The Once and Future Mark Lilla

The Once and Future Mark Lilla. By Justin Dean Lee. Lilla is a leftist who wants the left to move away from identity politics.

MARK LILLA IS a hated man. Or so one might conclude from the rancor he has absorbed since publishing his controversial New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism” in November 2016. … His short new book The Once and Future Liberal, an extension of his op-ed, is generating similarly negative press from the mainstream left …

What exactly has Lilla written to provoke such vitriol? A treatise for social Darwinism? Tips for sewing homemade Klan hoods?

Of course not. He has merely voiced publicly what many other Democrats have been saying in private: that the party’s focus on identity politics has come at the expense of winning elections, which means the very groups it purports to care most about are being underserved. Lilla proposes that the left abandon this self-defeating discourse and reinvest in reasoned appeals to the common good.

A long teaching career has provided Lilla opportunity to observe the damage this has wrought on students: “Young people on the left — in contrast with those on the right — are less likely today to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas.” Instead, they engage politics from the vantage of identity, which guarantees that their alliances (with other identity groups) “will never be more than marriages of convenience.”

Even more significant is how the discourse handicaps persuasion in the public square.

Speaking as an X […] This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter […] It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

Identitarian epistemology thus forecloses the possibility of normative communication. Argument is replaced by taboo. “At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.

It is clear why the left intelligentsia’s response to Lilla has been so vicious. For an identitarian — for whom the personal is so deeply constituted by the political — embracing Lilla’s vision requires a radical transformation of self. Despite his fondness for ridiculing the religious intensity of the “social justice warrior,” Lilla fails to recognize that a rejection of one’s political expressivism could be experienced as a religious deconversion. For some, the remedy may well be worse than the disease. Of this reality Lilla is oddly oblivious. And this is tragic. As much as one may enjoy Lilla’s scorching wit, a stronger seasoning of empathy might have occasioned some advice for those navigating such a discomfiting transition.