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Trying to get to the Heart of What I Believe about Identity Politics
by Bill McGaughey
Ed Felien's Challenge
Shortly after I announced for Mayor, a friend called me up to say that I was mentioned in Southside Pride, a free-circulation community newspaper in south Minneapolis with a circulation of approximately 40,000. The lead article, written by editor Ed Felien, was titled “Who are these people (running for mayor), and what do they want?” About me, Felien wrote: “Bill McGaughey is still serious about white men being discriminated against (he’s run before for other offices).” So, I was both a perennial candidate and a white male whining about my situation - not a good beginning to my campaign.
Editor Felien was not malicious - I know he has a good heart - though he was trying to be cute. (Other mayoral candidates, he wrote, were “serious” about other things. Felien did publish my letter of rebuttal when I complained I had been misrepresented.) Being an old left-wing politician and newspaper editor, he was stuck in a mindset that saw everything in terms of group discrimination.
And so, if I was aligning myself politically with white males, I must somehow see myself as a being a victim of discrimination. I might want to do for white people what the Civil Rights movement did for blacks. Maybe I would advocate preferential treatment for white males in hiring or promotion. Maybe white males should be 74% of Fortune 500 CEOs instead of 71%. No, that would be ridiculous. I was being put in an untenable box.
Yet, Ed Felien’s statement started me thinking. If my complaint was not that white males were being discriminated against, what was it? I eventually realized it was that my group of people was being defined by someone else. We were being denied our right of self-identification. We were being put into a category by people who did not necessarily like us as a group or have our best interests at heart.
That perspective applied to Felien, even though he is a white male. Left-leaning politicians of a certain generation have seen the world in terms of the Civil Rights model where a racial minority being oppressed and discriminated against by the white majority. That was obviously the case in the segregationist South, but the model has also been applied to white and black people everywhere. It has been applied to males and females after the Women’s Movement of the 1970s.
Being white and male, I was, by definition, part of an oppressive class. To whine about this and complain about being a victim of discrimination only made matters worse. Yes, I was being put in a box. Someone else (who had the power to reach 40,000 readers) was defining me in ways that I would not have preferred.
Old and new paradigms
The first page of New Dignity Party’s website says: “We aspire to establish a new paradigm in the politics of identity”. What is the old paradigm? It is the one created by the Civil Rights movement, if not the labor movement before that. The model is based on antagonism between different groups. The labor movement is based on working-class antagonism toward management or the business class; and this antagonism has lately been returned, with a vengeance, in the form of animosity by business interests against the working class.
However, gender and race (or ethnicity) are more often the basis of the antagonistic relationship. After the black Civil Rights movement came feminism which portrayed women as having been victimized by men and by patriarchal society for thousands of years. Then came the revolt of gays and lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered persons against the discrimination that they experienced in society. After that, there was the immigrants’ rights movement including those who advocated equal rights for undocumented workers (or illegal aliens as some call them). There were also native Americans struggling against the white occupants of their land, Jews combatting anti-Semitism, etc.
The common structure in this is not only group antagonism but the idea of unequal levels of power. The less powerful “minority” is struggling heroically for equal rights against a majority presumed to be oppressive and perhaps stupid. The latter group, while powerful, lacks spirit. It is destined to lose. That is how many view it in society. It is a view based on condescension and hate, not least by members of the group itself.
It is this theme that concerns me as a white man seeking to affirm my identity. In this series of Civil Rights-style movements, there was always a hostile relationship with another group, whether it was whites, men, straight people, persons born and raised in the United States, or Gentiles. There was therefore a residual population, assumed to have all the power and to be using it selfishly. We born in that group were just sitting on our ill-gotten gains.
Squirm as hard as I could, I could never escape being part of that population of undeserving persons who would ultimately lose. My kind of people were Goliath set against David; or Pharaoh trying to stifle Moses empowered by Almighty God. Yes, the Civil Rights model of politics put me into a box and gave my group a self-definition based on shame. I needed to be liberated from that shame. I needed to escape the contentious uses of history. I needed control of my own identity.
A core principle of New Dignity Party, aspiring to advance the “new paradigm” of identity politics, is that everyone deserves a positive identity, even white males. Black people, Asians, and others also deserve positive identities. I see no contradiction between my having this and other also having it. We have our identities equally but in different ways. A related principle is that each person is entitled to define himself or herself as that person sees fit. No other person can say definitively who you are - only you.
But that leads to still another principle, that your identity must stand on its own two feet. You do not define yourself in relation to others. For instance, if you think your group is superior to another group, your own idea of self-worth would imply that someone else is inferior. You would need that inferior person to validate yourself. Or else, if you think your group has been historically victimized by another group, then your sense of identity depends on the victimizer. You would not know who you were if that other group went away.
Therefore, we need to stop viewing each other contentiously. We need to relegate “David” and “Moses”, and the moral duality that they imply, to the dustbin of history. We need to learn to look at others and ourselves in a more positive light. There’s enough of that positive light to go around and illuminate everyone to mutual benefit. Humanity needs to outgrowth its ancient, moralistic ways of looking at persons not in our tribe whom we customarily compare unfavorably to ourselves.
Of necessity, however, I must focus on the situation and the identity of white people. I must acknowledge that in our increasingly multiracial society that is the usual way that I am viewed. Once an American, I am now viewed as a white person, or a white male, with all the moral baggage this implies. Ill-intentioned people have put me into a box, and I need to climb out.
Undeniably, I am white, and I am male, so it follows from the principle that each group has the right to define itself but not the right to define others, that my efforts at self-definition must focus on whites and males. Others, not in my group, are free to follow the same approach or another approach to their own identity, so long as it does not encroach on mine. We are equally entitled to the right of self-identification, none more than another. Identity independence is what I wish now to declare.
Identity may seem an intangible or frivolous thing but it is not. I was struck, while watching David Letterman’s interview with Bill Clinton the other night (Sept. 22, 2009), that the former President seemed obsessed with the problem of identity. He latched on that as the reason why diverse peoples in this world could not get along. Clinton said, for instance: “We still haven’t managed this identity thing.” He expressed much the same sentiment two or three times. If he had known about New Dignity Party, I felt that Clinton would want to join it right away. Yes, political strife is increasingly gravitating toward issues of identity and we do need a new paradigm of identity politics.
How I got into race issues
Let me tell you how I got started with these concerns. It started actually with my opposition to feminism when I learned that police in the Twin Cities had instructions automatically to arrest the man and haul him off to jail whenever a woman claimed she had been beaten. The police needed no evidence of the beating to make the arrest; they were instructed to take the woman’s word. I also learned that the overwhelming majority of people, especially in progressive circles, thought this policy was just fine. No, it was blatantly discriminatory (and eventually the policy was quietly dropped) but I could find few to agree with me.
Then, a feminist group started a movement called “gender equity in the courts” by which courts in Minnesota required practicing attorneys to take courses in gender fairness and presumably keep those fairness principles in mind in dealing with gender-related questions. it seemed to me, if you are “fair”, you keep an open mind and deal with each situation on its own merits, not bend your judgment to predetermined principles taught in courses. You can’t end one type of prejudice by requiring adherence to another.
I got into the race question almost on a lark. One day in July 2002 I attended the state convention of Minnesota’s Independence Party and listened to speeches by some of the candidates for the part’s endorsement. What did the Independence Party stand for? No one was quite sure other than that it had a “platform” and its position was neither left nor right. So this party’s identity was basically that it was neither Democrat nor Republican. It avoided the extremes associated with each major party but was “in the middle”.
Nonsense, I thought, if you’re a third party wanting to graduate to major-party status, you can’t play it safe and hope the voters will admire you for your moderate approach. Instead, you need to latch on to some issue or issues which matter to people and fight as hard as you can for your principles; then, if you’re successful, the voters may reward you with a majority of votes. But first you must differentiate yourself from the two major parties. You can’t be a pale version of someone else.
That was what I intended to do. I decided to run for the U.S. Senate in the Independence Party primary against the party-endorsed candidate. I would differentiate myself as much as possible from the two major parties by supporting the opposite of what embodied their core values. The Republicans I sized up as the party of big business. This party hated organized labor. Therefore, I embraced labor’s historic goal of shortening the workweek. I said I favored a federally mandated 4-day, 32-hour workweek by the year 2010. The Democrats I thought had become the party of the Civil Rights coalition. To differentiate myself from them, I said I favored “dignity for white males” - “and for all other people, too”, I added, to prevent misunderstandings.
The shorter-workweek plank ruffled few feathers. Opponents probably thought I was a harmless dreamer. To advocate “dignity for white males” was an entirely different matter. While a few newspaper editors sounded the alarm, it was not until I learned the Star Tribune’s reaction that I realized the full extent of the dismay. The Star Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, refused to give my campaign any news coverage even while it ran a front-page article about my opponent, among others. When I attempted to buy an ad mentioning my two-point platform, the sales representative informed me that the paper had been advised by its legal department not to accept any ad that contained the words “dignity for white males”.
Who could be against dignity for any group of people, I wondered? Those newspaper editors and reporters at the Star Tribune were so obsessed with race that they had developed a rather twisted set of values. I had unwittingly tapped into a deep-seated sickness in our body politic. The voters themselves seemed less concerned with my “outrageous” campaign. In a three-way contest, I received 31 percent of the vote in the primary after campaigning actively for six weeks on a limited budget.
It was clear, however, that even alluding to race is politically dangerous. I ran two subsequent campaigns avoiding this subject while stressing economic questions. Those campaigns did not ruffle any feathers but neither did they gain traction. My position, focusing on economic questions, was left of center. How do we cope with the long-term loss of jobs? I had some proposals to offer in that area.
Left and right
Even though economic questions may be of greatest importance to voters, I eventually came to the conclusion that those on the political left did not have it in them to assemble electoral majorities. Too many were ideological purists. They were all infected by the Civil Rights type of thinking. Only the interests or opinions of women and minorities seemed to count. Thus the political left has written off the vast majority of voters who are white. That approach drove many of those voters straight into the arms of the Republican Party.
No, the old politics of identity was political poison. It was a formula for dividing people and preventing the voter “solidarity” to develop that you need for electoral majorities. Placing group guilt on white people was hardly a way to make friends. No white person will admit to being a racist, but in the privacy of the voting booth they will vote against any candidate or party that makes white racism too much an issue. You can call these voters “racist” but really it is that they don’t like being insulted. The Republicans, at least, were smart enough to fudge the question.
The upshot is that, by and large, white Americans tend to rally around the establishment and regard as “anti-American” whoever criticizes the country, its leaders, or policies. The critics tend to be the same types of people (Democrats) who criticize racism. So it may be that the white conservatives are really reacting to this, though they dare not say so. The people they abhor may not be anti-American but are surely anti-white. People’s true sentiments are seldom expressed out loud.
The idea of white privilege
Increasingly, the old-style identity politics is based on lies. What lies? For one thing, it is the equation of “whiteness” with “privilege”. White people are privileged whether they know it or not. They may be living under a bridge but they are still privileged if they are white. They had unseen advantages which black people did not have. What advantages? It doesn’t matter. They are “inherently” privileged if they are white. So say the race experts in our universities, on newspaper editorial boards, and in other opinion-setting institutions in American society.
Yes, it’s true that most people who occupy positions of power in America are white. It’s also true that in many cases such leaders have abused their positions and hurt many people. Our mostly white political and economic elite would like nothing more than to have Americans equate being white with being privileged because it redistributes their own guilt to the entire white population. Powerless whites can complain that they had nothing to do with abuses taking place in Washington, D.C. or on Wall Street, but, of course, their opinions do not count. Their sentiments are not heard.
Instead, we have the well-amplified opinions of newspaper editors, university professors, religious leaders, and high-ranking politicians and people in the corporate world righteously proclaiming that they mean to eradicate white racism and for that reason they should be considered virtuous. It’s the racist white people in general who hurt blacks, not the CEOs who outsourced their jobs to foreign countries or the Wall Street hot shots who sold blacks and others on sub-prime mortgages with adjustable interest rates and then foreclosed on their homes when they could not pay. The whole white race is the enemy of blacks, not the particular persons who did them harm.
It’s long been a smart career move to condemn white people for their racist sins. That way, the real abusers can slip away undetected behind an ideological smoke screen. No wonder the U.S. power structure is almost universally united in its opposition to white racism. So much for the equation of whiteness with privilege. The college professors get paid well for teaching such things. Foundation money is always available to combat racism.
The steady drone of opinion to combat (white) racism cannot help but demean white people as a group. If whites are racist, they are evil. They are the types of people who lynch blacks. And if whites are evil, you do not have to treat them respectfully. If they are evil, you can abuse them financially and in other ways. So it suits the interests of the greedy class to have white people in a position to be marginalized. They are in a position to be abused.
That, in my opnion, accounts for the decimation of the largely white middle class. I've seen it so often with abusive persons in power: First you demonize some person or some group, then you pick their pockets. No one will have much sympathy for those poor souls because they are evil. So the abusers in government, business, and elsewhere can get away with treating powerless whites (and others) shabbily. But, of course, all whites are privileged; the race experts say so.
The election of Barack Obama as U.S. President brings us to an interesting situation. Yes, Obama is our “first black President” but his campaign studiously avoided mentioning that possibility. Obama said that he wanted to unite Americans, black and white, not that his election would be a historic victory for black people struggling against racial oppression.
Obama was smart; he understood the real dynamics of identity politics. Hillary Clinton stuck to the old political model. She tried to rally support behind her in the primaries as the woman who would break the ultimate “glass ceiling” by being elected President of the United States. People voted for Obama as a racial uniter rather than as a Moses leading black people to the promised land. They responded better to that unifying approach.
The politics of racial identity has changed with Obama’s election. For one thing, it opens up the question of where white people go from here. Some whites cannot accept Obama as President. I am not among them. I voted for Obama in the 2008 election and still have confidence in his leadership, even if the heavy spending and the universal health-care coverage (which forces people to pay into a broken system) do give me some cause for concern. Yes, President Obama caters to special interests, but so do the other politicians. On most accounts he is an improvement over his white-male predecessor, George W. Bush. At the least, he should be admired for his political accomplishment.
A lost world and how it might be recovered
Therefore, for me as a white man, Barack Obama is not the issue. Presidents come and go. Let’s hope that he does a good job for the American people. The important thing is my group identity. White people are in spiritual disarray. It’s not that they are wounded racists stewing in their own juice but that their entire world seems to be changing for the worse.
Think how it was fifty or a hundred years ago. America was prosperous and strong. Our spiritual strength and sense of identity were centered in homogenous communities such as small New England or midwestern towns whose distinct culture was captured in Norman Rockwell paintings. I do not blame people for missing that.
Granted, America was bigger than Norman Rockwell’s image, but we at least knew who we were in a positive sense. We did not have the pervasive drug problem. We did not have so much ghetto violence. We did not have economic and political elites betraying our interest at every turn. We had a more wholesome type of entertainment. We had people working in well-paying productive jobs. The television commercials were not hawking prescription drugs nonstop. All this is now lost. The world which white Americans once knew - a better world in most respects - is now gone. What’s more, white people as a race seem to be a vanishing breed. Our children, if we have them, are not looking at a brighter future.
You can say that there were white Presidents and predominately white Congresses in power while the national deterioration was taking place; and that is true. It is also true, however, that the Civil Rights ethic was in force during much of this time. The dominant culture was always anti-white. It’s time some of this changed. So leave Obama alone and focus on what we ourselves can do to change the culture.
Each white person, or person of another race, has the power within himself or herself to live in dignity. Each can have personal pride. Be proud of yourself for your legitimate accomplishments; and, where you are not proud, change what needs fixing. We can all work to better ourselves personally in fundamental ways.
Beyond that, it’s helpful to have communities of like-minded individuals who reinforce each others’ effort. Amid the “anti-racist” propaganda, it’s encouraging to hear someone else occasionally say: “That’s baloney. You’re way off the mark.” It’s also encouraging to find examples of positive identity in your own group. We each need our own set of heroes. Therefore, a good first step would be to find those personal heroes. Learn more about them. Consider how their lives relate to your own.
Be clear that people are defining or redefining identities for themselves, not for others. You need to put a wall around your own group where private discussions can take place among people who share common elements of identity. You need to shield yourself from the distracting and damaging influences of the mass media, and perhaps also of the politicized educators, until you are strong enough to define yourself in a positive way. Eventually, communities of strong, positive personalities will expand until they can have political influence. But not yet. Much work needs to be done among individuals and small groups before we can talk of changing the world.
And so, as I see it, the political program of New Dignity Party would be focused on small-scale efforts to build up ourselves personally rather than on doing battle with forces that have torn us down. Yes, affirmative action may be unfair to whites, but the better question is how we can get more jobs for everyone than how to redistribute them from minorities to white people. In other words, fire the gatekeepers and let everyone be productive. End the dualistic competitions. Try to focus on the positive.
If it were up to me, I’d create a national holiday on the anniversary of the day - June 4, 1896 - when Henry Ford, a white man, first drove an automobile on the streets of Detroit. I’d have people singing Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” I’d salvage those damaged American heroes of yesteryear and today and put the spotlight of adoration on them once again.
If we had strong, positive identities once more, we would not let Washington lobbyists buy members of Congress. We would not let the media put us into boxes where we become subject to ridicule and disdain. We would not pick fights with people in other parts of the world but would quietly mind our own business. We would encourage people to use their creative talents and recognize those individuals who did so effectively. That’s the type of political program I would envision. So different this would be that it’s hard to explain.