In The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk, who teaches international affairs at Johns Hopkins, joins a number of eminent critics of the identitarian movement that has come to dominate both American academia and, increasingly, our political and social life. He differs from most such critics in two respects. First, while he is a professed "philosophical" liberal, who believes in the existence of universally valid "values" that can provide an objective basis for criticizing and remedying "historical oppression and persistent injustice," he is also a "political" liberal who advocates social-welfare policies that aim to elevate poor people’s condition and combat racism. This outlook until recently would have put Mounk in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. (Mounk reports having derived his welfare-state liberalism from his grandparents, ex-Central European Communists who after witnessing the death of family members in the Holocaust, then coming "to recognize the cruelty of Soviet communism," turned to "a reformist creed of social democracy that attempted to humanize capitalism" with "a strong welfare state.")
Having inherited a "universalist leftism" aimed at "expanding the circle of human sympathy" across familial, tribal, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, Mounk is troubled to find that aspiration being abandoned by "many left-wing movements" today. Regrettably, leftist intellectuals and their followers now "reject the existence of objective truth or the hope for a more harmonious society," instead emphasizing "group identities" and rejecting "the very possibility" of international or intercultural understanding.
The other sense in which Mounk differs from some recent critics of identitarianism is that he denies the movement is simply a form of "cultural Marxism." He instead analyzes the deeper intellectual forces that engendered it, notably the rejection of "grand narratives" by the likes of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. These postwar French intellectuals, once compelled to abandon their Marxist attachments by the revelation of the Soviet regime’s atrocities, didn’t turn to Western liberalism. Rather, they rejected "any set of ideas which assumed that there are universal truths, that some values are objectively superior to others, or that we can make genuine progress towards building a better society." They blamed the horrors of totalitarian regimes not on their embodying the wrong principles, but on their advancing any principles that purported to be objectively true.
The position of these French "postmodernists" embodied an obvious incoherence (since they could not avoid maintaining that their own ostensibly more humane principles were superior to others). Yet Foucault, for one, while expressing outlandish political judgments (such as favoring abolition of the age of sexual consent and praising the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini), remained a lifelong leftist who nonetheless questioned the possibility of progress, or even of scientific knowledge.
But the incoherence of postmodernism did not prevent its gaining enormous stature in the American academy, notably in literature departments, starting in the 1960s. And in one form—the claim that all allegedly true "metanarratives" serve as masks by power-holders to justify their oppression—the doctrine acquired particular political influence, initially in the field of the "postcolonial studies" movement championed by Palestinian advocate/Columbia lit-critic Edward Said and the Indian-born feminist literary scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Mounk quotes a remarkable interview in which Spivak, while denying the objective reality of all "identity markers" such as sex or race (which she depicted as mere "social constructs"), admitted using them when it was "strategically" useful in her quest to defend oppressed groups, since she wasn’t interested in maintaining "theoretical purity."
But the greatest practical impact of identitarianism was in this country’s law schools, in the form of the "critical legal studies" movement founded by scholars disaffected with the civil rights movement including Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. They in turn engendered the spread of "critical theory" or identity politics beyond the field of law. Maintaining that such core principles as equal justice under the law and meritocratic criteria for college admissions and jobs had proved insufficient to overcome the impact of slavery and racism, they demanded that government policies be tilted to favor the interests of historically disadvantaged minorities—even when this meant allocating scarce medical resources on the basis of patients’ skin color rather than health condition. And they insisted that all members of particular minority communities, along with women, be taught to identify themselves primarily with those sub-communities, rather than as citizens, or as members of the human race.
"White" people (especially males) were in turn indoctrinated, in the name of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), to believe that whatever they thought, they couldn’t help but be racists, who owed endless atonement to the victims of racial and gender discrimination. Some individuals have profited handsomely from the enterprise of antiracism training. One is Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, among other books, and founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi’s center was funded with over $50 million in grants and contributions, prior to an investigation launched in September 2023 for mismanagement. (The university later concluded that there was no financial misconduct at the center despite its losing tens of millions of dollars.) Another star on the antiracism circuit is Robin DiAngelo, the (white) author of White Fragility, who earns large fees as a traveling "diversity" trainer and advises black people to separate themselves from whites. She has also contended that whites who don’t subscribe to antiracist teachings like hers don’t deserve to be hired and should be "spit out" by American society.
Although professing as well to be an "anticapitalist," Kendi, as Christopher Rufo recently observed in the New York Post, has done quite well under capitalism, charging $20,000 an hour for virtual presentations. Merchandising his entire line of "ideas," including an "antiracist" baby book, he also receives multimillion-dollar donations from major corporations eager to display atonement for their supposed sins. For her part, DiAngelo was reported as of 2020-21 to be charging $14,000 for each of her antiracist appearances, earning a total of $728,000 annually from them.
Given these facts (which aren’t found in Mounk’s book), it isn’t hard for a sensible person to smell a rat here—or what Washington Post writer Tyler Austin Harper, speaking of Kendi’s work at his center, calls "grift." But Mounk’s concern is not with the corruption spawned by the identity-politics movement, but rather with its detrimental civic effects.
Among these effects are, first, the suppression of dissenting views, such as the dismissal of a prominent African-American political science professor for daring to discuss "the adverse consequences of violent protests"; the fear that college students report of expressing dissenting views, lest they suffer ostracism from their peers (as well as lower grades); and DiAngelo’s teaching corporate employees that "no white person is capable of overcoming" his inherent racism. (Proudly, DiAngelo acknowledges that she herself is a racist!)
DiAngelo’s claim is an instance of what Mounk calls "standpoint theory"—the doctrine that since members of different groups can never truly understand each other, "comparatively privileged" individuals should simply "defer to the factual assessments and political demands" of their "marginalized" peers. Another variant of such endeavors to post barriers among the races is the denunciation of "cultural appropriation"—which consists in borrowing the dress, the music, the cuisine, or the literature of any group other than one’s own, let alone playing the role in a play or film of someone of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation from one’s own. (Imagine how impoverished Western literature would have been if, say, Shakespeare had been banned from portraying ancient Romans or contemporary Venetians—let alone Othello!)
In opposition to the numerous vices inherent in identity politics, Mounk devotes the third part of his book to outlining how human beings "can come to understand" their compatriots’ experiences and thereby "build a more meaningful form of political solidarity." "Instead of patrolling who is allowed to make use of which cultural traditions," he rightly maintains, "we should celebrate the joys of mutual cultural influence." Rather than constrain free speech lest it facilitate the expression of "loathsome sentiments," Mounk urges that we fight offensive speech with speech. (I hope he would not extend this principle to the protection of literally harassing and threatening speech that is designed to intimidate, as has been seen in recent pro-Hamas demonstrations.) Rather than encourage "the creation of separate identities and institutions," Mounk argues, "we should foster real integration and encourage people to see what they have in common" as well as appreciate their differences. And instead of making the treatment that individuals receive from the state depend on their sexual orientation or the color of their skin, "we should embrace policies that benefit everyone who is in need," whatever their "identity group."
These are the recommendations of a true American liberal. Mounk’s book deserves to receive a wide readership and, ideally, to enjoy a major influence.
The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time
by Yascha Mounk
Penguin Press, 416 pp., $32
David Lewis Schaefer is professor emeritus of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.