Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Identity Politics, Bankrupt?

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Remember that scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacka are trapped in the garbage compacter room and barely escape as it closes in ominously on all sides?

That's the perfect metaphor for Identity Politics 2008 -- all of us minorities trapped in a shrinking box of trash in which the crushing walls represent not just society, but community inquisitors demanding our qualifications. Are we gay enough, black enough, female enough to deserve liberation?

This week, the sacrificial queer was Mike Buse, chief of staff of Senator John McCain. Mike Rogers outed the guy on his blog, while encouraging a call-in campaign to the right-wing group Focus on the Family asking readers to "thank them for supporting John McCain even though he has gay Americans in high places on his staff, including his chief of staff."

You can imagine the outraged fundamentalists, the angry phone calls to the McCain campaign, all the homophobic hate generated against Mike Buse. Maybe next Rogers'll get a list of McCain staffers of color and encourage people to call the John Birch Society. Hell, why not call the Klan if it'll help bring down McCain?

Just a couple of weeks ago, a huge wave of so-called feminists unleashed their misogyny and hate against Sarah Palin, attacking not just her politics, but her very existence. Wendy Doniger's Washington Post article declared that despite her baby-producing womb, Palin's "greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman..."

The National Organization for Women's Kim Gandy actually issued a press release announcing that "as the chair of NOW's Political Action Committee, I am frequently asked whether NOW supports women candidates just because they are women. This gives me an opportunity to once again answer that question with an emphatic 'No.'"

Apparently it's the "National Organization for Only Those Women Who Agree with All Our Policies."

I'm not above bigotry-tinged sneering myself, dismissing the 2000 Republican National Convention packed with black faces, and Bush's "Cabinet of Color" as mere sideshows to attract black and Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. I nodded in agreement when I heard Colin Powell or Condi Rice get called Oreos and traitors by other people of color.

At the time, it didn't bother me when black Maryland conservative Michael S. Steele was pelted with Oreos, called an Uncle Tom, and portrayed as a black-faced minstrel during his 2005 bid for U.S. Senate. No problem, said black Baltimore Democrat, State Senator Lisa A. Gladden. "Party trumps race, especially on the national level." Except when, as earlier this year, it's Jesse Jackson accusing Obama of talking down to black people and "acting like he's white."

Stanley Crouch, an African American writer, thinks the greatest threat of identity politics is that it blinds participants to context and interconnectedness. We don't see the national debt, the dangers of selling out to corporations or unions, or the problems of competing with China and India in the global marketplace. "Though they live in the United States, those are not their problems. Identity politics is independent of our common fate as Americans."

Increasingly, I think the greatest problem in identity politics is that most of the focus these days is on the "politics," claiming territory, enforcing ideologies, and excluding anyone whom the gatekeepers determine don't meet the one or two acceptable ways to be gay or black or female.

We dispense with "identity" any time it's inconvenient. In fact, we are disturbingly comfortable using tools of bigotry against each other like when activists like Mike Rogers (and Michelangelo Signorile) incited homophobia against McCain's gay staffer or when black Democrats throw race-based insults at conservative politicians of color.

Feminists refusing to acknowledge Sarah Palin as a woman incite misogyny against all of us and create echoes of those times dykes (and poor women, and women of color) have been excluded from the women's club. Frankly, NOW still prefers we pass. Mouth the right platitudes. Never admit to having shot at squirrels with a BB gun. Pretend that our primary issue is abortion.

I'd dump the cesspool of identity politics if I could. The conundrum is, to end prejudice, and make change in society, there's no other choice but to suppress our individuality and organize around that artificial "identity," even if the color of our skin, our reproductive organs, or sexual orientation hide nearly irreconcilable differences.

To succeed at all, we need to start from scratch, reject politics, reject hate, find our few inches of common ground, plant respect there.

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