Explaining Identity and Prejudice
An interview with the author of a new theory of identity politics.
Mark Tapson is the Shillman Fellow on Popular Culture for the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The left is fond of accusing President Donald Trump of dividing America, but in fact America was already divided before his presidency – by the left’s obsessive promotion of the inherently divisive “identity politics,” which erases our individuality and boxes us all into categories based on gender and skin color, and then arranges those categories according to a hierarchy of power and oppression.
Farrell Bloch, a former Princeton economics professor and an expert witness in hundreds of matters assessing discrimination, has written a book that couldn’t be more timely and vital to our understanding of identity politics: Identity and Prejudice, from the Canada-based Mantua Books.
In Identity and Prejudice, Prof. Bloch offers a theory explaining why individuals are biased against some race and ethnic groups but in favor of others. He addresses diversity, intersectionality, white privilege, political correctness, and identity politics, and applies his theory to contemporary issues including European and American reaction to Muslim immigration, anti-Israel sentiment, and the elections of Presidents Obama and Trump.
I asked Professor Bloch a few questions about his book via email.
Mark Tapson: To what extent are identity, prejudice, and discrimination driving political conflicts and decisions today, and have they always done so, or would you say they are more prominent factors in the political scene now than in the past?
Farrell Bloch: Identity politics, which emphasizes ethnicities as either victims or preferred groups, is pervasive today. Data that compare demographic groups’ employment, income, and other social and economic measures were not so widely available in the past. These statistics, reports of racist comments and hate crimes, tabulations of the presence or absence of members of race and ethnic groups in various venues, and discussions of related policy issues such as immigration and affirmative action are now ubiquitous.
MT: You say that the most important contemporary political divide may be the one between those who embrace the Elitist Paradigm and those who reject it. You note that the election of Donald Trump, for example, was likely an expression of antagonism toward it. What is the Elitist Paradigm?
FB: The Elitist Paradigm reflects the zeitgeist of many contemporary opinion-shapers, notably educators and journalists. The Paradigm downgrades respect for the West in general and the United States in particular by interpreting historical and contemporary events as dominated by domestic racism and imperialistic foreign aggression. The primacy of Western civilization is replaced by a multicultural and relativist perspective in which no society is considered superior to any other—except for degrading the West to neutralize its former prominence. White privilege and victimization of people of color are emphasized. With its objectives of remedying past and preventing future discrimination, the Paradigm highlights equality over liberty and the statistical income distribution rather than aggregate economic growth.
The Elitist Paradigm has considerable explanatory power in assessing such phenomena as the tripling of the black-white intermarriage rate in the past generation, European law enforcement’s singular leniency toward Muslims, and even aspects of the opioid crisis and recent changes in the American calendar. I view President Trump’s election in part as a rebellion against the Paradigm, especially its biased journalists and Hillary Clinton’s elitist condemnation of many Americans as bigoted “deplorables.” Similarly, I interpret President Obama’s election in part as mass white virtue signaling.
MT: In applying your theory to current events, you address the issue of European acceptance and appeasement of Muslim mass migration. You note that “in an uncommon reversal, the immigrants hold the strong and the hosts the weak identity.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that and how you see it in action?
FB: Within any group there is of course considerable variation in attitudes. That said, many Muslims have a strong identity as exemplified by their activism and readiness to challenge perceived ill treatment—which has extended even to Muslims murdering journalists for publishing cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. In contrast, many Europeans, especially political leaders, seem guilt-ridden with an ill-informed interpretation of history and most eager to demonstrate their tolerance, appreciation of diversity, and lack of Islamophobia. Both groups tend to agree with the Elitist Paradigm’s negative view of Europe.
Perhaps the most striking example of European appeasement is Muslim immigrants’ ability to assault European women with impunity. European men do not defend their wives, girlfriends, and daughters—often because the authorities are so protective of Muslim immigrants. For example, in the northern English town of Rotherham, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men abducted, beat, and forced into prostitution more than a thousand English girls. For many years the town’s police and social service agencies not only failed to defend these girls but also destroyed relevant evidence of the abuse, apparently to avoid both publicizing negative consequences of mass immigration and being tarred as racist.
MT: Another issue of identity and prejudice that you explain – one which conservatives always wrestle with understanding – is, why are many Jews so willing to embrace anti-Israel perspectives?
FB: The two obvious explanations for Jewish ambivalence towards Israel along with some anti-Israel orientation are the lack of strong Jewish identity among many individuals of Jewish ancestry and the general triumph of the biased and insufficiently vetted pro-Palestinian narrative, which is reinforced by the Elitist Paradigm.
Less obvious is why some strongly identified Jews are anti-Israel. Several religious and cultural factors mute Jewish support for Israel or induce sympathy for Israel’s adversaries: religious Jews who interpret attacks on them as God’s punishment for ethical lapses and therefore focus inward rather than against their enemies; a longstanding Jewish concern for other peoples, epitomized by the disproportionate number of Jews involved in the U.S. Civil Rights movement and prominent Israeli first responders to natural disasters all over the world; a tendency for Jews to apply Isaiah’s admonition to be a light unto the nations by imposing strict standards on themselves along with open-mindednesses toward their foes; longstanding tradition of argumentation that admits disparate and contrary viewpoints for consideration; and disproportionate exposure to modern secular education that emphasizes tolerance of other views, accepts multicultural perspectives, and privileges even outlandish narratives over objective truth. Overpublicized is a very small number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the modern rebirth of the state of Israel without the rebuilding of the ancient Temple was an illegitimate affront to the divine plan. These Jews have provided invaluable anti-Israel propaganda as evidence that seriously committed Jews do not favor Israel.
Furthermore, a common Jewish response to antisemitism has been to emphasize a universalism that would erase ethnic distinctions—in contrast to particularism, one dimension of which is a Jewish state. The Reform Jewish movement traditionally downplayed Jewish peoplehood in favor of Jews being characterized as, say, Germans “of the Mosaic persuasion.” In addition, many Jews have been reticent in the face of any antisemitism, not merely that against Israel, in fear that further discussion will only exacerbate preexisting problems and foster additional hostility. Simple denial of anti-Jewish sentiment is another common response. The Elitist Paradigm views Jews—at least those in the West—as overprivileged whites who should not have the temerity to complain about maltreatment.
Academic psychology adds further insight. The ambivalence-amplification theory implies that Jews will fit in better in the wider society by minimizing connection with Israel. And psychiatrist Kenneth Levin has argued in The Oslo Syndrome that Jews have much in common with abused children. Just as these children blame their own behavior rather than that of their dysfunctional parents, some Jews believe that with sufficient flexibility, self-effacement, and concessions, Israel alone can resolve the conflict with its neighbors.
Of course some cultural factors affect Jews and non-Jews alike. For example, contemporary interpretation of language may induce some living in secure environments or with insufficient acquaintance with history to perceive Hamas and Iranian genocidal threats against Jews as mere hyperbole. And the tendency to avoid judgment induced by multicultural and relativist perspectives leads some to characterize both terrorism and defense against terrorism simply as part of a “cycle of violence.”
MT: You write that identity politics is most often, but not entirely, associated with Progressives; in what ways are conservatives sometimes guilty of it? What can we do to push back against the Left’s obsessive focus on identity politics?
FB: Virtually everyone to some extent categorizes people and many overgeneralize. For example, some conservatives may incorrectly believe that almost all Muslims support terrorism. I think the study of mid-1960s America can teach us how individualism briefly triumphed over identity politics and was then quickly defeated. After a century of segregation and discrimination against African Americans, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exhortation to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin was incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, when politicians and activists realized that equality of opportunity did not generate equality of results, they promoted intervention that favored some groups over others. The mid-1960s featured a successful but only temporary revolt against identity politics, a few short years sandwiched between legal racism and a later penchant for categorization that was regarded as either necessary to prevent the regeneration of that racism or to promote group compensation for past ill treatment (in substantial measure favoring younger people for the racism suffered by their elders). I look forward to historians enlightening us as to why Dr. King’s dream succeeded but only for a very short time. In that lesson as well as with further understanding of the individualist orientation of America’s Founding Fathers we may learn how to supplant today’s identity politics.