Why Identity Politics?
Identity politics is here with a BANG. There’s no disputing that. It is considered part of the progressive movement, in other words, the Left. But why do so many leftists badmouth identity politics with so much vehemence? A lot of the explanation can be stated in one word: Marx.
Karl Marx, the originator of Communism, was all about Class Politics. He saw the main and ultimate struggle between good and evil as class conflict, basically, the rich against the poor although it’s a lot more complicated than that. We have had much class struggle all over the world. In Russia, the working class, or Proletariat, actually overthrew the government and got in power for a while.
In the United States of America, we have always had class conflict. Sadly, the working class has lost a lot of momentum since the New Deal. Unions, for example, are in sad shape and many working class folk seem to prefer right-wing politics and Trump. But Identity Politics is still going strong. Traditional Marxists think that’s a bad thing but it exists for good reasons.
In a nutshell, Identity Politics is groups of people with similar problems and circumstances becoming aware of how they are oppressed by society and fighting that oppression as it affects their group. The reason Identity Politics came into being was the simple fact that society treats different groups of people differently.
Working class folks outnumber the capitalist class by an enormous margin. The ruling class cleverly found ways to divide the working class so they would be so busy fighting each other they wouldn’t try to overthrow the government. The biggest divisions are gender and race.
Enter Imperialism: Marx’s analysis had to do with Capitalism. According to Marx, the contradictions in class struggle would lead to revolution. But Capitalism transmogrified into Imperialism. In a nutshell, the capitalists began oppressing and exploiting people in Third World countries. These countries were not industrialized and they couldn’t match the power of an industrialized country like the United States. Because they were able to exploit the workers in these countries, the capitalists were able to allow a fairly comfortable lifestyle to the workers in the USA. Because of the benefits available to them in our country, the workers were not discontented enough to develop much of a movement. During the Great Depression, Communism had been growing in popularity. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal to fix the economy that had been imploding and causing so much misery. The Right hated everything about the New Deal but it was popular with the people. Because the New Deal took off the edges of naked, laissez-faire capitalism, the interest in Communism waned. Society was then able to spread cold war propaganda. Communism became a demonized concept.
White supremacy and male supremacy, i.e. oppression by race and gender, are really part of imperialism. Third World countries are almost exclusively composed of brown, yellow or black skinned people. Blacks in the United States got here as slaves. White and male supremacy are considered the “twin pillars of imperialism.”
The first Identity Politics were developed by women and blacks. Even here, the ruling class managed to turn these two groups against each other. There was a lot of nastiness about who would get the vote first. Each group wanted the other to be patient and wait until they got the vote. Eventually, as we know, both groups got the vote.
Racial “minorities” and women are still oppressed in many ways despite their power of the vote. But both are a hella-of-a-lot better off than they would have been without their Identity Politics.
The next large group to get political about it’s unique circumstances was that of Gays. Being an old geezer, I actually remember the early days of the gay rights movement. Gays (or “homosexuals” as they were commonly called) were highly stigmatized. It was actually illegal to have sex with a person of one’s same gender. (Hard to imagine today.) The American Psychiatric Association, who created the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, called “homosexuality” a psychiatric disorder. It was right there in black and white in the DSM, the bible of these shrinks. These “experts” on the human psyche has changed their position, not because of scientific study. No. Their expert opinions altered as a result of activism. While I agree with their new position, I certainly can’t respect them as scientists when I consider what led to their change. So much for science.
The first organizations dedicated to gay and lesbian rights took on obscure names. No Gay Liberation Front. Rather, the men called their organization The Mattachine Society. Lesbians started the Daughters of Bilitis. It’s a sign of how oppressed gays and lesbians were that they used such obscure titles for their first organizations. Many people were in the closet on pain of losing their jobs and even their homes. People forget that the Gay Pride Parade was once the Gay Freedom Day Parade. As in the Virginia Slims ad, we’ve come a long way, Baby.
While I had a huge crush on one very cute butch dyke, my sexual experiences in those days were exclusively with men. I discovered I was a masochist and, inspired by the gay freedom movement, in concert with a like-minded masochist, I decided to start one for masochists. Following the tradition of an obscure name for our group, I suggested The Eulenspiegel Society. Originally just for masochists, TES, as it’s more popularly called now, included sadists as well.
The gay movement, like the feminist movement, never fully accepted BDSM. As they became more acceptable they also became rather rigid and conventional. They didn’t want sadists and masochists spoiling their conventional image. If they held themselves aloof from us, their attitude towards pedophiles was that of total rejection. This was partly because homophobes had a tendency to stereotype gays as child molesters. It was nonsense but the mainstream movement didn’t want boy lovers (as many called themselves) giving ammunition to their enemies. It is also because pedophilia is hated by society with much more emotional vehemence.
Gays have always included a group who dressed and usually role played as the opposite gender. That was commonest among men. They were called Queens. Among lesbians, there were butches and femmes. The butches dressed like men and the femmes just stayed feminine. There were actually laws against cross-dressing. In New York, people were allowed to dress like the opposite gender as long as they wore three items of their own gender. I wonder how many people even remember those days. The gay movement began officially when there was a clash between cops and gays at a bar called Stonewall. The most active and militant of the gays who resisted the police were Queens.
Transgenderism is probably the newest and fastest growing voice in Identity Politics. What was the gay movement is now the GBLTQ movement. Bisexuals were never really accepted by gays who thought us opportunists who played both sides of the street without commitment. But once transsexualism or transgenderism were added, I guess they threw us Bi’s in for good measure. The Q is kind of optional and just stands for Queer. It’s basically a way of adopting a word originally used as a term of defamation but making it positive. From transgenderism, has evolved the concept of gender neutrality. That means the whole idea of two genders being rejected. People can be whatever “gender” they identify with. The existence of genuinely intersex people gives some credibility to that trend. However, I consider it a trend rather than a movement because it is mainly people who are not oppressed as a group. In fact, the very fluidity of “gender” makes it hard for these folk to really be a group. That doesn’t include the intersex who are a group and who are oppressed. A great difference between the gender neutral and transsexuals is that the latter feels very strongly that they are the opposite gender and the former isn’t really attached to any gender identity. But they do insist on their right to invent new pronouns and demand you call them by that pronoun. What they have in common is the insistence that one’s subjective feeling defines one’s gender, not one’s biology. They say gender is a social construct. I say that gender-bound stereotypes are a social construct. Whether one is male or female depends on the body one is born with. But that’s just my opinion. I do think the idea that one must change one’s gender to conform with traits that are generally considered girly or manly reinforces gender stereotyping rather than erasing it.
The reason for identity politics is the different way each of these groups is treated by society. Capitalism grew into imperialism and systemically divided people into groups designated for special treatment. Women and Blacks/Third World Folk are the primary identity groups whose oppression is undeniable. Gays and others gender non-conforming folk are a large and very active group that is systemically oppressed and is organized by identity for damned good reasons. I am basically onboard with most identity groups. I have some problems with transgendered folk which is explored in the links below.
- Hey! Doctor! Intersex people fight back.
- Money’s Folly. How complicated gender really is.
- Cis Chick Stirs Up Shit. What’s going on here?
- The Emperor’s New Clothes. The war on objective reality.
- The Transgender Agenda. Where are we going?
- Gender. The strange origin of the word.
- Whose Feelings?
- To Jazz. My message to Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist.
- Doll Parts. Girl’s brain in boy’s body?
- Religious Critique of Transgenderism. Where we part company.