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Obama, Freedom and Identity Politics

By K. Tymon Zhou | South Africa

As identity politics grow more popular to the american left, an unlikely individual may be able to help our racial divisions.

How can societies reconcile multicultural harmony with unity? At times, it seems impossible to achieve both of these noble aims.  The progressive left seeks to prioritize “inclusion” and “diversity”, but creates only a restless frenzy. This frenzy takes the form of identity politics, a corrosive influence in American life.  Recently, an unlikely source challenged this scourge: former president Barrack Obama. On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a speech in Johannesburg, South Africa at the Nelson Mandela Lecture. This speech expressed a fundamental optimism that diversity can exist with unity. Conservatives and libertarians should adopt this approach as they seek to restrain identity politics.

Firstly, Obama acknowledged historic injustices describing the colonialism that was prevalent in Mandela’s youth :

such a view of the world – that certain races, certain nations, certain groups were inherently superior, and that violence and coercion is the primary basis for governance, that the strong necessarily exploit the weak, that wealth is determined primarily by conquest – that view of the world was hardly confined to relations between Europe and Africa, or relations between whites and blacks. Whites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks.

It is surprising that Obama refers to oppression within the same racial groups. In the particular narrative, imperialism and oppression are not exclusively European sins. Instead, they are presented as universal. This runs to contrary to liberal identity politics which states that to be an oppressor, all one must do is to simply belong to an “advantaged” group.  Thus, liberal identity politics ignores the oppression that can occur within minority groups ( i.e blacks exploiting other blacks). Such a view is a horrific over-simplification. Moreover, it ignores the situational diversity within “advantaged” groups. This only fuels animosity between groups. Instead of seeing oppression in terms of identity, one must see it in terms of action. Obama’s more nuanced perspective recognizes this.

Secondly, Obama argues that democracy can resolve such injustices:

I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multi-racial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.

Despite its liberal source, libertarians and conservatives have readily embraced this message. Their primary focus is securing greater freedom and to protect inalienable rights. Such a goal inherently works towards a common good. In a magnificently miraculous manner, freedom created unity.  The same protection that grants Sikhs a right to self-expression grants Christian bakers that same right. In democracies, all groups can pursue these freedoms.

Ironically, Obama’s fellow liberals have forgotten this fundamental truth. They doubt that there is a common good. Consider the contemplation of two Harvard Crimson opinion writers,  Salma Abdelrahman and Nicholas P. Whittaker, devout progressive liberals:

My guiding light in the fight for justice is a vision for a world in which Black liberation does not have to ride on the coattails of white self-interest, a world in which the cries of Black and Brown folk are more than enough to change it…

If our battle against oppression must seek the permission of our masters, then are we not simply running in circles?

To these progressive liberals, the “common good” is a mere rhetorical device designed by the “oppressor”  to prevent progress. There is a certain demented logic to their reasoning. In their view, minorities are surrounded by oppressors. Consequently, there is no “we” between the oppressors and the oppressed. Therefore, the oppressed should not seek a compromise with their overlords, they should simply gain power for themselves.  At its core, this may sound appealing.  It offers an opportunity to create utopia without the hard work of building a democratic consensus.  Perhaps these bold visionaries should abandon the premise of believing in democracy.  There are alternative systems in which a minority can pursue its own goals without compromising with a majority: aristocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships of all stripes obey this principle. To avoid compromises, they brutally suppress freedom. Such is the dark road that toxic identity politics can lead.

Thankfully, such a road is not inevitable. As Obama recognized, there are brighter and more beautiful paths ahead if we embrace the unifying force of freedom. Through freedom, societies can reconcile multicultural harmony with unity.

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