something beyond the level of a group to inspire solidarity with each other, to make us recognize that for all of our differences, we’re all Americans and therefore should sustain a common state and polity and all of the things that we get from that. And so I think actually, somehow, a form of patriotism is a very important counterbalance to the different kinds of forces that are going to pull us apart. Secondly, I think when decent and ordinary people don’t use the tremendous power that the idea of a nation continues to have in our society, it’s often the most cynical and the worst people who are going to exploit it instead, and so it’s very important to fight over the interpretation of what a healthy form of nationalism is.
Now, I think there are broadly three ways of thinking about what should be the substance of that nationalism. One is ethnic nationalism, as to say that what defines your country is some ethnic similarity between its members. I’m skeptical of that in general, and I’m certainly skeptical of that in the context of the United States. This country, since its founding, but especially today, is just far too diverse for that to be a plausible basis for how we’re going to maintain a prosperous, affluent, and peaceful country. So we should reject ethnic nationalism.
Now, the traditional answer that people then gave and that I gave at one point in my thinking on this is a form of civic patriotism, which emphasizes our love of a constitution, of some of the basic ideals of liberal democracy, or if you prefer the term of democratic republics, the mix of collective self-determination and individual liberty that we want to maintain, and we can say what really makes us Americans is our commitment to those ideals. And I think that there’s an important partial truth in that I certainly am a civic patriot. That is one of the reasons why I was proud to become a U.S. citizen in 2017. But I think that there are two reasons why I don’t quite buy that in the end as the main sort of phenomenological account of what makes people patriots and how we should think about patriotism.
And the first is that these ideals are ultimately too similar between countries. Austria and Australia have very different constitutions and are very different countries, an Austrian patriot is not an Australian patriot, but the basic set of values that they enshrined in the institutions in the constitutions are somewhat similar. So it’s not sufficient in individuating. And the second thing is that when you talk to ordinary people, people who don’t listen to podcasts like the ones that we both host, they don’t think about politics as the first most important thing in the context of a nationhood. They love America for more simple reasons: for its sights, sounds, and smells, and its cities, its countryside, its traditions, and its contemporary reality.
And so I actually would add to civic patriotism a mention of cultural patriotism, and that cultural patriotism in a country that is deeply diverse and that is shaped by all of these different influences should not be an overly musty and fussy one. It’s not just looking back at the costumes that people wore when we descended the plank of the Mayflower. It may be that too, and it certainly should include pride in the great achievements of America as well as awareness of the great injustices that have marked parts of our history, but it’s forward-looking. It’s contemporary. It includes the way the country actually looks and functions today, including not just its high culture but also its pop culture, its cuisine, and the things that make up life in America today. And that, I think, is a great basis for a self-understanding that is inclusive without being “woke,” that is diverse, and celebrates the many different faces of America today without needing to define everybody in a simplistic way by the particular intersection of identity groups to which they belong.
Well, of course, one reason why civic patriotism often does have a historical cast is just because history and traditions are things that people share. I mean, if you’re trying to understand how your society became the way it is, then it’s hard to explain that without some sort of historical reference. And those don’t have to be excessively cliched. I think it’s very healthy for us to develop a nuanced sense of America’s past.
But if you aren’t willing to look backward at all, then it’s a little bit hard to know what it is that you’re celebrating. People are doing things in America right now, but what does that amount to? How does that add up to a culture? It’s hard to answer that question unless you’re looking backward, at least some. And I think a fear that a lot of people have about identity synthesis proponents is that it’s very hard for them to do that because so much of our history and culture seem tainted that it’s not clear that we’re allowed to celebrate almost anything, and that becomes this real obstacle to developing any sort of civic patriotism.
Yeah, I agree. And again, I don’t want to make a facile comparison, but I’ve thought about this a lot as a German Jew. How do you think about that? And I think that the answer is quite straightforward, which is that the Holocaust will always be a part of how you understand and think about German history, and that’ll always influence how we should think about Germany today—but Germany is not defined by the Holocaust. It would be absurd to reduce German history to the Holocaust or to say that the only aspect of German identity is somehow how we grapple with the Holocaust or something like that. So you can be proud of Germany and its history and its cultural accomplishments and its strong democracy for the last 70 years and for the economy it has sustained in that time period and for many of the things that worked very well in the country, and yet be fully aware and cognizant of the darkest chapters of a country. And I think that can serve as a model for how we should think about American history.
Of course, American history is, in part, defined by the reality of slavery and later Jim Crow. And yes, I think it’s perfectly fine to think of 1619 as one of the founding moments of America, as one of the things that set up America as it is today in its negative as well as its positive elements. But to say that that is the definition of America as a certain project implied that it was—to say that American history can be reduced to that is just as absurd as it is to say that German history can be reduced to the Holocaust, perhaps more absurd.
And so what we should do is to take the good of the bad. Part of having collective identification is to say that you enmesh your fate in some kind of way with that of a collectivity. And so I think Americans should absolutely be proud of the many amazing accomplishments of a country as the first large-scale constitutional democracy in the modern world, which has played an enormous role in bringing freedom, liberty, and prosperity to countries around the world. And yes, of course, part of that is to be aware of, to teach, and to be appropriately rueful over the elements of American history of which we do not have reason to be proud, such as slavery.
Yeah, it’s very interesting. When people talk about this sometimes, you get a lot of discussion of whether American students are studying the civil rights movement enough and the KKK in the South and that whole aspect of American history. Well, of course, American students should study that. There’s no question that they should study that, and probably with more nuance than I did as a student. But I have to say, if I were to look back at my own education, and this is the ’80s and ’90s, we’re probably close to the same age, there were really only two subjects that we studied repeatedly that were emphasized in multiple years, not just in junior year when we did American history or whatever. The civil rights movement, and the treatment of natives. So even at that time, those subjects recurred. Every January and February, we would study the civil rights movement, but I can’t think of any other historical subject that we studied repeatedly across multiple years.
So again, that doesn’t mean that we should study the civil rights movement less, but I do think we really hardly studied, for instance, the Civil War at all. I actually find that young people are appallingly ignorant of the Civil War, and that’s really interesting to me because I think if we’re trying to figure out how we grapple as a people, as a society with that legacy of racism, and you sometimes hear people, especially if they’re discussing reparations and things like that, saying, “Doesn’t there at some point need to be a reckoning with that past?” You say, well, I mean, I’m certainly not suggesting that the Civil War ended the conversation or that racism ended there or that that’s the end of the story, but that’s certainly how Lincoln understood that moment in history. And if you’re interested in questions about reckoning with this historical injustice and you haven’t even really studied that period or thought about what happened or what it meant, your picture is going to be very, very incomplete.
So it seems to me that there are aspects of our history that we should study, not necessarily because we should celebrate them in a triumphalist way or because we should clearly be covering ourselves in sackcloth, but just because they have enormous significance to the larger story of how, as Americans, we’ve grappled with some of these issues. And I don’t think we can answer the question well unless we understand them better than I think most Americans presently do.
Yeah, and I think at the moment, there’s a danger of reducing history to slogans. That’s part of a broader polarization of our intellectual sphere where at this point, I can predict exactly what review each magazine or newspaper is going to give to each book merely predominantly in terms of how it serves or undermines a particular kind of partisan position. And when we start to view history with that lack of subtlety, trying to press it always into some kind of partisan talking point, we lose what we could gain from it.
Yeah. Can we talk just a little bit about the future and what are the better and worst-case scenarios that we might be imagining? Of course, for the listeners of this podcast, most of them aren’t fans of the identity synthesis, right? They would like to see its influence ebb, but I think in many cases might not have a very clear sense of how that might happen, what might be done to lead to that conclusion, and what are the realistic possibilities for the future. So it would be interesting maybe to hear what you see as realistic possibilities and then maybe what people who see this as a distressing development might productively do to try to respond to that.
Yeah, let me say a few things about that. So first of all, there’s a whole part of the book in which I critique the main applications of these ideas to our contemporary life, in which I defend, for example, what’s good about mutual cultural influence and why we shouldn’t put cultural appropriation under a general pall of suspicion. I have a chapter in which I make the argument for free speech and the general culture of free speech, and I argue that the historical arguments we’ve made for free speech aren’t quite sufficient, that it’s not just about the good things that come from having free speech, it’s fundamentally about the terrible things that happen when you don’t have free speech.
I critique forms of what I call progressive separatism education of the ways in which in many of the most elite schools in the country now, for example, teachers will come in and split up six or seven or eight-year-olds by racial groups, saying, “If you’re black, you go over there, and you’re Latino, you go there, and you’re Asian American, you go over there, and you’re white, you go into that group,” and we are encouraging you to embrace your racial identity as strongly as possible. I think that that’s a really dangerous and disastrous development, and I critique forms of race-sensitive and identity-sensitive public policy, which I think have already led to a couple of big, significant missteps and are not going to help us build a more mutually respectful politics in the coming decades.
Yes, and I should say, sorry, I’ll break in really quickly and say I didn’t talk very much about the third section of your book, mainly because on this podcast, I think that would largely be preaching to the choir a little bit. They would agree with most of those arguments, but I do actually recommend that people read those arguments if only because I think often your articulation of those points would be pretty effective for people who are actually conversing with somebody more attached to the identity synthesis and framing those in ways that they might respond to. But sorry, continue with what you were saying.
Yeah. And one of the things that is really important to me in this book – in this project – is to elevate the level of argument among those of us who are opposed to these ideas. I think often, those critiques of not being at the level of sophistication we need to be convincing. And I do believe in our ability to convince people. You’re not going to convince the true believer, perhaps, but there are a lot of people who are torn. There are a lot of people who think, “Look, there are injustices in our society, and I do care about remedying them, but I also am uncomfortable with some of these ideas and some of those slogans, and it feels like we’re going the wrong direction.”
And so in this book, I want to, for them, explain what has gone wrong and why it’s gone wrong and why they shouldn’t be tempted by these ideas—but also for the people who are in conversation with them, I want to present the best arguments so that if you want to perhaps not have a debate with your crazy niece at the next Thanksgiving, but with your sensible sister who is slightly tempted by these ideas but hasn’t quite bought into them, I hope this book will help. Perhaps you can give her this book as a Thanksgiving or Christmas present, and perhaps that’ll be the basis of a conversation within the family about how you can think about those ideas. That’s what I’m really hoping for in this book. So please read the book The Identity Trap, and perhaps give it as a present for somebody in your family who you disagree with as a basis for conversation.
But to go more broadly, look, I think there are two things to say. One is that the fundamental elements of this philosophy undermine the basic principles of constitutional democracies. They argue that only the principled way to understand reality is through the prism of these identity groups. They’re saying that universal values and neutral rules like those enshrined in the United States Constitution have only been a way to pull wool over people’s eyes, that that’s been their function. Therefore, they claim that to make any kind of progress toward a better society, we have to reject those ideas root and branch, making how we all treat each other and how the state treats all of us explicitly dependent on the groups to which we belong. And I want to offer an answer that recognizes the need for improvement that always exists in democratic societies and has always existed while holding on to the fundamental values of that political tradition.
And that’s to, first of all, recognize that, yes, of course, sometimes you want to think about race or gender or sexual orientation to understand a particular situation, but there are many, many other kinds of prisms we need as well, including religion, including social class, including nationalism, including ideals, including how people act and what the moral status is. All of those are important to understand to interpret particular situations and historical events, so we shouldn’t be methodologically monomaniacal. The second is to say that yes, we have sometimes fallen short of the standards that we set for ourselves, but actually, the insistence by people like Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King to live up to those ideals has been a tremendous part of how the country has made progress. And therefore, instead of giving up on those universal values, we should double down on trying to live up to them. That is the way to continue to make progress. We have made enormous progress.
And then the other thing I’ll say is that I’ve thought hard about how to talk about these things and how to argue about those things. If you are in a workplace where a lot of people are going to disagree with you, if you’re at a Thanksgiving table where perhaps a lot of people are going to disagree with you, how do you speak about these things in ways that can actually persuade people? And part of that is to recognize that persuasion is possible. It’s not going to happen in one moment. The brilliant point you make is not going to shatter your interlocutor’s worldview in that moment, but you do see people making really significant changes in their thinking on this over time, and I talk about a few inspiring examples of that in the book.
I think the majority of Americans are reasonable and persuadable. The majority of Americans want to live in a just country, are rightly exercised by injustice, but also have a real instinctive attachment to the basic elements of a philosophically liberal tradition. Certainly feel enraged when there are injustices, including cancellations and firings of people who don’t deserve that fate. And those people are open to persuasion. And so that’s why I think it’s really important for defenders of these values to claim the moral high ground. Some people, perhaps more on the left, tend to apologize so much for any kind of criticisms of those ideals, to be so, “Of course, et cetera, et cetera,” and so hesitant in making the case that by the time they open their mouth, they look guilty. There are also some people, perhaps more on the right, who say, “Look, you’re going to disagree with me anyway, and you’re going to hate me for what I say anyway, so I’m saying this as a barb. I’m going to spew it out, and I know you’re going to hate me for it.” And that’s also giving up on the moral high ground.
I’ve written this book because I believe in the values it stands for and it defends. I’ve thought hard about the world, and I think this is the best way to build a good, thriving country in which we treat each other fairly and are happy to be citizens together of the same polity, and that makes me proud to argue for those values. Hopefully, I’m right on many things. I might be wrong on a number of things, and that’s fine, but I’m arguing for these things in good faith with deep conviction, and that’s the tone and the thoughtful manner in which I want to defend them. And hopefully, I think that’s a model for how we could elevate our civic conversation and push back against these ideas more effectively.
I think that’s a great note to the end on. Thank you so much for coming on our show. I encourage our listeners to check out Yascha’s book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, and this has been Liberty Law Talk. Thanks so much for listening today.
Thank you, Rachel. This was a pleasure.
It’s a pleasure.
Thank you for listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk. Be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.