Mark Lilla Quotes
“The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: 'Speaking as an X' . . . This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. (One never says, 'Speaking as an gay Asian, I fell incompetent to judge on this matter'). It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. So classroom conversations that once might have begun, 'I think A, and here is my argument', now take the form, 'Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B'. This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one "epistemology", black women have another. So what remains to be said?
What replaces argument, then, is taboo. At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups -- today the transgendered -- are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats -- today conservative political speakers -- are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false. And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.”
“[R]esitance is by nature reactive; it is not forward-looking. And anti-Trumpism is not a politics. My worry is that liberals will get so caught up in countering his every move, essentially playing his game, that they will fail to seize -- or even recognize -- the opportunity he has given them. Now that he has destroyed conventional Republicanism and what was left of principled conservatism, the playing field is empty. For the first time in living memory, we liberals have no ideological adversary worthy of the name. So it is crucial that we look beyond Trump.
The only adversary left is ourselves. And we have mastered the art of self-sabotage. At a time when we liberals need to speak in a way that convinces people from very different walks of life, in every part of the country, that they share a common destiny and need to stand together, our rhetoric encourages self-righteous narcissism. At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic drama over identity. At a time when it is crucial to direct our efforts into seizing institutional power by winning elections, we dissipate them in expressive movements indifferent to the effects they may have on the voting public. In an age when we need to educate young people to think of themselves as citizens with duties toward each other, we encourage them instead to descend into the rabbit hole of the self. The frustrating truth is that we have no political vision to offer the nation, and we are thinking and speaking and acting in ways guaranteed to prevent one from emerging.”
“Democratic politics is about persuasion, not self-expression. I’m here, I’m queer will never provoke more than a pat on the head or a roll of the eyes. Accept that you will never agree with people on everything—that’s to be expected in a democracy. One effect of engaging in social movements tied to identity is that you’ve been surrounded by the like-minded and like-faced and like-educated. Impose no purity tests on those you would convince. Not everything is a matter of principle—and even when something is, there are usually other, equally important principles that might have to be sacrificed to preserve this one. Moral values are not pieces in a puzzle where everything has been precut to fit.”
“I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love...even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him his dignity depended on maintaining a free, skeptical attitude towards doctrine. I wanted...to save him...
Doubt, like faith, has to be learned. It is a skill. But the curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I've often wanted to ask: "Why do you care?" Their skepticism offers no good answer to that question.”
“Equal protection under the law is not a hard principle to convince Americans of. The difficulty comes in persuading them that it has been violated in particular cases, and of the need to redress the wrong. Prejudice and indifference run deep. Education, social reform, and political action can persuade some. But most people will not feel the sufferings of others unless they feel, even in an abstract way, that 'it could have been me or someone close to me'. Consider the astonishingly rapid transformation of American attitudes toward homosexuality and even gay marriage over the past decades. Gay activism brought these issues to public attention but attitudes were changed during tearful conversations over dinner tables across American when children came out to their parents (and, sometimes, parents came out to their children). Once parents began to accept their children, extended families did too, and today same-sex marriages are celebrated across the country with all the pomp and joy and absurd overspending of traditional American marriages. Race is a wholly different matter. Given the segregation in American society white families have little chance of seeing and therefore understanding the lives of black Americans. I am not black male motorist and never will be. All the more reason, then, that I need some way to identify with one if I am going to be affected by his experience. And citizenship is the only thing I know we share. The more differences between us are emphasized, the less likely I will be to feel outrage at his mistreatment.
Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. There is no denying that by publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans the movement mobilized supporters and delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But there is also no denying that the movement's decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society, and its law enforcement institutions, and to use Mau-Mau tactics to put down dissent and demand a confession of sins and public penitence (most spectacularly in a public confrontation with Hillary Clinton, of all people), played into the hands of the Republican right.
As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same. Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election. And it just gives that adversary an additional excuse to be indifferent to you. There is a reason why the leaders of the civil rights movement did not talk about identity the way black activists do today, and it was not cowardice or a failure to be "woke". The movement shamed America into action by consciously appealing to what we share, so that it became harder for white Americans to keep two sets of books, psychologically speaking: one for "Americans" and one for "Negroes". That those leaders did not achieve complete success does not mean that they failed, nor does it prove that a different approach is now necessary. No other approach is likely to succeed. Certainly not one that demands that white Americans agree in every case on what constitutes discrimination or racism today. In democratic politics it is suicidal to set the bar for agreement higher than necessary for winning adherents and elections.”
“Liberals have elections to contest and centrist working-class voters to win back. That is job number one. And nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored in this way. So a couple of reminders to the identity conscious: Elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony. They are not therapy sessions or occasions to obtain recognition. They are not seminars or “teaching moments.” They are not about exposing degenerates and running them out of town. If you want to save America’s soul, consider becoming a minister. If you want to force people to confess their sins and convert, don a white robe and head to the River Jordan. If you are determined to bring the Last Judgment down on the United States of America, become a god. But if you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it’s time to descend from the pulpit.*”
“There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But in a democracy the only way to meaningfully defend them—and not just make empty gestures of recognition and “celebration”—is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does just the opposite.”
“When Heidegger returned to teaching after his escapade as Nazi rector, one of his colleagues famously quipped, “Back from Syracuse?” The reference, of course, is to the three expeditions Plato made to Sicily in hopes of turning the young ruler Dionysius to philosophy and justice. The education failed, Dionysius remained a tyrant, and Plato barely escaped with his life. The parallel has been invoked more than once in discussions of Heidegger, the implication being that his tragicomic error was to have momentarily believed that philosophy could guide politics, especially the gutter politics of National Socialism.”
“It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us. Any parent or educator who teaches these things is engaged in political work—the work of building citizens.”
“The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth…
If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals — including ones to benefit particular groups — in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. Ours must become a civic liberalism.”
“The Republicans have successfully persuaded much of the public that they are the party of Joe Sixpack and Democrats are the party of Jessica Yogamat. The result is that today certain swaths of the country are so thoroughly dominated by the radical Republican right that certain federal laws and even constitutional protections are, practically speaking, a dead letter there. If identity liberals were thinking politically, not pseudo-politically, they would concentrate on turning that around at the local level, not on organizing yet another march in Washington or preparing yet another federal court brief. The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.”
“Most foolishly, liberals grew increasingly reliant on the courts to circumvent the legislative process when it failed to deliver what they wanted (and I wanted too). Decisions rained down on everything from protecting rare fish to more explosive matters, such as abortion and school busing. Liberals lost the habit of taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps. This made the public more and more susceptible to the right’s claim that the judiciary was just an imperial preserve of educated elites. The charge stuck and the approval of judicial nominations has ever since been a highly partisan process, which the right now dominates. All these factors combined to convince a growing number of Americans that even if they wanted to work together, government action would be ineffective, too costly, counterproductive, or uncontrolled.”
“Martin Luther King Jr. was the greatest movement leader in American history. But, as Hillary Clinton once correctly pointed out, his efforts would have been futile without those of the machine politician Lyndon Johnson, a seasoned congressional deal maker willing to sign any pact with the devil to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. And the work doesn’t stop once legislation is passed. One must keep winning elections to defend the gains that social movements have contributed to. If the steady advance of a radicalized Republican Party, over many years and in every branch and at every level of government, should teach liberals anything, it is the absolute priority of winning elections today. Given the Republicans’ rage for destruction, it is the only way to guarantee that newly won protections for African-Americans, other minorities, women, and gay Americans remain in place. Workshops and university seminars will not do it. Online mobilizing and flash mobs will not do it. Protesting, acting up, and acting out will not do it. The age of movement politics is over, at least for now. We need no more marchers. We need more mayors. And governors, and state legislators, and members of Congress . .”
“When Marxian socialism came to the United States after the 1848 revolutions, it brought along in its baggage this European suspicion of liberal-democratic procedures. Eventually that was dispelled and socialist organizations began participating in electoral politics. But they continued to think of themselves more as the vanguard of a movement than as voices in a democratic chorus. And their preferred political tactics remained the mass demonstration and the strike -- rather than, say, winning elections for county commissioner. The significance of these groups in American politics peaked during the Great Depression and then faded. But their movement ideal retained its grip on the left, and in the 1960s it captured the imagination of liberals as well. There had been emancipatory movements before, against slavery, for women's rights, for workers' protection. They did not question the legitimacy of the American system; they just wanted it to live up to its principles and respect its procedures. And they worked with parties and through institutions to achieve their ends. But as the 1970s flowed into the 1980s, movement politics began to be seen by many liberals as an alternative rather than a supplement to institutional politics, and by some as being more legitimate. That's when what we now call the social justice warrior was born, a social type with quixotic features whose self-image depends on being unstained by compromise and above trafficking in mere interests.”
“That one now hears the word "woke" everywhere is a giveaway that spiritual conversion, not political agreement, is the demand. Relentless speech surveillance, the protection of virgin ears, the inflation of venial sins into mortal ones, the banning of preachers of unclean ideas -- all these campus identity follies have their precedents in American revivalist religion.”
“Blacks complained that most leaders were white, which was true. Feminists complained that most all were men, which was also true. Soon black women were complaining about both the sexism of radical black men and the implicit racism of white feminists—who themselves were being criticized by lesbians for presuming the naturalness of the heterosexual family. What all these groups wanted from politics was more than social justice and an end to the war, though they did want that. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they did out in the world. They wanted to feel at one with political movements that mirrored how they understood and defined themselves as individuals. And they wanted their self-definition to be recognized. The socialist movement had neither promised nor delivered recognition: it divided the world into exploiting capitalists and exploited workers of every background.”
“If you want to save America’s soul, consider becoming a minister. If you want to force people to confess their sins and convert, don a white robe and head to the River Jordan. If you are determined to bring the Last Judgment down on the United States of America, become a god. But if you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it’s time to descend from the pulpit.*”
“Once Reagan was elected, the Republican strategy had two components. The first was to build from the bottom up, getting the party rooted so it could win state and local elections, then congressional elections, then the presidency. When it comes to the presidency, liberal Democrats have daddy issues, even when their candidate is a woman. Rather than concentrate on the daily task of winning over people at the local level, they have concentrated on the national media and invested their energies in trying to win the presidency every four years. And once they do, they expect Daddy to solve all the country's problems, oblivious to the fact that without support in Congress and the states a president under our system can accomplish very little. And so they are perpetually dissatisfied with their presidents and snipe at them from the left, which is the last thing a Democratic president in the current environment needs.”
“The forces at work in healthy party politics are centripetal; they encourage factions and interests to come together to work out common goals and strategies. They oblige everyone to think, or at least speak, about the common good. In movement politics, the forces are all centrifugal, encouraging splits into smaller and smaller factions obsessed with single issues and practicing rituals of ideological one-upmanship.”
“The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. What was astonishing during the Reagan Dispensation was the development of a left-wing version of it that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, schoolteachers, journalists, movement activists, and officials of the Democratic Party. This was not a historical accident. For the fascination, and then obsession, with identity did not challenge the fundamental principle of Reaganism. It reinforced that principle: individualism. Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people -- African-Americans, women -- seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. But by the 1980s it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities. The main result has been to turn young people back onto themselves, rather than turning them toward the wider world. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it -- especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of liberal political consciousness. Without which no vision of America's future can be imagined.”
“Narratives of progress, regress, and cycles all assume a mechanism by which historical change happens. It might be the natural laws of the cosmos, the will of God, the dialectical development of the human mind or of economic forces. Once we understand the mechanism, we are assured of understanding what really happened and what is to come. But what if there is no such mechanism? What if history is subject to sudden eruptions that cannot be explained by any science of temporal tectonics? These are the questions that arise in the face of cataclysms for which no rationalization seems adequate and no consolation seems possible. In response an apocalyptic view of history develops that sees a rip in time that widens with each passing year, distancing us from an age that was golden or heroic or simply normal. In this vision there really is only one event in history, the kairos separating the world we were meant for from the world we must live in. That is all we can know, and must know, about the past.”
“Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up Protestant schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.”
- Date of birth: April 03, 1956
- Born: in Detroit, The United States.
- Description: Mark Lilla is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City. A self-described liberal, he typically, though not always, presents views from that perspective.