Monday, July 25, 2016

On Identity Politics. George Lakoff and Sean Duffy Opine. Echidne Responds.

Serendipity often plays a large role in what I end up writing.

As one example, I just read George Lakoff's  linguistic piece about how the Democrats should respond to Trump and other  right-wingers, and then, in that oddly serendipitous way, I read the identity politics opinion of one right-winger, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI).

The two gentlemen are light years apart in most of their politics, but what they have to say about identity politics* is weirdly similar.  Maybe that's because they belong to the same identity group (white guys)?

Let's start by looking at Rep. Duffy's statement:

During a CNN interview this morning, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) acknowledged the Trump phenomenon for what it is — identity politics for white men.
While opining about Trump’s RNC-closing speech, Duffy said, “There’s a viewpoint that says, ‘I can fight for minorities, and I can fight for women,’ and if you get that, you make up a vast majority of the voting block and you win. And white males have been left aside a little bit in the politics of who speaks to them.”
Duffy’s implication is that in Trump, white guys have finally found a candidate who speaks to their concerns.

Whether or not they’re effectively communicating to white male voters, white men are certainly still well represented in Congress. When the 114th Congress was sworn in in January 2015, 80 percent of members were white males. By contrast, white guys only make up roughly 31 percent of the American population.

Bolds, they are mine.

White guys make up the American society's top layers in almost everything one can think of: politics, business, arts and literature, entertainment,  journalism, science, medicine, religious and sports organizations etc. etc.  White guys earn more, on average, than almost all other racial and gender groups.**

Being a white guy in the US doesn't automatically mean that one will be powerful, of course.  There are very poor white men, there are homeless white men, there are white men with horrible problems to cope with, and to the extent the problems of these individuals are amenable to political solutions politicians should try to solve them.

But the crucial point is that it's not being white-and-male which causes problems such as poverty.  Indeed, out of the many gender-race combinations the one that results in the least amount of unfair treatment is the combination of white and male.***

So much for Rep. Duffy's opinions.

And here's the very lefty professor Lakoff giving advice to the Democrats:

Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues. Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom issues, human issues. And address poor whites! Appalachian and rust belt whites deserve your attention as much as anyone else. Don’t surrender their fate to Trump, who will just increase their suffering.

My bolds.

This excerpt is taken from a long and interesting article by Lakoff, with much food for thought.  Now why it was included in the first place I find hard to fathom, given that it doesn't flow from any of the prior paragraphs in the piece.

I have concluded that Lakoff very much wanted to make that point which appears to be that identity politics should be given up, except for the case of poor whites.  For if being black, Latino and/or female is an "identity", so is the added "white" in the term "poor whites."

I agree with Lakoff that poor whites deserve the attention of the Democratic Party****, but because of their poverty, not because of their race.  Being white is another minor lottery win in the US, after all, in the sense of being free from race-based discrimination.

Lakoff's argument confuses me.  Does he want reproductive choice to be something Democrats no longer pay any attention to?  It is, after all, a much larger concern for women than men.  If I had to predict the outcome of such a change it would be that the Democrats would lose a large number of female voters should they choose to follow Lakoff's recommendation.

And if the Democratic Party will no longer question institutional racism (the kind that is baked into the bricks of our economy through practices such as residential segregation, red-lining and so on), then who is going to fight for racial justice?

Note that we already have a political party which fights against reproductive choice and racial justice.  If the Democratic Party stopped being any counterweight to that, the majority of Americans would be worse off.  Or so I believe.

So where does that comment by Lakoff come from?  What are the votes he believes the Democratic Party could win by that change?  Are they so many, given the probable losses the recommended policy change would cause,  to justify all this in his mind?  Or is he simply blinded to the problems of some because of his own group identity?

If I wanted to give Lakoff some slack I'd consider the possibility that he is responding to the recent usage by some lefties and feminists on Twitter and in other social media where whole large demographic groups are blamed for the ill deeds of some who share membership in that group either currently or in the past. 

As I've written before, I'm opposed to that usage because it derives from the same theoretical basis some types of discrimination have:  Falsely generalize into large groups the deeds of some who belong to that group.  Besides,  none of us have chosen to be born into our race, sex or ethnic category, and none of us should be responsible for everything people sharing some of our genes do or have done, if we ourselves have played no conscious part in that.

Yelling at possible "allies" is also bad psychology.  Whatever perfect people might do when yelled at is one thing.  What most of us do when yelled at is quite a different ballgame.

At the same time, what those individuals most likely mean is that certain groups such as whites, men, or white men do gain benefits in a hierarchical society of the type the United States of America is by just being born a few rungs higher on certain power ladders.  It's important to be aware of those benefits, or at least the lack of them for other groups, and it's important to work to make the system fairer.

To get there we need institutional change, and that, my dear Lakoff, includes explicit policies and laws to make the system fairer by making sure that women have access to reproductive choice, fair employment practices and proper sharing of child-rearing responsibilities and that blacks and other affected minorities have access to safe residential areas, fair housing, fair policing, good schools and good investment opportunities.

I don't quite see how abolishing what Lakoff calls "identity politics" would get us there.     


*  The definition of identity politics on the net is this:
a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.

That's a much wider concept than anything I would have in mind when thinking of, say, women's issues, because it abstracts away from the reality that women face problems which men do not face, and those problems have traditionally not been getting attention in political systems which have only a few women in power.

But it's also a much narrower concept than anything I would have in mind, because it assumes that "broad-based party politics" are free of identity politics.  They are not, but we often fail to see that, because we regard certain identity groupings as the default:  a group which doesn't have an identity, when in reality every single person does have one.

**  The exception (page 3) is Asian men.

***  In the US, that is. Everywhere being male opens more doors to the independent striving for power and makes climbing societal ladders easier.  Whether race matters and what race is the most favored depends on the race composition and racial history of each country.

But being a guy is always like a minor lottery win, other things being constant, because it is still our default image of a human being, and usually it is to this default option that political, economic and religious rights (and the obligations that went with those rights) were initially awarded.    

How gals were treated in the early stages of societal rule-making varies somewhat, but mostly they were assumed to perpetual minors in the custody of their fathers, husbands, brothers or sons who ruled over them.  In the ideal circumstances they were to be treated like fragile and valuable property , due to that ability to give birth (the mother myths (Erdogan) come from this, with lots of accolades and no actual rewards for mothering), but in practice they could often be treated just like any other kind of property if the family, or its leader,  so decided.

Many societies, though nowhere near all, have moved away from those patriarchal views, but we still live with those ragged remains of what some call patriarchy.  When they combine with the more recent and more just views on the rights of women and men it's possible that the resulting mess causes injustice to some individual men (or women), if they take some of their cues from the old values and some from the new ones, and those cases need to be fixed.  But that's not what Rep. Duffy means in his quote.  I rather suspect he pines for the glorious past.

Google for images about the ascent of man, and what you get is one idea about what the default might be, among those who create such pictures:

****  The Republican Party shouldn't pay attention to the poor, because then they will become even poorer, given the real objectives of the conservatives:  To put more money into the pockets of those who already have lots of money.