Political Animal


April 19, 2013 5:08 PM Politicized Identities

By Ed Kilgore

In a meditation on reactions to the Boston bombings and the apparent identification of the perpetrators, TAP’s Paul Waldman says something profound:

Let’s be honest and admit that everyone had a hope about who the Boston bomber would out to be. Conservatives hoped it would be some swarthy Middle Easterner, which would validate their belief that the existential threat from Islam is ongoing and that their preferred policies are the best way to deal with that threat. Liberals hoped it would be a Timothy McVeigh-like character, some radical right-winger or white supremacist, which would perhaps make us all think more broadly about terrorism and what the threats really are. The truth turned out to be … well, we don’t really know yet. Assuming these two brothers are indeed the bombers, they’re literally Caucasian, but they’re also Muslim. Most importantly, as of yet we know absolutely nothing about what motivated them. Nothing. Keep that in mind.
But for many people, their motivations are of no concern; all that matters is their identity.

He goes on to talk about the tendency of U.S. conservatives to reduce large proportions of the human race—including many Americans—to an identity-imputed barbarism that makes them perfect enemies and thus not worth understanding. But it’s sometimes a problem for liberals as well—certainly those who assume that being a white Christian male from the South is an identity that connotes an incorrigible cultural and political enemy (you can see why that might bother me).

But there are two other reasons liberals ought to be especially careful about identity politics: (1) it abolishes the restraining power, real if sometimes attenuated, of universalistic liberal values on those who would otherwise run amok with greed and other forms of tribal and individual self-interest, and (2) it sets up a power contest between identity groups in which those who already have power—typically wealthy white men—are probably going to win. Even if you buy a “fundamentals” analysis of politics as mainly about who we are and what we are statistically likely to believe or vote for, there is a zone, sometimes small but critical, of shared values and rational persuasion that matters on the margins all of the time and in the center of political discourse at least some of the time. That narrow zone is sometimes what separates democratic politics from the ethos of the Thirty Years War.

Look, we all make judgments about groups of people who are antagonistic to our point of view. I routinely say highly disparaging things about the conservative movement and the Republican Party, as they exist today. But I do try to pay attention to what they actually say and their justifications for saying it, which is why, to the anger of some of my political allies, I tend to take conservatives at their word that they believe zygotes are human beings or that the weight of history militates in changes in family structure or that capitalism is the only successful model for wealth creation. I could just dismiss them all as depraved crypto-fascists or as puppets for various puppet-masters, but if that’s the case, what’s the point of writing or contending over politics?

There are real and obvious meta-forces in political life that transcend reason or empirical data or any effort at persuasion, and they are often associated with “politicized identities.” But if we don’t constantly try to understand the motivations beneath these identities and pry them loose into that free air where sweet reason and cooperation can take hold, then we surrender to tribal instincts and a politics of pure power in which not one of us truly ever matters.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • ComradeAnon on April 19, 2013 5:17 PM:

    I didn't hope for either one. Nor would I have been surprised at either.

  • Frank Wilhoit on April 19, 2013 5:41 PM:

    Waldman's title, "Substituting Identity for Motivation", says it all. Identity is legible; motivation is not.

  • TE3 on April 19, 2013 5:45 PM:

    I didn't hope for an Occupy type, a Muslim or a McVeigh. Nor would I have been surprised at any of them either.
    Fact is it is a bombing which virtually always have a religious or political impetus or aim.

    The fact that they are Muslim is obviously relevant, as long as one, at the same time notes, that most Muslims, and virtually all here in the states, don't share the views of violent fanatics.

    We still don't know most of what we need to in any case. It could turn out that on their trips back home they were radicalized, or they were here, or that they were not externally radicalized and that their problem, as their uncle hinted at, was simply a failure to adapt.

    All three of those were causal in the London bombers and it should be interesting to see their movements and associations as the story fleshes out. The older brother seems to have failed at work and school. The second uncle says the older brother traveled back and forth from here to both Dagestan. He may have been in Chechnya. He apparently never attempted US citizenship whereas the younger one did right on turning 18. So the older brother maybe a classical case we have seen before and the younger brother simply over influenced.

  • Anonymous on April 19, 2013 6:09 PM:

    Despite their Chechnyan background, I'm still not convinced that they had a political agenda. Not that I know shit about shit, their previous lives seemed quite unremarkable. And their little blaze of glory seems more like a high-stakes reenactment of some bad-ass action movie. IF, these two have done all that has been credited to them, I sure would like to know just what, exactly, they were trying to accomplish. But I don't know shit about shit...

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on April 19, 2013 6:10 PM:

    Sgt. Gym Bunny. That's me above.

  • CAs on April 19, 2013 6:21 PM:

    Waldman's piece is an inadvertent yet perfect illustration of complete and hilariously inadvertent hypocrisy.

    Kilgore follows behind not realizing he puts himself in the same school.

    Why don't you two "be honest and admit" the reality: a small number of partisans on both sides are the only ones "wishing for" this event's perpetrators to have any particular identity.

    My guess is 90% of Americans don't wish this to be either a left wing nut, a right wing nut or a Islamacist nut. Get out of your bubble. I am guessing 90% of Americans want this over, intelligently understood, and intelligently prevented in future.

    I cannot think of a better illustration what is wrong in Washington and our political discourse than the author's views. And I am not talking about Congress and administrations, but our polarized and unbearably partisan political pundits, who out-do both Congress and Administrations by an order of magnitude in divisiveness and polarization.

    Journalists like irony. I hope they still teach in JO school. Did you miss that part and not realize it YOU who are engaging in biased and prejudiced ascribing of small-minded "identity motivation" by this VERY article!

    Both Kilgore and Waldman attribute, in fact --PROJECT --their own narrow minded prejudices onto the polity claim we all should recognize it in self honestly. When they don't have the intellectual honesty to "know thyself" and consider for a second that they themselves are the ones ascribing motives for entire groups of moderate political leanings where virtually all Americans exist.

  • Joe Friday on April 19, 2013 6:35 PM:

    So far, it's still looking like domestic terrorism. Neither al-Qaeda or any of it's derivatives would have bothered with such a low-velocity and low-yielding explosive like black powder.

  • Shane Taylor on April 19, 2013 7:23 PM:

    What a person believes, Bertrand Russell said, "upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires -- desires of which he himself is often unconscious."

  • Shane Taylor on April 19, 2013 7:24 PM:

    and she herself, I should have added

  • Speed on April 19, 2013 7:58 PM:

    Right-wing, left-wing, it doesn't matter who is responsible because the National Security State and the surveillance society will just grow and grow. That's the big story American should be looking at.

  • Neil on April 19, 2013 8:30 PM:

    "Joe" above give an example of those jumping to conclusions though their bias. The AQ manual on building these pressure cooker bombs says to use matchsticks, black powder, smokeless, TNT, C4 or any of a half dozen other possible alternatives if available. It recommends sporting events as the number one target because of crowds and media presence.

    So the bomb type, build size and location are classic AQ

    At this point the political beliefs of both are still unclear. The young bother seems "all American" in many ways. The older bother seems to fit the classic jihadi 7/7 (London attackers profile). Like the 7/7 AQ guys he could not hold a job here, and dropped out, had no non Muslim friends, married an American, and according her her in domestic dispute documents forced her to convert to Islam after he returned from one of his longer trips to Dagistan.

    The dynamics between the brothers which will come out in future will tell us. If it is the younger brother dominant in the relationship than it is a psychologically troubled kid recruiting his big brother in a mentally disturbed event. If the older brother is the dominant one than it is classic al Qaeda affiliate operation in every way.
    a) Al Qaeda recommended and widely used bomb type.
    b) AQ top recommended target
    c) Disaffected unassimilated Muslim actor
    d) youth in family recruited by prime actor
    e) recent half year travel to major terrorist center

    It will come down to learning about the dynamics. Did the classic jihadi influence the younger brother or visa versa? We don't know yet

  • thebewilderness on April 19, 2013 9:12 PM:

    I remember that oh please don't let it be one of our guys feeling from back in the day.
    These days I simply expect it to turn out to be an angry man, or men, expressing their aggrieved entitlement.

  • Joe Friday on April 19, 2013 9:26 PM:


    "'Joe' above give an example of those jumping to conclusions though their bias."

    I'm afraid not.

    I wasn't giving my opinion.

    You're the one "jumping to conclusions".

    "The AQ manual on building these pressure cooker bombs says to use matchsticks, black powder, smokeless, TNT, C4"

    A) You are assuming what you're referencing is THE "AQ manual".

    B) Whatever the case, al-Qaeda simply does not rely upon low-velocity explosives, as they have plastique, Semtex, or C4 readily available.

  • winner on April 19, 2013 9:28 PM:

    Why don't you two "be honest and admit" the reality: a small number of partisans on both sides are the only ones "wishing for" this event's perpetrators to have any particular identity.

    Well said. I found this post of Kilgore's simultaneously insulting and kind of embarrassing in how clueless it was.

  • Rip on April 20, 2013 12:19 PM:

    While I can understand the partisan desire that the actors in such tragedies fit a preconceived notion of who is actually the larger danger, immigrant muslim fanatics or home grown right-wing ones usually being the preferred choices these days, I cringe every time someone on the right or the left starts projecting some sort of "hope" that the perpetrators fit their preferred narrative. My hope is that whatever the misguided motivation, that those who would commit such acts will realize the ultimate futility of doing so in order to further their cause.

    Almost as annoying are arguments over when the words "terror" and "terrorism" should be used, as if the semantics of the situation are the true measure of it's impact.