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The Incoherence of European Identity Politics

Today’s entry has a simple thesis: white identity politics—insofar as that means European identity politics—is an incoherent mess. In the interest of time, I’m not going to discuss why identity politics in general tends to be toxic for a political community, but why an identity politics based on European identity is self-contradictory. First, a rough definition of identity politics: the move, inspired largely by the postmodern loss of faith in universal reason, toward grouping oneself exclusively according to an “identity marker,” such as race, sexual orientation, or, uh, species. Identity politics presupposes that all members of these groups have or ought to have the same interests and political opinions; that those interests and political opinions arise not from thought or reflection, but from unreplicatable (or “intersectional”) experiences; and often that different traditions or identities cannot speak outside their experiences (thus, whites cannot speak to “black issues,” nor heterosexuals to “homosexual issues,” and so on). Identity politics therefore insulates political opinions from criticism (at the very least from criticism from those outside the group, although even then dissenting voices within the community can be labeled “race traitors” or “Uncle Toms”) and replaces reasoned argumentation with supposedly irrefutable experience as the basis of political opinions. White identity politics is a species of identity politics founded on the assumption that some sort of common white experience (or culture) should determine white political opinions.

What exactly white identity politics means differs based on whom you ask. For a European, white identity politics may roughly describe historical European identity over and against recent immigrants to Europe; however, we might assume that an identitarian does not primarily identify with, say, the European Union, but with his or her own country. Thus, white identity politics in Europe is, at best, a tenuous thing. The primary identity would be German identity politics, or French identity politics, or so on and so forth. In America, on the other hand, white identity is more easily (if perhaps also more facilely) associated with “European culture” as a whole, not least because to be white in America is to come from one of at least a dozen different countries. It is therefore necessary that white identity in America be more vaguely defined.[1] But we need not be terribly rigorous in our definitions. We’ll just say that white identity means those who derive their identity from a shared European tradition.

But what exactly is the “European tradition”? Let’s begin with the most obvious answer: Europe means Christendom. It seems very difficult—indeed, I suspect it is impossible—to attempt to give any definition of “Europe” as a coherent concept that does not begin from the historical fact that Europe’s borders were the same as the borders of Christianity for about a thousand years. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to put aside the fact that Europeans have disagreed, sometimes violently, over what exactly Christianity means or what sort ought to be practiced. I’ll try to be as generous as possible and say that the first pillar of European identity is Christianity in a general sense. The second pillar of European identity is the spirit of philosophy.[2] While this statement will no doubt out me as a Eurocentric Euro-chauvinist (funny, given the topic of today’s entry), philosophy was born in Europe and flourished, almost without exception, only in Europe. Even the best of the non-European philosophers (such as Maimonides, al-Farabi, ibn Rushd, and ibn Sina)[3] were students of European philosophers (primarily Plato and Aristotle); moreover, one need only survey the Muslim world today to discover the fate of the Muslim philosophers, particularly when compared to their kalam opponents, and especially al-Ghazali’s occasionalist kalam. The University of Tehran does not have a Department of Philosophy.[4] In contrast, the academic study of philosophy in Christendom predates (and postdates) the Inquisition. A great deal more can be said about all of this, but the simple fact is that the study of philosophy flourished in Christendom, and only in Christendom.

The final pillar of the European tradition, I would argue, is the spirit of political liberty. From the ancient city-states to the Roman Republic, to the city-states of Italy, no other region of the world has boasted so many republics. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, there have been, at most, three republics of non-European origin or non-European influence in world history: the Iroquois Confederacy, the Tlaxcala Confederacy, and a single ancient Indian subcontinent city believed to have been a republic, Vaishali. Even under the medieval kings (and I’ll more to say about them next week), the spirit of liberty persisted in the form of the landed aristocracy, who had claims that in some cases antedated the claims of their own sovereigns. In other words, the feudal lords did not depend upon their kings for their authority, which checked any medieval king’s ambitions. This was not the case under the shahs, sultans, and caliphs of the Near and Middle East or the Divine Emperors and Khans of the Far East, from whom all political authority flowed.

These three things make up the core of the European tradition: Christianity, philosophy, and political liberty. Much more could be said about all three than I have said here, including quibbling over the various fights within European history over what these mean (and the extent to which it is fair to group pagan Europe with Christian Europe). Nevertheless, I think that this is an intelligible—and perhaps the only intelligible—way to understand “Europe” as anything other than an arbitrary concept. But if that’s true, then Europe necessarily reaches out beyond and outside of itself, because at least two of the three pillars of European identity are universalistic: Christianity and philosophy. Both militate against identity politics, because any philosophy worthy of the name presupposes the possibility of universal human reason: something cannot be both “P” and “not P” at the same time regardless of your race, religion, gender, political party, or favorite sports team. Christianity meanwhile preaches that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but that in principle all are capable of becoming one with the body of Christ, which is the only “identity” the Church endorses. Now, I hasten to say that this does not mean that Christianity therefore demands open-borders immigration or a denial of the difference between citizen and non-citizen,[5] but the anti-identity politics teaching is nevertheless clear: white identity politics teaches that the fundamental group distinction is between white and non-white. Christianity teaches that the fundamental group distinction is between the baptized and the unbaptized—and that in principle anyone could be baptized into the Church.[6]

The highest and most attractive aspects of European identity, then, are in fundamental opposition to identity politics, or at least to racial or ethno-nationalist identity politics. A coherent ethno-nationalism, if such a thing exists (and I doubt that it does), cannot be founded on its antithesis; there cannot be a European identity politics that draws on the deepest wells of European culture for the past two millennia without necessarily giving up on the ethno-nationalist or particularist strains of identity politics. This fact explains the bizarre obsession with paganism exhibited by certain sectors of the European identity movement: first, because reaching back to pagan times permits the European identitarians to reach back past the last two thousand years of universalizing European identity to the inward looking period of national gods. The second, more insidious, benefit of reaching back to pagan gods is that paganism and national gods are a way to justify particularist morality—German morality, French morality, and so on—instead of a universal morality.  This is only more evidence that identitarianism is simply right-wing postmodernism.

It would be remiss of me to close without offering a final word of caution or clarification. I do not mean to say that, because the heights of European heritage—Christianity and philosophy in particular—militate against racial identity politics, that therefore we must embrace globalism, international free trade, self-destructive immigration policies, and contemporary liberal humanitarianism. There are reasonable political and religious reasons for alternatives to these doctrines and I intend to say more about the subject in the future. My point for today is only that the right-wing descent into postmodernism and relativism that is white identity politics is not, indeed cannot coherently be, the answer to the problem.


[1] Well, it’s not necessary: the Klan used to exclude the Irish, the Latin countries, and Catholics in general (not to mention Jews) from the category “white.” Formerly, and perhaps still in some places, whiteness in America meant “Protestant of Northern European (i.e., English, Scottish, Scandinavian, French, or German) origin.” Today the term seems to me to be applied more widely to all those of European origin, with the possible exception of those of Spanish descent.

[2] I must confess that I am indebted here and elsewhere to the thought of Leo Strauss. On the Western tradition as composed of the interplay between the Bible and philosophy, see Strauss’s “On German Nihilism.”

[3] I exclude Maimonides and ibn Rushd from the European tradition despite the fact that both were born in (Almoravid) Spain, because they were born in Almoravid (Spain). That is, they were born to a Spain that was then part of the wider Muslim world, with its non-European traditions of absolute despotism and fundamental theological-political union.

[4] It would interesting to know how many universities in the Middle East have Departments of Philosophy. I am aware of three: the American University of Cairo, Cairo University, and (I believe) the University of Baghdad (where the Department of Philosophy was closed down at least twice in the twentieth century).

[5] My suspicion is that Christianity satisfies neither the white identitarian nor the liberal humanitarian; for instance, I do not think it inconsistent with Christianity to require that immigrants convert to Christianity as a prerequisite for citizenship—not as a Christian imperative, but as a political imperative not forbidden by Christianity.

[6] One might say between the believer and the nonbeliever. For various reasons I am more comfortable with the distinction I have made, not least because the psychological state of certain belief does not seem to me to be stable, but one’s commitment to the Church and to trying to live as  Christian can be stable. Consider, for instance, Augustine’s prayer, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.”


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