The influence of identity politics is not confined to the civil wars of the Democratic Party. In our schools, a diversity officer instructs pupils on how their primary identity is rooted in race, gender and economic class. In the universities, humanities professors train students to detect bourgeois, misogynist or neocolonial subtexts embedded in sonnets and Supreme Court rulings.
There is an obvious truth in the new emphasis on identity as the glue and driver of political alliances. The recent debate in Congress over tax policy was not a dispassionate discussion of economics. Class interests hovered over every square inch of the tax reform bill. And as Rousseau once remarked, behind every great fortune lurks a great crime. The wealth-generating crimes of Colonial America fell disproportionately on Native Americans and African slaves. The heritage of that oppression has not disappeared. It is also true that women have suffered a great deal more than men in the grim history of sexual assault.
The vogue of identity politics threatens one of the basic exercises of human freedom: the construction of our own personal identity.
Nonetheless, the vogue of identity politics threatens one of the basic exercises of human freedom: the construction of our own personal identity. Our ethnic background, our income bracket and our chromosome count constitute basic facts about us. But they are far from being the major determinants of our personal identity or even being determinants at all.
Take ethnic identity. According to ancestry.com, the primary ethnic strain of my DNA is Irish. This is hardly a surprise to the many students and parishioners who claim that my face has the map of Ireland on it. But Irishness has played out very differently in the branches of my family. For my Uncle Tom, his Irish ancestry was a central trait of his personal identity. An ardent Irish nationalist, he picketed British ships when they landed in Philadelphia’s port. Members of his family learned Gaelic, sang Irish folk songs and took up Irish step dancing. He recounted with relish his visits to the family’s ancestral homeland in County Mayo. At the Requiem Mass I recently celebrated for him, his grandchildren sang moving hymns in Gaelic (we were spared “Danny Boy”), the Mayo Association served as honor guards, and piles of fresh soda bread garnished the luncheon table after the burial. Tom had transformed a genetic fact into an ardent cause.
The givens of ethnicity, sexuality, geography and religion are the bits of colored glass with which we construct our idiosyncratic mosaic.
In my immediate family the Irishness was more muted. My parents never learned step dancing, but they did win cha-cha contests. Several of us learned Latin, Greek, French and German, but no one studied Gaelic. We were Irish nationalists, but the only picket lines I recall joining involved antiwar, pro-life and labor causes.
Later in life, I developed an unexpected ethnic identity: French. I studied the French language, did my theological studies in Paris and pursued my doctoral studies at the Francophone wing of the Catholic University of Louvain. For a quarter of a century much of my research has focused on modern French philosophy. In a recent course evaluation, a student suggested that my existentialism course should be renamed “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I do not know why I developed this love for French language and culture. There is no genetic or family history to explain it. But this is a cultural identity I have freely embraced. It is deeply part of who I am—and who others are not.
Despite our fashionable belief that gender is mutable, each of us negotiates life as male or female. For some people, masculinity or femininity is a central personal trait. But for many, gender and sexual orientation are thin, secondary facts about them. When I wear clerical garb on the subway, as well as in the sanctuary and classroom, I am broadcasting my commitment to the Gospel as the paramount value in my personal hierarchy of goods. But for many of our fellow citizens, the religious affiliation they check off in a box on a hospital admission card has little or no significance in their sense of self. It is their political affiliations, their family descent or their work achievements that march front and center in the presentation of themselves to others.
Much of our current practice of identity politics confuses the raw material of personal identity with the temporarily finished product. The givens of ethnicity, sexuality, geography and religion are the bits of colored glass with which we construct our idiosyncratic mosaic. Race, class and gender are only the preludes to a personal identity bearing the marks of deliberation, struggle and choice. In any human creation—and all the more in the identity we construct for ourselves in everyday life—freedom leaves its trace.