Bilerico Report

Noah Rothman’s book ‘Unjust’ is backlash identity politics

Cover of the book "Unjust"

Book cover

This book will illustrate how social justice is producing a society full of activists who revel in an impotence that they insist has been imposed upon them. They eschew agency, wallow in helplessness, and project their shortcomings onto others.

Noah Rothman’s thesis in his new book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America is that “social justice is a toxic ideology, one that saps the United States.”

Rothman differentiates between “traditional” forms of U.S.-American social justice as programs of “soft landing” for people displaced in jobs by the industrial revolution, appreciation of racial disparities in the prison system reflecting larger societal inequities, and understanding internal prejudices toward certain ethnic groups and prejudices based on sex.

He argues, however, that this prior conceptualization of social justice has since metastasized into “way of life” based on identities and on identity politics:

The study of identity long ago ceased to resemble an academic discipline. Its tenets are as inviolable as any religious dogma…. So enamored with their own virtue are these social justice advocates that they cannot see the injustices they are abetting…. And its self-appointed inquisitors make sure that there are consequences for transgressors.

He accuses modern-day social justice activists of not working for justice at all, but, rather, of pushing for “payback” that he wrote “can only foster resentment, cycles of violence, and counter-violence, corruption, and tribal animosities that span generations.”

What he terms as “the identity-obsessed left,” it pursues retribution and revenge, actions he equates with tactics undertaken by “the Jacobins in France, the Bolivarians in Latin America, and the Bolsheviks in Russia” as well as more recently in Lutsenko’s Ukraine where they are “convinced of the righteousness of [their] own prejudices.”

Also notable is Rothman’s attack on the notion of dominant group privileges, for example, white, male, and heterosexual.

Tying together the components parts of his overall thesis, he argues:

“The paranoia which can result from the division is the venomous progeny of identity politics. Its practitioners call it social justice.”

Social Justice

We can date the term “social justice” back to the 1840s when it was coined by a Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli.

We find the term in numerous documents, for example, the preamble of the International Labour Organization, an agency of the United Nations, stating that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.”

In addition, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, a human rights declaration passed by consensus on 25 June, 1993, by the World Congress on Human Rights, included “social justice” as the purpose and goal of human rights education.

I have constructed a definition of social justice as:

The concept that local, national, and global communities function where everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordination based on social identities and backgrounds.

So, if social justice is truly about ensuring a better, more peaceful, and equitable society and world dedicated to the concept of fairness and justice in the relationship between the individual and the state and between states, and devoted to obliterating the barriers of social mobility by working actively for equality of opportunity and economic justice, then why is there such resistance or opposition to the concept by many individuals and organizations in many nations?

Social Construction of Identities

So, is the political left as “identity obsessed” as Rothman asserts, or is there something entirely different at play?

We must first understand that all identities are socially constructed. Let us take “race” for example.

Looking over the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the fifteenth century of the Common Era (CE), and reaching its apex in the early twentieth century.

Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.”

They assert, therefore, that “race” is discursively constructed — a historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea — and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is below the surface of the body.

As an aspect of the social construction of “race,” we can show how nationality, language, and religion have at times become “racialized” in various societies and timeframes. Take, for example, the following examples:

  • A married Jewish couple of German birth and descent flee Germany during the rise of the Nazis in 1933 and immigrate to Colombia in South America. Within 5 years after arriving, they produce and raise three children. Colombian society defines this family as European-heritage white.One of the children comes to the United States to attend college. When she enters the U.S., she suddenly becomes “Latina,” owing to her country of birth and her first language of Spanish. Not only does language through discursive regimes racialize, but also, in many instances, language itself is racialized.
  • A white woman of English, Irish, and Swedish heritage grows up in a home in Iowa following the tenets of the Christian Methodist faith. When she was 32-years-old, she met, fell in love with, and married an Iranian professor from a nearby university who teaches Islamic Culture and Religion and is himself a Muslim.Before their marriage, the woman studied and converted to Islam, and now she wears the traditional hijab, the veil customarily worn by some Muslim women covering the head and chest. Many people now consider this woman as no longer “white,” but, rather, as a person of color by converting to Islam and marrying a man of Iranian descent. This example underscores the racialization of religion.

Many historians believe that although same-sex attraction and gender diversity have probably always existed in human history, the concepts of sexual and gender identities in general and the construction of these identities and sense of community based on these is a relatively modern Western invention.

A historic shift occurred in the early- to mid-nineteenth century C.E., brought about by the diminishing impact of religion, the growth of industrialization, competitive capitalism, and the rise of modern science, which provided people with more social and personal options outside the home.

As more people moved away from their rural agricultural communities where survival depended upon large interdependent nuclear and extended family units, to the growing cities where individuals entered into employment founded on wage labor, they were given the opportunity to meet and relate with others who recognized their sexual and emotional desires for their own sex.

Only within the last 170 or so years has there existed an organized and sustained political effort to protect the rights of people with same-sex and all-sex attractions, and those who cross traditional constructions of gender expression of all backgrounds and ages.

From the eugenics movement, some members of the scientific community viewed people attracted to their own sex as constituting a distinct biological or racial type — those who could be distinguished from “normal” people through anatomical markers.

For example, Dr. G. Frank Lydston, urologist, surgeon, and professor from Chicago, in 1889 delivered a lecture at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago in which he referred to homosexuals as “sexual perverts” who are “physically abnormal.”

The U.S. medical doctor, Allan McLane Hamilton (1896), wrote in 1896 in a publication titled the American Journal of Insanity that “The [female homosexual] is usually of a masculine type, or if she presented none of the ‘characteristics’ of the male, was a subject of pelvic disorder, with scanty menstruation, and was more or less hysterical and insane.”

Physician, Perry M. Lichtenstein, who co-published A Handbook of Psychiatry in 1943, previously in 1921 wrote that: “A physical examination of [female homosexuals] will in practically every instance disclose an abnormally prominent clitoris.” And he expressively added, “This is particularly so in colored women.”

For our society to label people based on their romantic attractions is rather absurd to say the least. Why does my attraction to some men have to define me? Why does this separate me in our society from people attracted to members of another sex?

Who then can we say is “identity obsessed”? Those who have been socially-defined from without? Or, rather, the social definers?

Let Rothman answer these critical questions: Would there be a gay, or a lesbian, or a bisexual identity and sense of community in a society with an absence of heterosexism?

Likewise, would there be an African American, or a Latinx, or an Asian identity and sense of community in the absence of the numerous forms of racism? My friend and colleague from Nigeria, for example, didn’t “know” she was black until she came to the United States.

While most likely we might find Jewish or Muslim or Catholic identities and communities in the absence religious oppression because there are histories and scriptures linking adherents over the generations, other identities would most likely fade away.

Though I have considered myself a member of the LGBT community for literally decades, if not for our oppression within an overarching sexist, heterosexist, and cissexist society, nothing else holds us together since we are all unique individuals with diverse interests and political concerns.

In addition, we individually comprise numerous intersectional identities, which hold salience depending on the contexts we find ourselves.

Backlash

Demanding “Never Again” and “Enough Is Enough” to gun violence and shouting “We Call BS” to the arguments against changing gun laws, a new generation of young people has been sparked into activism as a shooter’s bullets cut down their peers and teachers at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

Within a very short time, they have captured the imagination and admiration of those of us who have long hoped and fought for policy initiatives to bring an end to the senseless over-availability of firearms that kills an estimated 33,000 people annually in the U.S.

But as with all social movements for progressive social change, a strong and powerful opposition stands in the way. Member of the conservative political right, many who represent the interests of gun manufacturers and their lobbyists, have long engaged in and are continuing to wage war against gun safety advocates, even when, especially when, these advocates are young people.

During the conservative cultural moment within the context of declarations of “fake news,” “conspiracy theories,” “witch hunts,” and verifiable distortions and lies in reaction to anything and everything reported that goes against their agendas and “values,” the backlash to derail, by demeaning and impugning the integrity and motivation of these new youth advocates, was predictable in its speed and veracity.

Many people accuse these young people of serving as pawns or co-conspirators of the political left’s anti-gun agenda, that they are mere puppets who have been coached what to say and how to say it.

Susan Faludi, in her now-classic exposé, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, details the intense resistance to feminist ideas and movements for gender equality. By shining a powerful illuminating spotlight on this backlash, Faludi reveals and debunks the myths and stereotypes perpetrated by social institutions, from business to the media, working to restrain women in all facets of their lives.

Identity Politics

Identity-based politics has been employed for numerous practical and appropriate reasons including to motivate people to organize against the various forms of oppression that operate on multiple levels: the personal/interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal.

Though we have come far as a society, we have many miles left to go on our path toward true progressive change and liberation. Rothman stands behind the times in his critique of social justice and identity because since identity-based politics continues, we have entered another step in organizing.

People are joining in coalition across identities working to “transform” or “liberate” the society and its institutions by challenging overall power inequities in terms of traditional gender and racial constructions, the economic basis on which this country rests and the massive inequities between socioeconomic groups.

We are making links in the various forms of identity and forms of oppression, and forming coalitions between various marginalized groups, as well as looking at other means of activism, which can result in true and lasting systemic change.

Oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue spinning and trampling over people. Many people and groups are now working toward dismantling all its many hideous spokes if we hope to ever truly dismantle oppression.

Many of us are seeing beyond ourselves and basing our communities and movements not simply on our identities, but also on shared ideas and ideals that cut across individuals from disparate social identities. We are coming together with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving our objectives.

Opponents of ensuring equity and diversity in our society attack “identity politics” to silence or marginalize those of us who are working for social justice nation-wide. They accuse us of “using” the “race” or “gender” card to call our motives and credibility into question. But we cannot talk about the United States without talking about identity since we are a diverse nation with a checkered history.

And, no, Noah Rothman, we are not attacking white Christian heterosexual men. We most certainly are, though, challenging a system that most definitely privileges and subordinates individuals based primarily on their social identities.

Notwithstanding Rothman’s objection, the ideology of social justice empowers advocates in taking back control over their lives and in promoting the very ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on which our country is based.

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