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An “Identity Politics” Victory Would Mean the End of Liberty

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America started a “great experiment” in human history, that being the ideas of individual freedom and limited government. All of history before this assumed that the individual was subservient to the tribe, and governments had nearly absolute power over people in the form of ruling kings and princes.

Today, again, there are counter-revolutions against this great experiment in human liberty. In China it takes the form of an asserted alternative to Western constitutional democracy that claims the superiority of an authoritarian model (on a Marxian foundation) under which political power is concentrated in the hands of one party and one leader. To assure “unity” and one over-arching plan for Chinese “national greatness” reclaimed, it utilizes a vast surveillance state that watches, controls, arrests, and imprisons or kills any and all who offer criticism, dissent, and resistance to Beijing’s “Big Brother” State.

In the Middle East, thousands of Muslim fanatics gravitated to the banner of the “Islamic State” with its totalitarian insistence of one true faith, one true theological doctrine, one true path to salvation. Like far too many other religious callings of the past around the world, the Islamic State called upon the redeemed and the righteous to use fire and sword to establish that one true faith over all of humanity. Brutality and mass murder were the keys to the kingdom used by those of the Islamic State who arrogantly asserted knowing how to get to a heaven on earth.

In the West, and especially most visibly on American university and college campuses, and among a seemingly growing number of academics and intellectuals, is the claim that the founding American principles were all a ruse, a smoke screen, for the perpetuation of racism and gender oppression, along with social class exploitation.

The Danger of Identity Politics – Past and Present

“Identity politics” is the latest revolutionary collectivist banner under which the enemies of philosophical, political and economic individualism are marching to create their own variation of a bright, beautiful new world. But you can be certain that if triumphant their victory would herald an end to that American experiment in human liberty. All the precious freedoms articulated in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution would be threatened with extinction.

The assault on freedom of speech and the press is already entrenched on many campuses around the country. The thought control thugs shout down, intimidate, and threaten or use physical violence against any and all who attempt to talk about ideas, policies or views inconsistent with or contrary to these latest totalitarians of the mind.

The only legitimate speech or publicly published words are those that reflect the lexicon and ideological content of the leaders and the enthusiastically chanting mobs of frenzied students who demand the end to all views and values other than their own. (See my article, “Campus Collectivism and the Counter-Revolution Against Liberty”.)

Have we not seen all this before? Leading up to and then following the rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany, there were large gangs of Nazi thugs who would break into and brutally break up the meetings and speeches of opposing groups. Young Nazi fanatics terrorized and attacked those designated as “race enemies.” Were these not the proponents of a version of identity politics? Were you a member of the oppressed and humiliated “pure” German race demanding liberation and rebirth, or were you one of the exploiting and blood-sucking minority of “degenerate” and “racially impure” Jews?

What about the Red Guards in the China of the 1960s and 1970s? Revolutionary cadres made up of thousands of Chinese students running wild while holding and waving in their hands the “little red book” of the quotations from Chairman Mao, and mindlessly repeating the vacuous phrases and sayings of Mao Zedong’s take on Marxism and communist power through the barrel of a gun. The humiliation, the brutality and even the murder of parents, teachers, professionals and anyone else, even poor ignorant peasants, unfortunate enough to be classified as an “enemy of the people” in the irrational hysteria of Marxist class conflict overlaid “with Chinese characteristics.” Was this not a form of identity politics? Into which “social class” were you born and lived: oppressed worker or oppressing capitalist?

The demands of America’s identity politics proponents that statues be pulled down, symbols of the past be removed, and buildings and streets be renamed all have their family resemblance, as well. From the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the communists wherever they came to power initiated their campaign of eradicating all traces of the “evil” and “bad” past by blowing up churches, and destroying architecture and images reflecting the dark era of capitalist exploitation that Marxism was relegating to the “dustbin of history.”

The Nazi leaders and mobs did their version of this in 1930s Germany. The bonfires of books meant to reduce to ashes any memory or knowledge of ideas and authors not a part of the identity politics of German National Socialism; an aspect of this Nazi plan for a new and better “master race” was extended to the burning of the bodies of the millions of the “racially inferior” who were killed, so no trace would be left of them either.

Was this not identity politics in the extreme? Just as was the murder of tens of millions of “class enemies” in the Soviet Union, with millions more of such “class” identified “enemies” sent to work, starve and die in the slave labor camps of Siberia or Soviet Central Asia? Individual human beings were reduced to and classified by the collectivist identity politics of race or social class, a group identity classification that sealed your fate, separate from who or what they were as a distinct individual person.

Making the Past Fit the Identity Politics of the Present

The Marxists and Nazis reduced human history to preconceived narratives of either class conflict or race warfare through the ages. What did not fit the ideological narrative was either ignored or twisted to conform to the identity politics story line meant to explain all of human existence down to the present. The same is now being done by the practitioners of America’s new identity politics. Everything that has happened on this planet is forced through the prisms of race or gender identity.

The ignorance, error or outright lying reaches a level of near total disbelief.  It is sometimes claimed, for instance, that if not for white racism slavery would never have existed. In fact, slavery has been one of the most universal human institutions since the beginning of recorded history. Ancient Greeks enslaved other Greeks; the ancient Romans, as they conquered and expanded their vast empire, enslaved peoples from many ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. The same was true among Asians, Africans, and in the Americas among the Aztecs, Mayans, and the Incas of Peru.

African tribes enslaved each other as a result of their tribal wars; black African chieftains would sell conquered slaves to Arab slave traders, who would bring their human cargo to the coasts of Africa where those slaves would be sold at auction and transported to the “New World” of the Americas.  At the same time, white Europeans were common among the slave populations of the Muslim world until not that long ago. The very word “slave” is derived from “Slav,” meaning a variety of the peoples in Eastern Europe who were conquered and held in bondage by other Europeans.

Beginning in the 1500s slavery was given a new area of employment with the “discovery” of the Americas and the transportation of increasingly large numbers of Africans by the Portuguese, the Spanish and then the English. The accounts of the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic are horrific in their brutality and inhumanity of treatment. And with the growth of a partly slave-based economy, especially in what became the southern states of the new United States, it was not too surprising that the White slave owners developed race-based rationales for their “peculiar” institution, often deriving it from Biblical interpretations. In addition, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were Southern authors such as George Fitzhugh who argued in his books, Sociology of the South, or the Failure of Free Society (1854) and Cannibals All! Slaves Without Master (1857), that slavery was a “benevolent socialism” under which slave masters far more tenderly cared for their human property than the capitalist factory “slave masters” of the North who paid barely subsistence wages to their “free” workers and cared nothing if they starved and died.

The Idea of Liberty and the End to Slavery

But it was also among Europeans, and especially among the British, in the second half of the eighteenth century, that there emerged an active, organized and finally successful anti-slavery movement that brought about the end to much of the slave trade across the Atlantic, and then abolition of the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire by an Act of Parliament in 1833. These individual Englishmen, who by accident of their birth happened to be “white,” argued that slavery was an abomination against God as revealed in their Christian faith; all men are born equal children of God, and which mortal man, no different from all others in the eyes of God, should presume to lord over some of those others as if they were God? There is only one Master of all human beings, and He rules in Heaven.

They spoke eloquently and movingly against the cruelty and barbarity of the treatment of captured Africans by the slave traders and the slave masters. Given the indignities and ignorance the masters imposed on their human property, was it any wonder, the anti-slave advocates said, that the African seemed to some to be so less human and civilized compared to whites, when the slave owners prohibited all forms of literacy and learning for their property, and treated their slaves more like abused animals than fellow human beings? The humanity and humanness of Africans was no different from that of Europeans, they insisted, if only they were set free to live normal human lives.

The anti-slavery sentiment had a parallel growth in the United States. Abolitionist groups among Northern whites slowly grew in number and fervor during the decades before the Civil War, with public outcries against their Southern white fellow countrymen. Northern whites demanding the end to this immoral institution undertook rallies, meeting, publications, and political campaigns. There were pro-slavery advocates in the North, too, and abolitionists (white and black) risked physical assault and murder when especially vocal and determined in their opposition. Others risked arrest and imprisonment in working with the Underground Railway moving runaway slaves to Canada where they could not be extradited back to their Southern owners.

This is not to downplay or marginalize the efforts and actions of free blacks in the North or the courage and character of those runaway slaves who risked being sent back to the South by publicly telling their personal stories to arouse the conscience of more Northern whites against the institution from which they had escaped. Or the often-pervasive degrees of racial discrimination that blacks in the North faced even in those states that had long before abolished slavery.

But in this environment of “political correctness” in which “whites” as a collective category stand condemned and accused of responsibility for “racism” and slavery, historical accuracy requires that it be remembered that the movement that finally brought a global end to the legal institution of slavery began in Europe and spread to America. That many individuals who were “white” took public stands and fought (sometimes with their lives) for the final triumphant end to slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.

Individual Rights as Key to Free People from Bondage

Why did they do so? Why did these multitudes of people speak out against this ancient institution and run the risk and experience the condemnation and threatened assault by their fellow human beings who defended slavery? In a word, LIBERTY.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had seen the emergence of an articulated political philosophy of individual freedom and constitutionally restrained government. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690) expressed this new social ideal that the individual possessed certain inherent and inseparable human rights: to his life, his liberty and his honestly acquired property. The individual owned himself, and was neither the property of a tribal group nor an absolute king. Locke insisted that man’s life and liberty were given to him as a gift from God, but he also argued that our human reason is able to reflect upon our own nature as human beings and our condition in the world.

Our reason can demonstrate the intuitive “self-evidence” that each of us both needs and desires freedom to survive and prosper. That this includes the peaceful appropriation of physical property by the use and application of our mental and physical labor to transform the natural objects in the world into useful things to sustain and improve our lives. However, sometimes, other human beings do not respect an individual’s right to his life, liberty and property, and he may not be able on his own to fend off the attack.

So people form associative relationships for mutual defense and securing of justice, which goes under the name of “government.” But this government is meant to be a guardian of our individual liberty, not its abuser and violator, and is limited to and restrained in its powers by written or unwritten constitutional demarcations that define the permitted actions by those who hold political office. (See my article, “John Locke and American Individualism”.)

Once such an idea was set loose on the world and came to be understood, believed in, and defended by a growing number of people, it demonstrated to be a force of its own that demanded logical and consistent application, however long the resulting process might take. Yes, the early Americans tolerated or even continued to support the enslavement of one portion of the nation’s population. But just as two objects cannot successfully occupy the same physical space, so, too, two logically incompatible ideas could not permanently occupy the same social space.

How could political leaders and most of the citizenry declare that theirs was a land of liberty, of peaceful and voluntary association and exchange, of opportunity for all to live their own lives peacefully as they chose in following their own personal purposes, while some human beings held others in permanent bondage? A lie cannot be perpetually lived, no matter how hard a person or people may try.

Either there is liberty or there is slavery and tyranny. The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights have forced people living in this country over the years and the decades to more greatly live the words they say their country is supposed to be all about–in this case, when it came to ending slavery and extending equal rights and protection under the law to all people residing within the boundaries of the United States. (See my articles, “Classical Liberalism and the Problem of ‘Race’ in America” and “Free Markets, Not Government, Improve Race Relations”.)

The New “Identity Politics” Would Mean the End to Liberty

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution speaks of “rights” in terms of racial, gender, or social class “identity.” They recognize only INDIVIDUALS, with their individual rights before the law and protected by an impartial rule of law, above which are no individuals or special groups. That people and politics often do not always reflect the ideas and ideals espoused should not come as too much of a surprise. But the purpose and role of those ideas and ideals is to serve as the benchmark of comparison from which to judge and evaluate the reality of men’s words and deeds. That individual human beings fall short does not detract from or suggest the hypocrisy or deceitful “smoke screen” of these ideas and ideals. It merely means that “the flesh is weak,” and we are all called upon to more fully practice what we preach.

But the new advocates of “identity politics” would erase from public discourse, discussion or understanding these noble and historically monumental ideas of individual liberty and rights, and constitutionally limited government by the linguistic sleight-of-hand of excluding them from the academic and public arena by labeling them with the condemnatory “hurtful” words of “racism” or “racist” and “sexist” or “homophobic.”

What would a triumphant world of the new identity politics look like? You would no longer be an individual allowed to live your own life as you peacefully find most likely to bring you happiness and personal meaning. You would be classified and categorized from birth as belonging to a racial, ethnic, linguistic or social group or class. Your life opportunities, therefore, would be defined and dictated by how the political process determined what station and status your “identity” group should hold and be allowed to benefit from.

Your words and language use would be permanently “policed,” judged and potentially condemned for anti-social thoughts defined by whether they were “hurtful” to some other politically identified racial, gender, ethnic or linguistic group in your society. You would be subject to “re-education” to clean your mind and its thoughts of “hurtful” ideas that demonstrated your hidden and insensitive racist and sexist outlook. Indeed, linguistic gender insensitivity on your part might even result in imprisonment, as a recent piece of legislation in Canada suggests could happen to the unlucky person who commits a gender “word crime.”

Whom you could associate with, for what purposes and under what terms, would all be subject to approval and command of a government designed to impose a society of “identity politics” rather than under the current Bill of Rights that recognizes freedom of speech, the press, religion, association, property, and protection against self-incrimination. In the world of identity politics it will be necessary, like under communist regimes, to have public sessions of self-criticism so as to free the individuals from their word and deed “crimes’; but how could this be accomplished if a person cannot be intimidated and forced to admit and confess his “thought crimes,” that is, to “incriminate” himself before others.

Here is why it is, in my view, that the identity politics orchestrators and their mindless mobs of youthful followers so vehemently find it necessary to condemn and reject the philosophical foundations and constitutional basis of the American experiment in freedom. How else do you undermine the institutions that stand in your totalitarian way than to assert that they are to be condemned as racist and sexist rationales for an unjust society? And, therefore, not open for discourse or discussion, having been exiled from the debate over America’s political future.

The victory of identity politics in America will be the death of the idea and ideal of human liberty, with its respect for and a value to the individual human being who is not meant to be a slave in the hands of another version of the collectivist dream of tribalism and human sacrifice on the altar of one more utopian nightmare. (See my articles, “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism” and “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality”.)

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).