Ethnic Politics and Conservatism
The recently released Mount Vernon Statement is an attempt to formulate a common vision for what conservatism in the 21st century means. It isn’t the definitive statement by any means, but a catalyst for further discussion, as this excellent diary makes clear.
There is, however, a topic on which Mount Vernon Statement – as well as any other conservative-focused statement of principles – is completely silent: What is the proper role, if any, of racial and ethnic identity within conservatism?
I believe this is an important question for conservatives to answer. The Left has successfully branded conservatism as a racist, whites-only movement – despite such characterization being patently false. The recent example of the Dallas Tea Party’s devastating response to Keith Olbermann is just one example:
But despite the success of the Dallas Tea Party in pointing out the hypocrisy of Olbermann and his fellow travelers, fact remains that the traditional conservative response – that we are all Americans, and that we as a society need to be “color-blind” – is inadequate. That it ought to be adequate is besides the point; the world is as we find it, not as we wish it to be.
The “content of their character” line of thinking is entirely too vulnerable to (a) the natural human urge to be proud of who they are, and (b) prevailing social theories about institutional racism and the like. Again, it doesn’t matter that those ideas are nonsense on stilts; they are extremely attractive. I know, because in my younger days, I not only bought into both but actively preached those ideas as a race activist.
The Appeal of Separation
As some of you know, I am an Asian-American; specifically, a Korean-American. What most do not know is that while in college, I was very much a leftist – an out and out Marxist – and a race activist. Race activism, ethnic activism, were at the center of my life since sometime in high school to well after law school. Without going into gory details, suffice to say that I had impeccable credentials in the race mafia business. Obama ain’t got nothin’ on me.
I do not think I am engaging in self-congratulatory remembrance when I say that I successfully radicalized a generation (or more) of Asian-Americans at a major American university. And I know how effective I was in using ethnic identity to motivate, energize, and convert people to the Left. I took the movement past my own campus, and helped radicalize students in dozens of other campuses, always on the basis of ethnic identity.
My professors, fellow travelers on the road to “social justice”, aided and abetted my campaigns. The administrators, also true believers in the goals if not the tactics of the racial equality racket, were handing me thousands of dollars in funding even as I was calling them racist pigs and the like. The politico-entertainment-media complex, staffed by comrades from the wider Progressive movement over decades, helped me with lurid stories of racism and greed on the one hand, and glorification of the resurgent black power figures like Public Enemy and X-Clan on the other hand. [By the way, I still love the music, long after the message has turned sour.]
So I know the mechanics by which radicalization happens, by which ‘awareness raising’ occurs, and I know that the Left isn’t entirely cynical; indeed, many of the foot soldiers are well-intentioned, good hearted, true believers.
The question for conservatives is, why was I so successful in turning a social organization into a political one? Why was it so easy to take kids who had come to college to get a degree, to go to a few parties, and to have a good time, and turn them into committed soldiers in the revolution? (And ‘revolution’ is figurative speech only in part.) How was it that I could take a mild-mannered pre-med major and talk him into taking part in a criminal conspiracy to beat up a fellow student for the sin of expressing his opinion? (Thank God we never actually committed the assault and battery, but we were 100% serious about it.)
The answer, to me, is that every human being has a deep-seated need to belong to some small subset of the larger whole. Each of us wants to be different, to be unique, but at the same time, to belong to a group of similarly different people so that we’re not weirdoes. There is a very strong appeal to separation.
Consider fraternities on some campuses. They put their pledges through hell, embarrassing them for sure, and physically assaulting them in some cases, and the pledges voluntarily suffer through the ordeal in order to belong. For that matter, the campus Christian ministries like IVCF and CCC also used the natural human need to belong to a sub-group.
All human beings have a natural tendency to be proud of who they are, to be proud of their history, of their traditions and of their heritage. When Alabama alumni break out into “Roll Tide Roll”, that’s motivated by the same tendency to want to be proud of one’s tradition and history.
Throw in a shared language, shared culture, shared values and common experiences, and the pull is irresistible. Even today, even after my liberation from race-thinking, I find that if I have a choice, I’d prefer to go to a Korean restaurant over any other, no matter who else I’m with at the time. Even today, while no longer viewing every white person as a racist oppressor, and while thinking of myself as an American first and foremost in nearly every way, I ain’t gonna lie and say there isn’t a special comfort in being with “my people”. This is, I think, entirely natural.
Conservatives who rightfully fret about balkanization and self-segregation and the like are willing to dismiss this natural human urge towards separation, towards differentiation, as just some sort of liberal mental illness. This is a mistake.
Nature Abhors a Vacuum
The natural desire of people to be different and to belong to a small subgroup plays into the Left’s political theories of power and moral right arising from the collective. In fact, I would suggest that the philosophy of the human being underlying the political theories of the Left is not as an individual soul, but as the intersection of socio-historical forces. You are but the intersection of and sum of all of the collectives to which you belong: race, gender, class, education level, occupation, etc. etc.
The task of the activist, then, is to elevate membership in the collective that he controls to be the most important determinant of personal identity. To weld all the competing demands of the subgroups together, it is always necessary to have a common enemy that requires the cooperation – or in the parlance of the Left, solidarity – of many subgroups to defeat. Whites, Men, Corporations, whatever will work as long as they are sufficiently large and seen to have dominance in the wider society.
(By the way, this competition for primacy in personal identity is why there is a pitched intramural battle between the identity groups not seen by outsiders. Ethnic groups fight women’s groups fight gay groups fight political groups fight some other subgroup. The fighting over who will control the allegiance of ethnic women can get downright nasty in some cases.)
The competing vision offered by conservatives is one of fully participating as an individual in the Anglo-American tradition that is our common shared heritage.
To understand why this approach is lacking, consider the case of the diehard Bama alum who loves his Crimson Tide. The conservative answer to ethnicity is like asking him to care more about the SEC than his Crimson Tide. Some Bama fans might find solace in the fact that Florida won in 2008 (for example) since Florida is in the SEC, but I doubt many did; I’m sure no Bama fan celebrated Alabama’s win in 2009 because it showed how great the SEC is.
Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of a compelling narrative for how race and ethnicity, or other markers of identity, play into conservative principles, a person to whom such things are important in any way is naturally pushed towards the Left.
Consider the voting habits of Latinos and Asian-Americans. Many of them share so many of the values of conservatives, and yet routinely vote Democrat. Analyses like this one that says Latinos are driven by the issue of illegal immigration misses the larger point. Korean-Americans also routinely vote for liberals and Democrats, and illegal immigration isn’t even near the top of the issues list for us. In fact, we are family-centered, churchgoing, small business owners; yet, Democrats dominate the Korean-American vote.
I truly believe that one reason is that conservatives have no template for involving ethnic groups within the movement. Sure, the GOP has its ethnic outreach organizations, and every politician has some “XYZ Group for Senator ABC” type of thing – but those are mere power-grabbing interest group politics. And the Democrats are far better at that game than the Republicans are. LibProg political theory supports the collectivist assumptions behind race activism; conservative political principles does not.
The Left today owns the term “diversity” and the concepts underlying it. It doesn’t much matter that the Left’s version of diversity is the same as that offered by Apple for its iPod: you can get it in any color you want, but underneath, it’s the same machine. Nevermind that the diversity of the Left consists of a white liberal, a black liberal, and a gay Asian feminist liberal all loudly denouncing Bush’s illegal war; that’s the dominant discourse on diversity.
Conservatives are left with fighting against diversity either by parroting the main talking points of the Left, or by stressing the E Pluribus Unum ideal. We conservatives may have plenty of ideas on healthcare and the size and scope of government, but it isn’t that far from the truth that we have no ideas on diversity.
To take just one example, conservatives (myself included) are generally for establishing English as a national language. I personally know from experience how powerful language is in creating separation from the whole, and using that as a wedge for political radicalization. I know now that one cannot truly be an American without speaking English to some degree of facility. Without communication, there is no community.
But what do we say to the family (like mine) that sees tremendous value in preserving the language of our ancestors for personal and familial reasons? What do we say to those (like me) who feel that their children would lose something incredibly valuable, some real piece of what makes them who they are, if they were to forget their mother tongue? Relegating all non-English language to the private sphere might make sense in lots of ways, but it’s hard to characterize that position as valuing the differences within the larger context of civic unity. It also sets up the phenomenon of “dual consciousness” where we are always aware of when we are in the “American” mode and when we are in the “native” mode. It’s a strange but very real psychological and existential state.
I recently received an email from the same Korean Student Association I had radicalized in college. It appears they want to invite alumni to come back and tell the students of today about various topics. It gave me pause.
The old Marxist race activist me would have gladly welcomed the opportunity to go and awaken a few more young people as to their wretched history of suffering at the hands of the white man, the imperialism of American capitalists, the warmongering oil barons, and so on. I would have told them that they will face institutional racism, hidden hatred, and discrimination wherever they turned, and that only by joining together as a strong collective could they defend themselves from the depredation of the Man and his System.
But today, I literally have no answers for these young people. Do I tell them to go join the Tea Party Movement? If I do, what does that have to do with their common bond of heritage, tradition, and culture? The answer today is, “Nothing”.
Well, I’m not satisfied with that answer. The need to belong is both natural and strong. When libprogs have the ready answer within their theory of equality-through-identity politics (e.g., as long as the CEO’s of American corporations are not precisely the distribution of ethnicities in the American population, there is institutional racism), then as a conservative, I feel the need for something more.
Ethnic Politics and Conservatism
This issue is not, I think, simply a theoretical exercise. Nor do I think it’s just something that affects one guy who went from being a radical lefty to a conservative. American demographics is shifting, and human need to be different while belonging hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
There is no sense of belonging, you see, that comes naturally to the ethnic conservative. To the ethnic leftist, operating on the assumption that America is deeply racist, and that we minorities are always oppressed, it is easy to create the conditions for belonging to a subgroup of one kind or another pursuing one set of grievances or another. To us on the Right, operating on the assumption that individual liberty matters, that America is a great nation, and that shared civilization leads to a healthy civic society… ethnic politics is anathema.
We need a new program. A new way of thinking about the issue. We need to find a synthesis between the thesis of total assimilation and the antithesis of ethnic pride.
Sadly… I don’t have the answer. I wish I did; it would make my personal predilection easier to solve. Because you see, I still do want to do something for “my people”. I’d like to find a way to have more of them realize what I have realized – that the differences can be wonderful, but that we are all Americans in the end. I want more of them to realize that we are not strangers in a strange land, mere immigrants renting a space in the American co-op, but that we are owners and inheritors of the American tradition just like the gal in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
So, let’s start here. If you’ve read this far, then I know that you are as serious about this issue as I am. Perhaps you also are an ethnic conservative; perhaps you are white as the driven snow, or such a mix of cultures and traditions over generations that you’ve never known any other identity than “American”. Let me put the question to you this way.
What differences do we conservatives tolerate, indeed, celebrate? And what differences do we reject as taking us down the balkanized road of identity politics? Is there any basis for such a thing as conservative ethnic politics?
As the demographic trends in the United States moves towards ever increasing population of “minorities”, if conservatism is to be successful in the 21st century and beyond, I believe that it must have an answer beyond, “We’re all the same” to the issue of ethnicity and identity politics within a conservative framework. Because we are not all the same, nor should we wish to be the same.
I have no answers; only questions. But perhaps that is the first step towards finding an answer. So thank you for reading, and thank you for your thoughts.