Article Image
Kate Gerhart / Senior Staff Illustrator

It seems remarkable that there exists a professor at Columbia who both earned a silver nugget rating on CULPA and has been compared to David Duke by a fellow Columbia professor.

On Aug. 15, humanities professor Mark Lilla published his latest book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, which argues that liberals need to let go of identity politics in order to win political power. The book is an extension of his controversial New York Times op-ed, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” which came out 10 days after the presidential election last year.

His Times op-ed, which he wrote over the course of two afternoons, was widely shared, garnering nearly 2,500 comments on publication date alone. Lilla had hoped that the article would be a wake up call for liberals, forcing them to take action. Instead, he received a lot of backlash focused on what readers perceived to be his uninformed view of identity politics. “The stream of both support but a lot of abuse that I got told me that there’s tremendous resistance to getting serious,” Lilla explains when I meet with him in his office.

Since the publication of his book, Lilla has spoken at many events and colleges about his argument for liberal unity. On Sept. 28, he spoke at Brown University, where he faced one such instance of backlash. Posters on campus advertising Lilla’s speech had been covered by student-made signs stating phrases like, “End White Supremacy at Brown.”

Perhaps because of the op-ed, Lilla’s new book was on many people’s radars—including my mom’s. She purchased the book for me at the end of the summer. Since the election, she has been on the hunt for solutions on how to get liberals back in office. She was intrigued by Lilla’s analysis, but was disappointed by his tone. She, too, wants liberals to win again. But she felt as if Lilla’s rhetoric was not going to persuade anyone and only contributes more to liberal division.

Over the summer I read his book, his article, the NYT review of his book, his letter to the editor about the review, his interviews in the New Yorker, Slate, Vox, and NPR, critiques of him, compliments of him—the list goes on and on. Lilla’s book grabbed a lot of liberal attention. But after reading so much from and about him, I found that Lilla eventually lost all humanity and became a fictional character to me.

I had to see him before I could believe him. In his office he describes his constant frustration about college political perspectives when he was young versus now. He was the first person in his family to go to college and he put himself through college. He started commuting to Wayne State University in Detroit. He lived in downtown Detroit in a predominantly black neighborhood, and then got a scholarship to go to the University of Michigan. “It was a very political time but it was a very serious time,” he tells me.

The ultimate goal that Lilla says he advocates for is one that I think most—if not all liberals—would be in favor of: getting more liberals in positions of political power. “If there’s one sentence in the book, it’s that you cannot help anyone if you don’t hold institutional power,” he says. “If you accept that premise, certain things follow about how you talk, how you campaign.”

Why, then, has Lilla antagonized so many of them on campus and across the nation?

Lilla explains to me that he is not interested in the metaphysics of identity. As he sees it, identity politics thwart liberals from creating a universal vision of the country that would be attractive to all citizens.

“You need to think about how to reach citizens, as citizens getting people to think above just themselves, their particular needs, and so on, and to think about a common effort,” he says. As for his solution: “That requires a different kind of rhetoric, a different kind of thinking, and that’s where it has been lacking among people that have been involved in identity movements.”

Although the meaning of identity politics has changed overtime, Lilla defines its new use in an interview with David Remnick for The New Yorker: “It means going out into the democratic space, where you’re struggling for power and using identity as an appeal for other people to vote for your side.”

Columbia College junior Tarek Deida took Literature Humanities with Lilla his first year. He loved the class and believes that his writing improved immensely thanks to Lilla’s guidance. Although he enjoyed Lilla as a professor, he disagrees with aspects of Lilla’s argument. “It’s hard for me to fully agree with that because [identity politics] play a significant role in my life,” Deida says. “When I wake up it’s not like I can think about this critically all the time. I’ll just wake up and things will happen because of the way you look, what your religion is, where you’re from.”

In response to Lilla’s fundamental idea that identity politics are more divisive than uniting, Deida argues, “Identity politics are only divisive to the person who doesn’t have to deal with them.” He blames any sense of division on people’s shame and inability to recognize how they contribute to systems of oppression.

“If you just accept it and listen to other people, you would realize that no one is trying to spark up more division by bringing up identity politics. You’re simply trying to get people to have a conversation,” he remarks.

Margaret Cunliffe, another Columbia College junior and former student of Lilla, speaks to the perceived divisiveness of identity politics as not being caused by the politics themselves. She is a member of CU Democrats and a former Spectator trainee: “I generally think that identity politics recognize divisions that are already in place and are socially reinforced.”

She doesn’t think that people who say that they are speaking from a certain perspective are marking themselves apart. Rather, that is a way to recognize oppression of specific identity groups. “I think in that way, identity politics are no more divisive than the status quo.”

However, some college students agree with Lilla’s views, however. Brent Morden, a junior at Columbia College, first encountered Lilla during his Lit Hum class, as well, and tells me that Lilla had a profound influence in shaping his political perspectives and the way he thinks.

Morden considers himself to be a classical liberal who values individual liberty, equal opportunity, and freedom of speech. He ultimately sees identity politics as dangerous. In regards to the ways in which he has seen identity politics play out at Columbia, he cites the move to create a student center for LGBTQ students and students of color on the fourth floor of Lerner. Columbia is the last Ivy League school to create a center dedicated to LGBTQ students.

Morden questions the necessity of the center. “I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing having all these fragmented—all these LGBT in STEM, women in blank, LGBTQ in blank, women of color in blank, Muslims in blank.” He continues, “I think it’s turning us towards automatically grouping an individual into their identity groups and only understanding people based on that rather than where they’re coming from and their background.”

Lilla argues that the focus on identity and social movements begins in high school. High school curricula, according to his op-ed, “anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.”

I asked my high school history teachers to speak to his claims. Ryan Carey, a history teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, feels conflicted about Lilla’s message. According to Carey, since people have started to identify themselves as individuals during the modern age they have come together along identity lines. This coming together was a precursor for successful political movements, “toward any kind of attempt to gain power, to gain access to power, to gain political authority,” he says.

Carey admits that perhaps there are other schools that simply locate an essential quality in groups rather than discuss the construction of identity. The history that he supports is one that examines how social situations shape identities and how people use identity formation as a tool for social power.

However, Carey does agree with Lilla in regards to liberal individualism. “We are members of society as much as we are individuals, and our individual experiences are important and should be recognized and respected, but that’s a means to a larger end, and that larger end is peace and justice and equality.”

He argues that recognizing differences is not the end itself: “That’s actually pretty easy, but it’s not a good proposal for change, and it’s quite frankly not a good recipe for engaging wide swaths of society in coming together to think about common understandings of peace, justice, and equality.”

Sarah Strauss, also a history teacher at Packer, does not agree with Lilla’s solution. “I think that history is constantly being revised and we see history through our present day eyes and there’s no way to avoid doing that.” For Strauss, studying history includes “judging past events and people based on present-day understandings,” which is something she doesn’t think is “avoidable.”

She argues that to go to a universalistic approach would continue to “silence” those in history who have already been silenced.

Throughout his op-ed and book, Lilla largely critiques the ways in which college students view history and politics. In our conversation he expands on that: “College students for the past generations have been brought up with an ideology that gets them focused on their own identities and especially a conception of political action that it has to emerge out of how you define yourself as a person.”

He claims that college students have been raised to be oblivious of the world outside their “self-defined groups” and are not articulate about issues of class, war, the economy, and the common good.

Lilla believes that successful political engagement starts by analyzing the outside world, finding specific things that need fixing, and then orienting your politics around fixing them. “The obsession of identity is kind of the Kool-Aid of our time,” he sighs.

Yale professor Beverly Gage wrote the NYT book review of The Once and Future Liberal. She argues that while Lilla demands that liberals use uniting political rhetoric, he uses rhetoric in his book that inexorably alienates members of his audience and solidifies liberal divisions.

Gage also critiques the methodology of the book, highlighting that although Lilla focuses a lot of his attention on the political perspectives of college students today, he omits current college student perspectives by not including interviews. Instead, he uses quotations from a student manifesto from 55 years ago in juxtaposition to the current political atmosphere on college campuses.

Lilla does not discuss his background in his book or his op-ed. Deida, the Columbia College junior who had Lit Hum with Lilla, sees this as shortsighted. In his opinion, one’s background is something that a person should always bring up. “Even if you’re against identity politics, always recognize it because how are you going to speak about identity without acknowledging your own identity?” Deida says.

Three days after the New York Times published Lilla’s article, Columbia law professor Katherine Franke wrote an article in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Making White Supremacy Respectable Again.” In the article, Franke argues that Lilla’s article advocates for white liberalism and simplifies the integrality of social movements.

Franke states that both Lilla and David Duke are recentering white lives as the most important ones in the United States. She ends her first paragraph with, “Duke is happy to own the white supremacy of his statements, while Lilla’s op-ed does the more nefarious background work of making white supremacy respectable. Again.”

In an interview with The Chronicle, Lilla states that Franke’s piece is a slur, not an argument. When I asked him to give me a counterargument to her claims, he responded, “I do not respond to anyone who compares me to David Duke and to the Klan,” he says. “However, I have it on reasonable authority that she’s back on her meds and starting to take solid food, so I wish her well.”

Although he critiques Franke for relying upon slurs rather than arguments, he seems to have a similar tendency. In the New York Times book review, Gage critiques Lilla for failing to follow his own advice and notices his need to evaluate his own contradictions. Perhaps this is another example of Lilla revealing his hypocrisies and his penchant for self-sabotage.

Lilla ended our conversation by making a call to action. He suggests that liberal Columbia students need to be watching Fox News at least once a week. “You cannot beat an adversary until you know an adversary, and the Republicans have been able to beat us because they understand what makes us tick.”

But one of Lilla’s largest adversary groups is college students. Rather than beat college students, he will need to persuade them in order to have a lot of liberal support. Instead, he has critiqued college students without including their personal perspectives in his works.

Sara Van Horn, a first-year at Brown, spoke to me about her experience listening to Lilla’s speech. She found him to be condescending. In her opinion, Lilla failed to listen to the student’s questions and their alternative ideas for liberal unity. “I think the overall message that the left needs to have more unity is something that I feel like many, many people in the audience echo and agree with,” she explains. “I feel like in his rhetoric, he was doing exactly the opposite of what his message is.”

Have fun leafing through our second issue, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, As We See It!

Previous Issue | More In This Issue