Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Identity Politics

I am wondering about identity politics at the moment, thinking about suggesting a panel for Wiscon. I have very mixed feelings. I can see good things coming out of identity politics, but I also wonder if -- overall -- they represent a retreat from the movements of the 1960s.

At the moment I have feelings and dim intuitions, not a clear analysis. But I have been thinking of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, a movement of black rank and file auto workers in the 1960s. At one point, they went to Johnny Watson, who was the editor of the Wayne State student newspaper and said, "We need a better analysis. Tell us about Marx." Watson called up Marty Glaberman, a former auto worker who was a follower of C.L.R. James and said, "I need to know about Marx right now." Point being, the 60s movements came from the bottom up, and they were not academic. Even the student anti-war movement did not use academic language. "Hell no, we won't go."

There was a transitional period in the late 60s and early 70s, when something like identity politics appeared: Black Power, the American Indian Movement, Second Wave Feminism. Again, none of this was based in academia. My memory is, all of it was from the ground up.

I need Barbara Jensen here, since she has written about class differences in how language is used. I come from a middle- class, academic background, though I never fit into academia. (Neither did my father, the college professor.) When I started working office jobs in Detroit, I could not communicate with my fellow workers, though we were all native speakers of English. Finally, I was able to understand them. At the same time, my ability to understand middle-class, academic people decreased.

A popular movement requires clear language.

There have been popular movements recently. I think Occupy counts as one, though the earlier stages were planned by anarchists. It spread very quickly, without planning. The Ferguson demonstrations are another example. In both cases, the government responded with force. You can tell how much of a threat you are to the status quo by how many armored cops and tank-like vehicles show up.

To give an example of clarity -- Occupy talking about the 1% and 99%, which has gone into general usage. I'd say the lifted hands in Ferguson is another example of a clear and effective symbol.

I'm not sure 'academic' is the right word for what bothers me. I had trouble with academia myself, but that was some kind of odd quirk. Many of my best friends, the people I like best, are college profs. I understand the need for a technical language, though I think there's a strong argument for writing in the most accessible way possible. I'm not sure I can articulate what I think is wrong with identity politics or with the language that I find bothersome. When I examine my responses, I can see how they can be wrong. (To give an example, broad-based political movements can ignore the issues of specific groups. The left always ignored women's issues, until the Second Wave of Feminism came along. So this is an argument for identity politics. And race is key to understanding the US.) But I am still left with a nagging sense of discomfort, and a lot of it has to do with language.

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