By Alexandra Reguev
In 1989, legendary feminist theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw described the socioeconomic, race-based system that guides our daily lives as one in which the oppression of all marginalized groups is connected, and that the empowerment of one group inherently comes at the cost of continued oppression of another. In illustrating her solution to this system, she coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the necessity of understanding oppression from all angles in order to destroy it; though gender, class, and race are the basic three, the intersectional revolutionary will find many more. Intersectionality should inspire passionate debate among the college educated but has unfortunately instead only inspired a legion of defenders who choose to see the world as being neatly split into good (those who uphold intersectionality under all circumstances) and bad (those who don’t).
Sign from a Women’s March in Concord, New Hampshire on January 19, 2019. Photo: Marc Nozell
Ironically, these people have the most in common with those whom they hate the most: President Donald Trump and his followers–namely, the younger segment of his base. Both are unwavering in support of their movement; both excuse anti-Semitism when it appears in their ranks; and perhaps, most importantly, both claim to represent the “true” American people. In other words, while Americans tend to associate populism with the right in our current MAGA era, populism is just as prevalent in left-wing politics. Considering that many of those upholding the tenets of intersectionality are already political activists, it’s not unlikely that they will eventually run for office, especially given the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If this should be the case, American populism doesn’t end with Trump: the far left, representing what they view to be the “true” American people, will continue the populist legacy of anti-pluralism and limited civil liberty.
The term “populist” has been tossed around quite a bit in the decade since the Great Recession, generally used to describe leaders viewed as political outsiders, who are also anti-elitist. Jan Werner-Müller, in his treatise What is Populism?, essentially defines the populist not by his or her anti-elitist tendencies, but by one essential characteristic: a belief that they alone represent the vox populi, therefore rendering any opposition to their policies invalid. They are, according to Werner-Müller, inherently anti-democratic because their character is defined by anti-pluralism, refusing to accept or consider any disagreement with them or their policies. It’s common to find this rhetoric within the current administration; who can forget when, before the elections took place, Trump declared the any result in which he lost would have to be due to election fraud. His underlying message was that only he was the true popular representative of the American people. Furthermore, populists, even when elected, will continue to promote the message that they are the voice of the silent majority, battling a loud minority.
However, populism doesn’t limit itself to the political right; the message of “true representation” is also prevalent within intersectional circles. For instance, take the propagation of “safe spaces”; limiting certain kinds of speech deemed “offensive” is inherently populist. The idea has legitimacy in the prevention of incitement to violence by hate speech, but has snowballed to illegitimacy by blacklisting non-violent ideas or actions by dissenters as well. Such was the case at UC San Diego in 2016, in which students who chalked the words “Trump for President” and “Trump 2016” were met with accusations of hate speech; in other words, support for a political candidate was deemed invalid, violent, and unacceptable. Anti-pluralist and anti-democratic actions and behaviors are part and parcel of radical intersectionality, making this movement’s future political leaders the future of left wing populism.
In arguing that all oppressions are linked, intersectional activists run into a pesky problem: the Jews. They cannot seem to agree on whether or not the Jews are white, and therefore, part of the oppressive system. Their central problem is Israel, which intersectional activists argue is a colonialist enterprise that has attempted to ethnically cleanse the “indigenous” Palestinians, and is therefore an oppressor. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, intersectional thinkers have continued to insist that their view is the only view, and any disagreement, however nuanced, is dismissed as racist, ignorant, or simply Islamophobic.
Protesters demand boycotts, divestment, and sanctions from Israeli companies and those that do business in or with Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
To explain the populist way in which these contradictions are handled, it’s best to commence with a discussion of whiteness. Many Jews, myself included, don’t have white skin. However, intersectionality appraises “whiteness” as a theoretical, cultural trait that can be acquired. For example, Irish immigrants to America were once viewed as savages and were just as discriminated against as African-Americans, but with time, became white. Jews could not objectively belong to this group, either. To be “white,” according to intersectional theory, is to be a member of society’s in-group. So the question becomes then, how can intersectional activists consider a group of people comprising 2% of America’s population but suffering 54% of all hate crimes in 2016, to be a part of society’s in-group?
Werner-Müller says that populists care “less [about] the product of a genuine process of will-formation or a common good that anyone with common sense can glean than a symbolic representation of the ‘real people’ from which the correct policy is then deduced.” In this case, will-formation refers to the agglomeration of wants of the population, which theoretically should propel a politician’s platform and policy proposals. However, the populist doesn’t care about empirical evidence in establishing a policy, and fails to adjust for new information if it should contradict the original policy in a dramatic way. Compare this to Trump’s insistence on tariffs on China in an effort to bring back car manufacturing to America; despite warnings from economists, and despite the immediate negative effects on the American economy, he has doubled down on them. Similarly, we have seen the intersectional leaders of the Women’s March double down on their support of the Nation of Islam, despite widespread outrage from the Jewish community and the rechartering of several chapters from the national organization over the issue.
So where does the populist tendency to ignore inconvenient facts fit in at the intersection of Jews and “whiteness?” Israel, stupid. A brief Google search of the term “ancient Israel” has in over 200 million results. There exists an overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence that Jews preceded Arabs in Israel/Palestine by thousands of years, making them the true indigenous people to the region, conquered and colonized many times over. This truth, however, is inconvenient: the perception of an oppressive Jewish regime in Israel gives support to the claim that Jews are also oppressors in America, and essentially excuses any anti-Semitic statements or actions. So rather than accepting facts, intersectional activists choose to simply exclude all Jews who refuse to completely disavow Israel from the movement. To make matters even easier, they’ve chosen to almost completely avoid addressing anti-Semitism until it is politically viable.
Consider two incidents: the ejection of three Jews from the Chicago Dyke March and the defense of Tamika Mallory by Shaun King (both prominent intersectional activists) after she attended and embraced virulent anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. In the former, three Jews, not Israelis, were ejected from the march because one carried a rainbow flag superimposed with a Star of David; this ancient Jewish symbol was viewed as “triggering and [making] people feel unsafe.” The marchers had nothing to do with Israel. In the latter, the blatant acceptance and embrace of a racist was accepted and defended; after all, he was only racist towards Jews. If a person of Mexican-American heritage had called Richard Spencer a friend, no one would use the defense that “[it can be] difficult to call [a friend] out.. it can be difficult to see [the problem].” Louis Farrakhan has been a proud anti-Semite for his entire career; anyone would have known this before getting to know him. But the deliberate exclusion of Jews and Jewish narratives allows intersectional populists to conjure up their own anti-Semitism. It even allows them to further their perpetual self victimization.
The New School’s 2017 panel on anti-Semitism was a hellmouth for self-victimization and justification of left-wing anti-Semitism. The description: “Antisemitism [sic] is harmful and real. But when Antisemitism [sic] is redefined as criticism of Israel, critics of Israeli policy become accused and targeted more than the growing far-right. Join us for a discussion on how to combat Antisemitism [sic] today.” The panel featured most prominently Linda Sarsour, infamous for her declaration of the incompatibility of feminism with Zionism, a term which is actually defined as a belief in a Jewish homeland for the Jewish people, but which she has broadly redefined to as an ideology rooted oppression of the “indigenous” people. She and Rebecca Vilkomerson, leader of the fringe group Jewish Voice for Peace, essentially used the event to redefine the word “anti-Semitism” to exclude anti-Zionism, while simultaneously bemoaning the accusations of anti-Semitism from the right (the right here actually refers to anyone outside of their intersectional political camp) as a tactic to delegitimize them. According to Werner-Müller, “many populist victors continue to behave like victims;” just as Donald Trump complains about the mainstream media’s “attacks” him, these intersectional populists accuse, literally anyone who gives them any criticism of “attacking” them. These “attacks,” predictably, are labeled racist or Islamophobic or misogynist, regardless of their validity.
In and of itself, intersectionality has noble principles: freedom from oppression and solidarity with oppressed groups without a doubt have important parts in making our society better and more equal. However, the execution of the theory has been compromised by ideologues who cannot abide criticism and view the world in binary. These populists are no different from their alt-right counterparts, and find themselves a living example of horseshoe theory. Intersectional activists have the ability to undermine the legitimacy of the Democratic party as Trumpian politics often have the Republican party; the question is not if, only when. Until then, I we can expect to witness a further amplification of troubling trends of polarization, political anti-Semitism, and politicians who will appeal not to fact or reason, but to feelings.