The Anti-Liberal Crusade
On Hamas and the moral blindness of identity politics
The following essay was originally published in City Journal, and can also be read here.
Support for Hamas on U.S. college campuses has not surprised those of us who have witnessed the slow but decisive erosion of liberal thought on the hallowed grounds ostensibly committed to nourishing it. The humanities capitulated decades ago; now the natural and social sciences have succumbed as well. Every discipline stumbles over itself seeking absolution for sins its present-day adherents did not commit. College administrators respond to, and accelerate, this longing, while students bear the ever-rising cost of an anti-liberal crusade. In gatherings formal and informal, faculty, staff, and students signal their religious need to be counted among the redeemed rather than the damned.
A poster from the Revolutionary Front for the Defense of People's Right, Porto Alegre, Brazil. Eugenio Hansen/Wikimedia.
All of this was foreseeable. Every anti-liberal revolutionary movement since the French Revolution has offered followers its own version of redemption. None has satisfied the deepest human longings of the human heart. Each has exhibited unconscionable moral blindness.
The French Revolution gave us the faux-moral distinction between universalists and particularists—between those who believe that man must repudiate the bonds that hold him fast and those who believe that he cannot live without them, however imperfect they may be. That distinction survives today in the form of the cosmopolitans’ condescension toward nationalists, whom they deem parochial, xenophobic, and deplorable. This cosmopolitan moral blindness undermines much-needed national sovereignty, without which borders become permeable by drug cartels, child traffickers, and terrorists; it also disallows the links between citizens, without which we cannot build a world together.
Marxism gave us another faux-moral distinction: that between the oppressed and the oppressor. That distinction, too, survives today, strangely, in the form of the condescension that global corporations and world planners display toward the maverick entrepreneurial spirit that, in the long run, improves human life. All problems are global, they declare, and must be solved by top-down planning rather than by bottom-up, unpredictable disruptions. Through woke marketing and ESG, they deflect attention away from the exorbitant power they wield. Don’t be alarmed; they side with the oppressed! And so this moral blindness, which should provoke outrage, conduces to the concentration of political and economic power into fewer and fewer hands. The cardinal insights of liberalism hold that if liberty is to be protected, power must be decentralized; and that if economies are to thrive, crony-capitalism must be outlawed. The false claim of Marxism is that, as long as you side with the oppressed, the political and economic power you may amass has no limit.
Post-colonial theory gave us the faux-moral distinction between the colonized and the colonizer. That distinction survives today in the form of the condescension that defenders of Hamas show toward Israel; and indeed in the condescension shown throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia toward Western institutions that, irrespective of their origin, may actually be good ones. Rule of law, property rights, representative government, separation of powers, and legal protection of women and children—the moral blindness of post-colonial theory rules these institutions out because the colonizer brought them. Hold to the illusion that conquest can bring no good, and you commit to re-enchanting the world along pre-modern lines, as al-Qaida and ISIS have.
Radical Feminism gave us the faux-moral distinction between defenders of the patriarchy and those who would liberate us from it. After thousands of years of oppression, we stand on the threshold of a new world order: the future is female! But in truth, in such a world, you are not freed from masculinity but instead suffer from its perversions or its absence. Destroy fatherhood, destroy the necessary hierarchy through which boys and men are disciplined into civilization, and you produce men-without-chests—who will not enter burning buildings to save children, who will not rush into elementary schools to stop mass-shooters in their tracks, and who will not risk life and limb to defend civilized society from the marauders who would tear it down. The moral blindness of radical feminism involves the illusion that de-masculinizing the world will produce peace. Yes, masculinity produces violence, but it also tempers it; it is dangerous but also needed to secure safety. If you try to do away with it because it is “toxic,” and therefore morally abhorrent, you will still have the violence and danger but no way to protect yourself from them.
A poster showing women demonstrating for the Black Panther Party. Gary Yanker, 1969. Library of Congress.
Critical race theory gave us the faux-moral distinction between whites and nonwhites and asserted that the evils of the world can be neatly mapped along racial lines. White = racists. Nonwhites = not racists. The moral blindness of CRT stems from making distinctions in the wrong places; it breaks the world into factions where there are or should be none and finds unity where only faction exists. With respect to faction, it declares that there is no universal scientific enterprise to which all may contribute, but that all of science is tainted with whiteness. So, too, with medicine, mechanical engineering, law, and other disciplines. But if we abandon these tainted pursuits and live in the post-Babel world that CRT heralds, we will return to premodern lives of squalor and penury.
CRT declares that nonwhites are a “community,” whose unity is established in virtue of what they are not, namely, white. It posits a unity and purity conferred by not being white. When the echoes of liberalism in society remain strong enough to expose this morally odious claim, we need not worry. But as the older liberal generation dies off and the echoes of its ideas fade, CRT will metamorphosize from an idea within a liberal world that tolerates many ideas, to a program to be implemented in an anti-liberal world intolerant of all ideas but its own. Eugenics in the twentieth century ended with the Holocaust. CRT is the less aggressive eugenics of the twenty-first century—less aggressive, for now. We are obliged to wonder, in this darkening moment of Western history, whether, like the eugenic frenzy of the twentieth century, it carries within it a Final Solution of its own. Stains must be bleached clean; toxins must be purged; scapegoats must be driven out. Whiteness is the stain and the toxin; whites are the scapegoat. Critical race theorists mean what they say.
Identity politics, the genus within which currently prominent Whac-A-Mole developments like CRT, DEI, cancel culture, and transgender “affirmative care” are species, is the latest comprehensive revolutionary movement, third in line after the French Revolution and Marxism. It is the framework within which the faux-moral distinctions identified above currently find a home. Identity politics can become as globally destructive as Marxism has been—unless it is stopped in its tracks. Identity politics supposes that you are not a person but rather a marker and instance of a group, whose “identity” does not merely distinguish you from other groups but also locates you in an intersectional hierarchy of cleanliness or filth, in which the white, heterosexual male is the most leprous of all. In short, identity politics does not merely distinguish groups; it ranks them with respect to their innocence. The rule of law, so necessary for a liberal, multiethnic society to flourish, does not apply to those whom identity politics deems innocent victims, who are innocent in a way that the law cannot grasp. Antifa members who destroyed property worth billions of dollars during the 2020 summer of riots may have been guilty according to the law, but that did not matter, because by the higher standard of innocence set forth by identity politics, they were innocent victims.
Identity politics evaluates individuals on the basis of the transgressions or innocence of their forefathers. Are you a member of an innocent victim group, or a transgressor group? That is what our students are being asked on college campuses today. If you are among the second group, you may seek purification from the DEI juggernaut in HR and so-called student services, and then you will receive your diploma, which confirms not your competence but rather your moral purity.
A poster for a documentary lionizing convicted murderer and race radical Russell Maroon. Wikimedia.
Identity politics is the social contagion of our times. It destroys clear thinking by overriding, with simple faux-moral binaries, the nuanced analysis necessary to make genuine moral judgments and to take necessary but difficult actions. Hamas butchers babies and grandmothers? On what account is this not morally reprehensible? Answer: members of Hamas are not accountable for these gruesome acts of barbarism, because they have been colonized by oppressors, who, though Jewish, are in reality white. Hamas members, in this scheme, are innocent victims. They are therefore absolved of their deeds—no less than were Antifa arsonists during the summer of 2020. Identity politics—indeed any revolutionary schema that divides the world into the pure and the impure, the redeemed and the damned—offers moral simplicity but not moral clarity. In the name of being on the right side of history, it turns a blind eye to violence and to the response that civilized peoples need to endorse to bring it to an end.
We are in the midst of the next great battle for human liberty. There is darkness in the human heart. No individual and no group is pure, not least those who most claim to be. Is there darkness on the right? Yes. But it currently pales in comparison with what is happening on the left. Our colleges are in trouble. So is our society. We must all fight, now, to defend the liberal middle. If that middle does not hold, then the moral blindness of identity politics will invite domestic and foreign policy blunders that will hasten catastrophe.
The most pressing question in America at the moment pertains to the future of U.S. support for Israel. This question has been revealed to be a proxy for the future of identity politics in America. The outlook thus far is not promising. Many among the older generation on the left have awakened to discover that our college campuses are nourishing malignant ideas that sound like they are contiguous with the self-understanding of an old-fashioned liberal pluralist but in fact seek to destroy it, through the Trojan horse of innocent victimhood—Hamas now being its chief instance, as was George Floyd in 2020. In the framework of identity politics, each cause stands for something higher than itself, namely, innocence in a fallen world, light amid darkness.
The category of the innocent victim, we should remember, is first a religious category, brought into full relief through the Christian claim that Christ alone is the innocent victim, the scapegoat, who takes upon Himself the sins of the world. I dare say that this idea, burned into the Western mind for centuries, tempered the otherwise natural, which is to say, pagan, disposition to scapegoat groups and individuals. I suspect that liberal pluralism, always faltering and unstable, owes much of its modest success to Christianity. Delusions to the contrary, the modern world has not been characterized by secularism but principally by three quasi-religious revolutionary movements: the French Revolution, Marxism, and now identity politics. Each sets forth faux-moral distinctions that dull our moral sense, prevent us from seeing straight, and authorize unconscionable violence.
As identity politics consolidates its hold on the American imagination and organizes the whole of reality around the category of the innocent victim, I fear that support for Israel will diminish. What kind of hearing can Israelis expect when their moral standing has been established in advance by the pre-rational, faux-moral revolutionary categories now taught in colleges?