Letter to a Young Leftist





I will begin by apologizing: surely “leftist” is no longer the right word. Is “progressive”? You know how old liberals grumble about new vocabulary; we are as grumpy as the other side these days. But geez. Instead of allowing helpful new words to take root, you guys swing them like police batons. Your reinvention of language places you in a cultic inner circle, everybody pressed tightly together and pointing fingers at misbehaving outsiders.

Changing our language can help reform us, but new words have to stick because they are useful, not because they are preached. In his new book, The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk points out the opportunity cost of all the scolding and cancellation: “For much of the Trump era, big segments of progressive America seemed to be directing more anger at aberrant members of their own tribe than at their nominal enemy in the White House.”

Liberals blew it, I get that. We wanted a world with everybody holding hands and nobody defined by their skin color, gender, religion, background, ethnicity, disability, appearance, or sexual orientation. There was slow, partial progress, but bias was old and solidly entrenched, with cumulative consequences that reforms did not erase. You wanted to cut through all the tired old institutionalized ideals and raise up various identity groups’ struggles for justice, raise them so high they could not be ignored.

But the ideas that shaped your impatience are grim: Institutions cannot be trusted. All truth is subjective. There are no universals. Common moral standards are impossible. Claims of neutrality, color blindness, and meritocracy are, invariably, bullshit.

Each of those claims is often true, but that truth is not (you should appreciate this) absolute and universal. That truth is (my subjective opinion) situational and contradicted by many exceptions, and it does not rule out hope.

You have lost hope in the old ideals. A free press? Corrupted by capitalist ownership. Free speech? Less important than the right speech. Can you even understand how thrilling I found it that the ACLU would defend neo-Nazis and White supremacists’ right to speak? That Voltaire’s words—“I wholly disagree with what you say and will contend to the death for your right to say it”—struck me as fair and right and healthy?

These days, some ACLU lawyers are reluctant to defend speech they find offensive, and the organization has careful new guidelines. It works hard on its own political activism, determined to make its disapproval of its clients’ positions clear. It selects cases carefully because, as Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program until late 2018, told The New York Times, “First Amendment protections are disproportionately enjoyed by people of power and privilege.”

This is the crux of the problem. Even our ideals were not fairly distributed. To risk a tired cliché, it was never enough to say, “Oh, you can play, too,” when the field had been uneven for three centuries and the new members had no uniforms or equipment. But the identity politics you emphasize in response could drive people even further apart, implying that it is flat-out impossible to play together, and we should all join only teams of those like us.

Like us in what way? The answer must be one of the politicized categories, race or gender, et cetera. Yet there are millions of ways people come together—sharing affinities, temperament, values, hobbies, experiences, geography, interests. Separatism will diminish those intersections. Suddenly all the emphasis is falling on categories we were trying to discredit as hollow, absurd social constructs. This hard division by identity group feels like the end of a dream—one you probably dismiss as pure fantasy.

You are right that it was too easy for many of us to remain willfully blind to others’ struggles. You are right about the cumulative injustices and inequity. The next step is what worries me: the insistence that people are their identity and own that identity and no one else can even begin to participate.

In “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend,” Pat Parker wrote:


The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.


That is the delicate paradox liberals did not manage to pull off. Color blindness was too often either a lie or a way to ignore the past; meritocracy was a clubby joke. But constantly emphasizing difference leaves even less room for empathy.

Mounk calls this approach “the identity synthesis”—and warns that it is a trap. Socially, if you divide people into groups, you must give them a way to resolve inter-group conflicts. The identity synthesis does not. Individually, people think defining themselves by their identity group will bring them the sense of belonging and social recognition they long for. It cannot. Instead, Mounk says, identity groups will be pitted against each other in a zero-sum battle for resources and recognition.

That is what my furthest-right friends insist is already happening. White people are being canceled, they exclaim. Religious conservatives are being silenced. Men are being oppressed.

Again, there is some truth in all of that. But instead of listening, explaining, or debating, cancellation only silences. It demands that people be deplatformed and punished, thereby turning them into martyrs for their own reenergized tribe. Networks cancel shows; universities disinvite speakers whose politics they find objectionable. Often the sin is cultural appropriation, a charge that has been carried to absurdity. We are left debating whether someone of mixed race is Hispanic enough to sing traditional Hispanic music and whether British chef Jamie Oliver is allowed to cook jollof rice. Novelists have to team up with a member of the group they are writing about, write only about people like them, or risk going unpublished. Actors must belong to the same identity group as their characters.

Cultural appropriation exists: there are examples everywhere, from the fashion world to fraternity houses, of trivializing and mocking, stealing intellectual property, or commercializing a cultural group’s traditions. But intent and purpose ought to matter. Why would you want to chill all cultural cross-pollination and silo us in homogeneity? Nobody owns an entire culture, and every culture is a mix, a fertile cross-pollination, of outside influences. We, too, are a mix, with few of us “pure” enough to qualify as representative.

Can you imagine how surreal these campaigns feel to liberals who spent their lives welcoming new cultural influences as a way to replace ignorance?

Last year, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting any teaching materials that promote “division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.” I would have applauded a prohibition of inciting violence toward—well, anyone. But an offense as vague and broad as promoting division or resentment? The idea here is to protect the dominant class—because it is losing dominance.

I am sure supporters of book banning and curriculum censorship feel their efforts are only turnaround fair play. But soon all of us will be afraid to speak at all.

“If those who hold power are able to censor what they consider noxious views,” Mounk writes, then “the ideas of the powerful are going to be systematically favored over those of the powerless,” and “the stakes of who gets to hold power vastly increase, incentivizing political partisans to refuse to accept the outcome of elections or even engage in violence.” We lose our ability to protest bad public policies. We lose democracy.

What do you propose to help various groups communicate in a healthy, civil way? Because I am tired of the playground tactics, the caricatures of the enemy, the generalizations that make no room for individual exceptions, the refusal to care about the suffering of suicidal White males because their identity group has enjoyed too much power for too long. I used to proudly describe my politics as left of center—until I began seeing the same rigid intolerance on the left that I loathed on the right.

According to Gordon Allport, to have healthy communication between groups, the members need common goals, equal status, active cooperation, and support from authorities and customs. Well, our goals clash. We are trying to move from equality to equity but have yet to arrive. Active cooperation grows less likely by the day. In the Trump years (which continue), we saw the opposite of support for civil communication. Shared customs? We rush through turkey to start our online shopping; I am not sure that will bind us. Emphasizing the unity of all Americans, Mounk points out, is no longer an option, because statements of unity read as attempts to downplay the importance of race and other identifiers.

Is it possible to follow Pat Parker’s advice and consider both at once, remember the history and forget the old, hate-filled separations? Preserve the nuances of identity and a common good? Tie fresh understandings of various identities back into a universal framework? We all, Whitman would remind us, contain multitudes. There have to be ways to reach real equity, not just pro forma inclusion, without separating into closed subcultures.

I think of all the hate and distrust in this nation, and how walls go up at any suggestion of reparations, and how our laws are a muddle of protecting free speech and protecting people from the consequences of free speech, and I am not sure where to begin. But I do know the answer will lie somewhere in the middle, not at the extremes of either side.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.