The Problem with Identity Politics

It wasn’t long ago that one would hear it said the world will be a different place when women are in charge. But then came the masculine regimes of Indira Gandhi — from whom a politician as dirty and ruthless as Richard Nixon recoiled — and Margaret Thatcher. From then forward, the essentialist claim that female leadership is distinct from its male counterpart could be put forward only with laboured qualifications and irony.

The claim rested on biology, as many bogus theories concerning human nature do. The idea was that because women bear children they would never submit to having them sent off to war. Both Gandhi and Thatcher were tested on this point, and both proved it to be hollow. No one should have been surprised by this. If the claims of chauvinists may be dismissed as without foundation, so too their opposites. In other words, people are neither soul-less devils nor soaring angels. Just as we today dismiss the Aristotelian barbarism of the wandering womb and the innate hysteria of the fairer sex, so too must we discredit its dogmatic reactions, for example the fiction that men are irredeemably tainted by the war impulse.

These examples invoke a lunatic fringe, examples of which may be found in the weird writings of Camille Paglia. On the present topic there are however more commonplace points of reference. A few weeks ago, I came across an article in the Globe and Mail concerning the fact that a record number of Aboriginal individuals had been sent to Parliament in the most recent election. One is meant to receive this as evidence of an ipso facto social advancement, and not just an instance of personal triumph, as would be the case if the candidates were of Greek, Persian, or Irish extraction. And yet, recent blunders of Health Canada, the object of which were indigenous people, took place under the watch of an Inuk Cabinet Minister, Leona Aglukkaq. By any objective measure of her performance, not even as an “advocate” but merely as a federal politician engaged with aboriginal issues, she is a mediocrity. Given the choice, I’d take a motivated Caucasian.

From here we proceed to today’s National Post, where there is an article concerning the Indigenous Bar Association’s urging of the Harper government to appoint an Aboriginal justice to the Supreme Court of Canada. Inevitably, this has summoned forth a cynical and irksome debate over the principles of merit and diversity, at the bottom of which are many dubious assumptions which once informed some of the more lazy varieties of feminism over a generation ago.

The debate is cynical because no indigenous person of questionable fitness will ever be appointed to the Supreme Court. It happens also I am an Aboriginal person, and that I would be disgusted by the suggestion I had been hired for that reason. It is an insult that can never be delivered upon a “white” person, which I submit to you is in itself revealing. But before you conclude that I am making the case against “affirmative action,” let me inform you otherwise. Affirmative action is not about smoothing the path of the otherwise unqualified and undeserving. The central issue isn’t that an Aboriginal person should today be given an absolute preference: it is that, until very recently, such persons were simply not employed in many occupations, and for many reasons.

Perhaps I ought to apologize for keeping you so long, but here is the principal observation that I wanted to make — the punch-line, one might say. The most questionable assumption of all in the domain of identity-driven politics is the idea that certain kinds of persons will have certain kinds of experience and insights and predispositions. The female politician will “get feminism,” and the Aboriginal justice will have some sort of unique or otherwise extraordinary hold upon Aboriginal law. Everything will be different when women rule the world. It is certain however that the day is not far off when Aboriginal people find their struggles repelled by Justices of a darker hue. I don’t say this to boast, but years ago I was warning women on the political left that only a certain kind of female could become President of the United States. I think that claim has been proven correct by the rise of people like Sarah Palin, who among their allegiances would never include terms such as “feminist.”

It will be the same across the identity politics menu. As I watch prominent and disappointed black Americans marshal their stubborn ounces against Barack Obama, I am reminded of the unavoidable fact that identity politics is a fetish of the half-baked and pseudo-intellectual. Nor shall I have it otherwise, for the opposite of racism is humanism and internationalism and solidarity across the many boundaries which divide us.

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