Identity Politics: The New Polytheism

In the perfectly penned article “Safety Pins and Swastikas,” picked up by the socialist rag Jacobin, Shuja Haider makes the point that identity politics and white nationalism are fundamentally compatible. To summarize his argument a little brutally: when you reduce mainstream politics to the attempt to establish and represent your identity, you invite racists into mainstream politics. The language of identity is as appropriate for the alt-right as it is for oppressed minorities. They can snag a victim-narrative, a label, and a t-shirt as much as anyone else. Richard Spencer, of the white-nationalist journal Radix, doesn’t want anything that Black Lives Matter doesn’t want. As Haider points out, Spencer is “fond of describing his platform as ‘identity politics for white people.’”

He takes pains to correct those who refer to him as a white supremacist, insisting that he is merely a “nationalist,” or a “traditionalist,” or, better yet, an “identitarian.” He wants to bring about what he calls a “white ethno-state,” a place where the population is determined by heritability. In a knowing inversion of social justice vocabulary, he describes it as “a safe space for Europeans.”

The fact that identity-politics is so easily re-purposed for non-leftist causes indicates, to Haider, a need for a new universal politics. We need to build “a movement based on universal principles.” This is a political version of a historical argument made by Josef Ratzinger on the scandal of the Jewish faith. The boldness of the Jews was precisely to claim universality in the midst of identity-politics — or identity-theologies, as the case may be.

CC Jew talking to me? | by Marcus Vegas

The Jews were not always monotheists. They inhabited Mesopotamia in the midst of various, and usually hostile, cultures. Each worshiped their own particular god. Chemosh was the god of Moab, Milcom the god of the Ammonites, Qaus the god of the Edomites, and Yahweh was the God of the Israelites. The gods united their people into a nation and secured them in their identity. No one culture denied the existence of the others’ god — they simply saw them as warring powers.   

The revelation that “I am the LORD; there is no other God” (Isaiah 45:5) was earth-shattering. It destroyed the polytheism that localized and limited the Goodness of the Divine to nationalistic power. Though the Jews were notorious “backsliders,” worshiping national gods again and again, the prophets eventually drove the point of monotheism through their hearts: Yahweh alone is God. The rest are false gods, idols and non-entities: “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” (Psalm 96)

It would take the Jews a while to realize the full implication of the fact that their God was the God of all people. Monotheism splits the Jewish “tribe” open to implicate and invite the entire world. The vision of the One God, Father and Creator of all, implies a worldwide solidarity that overturns the nation-state, with its local, limited god. It is this legacy that the Christian Church claims to complete. The goal of Christianity is to bring this glimmer of universality to its full brightness in the form of the Church — a brotherhood and a body in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Most positions mankind manages to muster up in the field of culture have already been played out in the field of religion. Slavoj Zizek makes the more radical claim that the “notion of ‘culture’ as distinguished from ‘real’ religion…is in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal beliefs — ‘culture’ is the name for all those things we practice without believing in them.” The practice of identity politics is the practice of polytheism without any actual belief. It is the backsliding of monotheists into a new, fragmented nationalism; a giving-up of the dream of justice for all; a fading of the Judeo-Christian tendency towards a universally common good into the post-Christian tendency towards the localized, national interest.       

The New Nationalism

We are organized into “nations” in close proximity with other nations through our identities: the black nation, the rural nation, the christian nation, the transgender nation, the female nation, and so on. These identities verge on the mystical. They never take on earthly existence as actual communities of people. They never encompass reality — there is always some poor, actual transgender person who isn’t allowed into the identity-politic, some person, as Judith Butler insists, who is never quite “woman.”

Our “identities,” then, remain within ideal spheres, where they secure us against the threat of other identities. They are gods. This nationalism doesn’t seem offensive because our new gods defend oppressed minorities. Every new nation is made up of a people involved in a struggle for emancipation. But there is no value-check on identity-politics anymore than there were value-checks on the gods of the Mesopotamian basin. There is no reason why the insane, the evil, the greedy and the power-hungry cannot create a victim-narrative, establish an identity, design a flag, and demand a safe space.

There is something tragic in our panic over the fact that the white “identitarians” have their own god and are demanding to be seen as a nation among nations — it’s too late. We did this. We have no criteria by which to declare one identity valid and another invalid. Power is available to anyone that could successfully claim an identity. Identity-politics is the self-professed method of white nationalists because identity-politics is already nationalism. 

In the end, the Jews are our best defense against this repackaged Nazism. We need the monotheistic impulse that declares the local gods dead through a vision of a God of All. This would inaugurate the possibility of a nation of all men, founded, not in their identities, but in principles and goods held in common. Or, if you’re sick of theology — we need to start making universal arguments for what’s good and just apart from particular identity-groups. Haider sums up what identity-politics has done to argument: “We’re left with a simple hermeneutic for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?” If we want a world of peace and justice, we need to leave this hermeneutic behind, and brush up on the hermeneutic that asks “Is it just? Is it good? Is it true?” 

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