"Identity Politics and Culture Wars"
Glenn Greenwald, Judith Butler, and Cornel West
Just a short note to recommend something to all of you.
Yesterday was the 2021 Holberg Debate, featuring a topic I know my readers are deeply interested in: identity politics. Even more interesting was the choice of participants: Cornel West, Judith Butler, and Glenn Greenwald.
I watched the whole thing with delight, late last night while cleaning the kitchen after a massive birthday party I threw for my partner. It’s really worth your time, especially if—like me—you are curious about the way wokeness is actually articulated on an intellectual level.
There are a few things I’d note. First of all, Glenn Greenwald—who is considered by many of the woke in the US as a kind of traitor or even right-wing convert—showed really well how crucial a thoughtful critique of identity politics is. There was a funny dynamic introduced because of his presence: West and Butler are both academics, and he isn’t (but he had Butler as a professor in undergrad, it turned out). That made him a bit of the outsider, which also made everything he said sound much more pragmatic and coherent.
There’s a telling moment in the debate when Butler mentions that there really should have been a black woman speaking as well if they wanted to have a real conversation about identity. A short few minutes later, Greenwald points out that there were also no working class voices in the debate either, which deeply flustered both her and the moderator (but not Cornel West, who is of course a good ol’ commie). Because, sure, Kimberly Crenshaw could have been invited, but it would have just added another millionaire to the debate (Butler and Greenwald both have wealth close to 10 million each; Cornel West’s wealth is only half a million).
This of course is the crux of the leftist opposition to identity politics. Identity has replaced class as a metric, meaning that a homeless white man immediately is seen as part of an oppressor group while a rich black woman is immediately seen as a vulnerable and oppressed minority. Thus, identity politics makes working class solidarity impossible, since what matters more is skin color and genitals rather than material conditions.
I found two other things interesting. Butler’s insistence that white nationalism is also identity politics is true and I agree fully. No one interrogates this much further except West, but we need to. If white nationalism is an identity politics, and it leads to extreme violence, we should maybe ask if it is a core problem of the politics of identity itself.
And lastly, the end of the debate features a discussion about vaccine mandates that I think is quite telling. Butler makes repeatedly clear her disdain for the question of liberty when it comes to forced vaccinations. “People have the right to move about freely and to work, sure, but not if it harms others” is a really easy thing for a millionaire to say, of course, since right now she could stop working and be just fine.
But if you watched the whole debate from the beginning and have a good memory, you’ll note that she started with a definition of identity politics based on a basic human right of people to move about freely and some people not having access to that right. Thus, she argues against her original position.
I would argue that the core human right here is actually that of bodily autonomy. A woman should be able to have an abortion because it is a matter of bodily autonomy; a black or trans person should be able to walk down a street without being harassed by police or thugs on that same basis. This means, however, that a person should be able to decide whether or not they want to have something injected into their body on the same basis as well, and creating an underclass out of people who don’t get the vaccine replicates the same problem that woke identity politics is supposedly trying to fight.
This is in no way an argument against vaccines (I’m vaccinated), by the way. The point here is that the woke framework merely creates more ideological knots than it unravels, and Butler inadvertently reveals this quite well at the end. It’s hard not to detect a kind of disgust in her expressions when she talks about how those who do not want mandates are merely being egotistical and selfish, even when Cornel West reminds us that the very same groups that woke politics are supposed to help have the most reason to be fearful of increased government power over their bodies.
Anyway, here is the debate in full. I’d love to discuss this with you all once you’ve watched it!