Streetwise Professor

February 18, 2017

The Identity Left Needs to Heed the Lesson of Major Patrick Ferguson & King’s Mountain

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 12:56 pm

At his Thursday press conference Trump unleashed a frontal attack on the press, and appealed directly to the American people: he said, in not so many words, that he would not accept the press as an intermediary standing between him and the electorate  because it is not an honest broker, but is instead  tendentiously partisan, and fundamentally dishonest in its partisanship. Trump followed this fusillade with a Tweet labeling an alphabet soup of media organizations “enemies of the people.”

The media reacted predictably, and indeed as Trump predicted during his press conference. And you know what: He doesn’t care! Indeed, he relishes it, precisely because he knows that the people to whom he is appealing detest the media. And the primary reason that they detest the media is that they know the media detests them, and indeed, largely considers them beneath contempt.

Which brings me to my main subject, which is the left’s doubling down on identity politics post-election. This is the subject of an excellent essay in the Claremont Review of Books by William Voegeli (unfortunately behind a paywall).

Voegeli brings out a couple of very important points. One is the relentless, and indeed militant, subjectivity of identity politics. (This is something I’ve remarked upon going back at least 25 years.) The premise is that there are no universals, but that everyone’s beliefs,  mind, and behavior are determined by their identity, which is the function of a nexus of primarily race and gender (with the latter definitely NOT being binary) and sexual orientation (and crucially, only to a very minor degree class/economic status–more on this in a bit).

This leads to an intense tribalism.*  This tribalism inherently creates conflict and makes dialogue impossible. This is greatly exacerbated by the leftist belief that language itself is highly subjective and the product of power relationships. When the possibility of a common meaning of language is denied, conversion by persuasion and the demonstration of error through argument become impossible. The left thinks the Tower of Babel is, if not a good thing, an inevitable thing. In such a world, dispute can be settled only by conflict and the assertion of power. In this situation, language serves the purpose almost exclusively of signaling one’s identity tribe, and to one’s identity tribe, rather than to engage in civil discourse with those outside it.

Moreover, the most crucial part of these identities is victimization. Which requires a victimizer. The left of course has that all figured out, and of course it is identifiable by race, gender, orientation etc.: the victimizers are white, primarily male, heterosexual, and middle class. Often rural or exurban, living in the Heart of Darkness that stretches from the Hudson to the San Andreas fault (with a few small islands inhabited by good tribes, namely college towns, scattered there).

And as Voegeli notes, this creates a tremendous problem for the left. They were convinced that demography, combined with raising the identity consciousness of the victimized categories, would result in an electoral majority that would sweep them into power. Once in power, they could take their revenge on the benighted–and Voegeli points out that many (e.g., Harvard’s–go figure!–Mark Tushnet) were quite explicit in their desire to exterminate the American kulaks as a class.

But the demographic revolution has not proceeded as quickly as the left had anticipated, and they launched their revolution too quickly, while the hated kulaks were still in a majority (and in particular, in an Electoral College majority–pesky Constitution!). They also misjudged their enemy. (And I am not being hyperbolic here–they definitely view whites in flyover country as the enemy.)

They should have read Walter Russell Mead’s description of the Jacksonian American. It is usually politically detached and rather passive. But when it perceives it is threatened, it reacts with a rather frightening intensity, latent with the threat of violence.

A historical example illustrates this. During the American Revolution, the “Overmountain Men” of Tennessee, the proto-Jacksonians, largely remained aloof from the conflict. They wanted to be left alone. But neutrality did not satisfy the British crown. The British demanded subservience and support. British commander Patrick Ferguson made blood curdling threats to attack Over the Mountain unless subservience was forthcoming, post haste.

These threats pushed the Overmountain Men into outright defiance. Believing their liberty to be at risk, and not willing to bend to any man (which is why they were living in the wilderness in the first place), they flooded out of their mountain fastness and gathered near King’s Mountain, North Carolina, where they met Ferguson and his Redcoats. And proceeded to shoot them to pieces, killing Ferguson in the process, in one of the most decisive and one-sided battles of the war.

The Trump election bears some similarity to this. The left’s identity politics requires that their enemies either deny their own identity and submit, or commit suicide (which, in fact, some on the left have helpfully suggested). Yes, this may work with pussified white males at Oberlin (obedient products of the feminized primary and secondary education systems in the US), but it doesn’t work with high school graduates in Gunland. As the left found out to its horror and shock on November 8, 2016.

The old Marxist left always went on and on about how the internal contradictions in capitalism would cause its collapse. The new cultural left is blind to the internal contradictions of identity politics. One cannot reasonably expect that the Evil Identity–which the Good Identities constantly call out by name–will not itself consolidate on identity lines and fight back, but that is exactly what the left’s strategy requires. A strategy based on one’s enemy’s self-abnegation can hardly be calculated to succeed, especially if that enemy is Jacksonian America, which (a) already has a well-formed identity, and (b) has a nasty habit of fighting war to the knife when threatened.

Indeed, the irony here is almost too much. The gravamen of the left’s criticism of the white middle class focuses on the very characteristics (which Obama conveniently summarized as clinging to guns and religion) that make it dangerous when threatened. So it’s not like this should have been a surprise.

One last thing about economic status and class that is worth mentioning. Although Trump’s message does appeal mainly to the white middle and working class, the fact that it is primarily economic (jobs! factories! Make America Great Again!) its appeal is not limited to whites. Indeed, it has the potential to appeal to blacks and Hispanics who are in similar economic circumstances to the whites who put Trump in the White House, especially in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

This is a mortal threat to the left, because the supposed demographic inflection point has not arrived, meaning that the left needs every black and Hispanic vote, and it needs these groups to turn out in number. Indeed, by pushing away many whites who have in the past voted Democratic, the left needs these minority voters all the more. Therefore, Trump’s attempts to appeal to these voters, and the inherent appeal of his program to those in the 30th-50th income percentiles, and those without advanced degrees, regardless of ethnicity, is potentially disastrous for the left. This is why Trump has to be portrayed as a racist indistinguishable from Bull Conner.

The left has responded to the Trump defeat not by questioning the wisdom of its identity-based strategy, but by doubling down on it. Those who question–such as Columbia Historian Mark Lilla–are subjected to a torrent of abuse not much different from that directed at Trump. If you want to see the doubling down, look at the contest for DNC chair, which is all about identity politics. The most flagrant example of this being the statement of one candidate to the effect that she (a white woman) believes that her “job is to shut other white people down when they want to interrupt.” Yeah. That will work really swell with Jacksonian America. You go, girl!

Thinking about these things, and reading things like Voegeli’s essay, leaves me very dispirited. The entire premise of the left is that there is no common ground among Americans. We are a collection of tribes defined by racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation categories. Language is a reflection of oppressive power relationships, and is not to be trusted. If this is what one believes, then persuasion and debate and appeal to sweet reason are futile. It all comes down to a fight.

And the left’s big mistake is not recognizing that they have picked a fight with people who outnumber them, are quite disposed to fight back, and who now have as president someone who is quite willing to bring it on, and won’t back down.

I say this not because it is something I want. It is a diagnosis of what I believe the situation to be, independent of my desires. What I desire is that Americans accept a common civic creed applicable to all, and where diversity is respected by letting heterogeneous people pursue happiness according to their own lights, and where the role of the state is largely limited to protecting individuals from force and fraud attempted by foreign nations and fellow citizens.

But that is not what the left desires. It demands obedience to its (self-contradictory) creed of no common creed, and is willing to crush those that do not submit. It is acting like a modern-day Patrick Ferguson, and has stirred the descendants (some literally, most figuratively) of the Overmountain Men to take up their arms and fight. That did not work out well for Major Ferguson, and is unlikely to work out well for the left. Not that such an outcome would disappoint me. What is disappointing is that they have brought on this battle. Whoever wins, America would have been much better off had it not been fought at all.

*Reading Voegeli’s essay I was reminded of something else that I read recently, namely that most Native American tribe names were not given by the tribes themselves: most tribes referred to themselves by a word meaning “the people.” Instead, tribes were named by their enemies, and the name was usually something meaning enemy, or some negative characteristic.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. I’m not very knowledgeable about American history. Does the phrase “enemies of the people” come from Jacksonian America or the Jeffersonian one? Maybe it was coined by Washington himself?

    Comment by aaa — February 18, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

  2. @aaa-Jefferson used the phrase. He said that government was (or threatened to be) the enemy of the people, and needed to be held down by the chains of the Constitution.

    Thomas Paine also used the phrase. As did anti-slavery agitator Wendell Phillips.

    Jackson did not use the phrase, so far as I can determine. However, historians have said that his attacks on Nicholas Biddle of the 2d Bank of the US made him out to be an enemy of the people.

    If you look at Jackson’s 1832 message attached to his veto of the renewal of the Bank’s charter, he uses the term “people” or “the people” 14 times, and says explicitly that the Bank was a threat to the liberties of the people, and that he was killing the bank because of the threat it posed to the people. Jackson portrayed the Bank as adversarial to the interests of the people much as Trump portrays the media as adversarial to the interests of the people. Jackson was clearly speaking to, and in his view on behalf of, the people.

    So even if the phrase “enemy of the people” is not there, there is a clear similarity between Jackson circa 1832 and Trump circa 2017.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 18, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

  3. @Professor
    Thanks for a really good post. I sometimes think that I don’ sufficiently understand Progressive thought since what rational person could accept the illogic and inconsistencies. Your post reassures that my understanding is sufficient and so people who purport to be rational do in fact embrace illogic and inconsistencies in thought.

    Big victory at Oberlein last year when students went on strike to remove Chinese food from the cafeteria since it represented violent colonial reenactment by cultural appropriation. Oberlein is well along the path of destroying itself. I knew one person that went to Oberlein. Beautiful girl and sad story.

    Comment by pahoben — February 19, 2017 @ 5:50 am

  4. WKPD helpfully tells me “The Senate declared emperor Nero a hostis publicus in AD 68.”

    Comment by dearieme — February 19, 2017 @ 7:04 am

  5. It makes me laugh when the media and pols refer to Hispanics as if they were a homogeneous group based on their putative mother tongue.

    Racism and class superiority is as ingrained in Latin America as in el norte. If not more so! I mean, what do white Cubans have in common with Mexican Indians, Salvadorean mestizos or black Dominicans?

    The same can be said of African-Americans.

    Comment by Simple Simon — February 19, 2017 @ 8:48 am

  6. @SS
    Yes-stereotyping at its worst. One of the fundamental inconsistencies in thought that I am unable to understand.

    Comment by pahoben — February 19, 2017 @ 10:34 am

  7. This is greatly exacerbated by the leftist belief that language itself is highly subjective

    I have seen a suggestion that lefies postulate that language that is contrary to their PC world is itself – violence.

    Thus, lefties use that as justification for their own violence.

    And we’ve seen it already, with lefties beating up Trump supporters, and riots.

    Of course, funding by Soros and other lefties to fund rent-a-riots helps – but that is a technique to disrupt society.

    And the NY Post reports that Obama-organized “protesters” have a manual on how to disrupt town hall meetings and assorted other Republican events.

    We’ve seen that already in the town hall with Chaffetz.

    Comment by elmer — February 19, 2017 @ 11:47 am

  8. Interestingly enough, part of Trump’s speech yesterday at the rally in Melbourne, FL, laid out “our common heritage and goals and interests.”

    Here is the link to the manual for Obama “organizers” – disruption goons.

    Whatever it is, they’re against it.

    Comment by elmer — February 19, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

  9. “What I desire is that Americans accept a common civic creed applicable to all, and where diversity is respected by letting heterogeneous people pursue happiness according to their own lights, and where the role of the state is largely limited to protecting individuals from force and fraud attempted by foreign nations and fellow citizens.”

    ^^^ This!!

    Thank you SWP. This is the most concise statement of the “dream of America” I have ever read. True and lasting peace in the world can only be found by rejecting divisive identity politics.

    And if I may plagiarize and update Martin Luther King: I dream that someday people will realize that their true friends and allies are not necessarily ones who share a common skin color, religion, locale, language, or gender, but instead are those who share a common dream of peace, liberty & justice and set aside the frivolities that separate us.

    Identity politics is part of human nature. But nature is what God put us on earth to rise above.

    Comment by WeNeedThomasJefferson — February 19, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

  10. @WeNeedThomasJefferson–You are welcome. Glad it resonated.

    It seems so obvious that identity politics create only conflict and division, and that we need to transcend tribalism in order to secure a more peaceful and prosperous existence. But apparently not.

    Hayek tried to explain the appeal of what he called “atavistic” social theories/beliefs. He attributed it to the fact that humans evolved in tribal bands, and that as a result tribalism appeals to very basic (albeit primitive) human emotions. Perhaps. But if Hayek’s explanation is less than convincing, his identification of the issue is spot on.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — February 19, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

  11. Tribal affiliations can be based on beliefs and tribal affiliations based on fundmanetal beliefs should be defended by the means that are required. I don’t understand limiting tribal affiliations based on only a physical characteristic and in fact that was what ML King was pointing out.

    Cultural nature is not possible without reference to biological nature and believing the opposite is an incomplete representation of man.

    A tribal affiliation based on fundamental beliefs must defend itself aginst overtly hostile acts or it will cease to be a tribe. The issue with Progressives and Neocons and Jihadis is that their tribal behavior based on their beliefs is manifested by overtly hostile offensive strategies towards other tribes. Progressives tribal afiliation is based on a strict set of ideas that they believe to be the ultimate and unavoidable prescription for relations between people and so justified in forcefully to promulgating those ideas.

    Comment by pahoben — February 20, 2017 @ 5:32 am

  12. I grew up in communist Poland and I saw the dying embers of the dialectic of oppression. Never, in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine this scourge would reignite in the US of all places. It needs to be crushed. No compromise. History has seen too many examples of what happens when Social justice hysteria takes over.

    Comment by Krzys — February 20, 2017 @ 10:13 pm

  13. Krzys – precisely!!!!!!! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that there would be 2 – count ’em – 2 candidates for prez of the US running as commies, even though they tried to soft-pedal that fact – “Uncle” Bernie Sanders and Killery Pandersuit. Oh, look at “Uncle,” he is so nice, and so “truthful,” and he wants to give everything to everybody.

    While Poland and Ukraine and most of the former soviet republics and satellites have been trying to move away from communism, in the US we have idiots and morons who still believe and are trying to crawl up communism’s ass.

    What is ironic is this – was there “gender identity” and tribalism in the soviet union?

    What did they teach? “The entire world is my address” – something like that.

    Marx and Rosa Luxembourg believed that there should be no nationalities in communism – their only disagreement was how fast to eliminate nationalities.

    Hence, forced resettlement of entire populations in the sovok unions.

    And much “political correctness” not corresponding to reality. Which started in the 1930’s, I believe.

    “Comrade, your facts are wrong.
    I know, but they are politically correct.”

    Comment by elmer — February 21, 2017 @ 12:57 pm

  14. outstanding, outstanding essay. you seamlessly link several different aspects of the Left’s world-view (no common American ethos, group think, manipulation of language, power struggle amongst tribes etc). The irony has been reading recent left-of-center articles (a big spread in the Atlantic recently, for example) warning of the totalitarian risks of Trump, when in my view – the actual totalitarian risks are (and have been for some time now) coming from the Left.

    Comment by GDG — February 22, 2017 @ 9:50 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress