When Sarah Palin received the nomination as vice presidential candidate in August she became the first woman in 26 years and only the second woman ever to run for the office. Surely this was a triumph for women’s equality? To listen to the reactions of some feminists you’d never have guessed.
The Australian author Kathy Lette said “There’s something wrong with her … She’s a post-feminist – she’s kept her Wonderbra and burnt her brain”. The scholar Wendy Doniger, author of the much ignored ‘Tales of Sex and Violence: Folklore, Sacrifice, and Danger in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa’, said “Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman”
But they were surpassed in a rant posted on YouTube where American ‘comedienne’ Sandra Bernhard said Palin was a “turncoat bitch [and] Uncle Woman …who jumps out of the shed and points her fingers at other women…You whore in your cheap fucking…cheap-ass plastic glasses and your hair all up” before warning that if the Governor of Alaska visited Manhattan she would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers”. In fairness to Bernhard, she justified the racist ‘gang rape’ comment by saying “it is part of a much larger, nuanced, and yes, provocative (that’s what I do) piece from my show about racism, freedom, women’s rights…”
Palin hails from the political right so left wing opposition should be no surprise. What is shocking, as the above examples show, is the hateful, bilious abuse that takes the place of a reasoned discourse or critique. Some on the left who often champion gender issues can come out with abuse that is, quite simply, sexist. Where does this dissonance come from?
The answer lies in the nature of identity politics. Ever since Karl Marx wrote of the “contending classes” the left has seen society as competing groups; Bourgeois and Proletarians, workers and bosses, labourer and capitalist etc, rather than as the self interested individuals of classical liberal philosophy.
But in the second half of the 20th century socialism tended to give to way to postmodernism which JF Lyotard defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives” which have been defined as “attempts to make sense of the world as an interconnected whole or totality”. Thus, postmodernism meant the rejection by the left of Marx’s grand, over arching conception of history.
As a result, by the late 1960s, the left’s belief in society as an arena of struggle between socio economic classes had been splintered into a myriad of smaller interest groups based on race, gender, sexuality, disability or a variety of other potential identities. Instead of being the vehicle for the interests of the working class, the left and its affiliated parties, in varying degrees, became vehicles of these special interest groups and identity politics was born. And where previously the left had subordinated the interest of the individual to the interest of class, it now subordinated them to the special interest group.
This is what Jonah Goldberg has called “the iron cage of immutable identity”. Members of these special interest groups, who deviate from the proscribed ‘Weltanschauung’ of their designated interest group, like Palin, are seen as having betrayed it. Referring to a female Republican senator the feminist writer Gloria Steinem wrote “Having someone who looks like us, but thinks like them is worse than having no one.”
Dividing society into competing groups playing a zero sum game generates these intense emotions. It makes politics, ‘the art of compromise’, almost impossible as demonstrated by America’s bitter culture wars. The solution is to see the unique qualities of each individual. Just because someone may share a race, gender or disability with someone doesn’t mean they can be lumped together in a monolithic group with a self appointed leader. Steinem and fellow feminist writer Betty Friedan, among many others, have identified feminism with a kind of socialist economics. Figures like Palin and Margaret Thatcher do not fit this paradigm and invite the charge of heresy.
When we can end the crude, debasing tyranny of identity politics and look beyond characteristics and see character we may be closer to realising the advice of Barry Goldwater; “To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable”.