I very much enjoyed Chilton Williamson’s “Class and Identity” (In Our Time, October), especially its vivid description of the leveling steamroller operated by liberalism across generations. Mr. Williamson also quite properly points out that the resulting individualistic, classless society still cannot wholly eradicate the longing for real distinctions and concrete identities.
However, I think he may do an injustice to the Identitarian impulse. Yes, this impulse might be expressed within the smorgasbord of false self-conscious identities he catalogs that exalt atomistic individualism. But Identitarianism can also be a necessary, although admittedly not comprehensive, precondition to reestablishing an articulated social identity.
The starting point to recovery is to acknowledge that there is an “us” and that there is a “them,” and that we owe special duties to and have an organic place in the former, not the latter. This is a step away from solipsism toward the recognition of ties to and responsibilities for others and to those above us and below us—ties and responsibilities that we do not choose by ourselves and that exist regardless of our wills, inclinations, and leveling impulses.
Identitarianism rightly understood is a first foundation stone in a slow and by no means guaranteed rebuilding of an ordered, fully human society. The rift with the past is real, and we—especially those of us who came of age in the wake of liberalism’s march through cultural institutions—have to start where we can.
—Jon-Mark C. Patterson
Mr. Williamson Replies:
Mr. Patterson and I are actually in agreement. Identity—by which I assume he means identity of the racial or the ethnic sort—is indeed a basic component of personal identity. To dismiss one’s awareness of it as indecent and immoral, as the left commonly does, is simply silly. As T.S. Eliot said, to be ashamed of one’s heritage is to wish one were other than one is. On the other hand, to make a fetish of any single aspect of one’s self is silly, because it is ideological, and ideology by definition is silly.
Of course our responsibilities are chiefly toward our own, as I have argued in at least one book and countless essays—and as Chronicles itself has insisted for decades. No argument from me there.
I note that Mr. Patterson is a resident of Loveland, Colorado, 75 miles southwest of Laramie—just around the corner, as distances in the West are measured. I invite him to stop by for a visit the next time he’s in the vicinity.