I’m not sure what happened to Ezra Klein between his infamous 2018 spat with Sam Harris and the publication of his book this year, but it seems to be a move in the right direction.
During his debate with Harris — especially toward the end as mutual frustration heated it up — he continually accused Harris of a form of false consciousness. Harris kept insisting that his political ideals were essentially left-liberal, not protecting the interests of the categories to which Klein assigned him, namely white, male, cis, heterosexual.
“All politics,” Klein asserted, “are identity politics.”
Which is true, but only if you will permit those identities to be dynamic and creatively shaped by the process of politics itself, not pre-existing, fixed and determinist, controlling the political process in ways only those in the know can fathom.
And the latter was the position Klein took in the debate. For those who subscribe to Klein’s identitarian worldview, it looked like Klein was simply repeating, with admirable patience, and just the right amount of combativeness, what social psychology has taught us about how politics really works, versus how it appears to work.
But for those who take the former position — that participants in politics form group identities that they themselves collaboratively instaurate — what Klein was doing was infuriatingly hubristic and unreflective. Klein was essentially saying that he knew what Harris’s real identity was, because he, Klein, possessed expertise on which identities are real and effective and which are delusions that conceal the political actor’s true motivations. This expertise authorized Klein to take an asymmetrical position in the debate and tell Harris objectively why Harris was making the arguments he was making, where Harris was speaking from such naivety that every claim Harris made could be diagnosed rather than addressed substantially.
In other words, Klein was imputing motives to his opponent. And he was doing so, on the basis of belief that his expertise afforded him privileged access to objectivity. These two moves are anathema to liberal-democratic dialogue. It is a technocratic form of illiberalism, and it exemplifies what has turned half of our nation against all claims to expertise.
This display of technocratic, classist arrogance ended my admiration for Klein. I couldn’t even hear his voice without bristling.
However, since Klein has started promoting Why We’re Polarized, I’ve been hearing him not only include political identity in his schema of legit identities, but considering them to be among the most important.
This makes me wonder if he would debate Harris differently today, especially if Harris were to do what he should have at the time: insist that his primary identity is liberal-democratic. And that his liberal-democratic identity is being attacked when members of other political groups scoff at his ideals and dismiss them as a vehicle for his true racist, sexist, etc. identity interests. It is a double-attack, because it is denying the very existence of his identity in a manner that violates the principles of liberal-democracy.
I think I would feel better about Ezra Klein if he would explicitly acknowledge that he has changed his position to allow identity based on political ideals, and admit that this is a departure from the position he took when he debated Harris.
And I would re-enlist as a fan if he would add to this that when he did these things he was doing so, not as an objective egalitarian, but as an impassioned member of a very powerful political identity, whose power was acting on him unconsciously and made him feel entitled to dictate what is true and good to a member of a socially inferior political identity.