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The radical anti-racism of Christopher Hitchens
Identity politics has long been a contested concept. Some people survey the history of campaigns for civil rights, feminism, gay marriage, etc. and ask how the subject could even be up for debate. They’d say that Americans from marginalized groups have always needed to unite around their identities in order to push for social change. In his 2020 book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that “the term ‘identity politics’ has been weaponized” to discredit the political movements of historically marginalized groups. More than that, Klein says these groups face a conspicuous double-standard:
“If you’re black and you’re worried about police brutality, that’s identity politics. If you’re a woman and you’re worried about the male-female pay gap, that’s identity politics. But if you’re a rural gun owner decrying universal background checks as tyranny, or a billionaire CEO complaining that high tax rates demonize success, or a Christian insisting on Nativity scenes in public squares—well, that’s just good, old-fashioned politics.”
While it’s true that many of the people most incensed about identity politics have their own identitarian attachments, Klein’s argument that “everyone engaged in American politics is engaged in identity politics” is evasive. He’s ignoring the deep divisions over the political salience of identity—divisions that have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Meanwhile, the innocuous definition of identity politics as any form of political mobilization which focuses on marginalization and inequality (such as the Civil Rights Movement) fails to address the radically divergent political strategies deployed by members of those movements. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael both fought for civil rights, but the latter did so with explicit appeals to racial sectarianism while the former did so by appealing to Americans’ sense of common humanity and citizenship.
One of the most prominent anti-identitarian writers in recent years was the Anglo-American polemicist and journalist Christopher Hitchens. “Beware of identity politics,” Hitchens wrote in his 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian. “I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics.” Klein may be right that the term “identity politics” has been weaponized to dismiss the concerns of historically marginalized groups, but that’s not how Hitchens used it. For him, identity politics was a hindrance, not an asset, to the cause of real social justice. Consider this argument from his opening statement during a November 2001 debate on whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of slaves:
“In my hometown of Washington, D.C., there’s hardly one official brick piled on another that wasn’t piled there by unpaid labor under the whip. And that dead labor becomes dead capital and dead souls—dead money. And it’s piled, actually, in the Treasury Department and the federal financial system, who took that free labor, those dead souls, and turned it into capital. And it’s back pay, and it’s owed, and it’s overdue.”
Just a month before that debate took place, Letters to a Young Contrarian was published. In it, you’ll find this passage:
“We still inhabit the prehistory of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith.”
Hitchens went beyond incredulity at the persistence of racial tribalism in the twenty-first century—he even argued that the idea of race itself should be discarded: “To be opposed to racism in the postgenome universe is to be opposed to the concept.” In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he says the concept of race should be thrown “into the ashcan” along with creationism. “People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with,” he argued in a 2008 essay. “One does not banish this specter by invoking it.” There are many today who would view Hitchens’s position on identity politics as perfectly contradictory—any talk about transcending race must contend with the fact that there are still vast racial disparities in socioeconomic status, healthcare, incarceration rates, and so on. These critics might observe that an argument in favor of reparations is an admission that racism hasn’t, in fact, been “abolished.” Meanwhile, if we’re serious about addressing the consequences of racism, they might ask, don’t we have to start by acknowledging the reality of race?
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay for the New York Times 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that the debt America owes its black citizens can never be repaid. She observes that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country”—a country which “some might argue…was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” This theme of permanent, inescapable racial animosity and division is pervasive among many commentators on racism today. In White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, for instance, Robin DiAngelo argues that the “forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play,” which means “our learning will never be finished.” In other words, DiAngelo believes that resisting the concept of race amounts to a refusal to resist racism.
When Hitchens observed that scientific progress had “abolished” racism, he didn’t mean racism ceased to exist—he meant the pseudo-scientific justifications for it have now been discredited. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the argument that individualism (which DiAngelo strangely and insultingly describes as a “Western ideology”) and universal solidarity should steadily displace racial tribalism. The point isn’t that race doesn’t matter; it’s that our goal should be to strive for a society in which it no longer matters. But Hannah-Jones, DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi (author of the bestseller How to Be an Antiracist), and many other commentators on race and racism today regard this ambition as ignorant and quixotic—even duplicitous and bigoted. Hitchens demonstrates that this isn’t true—it’s possible to confront racial bigotry, the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and other forms of racial injustice without insisting that skin color will remain an indissoluble component of our social and political lives until the end of time.
In the final two decades of Hitchens’s life, he became increasingly averse to ideological labels. “I don’t have any allegiances,” he said in a November 2001 interview. “I don’t ask what people’s politics are. I ask what their principles are.” One of Hitchens’s core principles—which remained consistent throughout his life—was his commitment to universalism. For example, in a 1986 debate about the merits of socialism versus capitalism, here’s how Hitchens began his definition of the former: “It is necessary to hold, firstly, that all divisions of class, nation, race, and sex are, in the last resort, manmade—and can be man-unmade—are in no sense part of a divine or natural ordinance, and that we are members, like it or no, of one race, the human race.” Almost a quarter of a century later (when he was no longer a socialist), he made a similar point in an article for Slate:
“One of the great advantages possessed by Homo sapiens is the amazing lack of variation between its different ‘branches.’ Since we left Africa, we have diverged as a species hardly at all. If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed. We do not suffer from the enormous differences that separate other primates, let alone other mammals. As if to spite this huge natural gift, and to disfigure what could be our overwhelming solidarity, we manage to find excuses for chauvinism and racism on the most minor of occasions and then to make the most of them.”
Human beings aren’t just adept at finding excuses for chauvinism and racism—we also have a talent for constructing tribal identities around just about any characteristic. In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens cited Sigmund Freud’s expression the “narcissism of the small difference” to describe the instinct of defining ourselves in terms of narrower and narrower identity groups: “This tendency has often been satirised—the overweight caucus of the Cherokee transgender disabled lesbian faction demands a hearing on its needs—but never satirised enough.”
Hitchens was consistently critical of identitarianism of all stripes. He had a keen understanding of the ways in which right-wing demagogues could appeal to white Americans’ anxieties and prejudices—insisting that Barack Obama produce a birth certificate, for instance (one of Donald Trump’s political preoccupations at the time). As Hitchens put it, these demagogues “need and want to sublimate the anxiety into hysteria and paranoia. The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim.” This was identity politics, too—a particularly noxious version of it. And nobody could accuse Hitchens of ignoring the ways that some segments of Christian America inflict their identitarian demands on the rest of the country.
Many of the loudest anti-woke crusaders today direct their condemnation of identity politics exclusively at left-wing movements like Black Lives Matter, but Hitchens almost certainly would not have done the same. However, the universalist principles that led him to criticize harbingers of Trumpism like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin made him loathe the insistence among some left-wingers that it was “enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic ‘preference,’ to qualify as a revolutionary.” Hitchens was alarmed when he witnessed this phenomenon gaining momentum on the left. As he noted in his memoir, Hitch-22:
“In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: ‘Speaking as a…’ Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this much for the old ‘hard’ Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment when the Left lost or—I would prefer to say—discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time that I was to see the sellout conducted so cheaply.”
An emphasis on the “overwhelming solidarity” between human beings in spite of religious, national, and racial distinctions was once considered radical and progressive. For example, it’s no surprise that Hitchens described Bayard Rustin—an organizer of the March on Washington and one of the leading intellectuals and activists who fought for racial equality in the twentieth century—as the “...true genius of the civil-rights and democratic-socialist movements…” While Rustin was more acutely aware of the brutal and unfair conditions afflicting black America in the 1960s and 1970s than just about anyone, he was also suspicious of identity politics, which he regarded as a superficial and counterproductive form of political mobilization.
Rustin argued that the Civil Rights Movement “destroyed not simply the legal structure of segregation but also the psychological assumptions of racism.” The rapid dissolution of the old racial order created a new set of challenges, which is why Rustin believed it was time to focus on the “total society’s failure to meet not only the Negro’s needs, but human needs generally.” “It has become fashionable,” Rustin wrote, “in some no-win Negro circles to decry the white liberal as the main enemy (his hypocrisy is what sustains racism)...” This is what anti-racist activists like DiAngelo and Kendi do today. But to Rustin, what mattered was action—particularly sweeping economic and educational reforms that help all impoverished Americans. Achieving “full racial equality” as he conceived of it would include “overhauling our schools, clearing the slums, and really abolishing poverty.”
Like the idea of transcending race, many progressive intellectuals scorn the dream of “full racial equality” as a dangerous mirage. And in one sense, they’re right. As Hitchens observed during the debate on reparations, “We can’t make up for the Middle Passage—for the uncounted millions of people who were captured and raped and tortured before they even made it across the Atlantic to be other people’s property. We can’t undo that. But we can refuse—we can decline—to forget it.” But neither should we allow this historical memory to license illiberalism and racial essentialism today. We should instead focus on our overwhelming solidarity as human beings. This was a point Hitchens never stopped making; it’s why he despised nationalism, religious prejudice, and racism—and it’s why he argued that identity politics was the wrong way to resist all the above.
Liberal intellectuals like Hitchens prized individualism and universalism above all else. Individualism is the best counterpoint to racism and bigotry of any kind, as it emphasizes the uniqueness of each human being rather than cramming people into crude demographic categories. Universalism is the natural corollary to individualism: the idea that a society should be organized around meeting the needs of all its members. Though this idea is often dismissed as deceptive or reactionary today, it’s difficult to think of a more radical proposition.
Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, The Bulwark, Areo, Arc Digital, and many other publications. He is author of the forthcoming book How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (Pitchstone Publishing, February 2023).
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