Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sullivan: "The Identity-Industrial Complex"

All I want to say is: that guy is sharp, and that phrase reveals an astute understanding of one phenomenon lurking in the background of the pending hate-crimes legislation. (Though I'm not sure I agree with the Hentoff arguments he links to.)

I'd say that "identity-academic complex" would actually be more accurate, though. I'm sure folks get weary of my complaining about the academic left, cultural studies, the PoMocalypse, and so forth. But the rise of what we might call 'identity studies' is, I'd guess, tangled up in all this. (And: just so you don't harden your heart against my points ahead of time: remember that many of the folks I'm about to complain about are not liberals. They are about as far left of liberalism as Jerry Fallwell is to the right of it...)

Academia becomes ever more heavily-laden with boutique departments, disciplines, quasi-disciplines, programs, interdisciplinary curricula and so forth that emphasize group identity and identity politics. The thinking there tends to be illiberally leftist, and tends to emphasize activism and political change over scholarly/intellectual goals. These sectors of academia are the natural allies of certain special interest groups outside of academia--both tend to think that identity politics is (are?) legitimate and important, both tend to see the world through such lenses, and both have certain practical (e.g. professional and economic) interests in seeing certain problems emphasized, exaggerated and/or spun in particular ways.

Women's studies, for example, tends to attract people who are rather atypical in their views about the importance of sex and gender issues. These people then become immersed in a professional world of like-minded people, and their status becomes attached to the importance we as a culture attach to the problems they focus on. It should not be surprising that certain distortions become common there. But this is just an example.

Now, one might think:

(a) These people really are experts, and we should weight their advice heavily when considering the relevant types of legislation.

Or one might think:

(b) These people are outliers, and more like interested parties than they are like experts.

Here it becomes important, I think, that people involved in such academic identity studies have some tendency to adopt the methods and patterns of reasoning common in cultural studies, literary criticism, etc. It is important because such ways of thinking emphasize political change rather than detached inquiry. (That view, incidentally, seems to descend from Marx; I point this out just because I think it's interesing and an indicator that such approaches are not obviously liberal, and not as a way of sneaking in an ad hominem...) This seems to make (b) (above) the prima facie front-runner. If scholarly/scientific approaches are in some sense opposed to politically-motivated ones, and if the folks in question explicitly embrace the latter and de-emphasize the former, then that is fair reason to view them more like activists and less like scholars or experts. And activists have several strong interests in seeing the problems they address exaggerated.

It probably goes without saying that it's not clear to what extent any of this should bear on our deliberations about the pending "hate crimes" legislation, but I find it, supposing any of it's true, anyway...


Blogger brycetphillips said...

I think you have it a bit backwards. The identitarians and professional feminists are the liberals, fighting for a vision of "diverse" and "meritocratic" capitalism, focusing on words and "cultural" politics. Do they have anything to say about labor struggles? Usually not. The left especially the Marxist left is historically focused on class struggles and tends to focus a lot of attention on economic issues of equality, not on a handful more women or minorities in boardrooms. The Dem Party is not the left anymore, neither is much of the academic left. They are rather the neoliberals, you could call them the left neoliberals as opposed to the "neocons" that present as more conservative on some issues, but at the end of the day a lot of the neocons endorsed Clinton.

2:21 PM  

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