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Boommer Bust: Eric Lott Critiques the Passing of Identity Politics

Bookforum, Summer 2006

boomer bust book coverOn the afternoon of January 31, 1998, two hundred professors and graduate students gathered at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to discuss a disturbing new movement. “A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life,” a flier announced, “the specter of Left Conservatism.” With participants including Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Jonathan Arac, and Paul A. Bové, the conference was designed to address the perceived split in the mid- to late ’90s between members of the so-called cultural and real Lefts.

What was the difference between the two? The conventional wisdom of the time had it that the cultural Left was composed of theory-obsessed, anti-American academic relativists who wrote obscure treatises and preferred ethnic- and gender-oriented identity politics to activism. Members of the real Left, on the other hand, were pragmatic humanists, earnest ’60s types who favored coalition building (with the labor movement, for one), abhorred class inequality, and pressed for political change via elections.

While there is some truth to the caricatures, I always thought the two sides were (deliberately?) talking past each other. After all, what would it really mean for race to “trump” class, or vice versa? Who actually believes in the existence of depoliticized culture or in a politics whose cultural dimension is irrelevant? Does anyone really doubt that the difference between protesting Lawrence Summers at Harvard and protesting the invasion of Iraq in Washington, DC, is one of kind rather than degree? I would argue that the cultural and real Lefts share an anxiety that has less to do with the future of the Left than with the relevance of the intellectual. Would-be public intellectuals frequently elided the necessary tension between the terms, pretending that ideological consistency and public access can be reconciled easily. They can’t, of course, and the attack on Left Conservatism was an obvious symptom of the clash.

In addition to attention-getting events like the Sokal hoax in 1996, several influential books appeared in the years leading up to the Left Conservative conference that questioned the path taken by postwar intellectuals. Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987) lamented the death of the independent critic as well as the rise of the careerist, academic professional who replaced him; Todd Gitlin’s The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995) argued that intellectuals had become sidetracked by theoretical debates and satisfied to take over America’s English departments while conservatives won the White House; in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998), Richard Rorty advocated a form of “civic religion” in which Left intellectuals would take “pride in American citizenship by substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal.” Books like these posed a challenge: Engage the realities of American life on a serious intellectual level or accept the fact that you are no more (or less) than an academic expert who has mistakenly equated professional standing with social relevance.

It is precisely this test that Eric Lott’s The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual tries to pass. At its best, Lott’s book is a meditation on the competing claims of the real and the cultural Lefts and a skewering of those who have failed to balance their public and intellectual projects. At its worst, it is a blinkered intellectual history of the past fifteen years, an exercise in which any position that carries a whiff of compromise or complexity is banished to the gulag.

Lott’s primary target is a phenomenon he calls “boomer liberalism,” a version of Left Conservatism he coined in a 1999 Transition essay of the same name. He defines it as a “‘progressive osteoarthritis’ of the mind—a boneheaded degeneration of the radical spirit and one of the chief obstacles to a reconstruction of social and political life in the twenty-first-century United States.” For Lott, a professor of American studies and cultural studies at the University of Virginia, boomer liberalism isn’t a symptom of America’s problem but the problem itself. Genuinely conservative ideas are completely absent from the book, despite the fact that they have informed America’s ruling ideology for most of the last twenty-five years. Why bother to address policies that have “reformed” welfare, launched a potentially endless “war on terror,” and further enriched the wealthiest segment of society? It is “pointless to critique notions that every day demonstrate their own limitations,” Lott assures us.

No, Lott’s enemy is the “right deviationist” tendency within the Left, and his goal is nothing less than a full-scale ideological purge. Although he doesn’t quite airbrush his opponents from official portraits, Lott’s use of insidious modifiers—Cornel West is a “reputed leftist,” Rorty is “strangely silent,” Robin Kelley is “somewhat contradictory”—has much the same effect.

Lott’s villains encompass an absurdly large cast of characters—Gitlin, Rorty, West, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Mark Crispin Miller, Thomas Frank, Naomi Klein, Camille Paglia, Eric Alterman, Jim Sleeper, James Miller, Michael Eric Dyson, and others. If you can tease a consistent ideological tendency out of that group, my hat goes off to you. So who counts as a boomer liberal? Anyone with whom Lott disagrees.

Boomer liberals fall into three groups, or what he terms three “basic structures of feeling” (a po-mo fudge if ever I’ve seen one): neoliberal historicists, neoliberal Marxists, and neoliberal culturalists. What is their collective crime? Some (Berman, Marcus, Gitlin) draw on the legacy of the ’60s to establish their authority; others (Jacoby, Miller, Frank) are, essentially, reformers whose positions are merely “anticorporate,” not “anticapitalist.” Few are pure or radical enough for Lott.

As with all arguments from history, Lott’s implies that his derives its strength from forces beyond our comprehension. Sounding like an earnest freshman Marxist, he chides literary critic Walter Benn Michaels for failing to understand that “we labor under conditions not of our own choosing.” The central crime of boomer liberalism, according to Lott, is its wholesale rejection of identity politics, and here he makes some good points. In attempting to create a universalistic, politically viable Left, the boomers have given short shrift to the particularistic claims of various groups. Less understandably, some have taken upon themselves the role of “identity politics” police, limning every position for evidence of parochial ethnic motives. Drawing on sociologist Mary C. Waters’s Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (1990), Lott argues that liberal critics often employ a double standard, allowing white ethnics to celebrate their heritage while scrutinizing claims made by African Americans and other minorities. By uniformly undermining identity politics in the name of what Lott terms the “new cosmopolitanism,” boomer liberals have misappropriated the work of thinkers like Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, equating their universal humanism with a race-blind position.

Lott is correct in noting that nothing could be further from the postethnic world envisioned by the new cosmopolitans than the position sketched out in Ellison’s “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” (1970) and Murray’s The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (1970). While Ellison warned against confusing “the black American’s racial background with his individual culture,” he and Murray were always careful to insist on the centrality of that culture to American, as much as to African-American, identity.

What, then, is the appropriate role of identity politics? It is in this question that the cynicism and condescension of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual become apparent. While Lott is right to point out that the “motive of identity-based movements” was not merely to “take their place amid the honorable (and now expanded) left,” his historical determinism blinds him to the possibility—the fact—that identity politics is as likely to come to fruition on the right as on the left. Enlisting C. L. R. James as a comrade (“the hatred of bourgeois society and the readiness to destroy it when the opportunity should present itself, rests among [African Americans] to a degree greater than in any other section of the population in the United States”), Lott is puzzled by the scarcity of “black counterpublic spheres” existing “outside the contours of American liberalism.” For all his radicalism, the one thing Lott can’t imagine is a group of people choosing a political option he has not himself vetted.

As Murray or Ellison could have told him, Lott’s black counterpublic sphere does exist and has long been fairly conservative. He completely ignores the inconvenient fact that a significant portion of African Americans hold positions to the right, not the left, of mainstream liberalism. While rarely voting Republican, roughly 30 percent of African Americans identified themselves as conservatives from 1992 to 1997, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. In 2000, that number increased slightly, to 31 percent. Surveys of politically contentious issues have consistently corroborated this. According to recent Gallup polls, nearly 60 percent of African Americans favor the death penalty, 85 percent support school choice, 46 percent are against any legal recognition of gay relationships, 73 percent favor parental-notification laws to restrict access to abortion, and 77 percent feel that minorities should not receive preferential treatment to make up for past discrimination.

I would bet that Lott is well aware of these data, which is where his cynicism comes in. Ultimately, he’s in favor of identity politics for a completely pragmatic reason: It works. These days, playing the race card is simply more effective than playing the class card. I wouldn’t begrudge Lott his base instrumentalism if he were an organizer or an activist. But intellectuals—even those who “write from a radical egalitarian perspective”—are supposed to take the long view, confronting realities that conflict with their political fantasies. And when examined in these terms, extreme forms of identity politics are a disaster not only for the Left but for the country as a whole.

Lott does think of himself as an activist, not just a professor—a point he makes in the book’s epilogue. In it, he tells the story of the University of Virginia’s Labor Action Group’s campaign to increase the pay and improve the working conditions of the largely African-American low-wage workers on campus. A worthy cause, of course, but Lott’s melodramatic description of their lives—”such an unspeakably grisly routine that it makes you wonder just how long the whole edifice can hold up”—would be more appropriate for the workers in Upton Sinclair’s slaughterhouses than it is for the secretaries and food-service employees of an elite university. Has Comrade Lott ever held such a job? I doubt it.

While reading Lott, I was reminded of a quote from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life: “When they feel they are about to establish the school janitor’s right to be treated with respect, they grow starry-eyed and increase their tempo.” It is cited in David S. Brown’s excellent Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography—a book that I hope rescues Hofstadter from the clutches of those who would lump him in with simplistic consensus historians like Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin.

Hofstadter authored or coauthored nearly a dozen books in less than thirty years, before he died of leukemia at age fifty-four. Often criticized within the profession because his work didn’t deal with primary documents, Hofstadter is more profitably read as a social critic who used American history and historiography as a template for his musings on contemporary culture. He is a particularly apt foil for Lott because he was so acutely aware of the dangers of the kind of crusading moralism that he experienced in the ’30s (he was for six months a member of the Communist Party) and that Lott preaches today.

More important, Hofstadter proved by example that it is possible to be a skeptical liberal without becoming a conservative (he contributed to Eldridge Cleaver’s defense fund and endorsed Angela Davis when she faced dismissal from UCLA for being a Communist). “He did not like pieties for their own sake. He had trouble with automatic liberalism along with automatic anything else,” observes Peter Gay, who taught with Hofstadter at Columbia.

Brown is especially perceptive in distinguishing Hofstadter’s politics from those of his fellow Columbia scholars (Lionel Trilling, for one) by showing how his defense of liberalism was informed more by his fear of the Right than by—as was the case with Trilling and his budding neoconservative brethren—his deep anti-Communism. When Trilling declared in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950) that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” Hofstadter knew better.

His sensitivity to the lure of right-wing ideology gave sophistication and breadth to his critique of anti-intellectualism. “Hofstadter’s work recognized the popular roots of antiliberalism and thus more insightfully anticipated where the heart of twentieth-century American conservatism was heading,” writes Brown.

Brown argues that it was his unwavering belief in intellectual freedom, not just in academic freedom, that steeled Hofstadter in his battles. He was in that sense the quintessential public intellectual. His graceful writing assured him a wide audience, and his skepticism and intellectual independence kept him from pandering to anyone. “Hofstadter defended a separate sphere for creative thinkers,” writes Brown, “for he had no confidence in the Right . . . or Left . . . to champion intellect.”