Identity Politics: Our Appetite For Destruction

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Where does the genuine capacity for revolution come from? What wood fuels it? What wind whips it from a flicker of an idea into a forest-fire of action?

Community is the source of all genuine revolution — actual people working in daily, sweaty concert to achieve a good common to them all. A man can theorize or post about the need for a worker’s collective, a revitalized downtown, or a parish picnic until his typing fingers grow calloused. Only a living group of people with the will to act can give his ideas flesh. This is hardly a novel claim, but we need reminding. Action does not come from the government, “movements,” or radical ideas. Action comes from us.

Aren’t We All In Communities Now?

An alien visitor to the Western world would assume that we are living in a golden age of community. The word is so ubiquitous, one trips over it on the way to lunch. Our political leaders address the black community, the Christian community, the gay community, the transgender community, and the farming community with alarming rapidity. We refer to “the Twitter community” or “the Facebook community.” Online writers are encouraged to foster “community” in their comboxes.   

But what can the identity-politician really mean by the word ”community”? He cannot mean anything particularly etymological. The Latin communitatem means “fellowship.” One need not be a fellow — or even a bedfellow — with a single businessman to be a part of the “business community.” He cannot mean a physical unity of people. The “transgender community” are not each other’s neighbors. The “Christian community” has never met. The “Korean community” has attended no mutual potluck.

At one point we may have said that these groups were unified into communities by their common experience of oppression, but it doesn’t work anymore. The alt-right plays that same game. We have “the white community” now. And even if no non-oppressed flies were settling into our ointment of oppressed minorities, it’s an odd claim to begin with — that oppression makes community. Two people oppressed for the same reason are not thereby a community. “Unoppressed” communities exist.

If the identity-politician means anything by community, it can’t be much more than “group” or “sample” or “population.” It is the abstract consideration of a diverse people under the sign of some common trait. This would be nothing more than the misuse of a word, except the community-that-means-population is said with the same glow and power as one might refer to a community that lives, loves, and dies together. Identity-politics tries to milk the unity of a neighborhood from the dubious cow of “population.” It’s no wonder the milk goes sour so easily, and the energy of most identity-groups goes into in-fighting about who’s in and who’s out.

Identity Politics in Praise of Oppression

Farmer-poet Wendell Berry’s words are a breath of fresh air: “Community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature.” If you can’t poke the noses of the members of your community, it’s not a community. This is a Medieval vision: a community is a real group of people ordered to some common good that serves the flourishing of every member — and thus the community as a whole.

While identity politics works well as a complaint against some evil, it is notoriously bad at asserting some “good” or “end” of its so-called communities, because to know what goods everyone in a community needs, one really ought to know the people. Without “local knowledge” one ends up asserting goods that aren’t universal. Not everyone in the “gay community” wanted the validation of State marriage. Not everyone in the “Christian community” opposed it. Plenty of lesbians opposed the disruption of sexual difference advocated by plenty of transgender persons. Still, we’ll speak of the aims of the “queer” or “LGBT community” without batting an eye. The “Twitter community” has no more vision of a common good than a “Honda community” or a “cell phone community” would. 

Since we cannot state the positive good which unifies an identity-community, we end up turning some evil into its unifying principle. Catholics feel the unity of the “Catholic community” when a politician is anti-Catholic. America felt the unity of America during the events of 9/11 — not before and not after. The alt-right delights in perceived attacks against the white race. Self-proclaimed European natives are happily energized by reports of rape or abuse perpetrated by an immigrant. It’s the phenomenon of “lunch break bitching” writ large: the more one’s corporate workplace “community” is a farce, the more one longs for some awful manager to complain about. Cut off from a unity established in a common good, we settle for a unity revolving around some common evil.  

This is not simply because “attacks” give a particular political group ammo for their ideological ends. We need the trauma of an attack because it is all that unites an otherwise disparate, unreal population. The neighbor one could not love in person is made loveable by being shot. The maleficent destruction of national monuments by alien races and terrorists organizations hides a yearning that festers in every suburb — the yearning to be united into a community. The same can be said of our open desire for a zombie apocalypse (which makes every “survivor” into a friend, one of “the living,” and a fellow pilgrim) or our perverse admiration of natural disasters (wherein everyone in a city without solidarity becomes a companion sufferer).

Towards Solidarity

Genuine communities of people who bear each other and call each other by name do not seem to suffer from this perversity. Does the small farming community fantasize about the destruction of its monuments? Do the members of a functioning worker’s co-operative nurse an illicit desire for the threat of death and dismemberment of their fellow laborers? Do monastic communities yearn to see their abbeys and vineyards blown to pieces in futuristic fantasies?

Needless to say, our secret love of oppression strengthens oppressors and makes a mockery of the genuine community that mourns the real people attacked. True solidarity is not a feeling sparked by disaster. It’s a mode of living and suffering with your neighbor. It’s what gets you up before the bomb goes off, not after. Solidarity mourns attacks on your community, and never celebrates communal loss as ideological gain. It begins with a turn from the artificially constructed “global struggle” of identity politics towards the real, given struggle of your street.

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