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Coleman Hughes and Critiques of the Left: An Open Letter to McManus

“Although the line seems quite clear as to when right-wing ideas have gone too far, the same clarity just isn’t there for when left-wing ideas go bad.”

Recently, when a colleague of mine and fellow writer, Matt McManus, asked me to pen a piece in critique of the modern Left that he could respond to—in an effort to expand the often disjointed and hostile discourse that marks modern politics—it wasn’t obvious to me that I had much to offer to the conversation. After all, I would consider myself a progressive on both paper and policy, and much of my criticism of the Left stems from a concern that the excesses of the Left are galvanizing the excesses of the Right. This is, of course, nothing that hasn’t already been written about in Quillette or any number of heterodox publications. 

Part of the problem with these broad sweeping labels is that the ground beneath our feet is always shifting, and what qualifies as being either on the Left or Right has transmogrified significantly, particularly over the past couple of years. But upon reflection, I decided to put together this piece, in part because of the honor it is to be asked to do so by someone I look up to—but also because I feel my experience might lend itself to an honest and good faith criticism of the Left that could be of use to a curious reader. This also feels like an important undertaking for another reason: although the line seems quite clear as to when right-wing ideas have gone too far (i.e. associating national identity with skin color, justifying societal inequalities with appeals to bootstraps, clinging to tradition to numb social change, free market fundamentalism etc.), the same clarity just isn’t there for when left-wing ideas go bad, short of invoking the Soviet Gulag or Maoist China (though I’m sure my interlocutors will bristle at this claim). I’d like to attempt to sketch out the contours of that line—or at least clarify where it might be. This involves delineating the strains of Left-leaning thought that run the risk of turning off fellow travelers, while also obscuring potential solutions to complex issues. To do so, I will be drawing heavily from the work of the writer and Quillette columnist Coleman Hughes among others. 

The Politics Of Identity

Critiques of “identity politics” have become a staple of right-wing media. But this line of attack has become so muddled and distorted that it hardly carries any meaning anymore. If we were to ask a pundit of this particular mould to present an exact definition of identity politics, the critique will likely begin with Black Lives Matter and end with pink vagina hats, leaving a rather incomplete picture as to what constitutes human identity. It is hard to take the criticism in earnest when it has completely ignored the rise of white identity politics, and it’s hard to knock progressives who have become desensitized to such appeals. But I’m afraid this numbing effect comes at a cost; beneath the tropes and dog whistles, the concern over a growing identitarian strain in mainstream left-wing politics is indeed well-founded. 

As an example of this confusion, a recent conversation between progressive commentator David Pakman and journalist Tim Pool provides a useful case. After Pool began airing his grievances about identity politics writ large, describing his experience of coming from a mixed race background and how that influenced his views, Pakman pressed him on the issue by asking, “Isn’t that identity politics, in that you are against identity politics as informed by your identity?” Although Pool was not quick enough on his feet in the moment to expound his position, the view proffered by him is completely coherent.

Identity Politics is not complicated: it’s simply the assumption that immutable identity traits, like gender or race, are a useful lens through which to assess politics. It’s the idea that our group identity matters to the extent that it trumps other interests and values. Saying that our views are informed to one degree or another by our identity is entirely non-controversial. Who would debate that? But the problem arises because we fail to grasp the complex amalgam of identities that makes up the strained complexity of the human being. Taking the most obvious identity trait and presuming that it is politically essential, that the personal is the political rather than just the one being connected to the other, is a way of blurring the boundary between the individual and the group. In doing so, this betrays the very essence of the aspirations of the West. And, quite frankly, it is racist to assume that, as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Ma.) eagerly observed in a recent speech, a “brown face” should be attached to a “brown voice.” But our immutable identities are not accurate barometers of our politics, nor should they be purported to be. Despite the plethora of recent critiques of colorblindness as a guiding principle, from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years In Power, it seems like the colorblind principle is a much safer bet than presuming we know how to dilute the views of broad swathes of individuals, who happen to belong to historically victimized groups, into a cohesive narrative or policy prescription. It disturbs me that this doesn’t seem to be obvious to many progressives.

White liberals are now more “woke” than black Americans on race issues, and at least half  of Black Americans when polled say that racism has not affected their chances in life. Considering these realities, the danger of appropriating the grievances of a formerly oppressed group by white elites for the moral and social power it allocates is a concern that is not taken seriously enough by mainstream commentators, in my opinion. What has been dubbed“the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation” on the part of whites has other downfalls, as well. Take, for instance, the issue of police brutality: the largest and most impactful police reform movement of past decades has been Black Lives Matter, which approached the issue of policing almost entirely through the prism of systemic racism. Of course, if the problem turns out not to be racism—if, say, whites and other racial groups are just as likely to be murdered by police as blacks when accounting for other factors—then energy and resources would have been misdirected towards policies like anti-bias training and diversity initiatives, as opposed to less sexy and emotionally satisfying policies involving better training protocols and police/community bridge building. The latter doesn’t carry the same gravitas as the former. 

And to the glib argument that “all politics are identity politics” made by Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox among others, such an assertion only makes sense if we draw a moral equivalency between my identity as a fantasy nerd and my identity as a straight white cis male. The assumption embedded in this claim is that we can account for the vast complex web of human identity through the prism of visibly identifiable group identities. But not all identities are created equal, with some more foundational to our character than others. Nor are all identities visible, such as my own situation as a chronically ill individual. All politics are identity politics only, “in the trivial sense that politics involve people and people have identities,” as Coleman Hughes waxed bluntly

Disparitism 

Another strain of Left thought that is disheartening and counterproductive is something I would call disparitism, the tendency to compare society at present to an ideal utopia and then attributing the disparity to systemic injustice prima facie. This is an extension of what Coleman Hughes described as the disparity fallacy, which, “holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic.” Of course, there are systemic injustices that must be contended with, but the moral framework we use to broach such problems is consequential to developing robust solutions. Moreover, disparitism stokes resentment, in that when compared to an ideal, the actual thing will always look and, more importantly, feel grim. The deeper questions involve how we diagnose, conceptualize, and contend with societal unfairness and, crucially, what exactly we are comparing it to. There is a strong case to be made that an amalgam of corporatism and cultural entropy has lead to an excess of inequality that makes life harder for everyone including the rich, but the solutions don’t necessarily include leveling gaps or appealing to cosmic justice. The problem with unequal outcomes, independent of individual merit, is not that it is unfair in some grand yet ill-defined way but, rather, that it perpetuates human suffering. The distinction is immensely important, even if one believes structural unfairness lies at the root of human sorrow (I don’t). It is the difference between seeking to improve conditions for flesh and blood human beings to the greatest degree possible in the present—and holding out hope for an unreachable future while other people suffer all around us. 

The Denial Of Progress

A recurring contour of progressive discourse that I’ve consistently had trouble with has been the outright denial of human progress, full stop. I was once “called out” on social media after posting a short essay of mine that referenced entirely non-controversial statistics citing the decline of global poverty over the past thirty years. The person accused me of denying the suffering of humanity and nestling myself in the confines of my privilege. It would be easier to ignore the comments if I were convinced this was the exception, but that has not been my experience. Of course, it is completely understandable why the Left, whose rightful job is to critique the society at-large and advocate for change, would be hesitant to bask in the sheer fact of how lucky we are. But I believe the denial of progress tracks deeper than the tendency to make scathing criticisms of society. 

Accepting that humans have made progress, both in the West and across the world, operates in direct conflict with the social justice vision. A crucial part of the social justice worldview, after all, is that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that rules life on this planet is ultimately making things worse and must be overturned. To admit that some things have improved is to attribute at least partial causation of the positive changes we’ve seen in the world to the very structures we so lament. But there is no reason that the steady march of human progress and a scathing criticism of capitalist societies ought to be mutually exclusive, as philosophy professor Ben Burgis clarifies in an article in regard to the reality of human development: “the strong implication was that this point undermines the case of Marxists and other left-wing critics of capitalism. Why should it, though? One of the reasons Marx thought that the transition from feudalism to capitalism was progress is that it allowed the ‘forces of production’ to develop in a way they couldn’t when they were fettered by feudal social structures.” Another issue with this denial is that solving problems entails recognizing what we have gotten right just as well as what we have gotten wrong. To once again quote Coleman the wise, “if we fail to learn from the triumphs of our own recent past, we are doomed not to repeat them.”

Conclusion

This is not a complete picture. In fact, I intend to write a follow up to outline some other strains of Leftist thought that contribute to our cultural malaise. But to summarize, 1) The Politics Of Identity, which dissolves the individual into the group 2) Disparitism, which perpetuates bitterness and obscures solutions to complex issues and 3) The Denial Of Progress, which limits the range of procedures to improve societal conditions by fixating on the negative have all been sanctified in modern progressive discourse. None of this is to deny that certain identity groups have been historically marginalized and continue to feel those effects; or that inequalities deserve to be critically examined and redressed; or that while the human enterprise has improved en masse there are still many ways in which it hasn’t or is moving backwards (such as the public health standards in my home country of the United States). My fear is the aforementioned blind spots coagulate to form a common conceptual framework that further divides people that otherwise hold shared values and concerns and makes problems harder to solve. It’s not rocket science.

Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

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