The Perils of Universalism

    political Universalism is a scam. It is a cowardly response to the alt-right. The alt-right openly espouses white supremacy. Universalism pretends that white supremacy will end if the Left simply doesn’t mention race. From an excellent takedown of Universalism by Leo Casey in Dissent Magazine


    The political path to uniting Americans into a powerful citizenry that can successfully defend democracy is one that involves the open embrace of our multiracial character, with the explicit recognition that the citizenship rights of racialized others are being targeted and must be defended by all. It is the crafting of a new response to the famous litany of German pastor Martin Niemöller on the rise of Nazism: “first they came for the Muslims, and we said . . . not in our nation and not on our watch: Muslims are our fellow citizens.”

    Some critics of identity politics dispute this conclusion as a matter of political strategy, while being careful not to question its moral authority. More than a few have accepted at face value the political analysis Trump political commissar Steve Bannon gave to American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner in an unsolicited interview from the Trump White House last August. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Bannon uttered these words in the wake of the violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, and after Trump refused to unequivocally condemn them. By all accounts, he urged Trump to adopt that stance: Bannon has long stoked white racial fear and resentment. It is certainly not an emphasis on race and identity in general that Bannon sees as politically deadly: rather, it is a politics of resistance to racism.

    Yet there is something to be learned from Bannon’s alternative to identity politics, his “economic nationalism.” The economic and social damage caused by corporate globalization and “free trade” over the last four decades provides fertile ground for the cultivation of a politics that promises to undo it. One powerful source of the unexpected appeal of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign lay in the anti-corporate politics he advocated as a response to globalization.

    For Bannon, economic nationalism is the way he seeks to combine his racialized appeal to white, working-class people with a larger conception of American self-interest. If he is successful, the two elements will merge: the economic well-being of the nation will be equated with the needs of white working people, and vice versa.

    Rather than docilely accepting Bannon’s judgment that anti-racist politics are a death knell for Democrats, we should be asking ourselves what our plan for establishing an alternative political hegemony is. How do we identify the elements that are central to our values and critical in responding to the crisis of democracy, such as anti-racism, with a broader vision of the national interest and future? That road leads not through a binary opposition between the “universalism” of citizenship and class and the “particularity” of race, gender, and sexual identity, but in the hard work of constructing real political agency out of conceptions of “citizen” and “worker” that are opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia at their core.

    Too often, the American left operates as if a hegemonic political project on this order can be constructed through acts of recognition that employ a politics of symbols and gestures alone. It is tacitly assumed that once the left embraces the idea of a diverse mosaic of American citizenry and speaks in the name of a multiracial working class, the essential labor has been done.

    AA linked to video snippets of Joanna Williams ranting about identity politics. In the rant Williams criticizes #MeToo and the “demands” of transgenders to be accepted. Williams notes that she would probably fare better associating with white men than joining with women. Williams wants Universalism. She terrifies me. I’m looking at the mess that is the Kavanaugh nomination. Old white guys are deciding how charges against Kavanaugh will be handled. I would like to see at least some women in power involved in the decision. I believe Identity Politics has a useful role here.

    Link to the panel discussion featuring Joanna Williams

    When I hear demands for Universalism and for identity politics to go away. I am reminded of Martin Niemöller 

    First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


    Universalism wants me to shut up and wait for them to come for me. 


    There is no equivalence between black identity politics and white identity politics. Even David Brooks realizes this fact.

    But three things are clear: First, identity politics on the right is at least as corrosive as identity politics on the left, probably more so. If you reduce the complex array of identities that make up a human being into one crude ethno-political category, you’re going to do violence to yourself and everything around you.

    Second, it is wrong to try to make a parallel between Black Lives Matter and White Lives Matter. To pretend that these tendencies are somehow comparable is to ignore American history and current realities.

    Third, white identity politics as it plays out in the political arena is completely noxious. Donald Trump is the maestro here. He established his political identity through birtherism, he won the Republican nomination on the Muslim ban, he campaigned on the Mexican wall, he governed by being neutral on Charlottesville and pardoning the racialist Joe Arpaio.

    It's about sucking up to the base & shunning "the other".

    Ted's trying to make them forget he's really a Canuck with a Cuban father who overstayed his student visa so asked for "political asylum" - if only Mexicans could be so ballsy, but they weren't on the front lines of Communism nor our brothel of the Caribbean. Let me guess, Ted's an outsider, a Christian man, pro-2nd amendment, & would create jobs if only he knew how. Oh, & eats critters fricasseed on a spit - big down Texas way.

    Universalism allows for racism. We are always left with the question of who defines the norm? The norm has generally been defined by White males. The current Universalists want to continue that norm

    From Étienne Balibar on the Violence of the Universall

    The common source of these two opposites, namely universalism and racism, is the idea of the human species that was fashioned by bourgeois modernity, of which Kant is a representative par excellence. How could Kant be both the theorist of unconditional respect for the human person, and the theorist of cultural inequality among races? That is where the deepest contradiction — the enigma, even — lies. Yet this has to do, first of all, with the way in which we define progress. It does not simply consist of setting a horizon for humanity in general, but also of setting up certain characteristics of gender, nationality or education as norms of humanity itself.

    While it has its different variants, this is a discourse common to both the French and American revolutionary movements of the eighteenth century and the social emancipation movements of the nineteenth century. They provided the basis for our lives today. But what is fundamental, in my view, is that such a universalism also allows for resistance. In the eighteenth century France’s Olympe de Gouges and Britain’s Mary Wollstonecraft founded political feminism by proclaiming that identifying the universal with a masculine norm contradicted its postulate of equal freedom and access to rights for all.

    So we can challenge universalism in the name of its own principles, as a whole section of anti-colonialist discourse did. Look at Toussaint Louverture and Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois and Aimé Césaire. That is the other side of the tension that works away at every universalism: it can justify discrimination, but it also makes possible revolt and insurrection



    The Republicans drove the final stake through the fragile American heart of "universalism" when they divided the nation into Democrats and Real Americans about 30 years ago.

    Universalism requires respect shown and compromise reached with the opposition to resolve critical and pressing national issues....not inflame, distort, manipulate, or forever perpetuate them for partisan purposes and personal gain.

    Fukuyama argued that the world would default to Liberalism after the fall of Communism. He was wrong then. Noe he’s back with the Universalism crap. He is wrong now. Appiah admits tgat Universalism could open the door to the white supremacists. If you watch the rant of Joanne Williams on the video of the panel discussion, you will be terrified. She openly attacks transgender people. Her version of Universalism has a very narrow window.

    You are correct the current version of Universalism is actually very exclusionary.

    Edit to add:

    The Universalist s have the perfect scam. All you need to do is simply agree with them and things are fine. Speak up for your right’s and you are pretending to be a “victim”. Continue to demand your rights and you are a “narcissist “. The Universalist is perfect, they need change no personal behavior. Protest and you are a flawed individual. 

    All Lives Matter is the perfect Universalism slogan. They never do anything but complain about people complaining.

    Here is a snippet of a paragraph preceding an interview with Appiah in the Daily Intelligencer 

    The election of Donald Trump, meanwhile, has emboldened the segment of Americans most fixated on the idea that the nation is fundamentally white and Christian and must remain that way. On the left, things are a bit more complicated: While it’s progressives who have done the most work to knock down old identity categories, at the moment the left is also hosting a raucous internecine discussion over the purpose and limitations of “identity politics” — a term defined in a thousand ways by a thousand participants. These debates have touched just about every political and policy issue there is.

    So in the setting of white supremacists on the Right demanding power, Appiah sees the biggest problem as identity politics on the Left. The Right is fixated on making white supremacy the way the government operates, but identity politics Liberals are the problem. This is sheer idiocy. It lets white supremacists off the hook.

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