The armed wing of identity politics

The racist massacre in El Paso was violent identitarianism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill

Topics Politics USA

Following the racist massacre at a Walmart in El Paso on Saturday, in which 20 people were killed, politicians and commentators have once again wrapped themselves in the comfort blanket of Trump-bashing. It’s Trump’s fault, they say, with ridiculous simplicity. Apparently it was Trump’s heated rhetoric and warped tweets, especially in relation to Mexicans, that drove this white-nationalist maniac to take such deadly action against Hispanic people.

This cynical rush to indict Trump as the inspirer-in-chief of mass murder might provide the cultural elite with a cheap political thrill. But it ignores the broader dynamics behind today’s racially paranoid violence. And it ignores the role the cultural elite itself may have played in nurturing a climate in which such despicable violence could emerge.

The El Paso shooting – like the Christchurch mosque massacre and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre – looks like violent identitarianism. We seem to be witnessing something horrific: the militarisation of identity politics.

The killer’s alleged manifesto is riddled with identitarian paranoia. He sees himself and his cultural heritage as being under siege, especially from Hispanics. The arrival of a new race is a threat to ‘our way of life’, he says. He explicitly talks about his sense of ‘identity problems’. He says he is against ‘race mixing’ as it destroys ‘genetic diversity’. His overarching sense is that the US is being ‘destroyed from the inside out’. Tellingly, he writes of having no future: ‘My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist.’

These disturbing images of one’s identity being under threat from other identities – ‘identity problems’, as he calls them – echo the ramblings of the anti-Muslim bigot who carried out the mosque massacres in Christchurch. He, too, saw himself entirely as a cultural entity, and one under siege from other cultural entities. Indeed, the Christchurch killer argued that ‘diverse peoples must remain diverse’, meaning identity groups should be ‘separate, unique, undiluted, unrestrained in… cultural or ethnic expression’. The El Paso killer’s alleged manifesto repeats this cry for cultural entrenchment: it calls for the creation of a ‘confederacy of territories’ in which each identity group would have its own territory in which to thrive.

Observers can insist as much as they like that these sentiments are alien, twisted, the products of febrile, fascistic minds. But in truth such views, such concerns with ‘identity problems’, even such toying with the idea of maintaining cultural separatism and purity, speak to the utterly mainstream outlook of identity politics.

They come across like violent, militarised expressions of the mainstream taboo against ‘cultural appropriation’, which likewise maintains that cultures should not mix. They echo the sense of siege that is a central feature of every identitarian group, whether it’s black or Muslim identitarians convinced they are under threat by ‘white men’, as Ilhan Omar recently put it, or trans activists who are in the grip of the paranoid belief that society is awash with transphobic hatred.

And of course the violent paranoia of the El Paso and Christchurch killers mirror the Islamist identitarian paranoia that has led to the slaughter of hundreds of people in Europe over the past five years. Those acts more neatly fall into the category of terrorism than do the El Paso or Christchurch massacres – no, not because the perpetrators had brown skin, but because they were clearly part of a politically, religiously motivated form of mass violence. But there are nonetheless identitarian commonalities between Islamist terror and white-nationalist murder.

From the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo to the Bastille Day massacre in Nice to the Manchester Arena bombing that was carried out by a young Muslim who reportedly thought British society was riddled with ‘Islamophobia’, these acts of identitarian savagery were likewise fuelled in part by an extreme sense of cultural siege, of identitarian fragility. Albeit a sense of siege inflamed far more by mainstream commentators and community groups who talk ceaselessly about the alleged victimisation of Muslims by racist, ill-educated white Europeans than by right-wing figures like Trump.

The attempt to blame Trump and his allegedly un-American, non-presidential rants about certain groups of people for what happened in El Paso, and at the Pittsburgh synagogue last year, distracts from this far larger picture of cultural division and identitarian panic. Indeed, to the extent that Trump may have contributed to today’s climate, it was not by injecting some foreign kind of ‘fascism’ into the otherwise healthy body politic of modern America; rather, it was by also buying into the mainstream politics of identity, though he prefers to tap into a sense of white victimhood rather than black victimhood, Muslim victimhood, gay victimhood, etc.

These recent killings, this evolution of gun violence from random attacks to identitarian-fuelled vengeance, offers us a disturbing glimpse into the cultural fragmentation unleashed by the relentless rise of a politics based on identity above all else. What they point to is the dangers inherent in the persistent politicisation of personal identity. Indeed, this new politics, this elevation of one’s own identity to the be-all and end-all of political life, is arguably the most disturbing trend of our time. And it is now, somewhat predictably, giving rise to actual mass violence.

The problem with the politicisation of personal identity is that it can lead to psychological disorientation. It convinces people that any criticism of their political worldview is an existential assault on their own life and future, given that their political worldview is so intimately and disturbingly entwined with their own identity.

So where violent white identitarians spread the conspiracy theory about the white race being ‘replaced’ by non-white people, trans activists talk about being ‘erased’, and Muslim identitarians and their sympathisers claim Muslims face the beginnings of a ‘genocide’ in the West, and black observers claim that anyone who doesn’t accept the new identitarianism and instead insists on being ‘race-less’ is ‘erasing black people and their contributions’. As a writer for the Guardian recently argued, ‘white liberals of a certain age [are] using their political and social platforms to erase black people’. This is the same sense of cultural fear and dread that leads white identitarians to talk about the ‘cultural replacement’ of whites.

Replacement, erasure, genocide, phobia, hate speech, hate crime, microaggressions… identity politics, through making the personal political, has created a world of paranoia. A world in which anyone who questions any aspect of our politics, and therefore our own lives, must be shut down, whether by being censored, hounded out of polite society, jailed, or, yes, killed. The violence in El Paso and elsewhere is sickening and hateful. It also feels disturbingly mainstream, and horrifically predictable.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Steve Roberts

6th August 2019 at 6:35 pm

O’Neill rightly points out that the responsibility for these appalling murders is the shooter himself, that’s self evident. And yet it is important – if we are to attempt to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities like this – that we draw the correct conclusions and understanding of what is occurring in contemporary society.
Banning guns is not just simplistic it is becoming a catch all virtue signalling parody that is useless.
Recently O’Neill has written about the problem of identitarianism, here he expands into the deep misanthropy involved in contemporary discourse.
I think it is also worth noting the social and cultural setting that is deeply embedded in particular – or more accurately in a more mature form than elsewhere – in the USA. For generations now there has been an increasingly regressive social and educational norm of non judgementalism, where all is relative, everything goes, it has resulted in generalised sense of self importance, of nihilism defined in one publication as ” …often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy ” and a narcissism described as “ which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others”
Does this mean that all the population of the USA are potential mass murderers, clearly not, these occurrences are thankfully very rare, there are many powerful human acts and thoughts of decency, our humanity of living together, among most of us to overide the narcissism and nihilism . But at the extreme, unstable edges of society among a small amount of people society it is creating the conditions, the heady cocktail that are a severely explosive mix for such extremism to flourish we would do well to consider all these factors.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 7:33 pm

Very perceptive summation, and I’d just add that it’s obviously gone way too far when Congress is full of loons screaming for open borders, infanticide, the promotion and normalisation of perversion to our children, and the climate-hoax.

See how democracy goes?

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 7:35 pm

See how progressive it was to let women out?

Winston Stanley

6th August 2019 at 8:36 pm

Scepticism and nihilism get a bad rap from the dogmatists and moralists. Why on earth would a radical sceptic “condemn existence”? Maybe existence is OK, who knows? Why would a “true nihilist” (whatever that is) have “an impulse to destroy”? If nothing matters, then why would anything matter enough to turn to violence?

The bad rap is dogmatist and moralist propaganda, up there with “atheists eat babies, why would they not, they have no moral constraints.” The idea is that if we do not subject our reason, and our will, to some particular dogmatic moral system of thought, as metaphysical Truth, then we are not merely “immoral” but without any constraint. It is complete nonsense.

I rather see scepticism and nihilism as an invitation to freely explore what genuinely matters to me. Not what people tell me “should” matter but what I think and feel matters. Nothing may “in itself” matter, all may be atoms stuck together in the void. But I still have instincts and intuitions and there is no reason why I should not live my life according to how I feel about things. Scepticism and nihilism do not imply passivity, let alone violence. They imply freedom from dogmatism and the occasion to live freely according to one’s own lights.

Nor would a skeptic or nihilist be any more “narcissistic” than anyone else. That is just slander. One could argue that it is pretty self-flattering and -aggrandising to go on like one has the “ultimate truth” about the “inner reality” of the world, and that everyone has to agree with one. Likely most dogmatists have never really thought long and hard about anything, they just picked up some belief system from their society, as most people do, and assumed that it is Truth. Surely the dogmatic moralists have got more than their fair share of narcissists?

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 9:03 pm

No Christian would argue that God hasn’t given you the free will to pursue nihilism, and nor would they say that atheists are totally amoral, or whatever.

He has harsh words to say about the sin of unbelief, and He makes the rules.

Winston Stanley

6th August 2019 at 10:21 pm

H, Ecclesiastes is one of the famous “nihilistic” texts. All human activity is vain and pointless, it runs according to predetermined patterns, it achieves nothing and it will all be forgotten. His conclusion is simply to fear God and to obey b/c all will be judged. It is an interesting example of how resort is made to religion in the face of an otherwise pointless existence. Of course I would argue that life is its own meaning and justification, or more precisely that we create that meaning. Meaning and value are human concepts that have no reality outside of our own projection, which is OK.

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Winston Stanley

6th August 2019 at 10:43 pm

Another way to put it might be, that we may have no constraint, understood as authoritatively grounded prescription, but that does not mean that we have no restraint. Sceptics and nihilists are not thereby stripped of human sensibilities. Rather they choose to act, and to not act, purely as a free human choice rather than as something that they “have” to do.

“Charity” is a similar concept, we do not “have” to be charitable, or that would be “duty” and not “charity”; people do it, not b/c there is any moral prescription but b/c they judge it to be “better” and they freely choose to do so. Or they may choose not to do so, which is likely the more common, default disposition for all of us.

Most of us, dogmatic moralist, sceptic or nihilist are generally pretty lazy and selfish. Call it “narcissism” if you like but maybe that is just part of the human condition? At least nihilists cannot be called hypocrites, they are “innocent” in that sense. : ) They have no strict laws so they cannot be accused of breaking any. There is no fault where there is no law. Only believers can be “guilty”.

Hana Jinks

6th August 2019 at 11:20 pm

The important part of that passage is the Preacher’s conclusion.

Winston Stanley

7th August 2019 at 7:25 am

The pointlessness of all existence is OK, I actually quite like it. After all, if existence is pointless and meaningless then in what terms could it be “condemned”? Existence is not contingent on such concept, they do not apply. After all, there is always chill out/ lounge music and loads of fun to be had.

Hana Jinks

7th August 2019 at 1:37 pm

What l was trying to say four posts up now was that we are indeed subjected to futility, But God has a way of using it. There’s a message in the shoes not wearing out for forty years. We can indeed go to the lounge, but the only thing with any lasting benefit is..

Good Gosh

5th August 2019 at 11:35 pm

Who knows, history may look back on these shooters from a different perspective. If say Europe does in fact become dominated by Islam, which seems very likely given migration numbers and birth rates, then some if not many non-Muslims might start crediting the likes of Anders Breivik for his heroic prescience. He took a stand, they may claim, hence he faced up to the threat, lashed out the only way he could, thus he cast a bright light on the issue, made it hot, so to speak, and maybe we should have listened? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying mall and mosque shooters are right, just that time may show they could be making a valid point.

pru greaves

5th August 2019 at 8:59 pm

Identity politics operates through the psychological and emotional conflation of ideas, beliefs and values with the sense of self; it is fundamentalism in action. Fundamentalism literalises ones identity when merged with a conceptual system; and it signals a lack of psychological and emotional development. Identifying with a belief system occurs when the individual has an inadequate sense of separation from their group: attack the group and its belief system and you attack them personally. That the West has broke out into tribal identity politics signifies a failure of social and political systems into which disparate groups can assemble under a common umbrella. The end of the days of institutional politics is extremely worrying because its signals the likelihood of extreme conflict in the near future. I fear that violent conflict is on the horizon.

steve moxon

5th August 2019 at 9:33 pm

Nonsense. There is no “tribalism”. There is just the backlash by the Left elite against the mass of ordinary people for not buying Marxism. Ordinary people now realise the Left elite hates them and has contempt for them back. ‘Identity politics’ is the Left’s manufacture of faux groups they imagine could act as a ‘vanguard’ in a ‘revolution’, to replace ‘the workers’, whom the Left see as failed in this ‘duty’. Women, ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’ are thus identified by the Left, NOT by women, ‘blacks’ and ‘gays’ themselves.

Christopher Tyson

5th August 2019 at 8:15 pm

In battle it is advisable to leave your opponent a way out for these reasons.
You don’t necessarily want a whole lot of prisoners to look after. You don’t particularly want to become involved in the total slaughter of your opponents, preferring the minimal force to achieve your objectives. You don’t want to put them in a position where they will fight to the death knowing that they are dead anyway and have nothing to lose. You hope that somewhere along the line they may afford you the same courtesy. Similar rules apply in debate and conflict. Identitarians however have no strategy, are convinced of their own rectitude, and hold no sympathy for their opponents. They have no vision and no view of the future, their simple aim to drive their opponents into the ground. They make no assessment of their own strength or weakness or those of their opponents, like a little dog yapping at an Alsatian, asking for trouble. Identitarians are usually reliant on the state, it is from the state that they draw their courage, they believe that if they squeal long and hard enough the state will rescue them. This leads us to a situation where the privileged classes in society are held up as the champions of anti-racism, and less privileged who actually live and work amongst immigrants and who compete with immigrants for jobs are the target of state anti-racism, and liberal left social prejudice. It is easy to be anti-racist when the only black people you meet are subservient to you and no threat to you. The Far Right do increasingly resemble a besieged minority, however this has not led to sympathise with other besieged minorities and has not led them to any greater understanding. They continue to see minorities as a threat and let the state off the hook. In this sense the far Right are reactionary and pro-state, they are protecting the status quo.

Winston Stanley

5th August 2019 at 7:31 pm

> Private school RE teacher wins £60,000 pay-out after he was forced out of his job when he told off a schoolgirl for handing in her homework late

The solution is simple, the state has got no business teaching anything about religion to children. The British State still has a state religion that it uses to embellish and to justify its own existence. And its sectarian history is clear. It is all about controlling people and it always was. It is all about power, privilege and money. Get the state out of education. If kids do not want to hand in “homework” about religion then that is their business. Who do the British state think that they are? Who gave you permission to brainwash our kids? Try to remember, this is supposed to be a democracy and the state has zero authority over the demos.

Policies for a democratic 21st century:

– disestablish the state religion

– get the schools off the churches

– end the compulsory Christian worship that there is in all state schools

– abolish the monarchy

– abolish the HOL

– reform the parliament with PR

– introduce a system where the demos can call referenda on any matters that we like

– have a referendum on neutrality in the world and end all anti-democratic militarism and geopolitical policies

Jerry Owen

5th August 2019 at 8:06 pm

Policies for a 21st century.
A referendum on neutrality in the world .
Hmm, good luck with that one whatever it means!

Ven Oods

10th August 2019 at 8:46 am

You forgot the bit about removing charitable status from churches (and private schools, come to that).

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