Killing the Messenger: Mark Lilla’s “End of Identity Liberalism” and its Critics

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Decades of mindnumbing political correctness on the academic farleft robbed the humanities and social sciences of their legitimacy, generated the altright as its very own dialectial alterego, and provided an essential catalyzing ingredient in Donald Trump’s electoral victory—understood as the clearest expression of a weary nation’s revulsion at p. c.’s intolerable moralizing. The illiberal, antisemitic, white nationalist altright and the illiberal, antisemitic, antiAmerican altleft mirror one another perfectly! Faced with competing totalitarianisms at both extremes, the liberal center should defend itself first of all by forthrightly reclaiming the univeristy as a space for education and not indoctrination. Yet the politically correct professoriate do not want to hear this—and their overthetop hostile overreactions to the news that they are to blame for what they hate most prove that it’s so. Time to repeal and replace political correctness.

What follows is a plea for action, in the form of a diagnosis. Political correctness elected Donald Trump, as a reaction to its adherents’ spiteful, tyrannical, “prolier-than-thou” attitude toward a majority of American citizens. The politically correct do not want to hear this. The nature of their refusal to listen—torturing, killing, and mutilating the messenger—is as good an illustration of the argument as any. The argument is that p. c. must be repealed and replaced—in the name of viewpoint diversity, freedom of thought and free expression on our campuses and in our culture at large. Now is the time.

The tally in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was so close that practically anything could have swung it. Russian meddling, FBI Director James Comey’s hamfisted intervention at just the wrong time, Tim Kaine’s nerdy debate performance, Bernie Sanders’ relentless carping, the DNC’s failure to send Bill Clinton to spend another two days in precisely the right states, etc.—indeed, any of a number of issues you’d care to pick could suffice in order to construct a plausible narrative. But my preferred explanation is political correctness in general. And I’ll tell you why.

Formally, what I like about my idea, as compared to all the other plausible alternatives, is that it’s really more of a metaissue than just one isolated issue among others—or any particular Bthing, item, decision, action or event per se. What I’m talking about, in other words, is a question of the Blanguage of the Trump campaign as a whole, rather than any particular Butterance. Trump breathed disdain for p. c. With or without Wikileaks, regardless of the Green Party doing its marginal damage (on his behalf, essentially), Trump was surely—from start to finish, if he was anything at all— the walking, talking incarnation of a rebuke to certain niceties.

No? Yes. He was a man fed-up with having his country’s manners dictated by a bunch of prudish, self righteous, sanctimonious academics and their brainwashed minions (students, whom they were supposed to be educating, not indoctrinating). And while I cannot demonstrate with statistical data that Trump’s leveraging of this “issue of issues”—or the question of how questions were to be discussed in our elections—was what put him in the White House, I think it stands to reason that candidate Trump, as we knew him, was inconceivable except as a reaction to p. c. Was it not that brilliant, inspired grand gesture—the consistent, intuitive, reflexive disregard for the pretentious mores so dear to the college educated middle classes—that defined his style of communication, if nothing else? And surely in the age of Cable News, Twitter, and BuzzFeed, a candidate’s style, or appearance, is his essence. Am I wrong?

I am not alone in this interpretation. The distinguished historian of ideas, Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University, thinks as I do, too (or perhaps I think as he does, but no matter). For he said as much, in a New York Times oped of November 18, 2016, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” There Lilla wrote that,

One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign . . . is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to AfricanAmerican, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully twothirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.

So, then again, perhaps one could supply some sort of relevant data, after all! (I leave that sort of debate aside, nevertheless).

There is more to it, in any case, than the numbers. For as I said, it wasn’t just the issues but the way Trump addressed them. Lilla touches on this too:

[L]iberals . . . obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by political correctness.1

Don’t tell them what p. c. means. Or that it means nothing. They know what they mean by it. Trump voters, in sum, were people tired of hearing that everyone else was disadvantaged, except them. And, while Lilla does not stress it, they were likewise tired of being scapegoated, demonized as the source of everyone else’s disadvantage. This is the part Lilla left out—but which the hysterical reaction to his article tended—on its surface—to demonstrate unmistakably.

My own point, therefore, in what follows, is not only that Lilla was probably right about “identity liberalism” (identity politics, p. c.) as the underlying source, if not cause, of the Democratic Party’s failure to come up with an appeal broadly appealing enough to win. But rather, I think it should be emphasized that the outrageous reaction to his saying so—the fury elicited by Lilla’s daring to question the dominant leftwing orthodoxy—tended strongly to prove his point, and more besides. That is, if you will accept, for the sake of discussion, that proof here—in the colloquial sense of the expression, such and such only proves my point—has to be less a matter of social science than hermeneutical understanding.

For the backlash to the notion—implied by Lilla, which I am making explicit—that political correctness elected Donald Trump was truly astonishing. If nothing else, the ferocity of certain responses to the mere suggestion (oh, my!) suggested, itself, that there must be some truth in what the reactions set out—so energetically—to deny. One needn’t be Freud, or Shakespeare, to gather that protesting too much doesn’t always mean (only) what it apparently says. 

Mansplaining, whites plaining, making white supremacy respectable, exactly wrong, and, more simply and directly, shut the fuck up were just some of the epithets that greeted—in print—Lilla’s essay. Dispensing with decorum, one of his own colleagues at Columbia, Katherine Franke, compared him to both Jeff Sessions and David Duke. The former comparison, though to a high official in government, was meant to flatter no more than the latter. With Duke, Lilla shares an ideological project, as Franke tells us: 

In the new political climate we now inhabit, Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown. Both men are underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the recentering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S. Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s oped does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. 

Lest one miss the point, the history professor is actually worse than the klansman. Although the former dresses as an academic, a white hood would really suit him just as well as it does the latter. Like Duke at heart, and yet, deceptively, unlike Duke on the surface—for the sake of appearances—the noted author prefers to camouflage his racism with mortar board and velvettrimmed scholar’s robes. This clever disguise is not incidental, but functional: it better enables him to do his Bmore nefarious work in semisecrecy, under the mendacious cover of respectability. Duke, on the other hand, does his work out in the open—and as such is actually worthy of more respect. At least he is willing to Bown his klansmanship and all that goes with it, Franke submits.

With Sessions, Lilla shares a similar agenda—bringing white supremacy out from the shadows and visibly into the mainstream of American politics, even while concealing his own allegiance to it. Toward that end, he serves as an enabler, as readers are told:

With Jeff Sessions, we will have an avowed white supremacist assuming the post of attorney general, and we should be hyper [sic] alert to the consequences of having his ideology driving policy from that office. At the same time, scholars such as Mark Lilla are doing the more nuanced ideological work that enables the ascent to power of a man like Sessions, rendering Session’s white supremacy not only acceptable but respectable.2 So, he’s worse than Sessions, too. Indeed, from this Bradical perspective, there is nothing worse than liberal scholars like Lilla. For liberal scholars like Lilla are what make politicians like Sessions possible.

In short, liberals like Lilla—whom there is nothing worse than—are guilty of laying the discursive foundations for nothing less than the return of unabashed racism at its worst, enabling representatives of White Power in at least two of its present incarnations, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the current Attorney General. Moreover, lest the casual reader fail to grasp her argument because of its subtlety, Franke’s editors at LARB titled her piece, BMaking White Supremacy Respectable. Again.

Two days later, at VSB, Damon Young (also a columnist for GQ and Ebony), published a column called BMark Lilla’s ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’ is the Whitest Thing I’ve Ever Read. For that, Lilla belongs Bon Whitesplain Mount Rushmore, Young avers.3 And on and on and on.

With no less alacrity, David PalumboLiu (a Stanford professor and leading BDS advocate) joined in to assert that Lilla (wellknown as an outspoken partisan of the Democratic Party, let’s not forget) was in fact nearly indistinguishable from Trump himself: Bthe line between Lilla’s attitudes and those of Donald Trump starts to blur, he says. Indeed, Trump’s victory (which Lilla’s article loudly bemoaned!) is actually just what guys like him have been waiting for: this is because it Bgives those like himself who are against putting issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation in the forefront a weapon to use to dismantle progress we have made toward widening our scope of care and concern for the past several decades.4 From PalumboLiu’s perspective, Lilla cleverly seizes an opportunity to oppose progress—in the guise of a leftliberal aghast at the Trump victory (which Lilla terms a Brepugnant outcome to the race) and looking for a way forward for the Democrats. They do not disagree on campaign tactics. They do not disagree on political strategy. Rather, Lilla is a reactionary in waiting. An opportunist who has found his opportunity.

Well, it must be a good disguise that the professor is wearing—for it has been worn in the past by other such closet Breactionaries as the leftliberal philosopher and labor union booster, Richard Rorty, among others. Indeed, as we now know, Rorty saw in advance what Lilla saw only in hindsight—namely, that political correctness would eventually elect someone like Donald Trump. Although the politically correct did not vote for him—nor did I, incidentally; this seems as good a place as any to mention it—they made him possible. The Trump phenomenon is impossible to imagine without them. And this they do not want to hear. That much I have proved.

But so what? So: in the end it is more a point about them— Lilla’s detractors—than anything else. It has to be. For that is all their responses to Lilla have anything to tell us about. And when we have grasped what they are telling us, we will know better than ever what we must do.

Trump is the antip. c. president. Whatever else his administration promises, it should serve, willynilly—or be made to serve, by our best efforts—as an opportunity to create a safe space for freedom of expression on campus to reemerge. After decades of repression, intimidation, and silencing of conservative and even centrist liberal views by selfstyled radicals (whose attitude toward censoring opponents’ speech reminds one of Stalinists), the time is now to champion free speech on campus once again.

What I am saying is that political correctness, once thought of as a vanished thing of the 1990s, came back with a vengeance—if it ever really left—in the years immediately leading up to the elections of 2016 and in their immediate wake. In the form of Btrigger warnings, Bsafe spaces, macrocomplaining about Bmicroaggressions, and, finally, most troublingly, the hectoring of nonconformist speakers on college campuses (most infamously Laura Kipnis at Wellesley and Charles Murray at Middlebury), p. c. took its revenge on a world that just would not—will not—obey the whims of activist professors and their indoctrinated students. This virulent new strain of campus illiberalism first put Trump in the spotlight by giving him a platform—somewhere to stand and something to push against that nearly everyone but its Btrue believer adherents sensed was rotten, yet were either too accustomed to, too afraid of, or too weak to successfully topple on their own.

With that insight on Trump’s part—p. c. ideology was way past its sell by date—came a readymade schtick, complete with a builtin audience eager to see what verboten thing the guy would say or do next. As long as it was unp. c., whatever it was he came out with during that long, ugly, and yet oh, so highly entertaining campaign of 2016, was bound to gain the instant assent of many, and the attention—if frequently the indignant, outraged attention—of many more still. As a close advisor to the President said to me recently, Antipolitical correctness is his essence, that’s why he won the election.5 And while an offhand remark (albeit an enthusiastic one) is not, to be sure, a statistical survey (digressing one last time on the nature of my common sense based or “phenomenological” argument), it is surely, like the rest of my materials, suggestive. At a minimum, it tells us how the Trump campaign saw itself.

Moreover, that a reaction to the selfrighteous moralism and effete censoriousness associated (correctly) by the relatively many citizens of our republic with the identity politics of the relatively few elites running the American academy— into the ground, as some might add, for decades—would eventually carry the day was, as I said, not only predictable but predicted. Rorty (however attired, however white, however male), saw it coming already in 1998. Realizing then that a system of higher education that erected an ideological superstructure of antiwhite male antiWestern culture clichés upon an economic base of neoliberal globalization was a recipe for white working class reaction, Rorty pointed out that once the masses figured out they were being served neither by the computerization of everything nor the cosmopolitan nihilism (multicultural relativism) that seemed to go so well with it, the show was over. As he put it, with remarkable foresight:

At some point something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.6

That outlet, that something, and that someone, of course, turned out to be Trump. (And if Rorty too lacks for social scientific evidence, he makes up for it, surely, in prescience. No physicist could have asked for better confirmation of a hypothesis. Whether or not the experiment is repeatable, we’ll have to wait and see.)

Finally, then, what does one imagine the likes of Franke, PalumboLiu, or Young saying in response to this? After all, it is one thing to acknowledge an accomplished fact, as Lilla has done, while speculating on what to learn from it and how best to cope in the future. It is another thing to have foreseen something like the outcome of the last election—and tried to warn others, loudly, as Rorty famously did for years. While it is yet still another thing for such predictions to fall on deaf ears.7

The answer, I think, is that people like them—avatars of a sputtering p. c. left, sensing they are losing ground in a country that’s rightly fed up with them—essentially say nothing. All they can really do is rant and rave and call people like Lilla the worst names they can think of. Why? Because they no more wish to hear now what they would not listen to all the years leading up to now—indeed, they wish to hear it less now than ever. For they cannot acknowledge the truth of Rorty’s and Lilla’s claims and at the same time remain the kind of activist scholars—the sort of people—they are. For they are the sort of people—or in the language of academic Btheory, these are the kind of Bsubjects—for whom it is necessary above all to stay as angry as possible. Stories about demonic white supremacists are all they really want to hear. These fantasies keep them going. Trump’s election is a windfall for them in this regard!

Again, in the jargon of academic theory itself, the subject of p. c. Benjoys screaming about the demons it hallucinates—s/ he gets off on fantasies of KKKolleagues working for Racist Fascist Supremacy. From such lurid scenarios they certainly appear to derive what Slavoj Zizek (the Lacanian Leninist!) calls obscene quasipornographic satisfaction or Bjouissance. In short, it turns them on, so to speak—or, put a little less colloquially, demonizing the rest of us is what binds together their affect with their cognition, in support of a pristine imaginary Bideal ego. With this in mind, we have got to face up to what the libidinal economy of the postp. c., postidentity politics, (far)left is telling us—if we are to liberate ourselves from a world largely given over to its sadistic impulses, the world of academia as we have known it for the past three decades.

Hatred of liberals (to say nothing of conservatives) is a passion filling a void in the radical psyche that might otherwise be left open to depression, if radicals faced facts. This passionate refusal to accept reality drives what I have elsewhere called (well before the last elections) the Bpostleft, or the left after its embrace of postmodernism’s Bdeath of grand narratives (aka postMarxism) as offering anything like a viable radical political program in practice (and not only cultural Btheory).8

And that persistent failure to mourn the passing of the farleft dream of utopia is why Mark Lilla, the leftleaning liberal historian of ideas, was attacked so viciously—on the day he spilled the beans in the immediate wake of the elections. It is a shocking, saddening, but not surprising case in point: Narcissistic rage always reacts that way against whatever threatens to deprive the narcissist of his/her preferred selfimage. To accept Lilla’s argument—or Rorty’s—would be to shatter the mirror of moral perfection they see themselves in. It would mean giving up on seeing themselves as saviors of a corrupt society—if not recognizing themselves as corrupt.

Otherwise sympathetic readers will now object: You began by saying Brepeal and replace. But, like the Republicans and their failed effort to rid the country of Obamacare, you never really said Breplace with what. You can’t just throw people off the p. c. saturated education system they’re used to—the one that Bcovers them, in some sense, even if it’s too expensive and unworkable in the long run—without at the same time providing an alternative. You can’t have people dying in the street. And this is true. But unlike healthcare, Brepeal in this case (of p’s narrow thought policing) is equivalent to Breplace. The arguments one uses against the old, failing system (needless to say, mine here are but a tiny fraction of those necessary to make a full case) are by definition already elements of what must take its place—in an academic space safe for as many competing ideas as there are individuals ready, willing, and able to exercise their Godgiven reason.

1 Department of English, Northern Michigan University, 401 Presque Isle Ave, Marquette, MI 49855-5301, USA

2 Katherine Franke, BMaking White Supremacy Respectable. Again,^ November 21, 2017, Los Angeles Review of Books,

3 Damon Young, BMark Lilla’s ‘The End of Identity Liberalism is the Whitest Thing I Ever Read,^ Very Smart Brothers, November 23, 2016,

4 David Palumbo-Liu, BThe Whiteness of a Liberal in the Age of Trump,^ The Huffington Post, November 23, 2016,

5 Sebastian Gorka, personal communication (March 31, 2017).

6 Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998), 90; my emphasis.

7 Rorty, of course, was not the only one to have cautioned the left that radical multiculturalism was a dead end. Take for example, Todd Gitlin, who wrote that, BFor too long, too many Americans have busied themselves digging trenches to fortify their cultural borders, lining their trenches with insulation.
Enough Bunkers! Enough of the perfection of differences! We ought to be building bridges.^ The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (New York: Henry Holt, 1985), 237. From Lilla’s point of view, the point is that the Democrats failed to head such clarion calls, and lost as a result. My own point, not being much of an apparatchik of any sort, is less partisan and more general.

Killing the Messenger: Mark Lilla’s “End of Identity Liberalism” and its Critics

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Gabriel Noah Brahm

Gabriel Noah Brahm is Senior Research Fellow at University of Haifa’s Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism. In 2016 he founded Michigan’s Center for Academic and Intellectual Freedom (named an "Oasis of Excellence" by ACTA), at Northern Michigan University, where he also teaches English and world literature. His forthcoming book is Israel in Theory: The Jewish State and the Cultural Left. Follow him on Twitter @Brahmski.

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