Who among us hasn’t said to themselves, “I wish Hitchens were here. What would he make of all the identity politics going down?” And indeed, given the man’s unpredictability, it’s hard to know, though Matt Johnson thinks that Hitch would definitely be antiwoke.
Johnson recently came out with a new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. There’s a six-minute video discussion below, and an intro and Q&A on Loury’s website. Click below to read Loury’s intro and an excerpt, and then watch the video (you can skip the printed Q&A since the text beyond the intro is a transcript).
Here’s Loury’s intro:
Identitarianism is now so deeply ingrained in left-liberal politics, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always this way. Material economic concerns once formed the solid core of left activism and thought on the domestic front: labor protections, combating economic inequality, providing services for the poor, and so on. Anyone who didn’t put those issues at the center of their politics couldn’t reasonably call themselves a member of the left. Now these quite serious issues have been displaced by a superficial obsession with race and identity. If you’re not calling for “racial justice,” it seems, it doesn’t matter how many warehouse workers you organize. Even Bernie Sanders found himself in the crosshairs of his ostensible allies when he downplayed identity politics in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Christopher Hitchens was a writer and thinker produced by—but not reducible to—that older tradition of left-wing thought and activism. For much of his life, he was an advocate for organized labor and a strong social safety net. He took the ideas of justice, equality, and democracy very seriously. Sometimes this led him to positions that would be at home on today’s left, as when he advocated for reparations for the descendants of slaves. But sometimes his commitments put him at odds with his fellow travelers, as when he supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraqis were being deprived by Saddam Hussein of their right to democratic self-determination.
Hitchens also believed that identity politics was a cheap substitute for what he saw as real political action. My guest this week, the writer Matt Johnson, thinks that, on that issue, Hitchens had it right. In fact, Matt wrote an excellent book about it. There was nobody quite like Hitch. His rhetorical force and precision, his moral clarity (even when he was wrong), and his wit seem in short supply today. I’ve hosted some left-liberals, like Mark Lilla and Norman Finkelstein, who are unafraid to speak out against “their side” on identity politics. And clearly Matt believes that the left can recover something of Hitch’s spirit, otherwise he wouldn’t have written the book. Despite my own political commitments, I hope he’s right.
I’ve read Johnson’s book, and it’s pretty darn good, though if you know your Hitchens well, you may find little that is new. Nevertheless, Johnson’s argument, supported with quotes, is persuasive.
Below, Johnson tells us about the pervasiveness of identity politics, and Loury asks him why are liberals, for instance, so divided given that they can’t agree on fundamental liberal issues.
One comment: Hitchens was in favor of reparations towards minorities, though Johnson implies otherwise. You can see that in this video debate between Hitchens and, ironically, Glenn Loury.
One question and answer:
GLENN LOURY: How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. The great Christopher Hitchens can save the left. The left’s in trouble. It’s worth saving, says Matt Johnson. And one of the reasons it’s in trouble is because it’s immersed in what Hitch called “the sinister bullshit” of identity politics. And Hitchens can save us from that, too. How so?
MATT JOHNSON: He was very opposed to identitarianism, because he saw it as regressive. In one article, he wrote, “If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed.” Emphasizing human difference is unhealthy and it’s tribal and it’s become very obsessive on the left. You know, I’ve listened to you for years, Glenn, you and John McWhorter. I’m not a fan of the DiAngelo school of identitarianism, not a fan of Kendi.
These guys, they really do frustrate me. I look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wonder what Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin would say about a movement that encourages large audiences of white people and corporations to look inward and identify and root out the racism instead of just looking at inequities in the society and trying to address them on a fundamental level.
It’s this toxin. It’s so easy to be tribal. It’s so easy to identify with a group. And Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, just said that identity politics is a cheap excuse for politics to the extent that the left was enmeshed in it, which it really has been for a long time. It was giving away one of the most important moral principles that it could hold, which would be universalism. We should try to move toward a colorblind society. I know that saying that automatically gets you branded a reactionary. It’s like saying “all lives matter.” You’re viewed as somebody who’s fighting the progress of racial justice in the country. I really do think that that should be the end goal. And if it takes 200 years, so be it. If it takes 500 years, so be it.
But I think there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s the goal we’re striving for. I think they think that race is this eternal fact about us, and racial division is an eternal fact about our politics. And Hitchens always hated that idea, and he thought we could be radical enough to get past it.