The recent flap over the article on the implications of the logic of transgenderism on racial identification by Rebecca Tuvel in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia reminded me of the hubbub 5 years ago when Elizabeth Warren was running for the U.S. Senate and it came to light that she had claimed Native American heritage. (See this post and the articles here and here to get up to speed on Hypatia.) The basic allegation (discussed variously in 2012 here and here) was that Warren made the various claims to gain preferential treatment either in admission, awards, or hiring. That is, allegedly she identified with a certain race/ethnicity by choice because it was her conscious understanding of her family story and personal identity (the benign version of “it is who I really am”) and/or because it would help her to get ahead through affirmative action (the calculating version of “it is who I really want to be”).
We have it on good authority that Senator Warren, who just last week lambasted former President Obama for agreeing to accept $400,000 for a speaking engagement organized by Wall Street investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, received essentially that amount or more (precisely $429,981) from Harvard University in 2010-2011. That was where she ticked off Native American as a racial identity marker years ago, and where she was employed, perhaps just part-time — and maybe in a mini-semester mode over a few weeks once or twice a year. (The most detailed published information and discussion about her Harvard teaching responsibilities and related compensation is here.) Similar touting of minority status occurred during her time at Penn Law.
The potential hypocrisy displayed in receiving excessive compensation for very limited speaking/teaching engagements aside, there is a notable difference here in the trans-racial claims by Senator Warren and the academic, peer-reviewed argument by Tuvel published in Hypatia. Senator Warren, whether she moved from identifying as Caucasian to Native American, or back again from Native American to Caucasian when the controversy erupted, actually was the subject of an objective dispute about facts. And the moral questions pertained (a) to the factual nature of her claim based on percentage of blood ties (which smacks of quadroon, octoroon, etc., days), and (b) the motive for her claim.
The Atlantic magazine reproduced Warren’s own account of her identification as Cherokee based upon her family narrative, the accounts according to which identity is constructed and significance is assigned: “These are my family stories,” Warren has said. “This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw.” It is, in other words, her heritage, her lore, her family’s way of understanding itself and making sense of its place and people in the world.
This is not uncommon. When I was growing up, my father told me repeatedly that we had Cherokee blood. He told me the story of how his grandmother recalled some family member, the exact nature of which is lost to memory, who was connected to the Cherokee Nation. Of course, that is what she was told, too. His family understood itself as tied to that people and regional land on the basis of the story. It was a source of pride. Except that it wasn’t at all true.
As a gift last year, I bought my father, because of his interest in genetics, one of those ancestry kits–you know, those mail-in lab thingies where you swab some saliva (or some sort of cells), put it in a test tube (or something), and send it away to a lab (somewhere), and then several weeks later you get a report of scientifically substantiated family history based on the global genomic map. The upshot is that you can find out your geographic and racial identity. The slogan for one of these outfits is not dissimilar to the culture’s interest in individual self-discovery: “Discover what makes you uniquely you: Uncover your ethnic mix, distant relatives, and even new ancestors.” The temptation is one of authoritatively scientific narrative: “watch your story emerge.” In my father’s case, he watched his story shatter.
In his test results, there was no Cherokee blood to speak of.
Let me be clear about a few things. I don’t have any particular or personal grievance about President Obama’s receiving $400,000 to speak to Wall Street firms for single checks that put the recipient in the top tax bracket. Besides, what is $400,000 compared to the reported amount of the Obamas’ joint book deal worth $65,000,000? Senator Warren herself, I believe, was not “troubled” by that, her public apoplexy against income inequality notwithstanding. She just doesn’t like Wall Street. Moreover, the previous Democratic president and his wife both established the precedent of lucrative hourly rates for speaking engagements and compensation packages for memoirs, and, rest assured, we are not one to jettison solid traditions in a knee-jerk reaction.
I also don’t have any beef about family narratives and the ways in which they invest us and our communities with meaning. They do, and we should not make light of that. This point has been made well by, among others, Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:
For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide. Notice that rebellion against my identity is always one possible mode of expressing it. (After Virtue, 3d ed., p. 221)
The last sentence in this passage is an important clarification that nuances his affirmation of the traditions that form our social identity. One may react critically to one’s identity story and correct or redirect that narrative arc. That is what my father, for instance, is doing now that a competing story has come to light. For him, his story of racial identification is based upon genetic history, not choice or sense of self. In fact, he is now, in a sense, “trans-Cherokee,” because his sense of personal identity now does not correspond to his racial affiliation assigned to him by his parents and family since birth.
The main point I wish to draw, returning to the ballyhoo over Tuvel’s Hypatia article and its fallout, is that the terms of the debate surrounding Senator Warren’s racial identification as Native American despite lack of substantial or substantiating evidence were very different just five years ago from the nature of the debate in our current culture epitomized by Hypatia. My, how dramatically and quickly culture has changed. We are witnessing, in fact, the repudiation of a cultural tradition of reasoned dialogue. In the span of just five years, the controversy over claims about one’s racial identification has (d)evolved into one not about self-understanding (this is who I am; these are my stories) or motive (what is my motive for such identification), but instead about emotionally-charged “hate speech,” “violence,” and “harm.”
These are the terms used by the objectors to Professor Tuvel’s philosophical article in an academic journal. One wonders what the response would be today if the revelations about Senator Warren’s past racial identification claims were for the first time coming to light. Would the extreme academic Left go ballistic over one of its prized Congressional grandstanders? Would it claim, as it did against Professor Tuvel, that by doing and saying what she did she caused “real harm” to people who have suffered in history and that Senator Warren is perpetuating “systems of oppression” and “manifesting her privilege?” Would there be a social media firestorm calling for her resignation and some form of public penance, along with laments that in Massachusetts, unlike those good ole Puritan times, the pillory for public shaming is no longer in use?
The title of the New York magazine article on Hypatia rightly spoke of a “modern day witch hunt.” What we are observing in our society today, and particularly in the academy, is a secular form of religious fanaticism run morally amok. If we want to speak of actual hate, violence, and harm, we should overlook academic discussions in peer-reviewed journals about the logic of contemporary identity theory, and we should instead look in history to the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials — or their current manifestations on campus. The culture has metamorphosized as completely and quickly as a character envisioned by Ovid. We doubt that this shift is anything that, even if they wanted to, Senator Warren and her like-minded statist senators could legislate away.