In Louis Menand’s recent review of Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” there is an expressed tension that has become commonplace in political discussions on the left. Fukuyama’s most famous book, “The End of History and The Last Man”, written in 1992, made the argument that with the fall of Fascism after WWII, and the fall of Communism in the 1980s, history had ended, in a way—meaning the 20th century war of political ideologies, culminating in two world wars, the Cold War, and the smaller proxy-wars thereafter, had ceded to a new age of social and liberal democracy. In this brave new world of “history” any challenger to this dominant model of liberal democracy, by definition, would be surely doomed to fail.
But in “Identity” Fukuyama points to new manifestations of very old trends that may upset the balance. Menand writes:
“The demand for recognition, Fukuyama says, is the “master concept” that explains all the contemporary dissatisfactions with the global liberal order: Vladimir Putin, Osama bin Laden, Xi Jinping, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, gay marriage, ISIS, Brexit, resurgent European nationalisms, anti-immigration political movements, campus identity politics, and the election of Donald Trump.”
Menand goes on:
“Why is the desire for recognition—or identity politics, as Fukuyama also calls it—a threat to liberalism? Because it cannot be satisfied by economic or procedural reforms.”
Fukuyama is not the only popular thinker to point to identity politics as either a symptom or cause of a subtle corrosion in modern society. Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal” is a clear example of this line of thinking.
But, Fukuyama writes, “while we will never get away from identity politics in the modern world, we can steer it back to broader forms of mutual respect for dignity that will make democracy more functional.”
This, to me, seems undeniable.
But Menand is intent on finding holes in Fukuyama’s thesis, and the holes he wants so badly to be in “Identity” are endemic to decades-old fault-lines in leftist thinking. For one, Menand says, since Fukuyama grounds the ideas of political recognition and dignity in the Platonic word “thymos,” he commits the unforgivable and “blasé” fallacy that ‘Western thought is universal thought.’ In other words, Menands says, “It’s a case of Great Booksism: history as a chain of paper dolls cut out of books that only a tiny fraction of human beings have even heard of. Fukuyama is a smart man, but no one could have made this argument work.”
It’s not clear exactly what in Fukuyama’s case Menand is objecting to, whether or not humans do crave dignity or whether or not this reality can be rooted in Greek thought. But it doesn’t matter. Because the argument (Fukuyama’s) is being made with sources in the traditional Western canon, so no counter-argument is necessary. It’s apparently enough to point out that… Western thought does not comprise every thought a human has ever had, so? Slapping an adjective onto your opponents argument isn’t a counter-argument in itself, it’s a value judgement that needs supporting arguments in order to work.
It’s true that much of modern progressivism bucks against Platonism and universalism, but Menand points to another apparent fault in Fukuyama’s case, quite neatly highlighting another fault-line:
“Fukuyama adopts Plato’s heuristic and biologizes it. “Today we know that feelings of pride and self-esteem are related to levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain,” he says, and points to studies done with chimps (which Socrates would have counted as animals, but never mind).
“But so what? Lots of feelings are related to changes in serotonin levels. In fact, every feeling we experience—lust, anger, depression, exasperation—has a corollary in brain chemistry. That’s how consciousness works. To say, as Fukuyama does, that “the desire for status—megalothymia—is rooted in human biology” is the academic equivalent of palmistry. You’re just making it up.”
Another big no-no, according to Menand and many other progressive thinkers, is using biology as a grounds for any argument.
Whether or not the desire for status can be adequately grounded in biology, Menand is arguing in the wrong direction here. Clearly status plays a large role in human affairs, especially in our time, however we decide to explain it. And you might’ve noticed, with a quick wave of the hand, he (Menand) summarizes Fukuyama’s attempt to do so in the following words, “points to studies done with chimps,” —as if that were not a relavent place to look for clues to human behavior.
In committing two of the many cardinal sins of modern day leftism, a reliance on Western ideals and human biology, Fukuyama’s case is rejected, not with supporting reasons, but because it treads too brazenly on progressive orthodoxies and therefore is rejected with a rubber stamp.
The philosopher Richard Rorty pointed to this same Menand/Fukuyama tension within leftist politics in his 1998 book, “Achieving Our Country.” In it, he argued that unless the Democratic Party can find a way to bring together different marginalized groups under one banner, they will continue to fragment and balkanize, with eventual bad effects. He writes:
“Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
“At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen.”
If that isn’t prescient, I don’t know what is.
Fukuyama’s case may not be air-tight but, to me, there is much more explanatory power in it than in Menand’s.
You do not have to turn the TV on for long or go careening down the corridors of subreddit feeds or activist Twitter profiles before running into conversations about representation in culture (and in the media especially) as political issues. Everywhere there are people wanting to see more of themselves in the mainstream media as though it were a game of king of the hill.
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