So we’re in Convention Season this quadrennial election cycle; the GOP had theirs last week, and the Dems are having theirs now. The latter party has concocted a mythical GOP “War on Women,” a cynical ploy that shows significant signs of failure. After all, as Sandra Fluke is not Rosa Parks, she doesn’t make for a compelling figure around which to rally. It’s not like access to contraception is the burning moral issue of our time, and most Americans recognize that.
I’ve been thinking about identity and ideology this election season, as so much of our cultural and political discussions revolve around these related concepts. “Ideology” is basically an intellectual belief system imposed upon reality, while “Identity” today is not something given by nature or tradition but something chosen. As regards our current cultural and political situation it seems to me that what it means to be a male or female has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with ideology. The same claim would hold, I think, for issues of ethnicity and race.
Take the issue of “women’s issues.” In our current cultural encyclopedia, the phrase “women’s issues” basically refers to the euphemism of “reproductive health” and “reproductive rights” — that is, unhindered and free access to abortion and contraception. But many women I know are pro-life. And while the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” the data show that more women identify as pro-life than pro-choice: In a Gallup poll taken in early May, the numbers for women were 46% to 44%, respectively. How is it that abortion is a “women’s issue” when American women are divided? Ideology, not the facts on the ground, is at work here.
Take also the lineup of speakers at the GOP convention. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spoke, a woman of Indian descent who attends both Sikh and Methodist services. Artur Davis, an African-American who represented the 7th district of Alabama in Congress as a Democrat from 2003-2011 and who introduced Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention, recently switched his party affiliation to GOP and spoke at the GOP convention. Mia Love, the African-American GOP candidate for congress from Utah(!) and Ted Cruz, Hispanic GOP candidate for the US Senate from Texas spoke as well, as did other non-white-male speakers. The network and cable coverage was nearly non-existent, and the meme persists that the GOP is the party of rich white males while the Democratic Party is the party of women, minorities, and the poor.
If you dig into the data, there’s plenty to confound that narrative, or, at the very least, to reveal to complexity of the situation. What’s going on here?
Identity is defined not by anything natural, traditional, or physical, but rather by ideology. This is how we have the phenomenon of Bill Clinton being “the first black president,” while the first black president, Barack Obama, is now “the first gay president.” Nikki Haley is not a woman because she’s not pro-abortion. And so it goes. Apparently, identity is not defined by who you are by nature, or by culture, but rather by what you think, by what causes you’re committed to, by ideology.
This phenomenon is, I think, typically American. America is subtly Gnostic, meaning that we don’t take the body very seriously, and we reject any constraints of the physical world. (I’m not making this up; read Harold Bloom’s The American Religion.) Indeed, we use technology as secularized grace to destroy nature in choosing our identities, whether cosmetic surgery, liposuction, sex-change operations, extreme piercings, tattoos, or something as simple as an avatar online. And part of our national ethos (as Anglos, at last) is a full-fledged flight from the constraints of tradition; we wanted to leave those behind in Europe.
The issues of identity and ideology, their relationship and their bearing on the cultural and political issues of our day are indeed complex and worthy of deeper contemplation than a blog post can afford. At the very least, however, ideology and its effects on how we conceive of our identities is dangerous, especially with regard to our cultural and political debates, because it is estranged from nature, from reality, and sooner or later reality bites back.