What to make of identity politics? The question has vexed both our finest and our most inflamed minds. For some, the term is a vestigial remnant of the 1960s, a silly preoccupation that concerns few outside the airless confines of classrooms and newsrooms. For others, it’s a useful if flawed engine for social change. This week, however, two seemingly disparate events—the Supreme Court’s confirmation of the Trump administration’s travel ban and Harvard’s anti-Asian discrimination—made headlines, proving just how ruinous identity politics can be.
At the core of both of these controversies lies one simple question: Is group identity foundational to human existence? If you believe that the answer’s yes—meaning that a person’s identity as African-American, say, or Jewish, or gay is central to their essence and colors much of their experience—you also believe that people will and should be judged first and foremost as members of these groups that define them. These groups, as any budding anthropologist will tell you, have specific cultures and defined characteristics, not all of which may be seen as positive in every context. Seen this way, might it make sense that Muslims are prone to terrorism, as the administration’s travel ban seems to be implying? Or that Asians, as Harvard has clearly stated, lack leadership skills? Or that Jews are greedy and disloyal?
The answer to all of the questions above, of course, should be a resounding no, because to believe any of this nonsense is to openly endorse both bigotry and racism. Sadly, that’s precisely what identity politics licenses when it urges us to accept the primacy of group identity as a perfectly valid—indeed, essential—means of understanding or describing any individuals.
That premise is what champions of liberal society and values—from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to Martin Luther King Jr.—have long opposed. They understood that a modern democracy can be predicated on one of two principles: A celebration of the unique qualities of each and every person, or an endorsement of group belonging and shared characteristics and values. The first choice is called liberalism, the second tribalism. Each has a history and champions, but the champions of the second idea are not usually those we celebrate as our guiding lights.
You may ask how I can say this, as a Jew writing for a Jewish publication that champions Jewish identity. The answer’s simple: I don’t believe that the state was ever supposed to provide meaning or purpose to anyone’s life. The point of a republic—of this republic—is simply to allow every individual to pursue their own idea of happiness. I find tremendous joy and pride in being Jewish, in barbecuing kosher meat on the Fourth of July, in studying Talmud every chance I get. If I apply to a university, or go to renew my driver’s license, or seek to become a citizen of this country, I want to be judged as me—not favored or denigrated for attributes that some bigot or even someone who believes themselves to be well-intentioned has attributed to “Jews.”
Liberalism, of the classic variety that I espouse and on which this country was founded, makes my Judaism possible. It lets me be me. Unlike in Iran or the old Soviet Union, I am free to be as Jewish as I want, and do all manner of other things that give my life a deeper meaning. Being able to identify as Jewish in the ways that make sense to me depend on the protections offered by a liberal society, which is a principle that Israel, for example, understands and respects even as it remains a profoundly Jewish state.
When you try to construct a society, especially American society, on any basis that gives people the license to substitute group stereotypes for the actual qualities of individual human beings, disaster follows. And there’s a word to describe those who believe that we ought to judge people based on their group, not their selves: Bigots. Whether you find these haters advocating denying Muslims entry based on their group identity or keeping Asians out of Harvard for the very same reason, the same term still applies.