By: Brian Birnbaum
Among contemporary progressives, the space for debate over the value of identity politics is shrinking at pace with its growing popularity within political discourse. Today’s dominant progressive tastemakers seem to feel that identity politics should either be bought wholesale, or you’re not a progressive. But as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), a firsthand witness to deaf alienation, and even more importantly, as a progressive myself, I find it unacceptable that such particularistic, individuated, and limiting rhetoric as that employed by proponents should preclude the validity of my own political stance.
I’ve always been suspicious when new code-words and ideologies are introduced into the political sphere, as they strike me as euphemistic spins on old and often pernicious tropes. Take, for example, ‘Make America Great Again’, which was a dog whistle for returning to a time more prosperous for whites at the expense of all others. But my awakening to the deeper perils of identity politics came during the Democratic National Convention for the 2016 election, where hardliners ascended with pageantry to the podium and proselytized the masses, ostensibly for the good of the party. At their own earlier convention, the Republicans had trotted out the bereaved mothers of Benghazi, and now the DNC responded with the bereaved mothers of police brutality. The RNC had brought out the Boys in Blue to talk tough on crime, and the DNC called up Khizr and Ghazala Khan to thump the constitution and pick at its semantics. It was a lot of standard pandering to the parties’ respective bases, sometimes to mild success, other times to a fault.
But I observed a major difference – a massively important difference – between the way things were presented at the two national conventions. Nearly every individual the Democrats sent up to the stage used a variant of the same phrase: “As a black woman…”; “As a Muslim man…”; “As a Mexican immigrant…” Hearing this anaphora – and noticing it more and more after the convention, whether from a guest on CNN or a friend’s Facebook feed – I felt caught in a unique position. As a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), not once, among the DNC’s lineup of marginalized persons (or on CNN, or on the feeds of non-deaf Facebook friends), did I hear any mention of the deaf, nor any language related to the deaf population.
Of course, this exclusion didn’t change my political views; I was and remain a progressive who attempts to see through glib and specious political tropes. This is not at all to say that the aims of identity politics – e.g. resolving such maladies as implicit bias, police brutality, and the general disenfranchisement of marginalized demographics – are at all glib or specious. Quite the contrary, they are as real and important as any issue today, if not any issue since America’s very inception. But the resolutions of such societal maladies rely on action that digs far deeper than identity politics’ reach, to where the roots of malignant legislation are thrust into our political soil.
For it is deep in this political muck that legislation is bought, smothering even our best efforts at grassroots egalitarianism. It’s where mass incarceration is incentivized, undermining black lives everywhere. It’s where tax loopholes are bored through for the rich, minimum wages are written to be existentially prohibitive, and our national debt proliferates at rates that require logarithmic representation – undermining lower economic classes’ chances at upward mobility. It’s where we set the precedent for young adults to enter a workforce ever more saturated, misunderstood, and impenetrable, as our wealth gap explodes like a dying supernova, drifting out toward economic entropy. Oh yeah – and it’s within this political muck where our environment gets pumped with enough co2 to smother the ecosystem – along with everyone who lives in it.
* * *
So here I am, just another political hypocrite, using my own experience to demonstrate that personal experience shouldn’t play a big role in my politics. And to do so, it’s important to lay all my cards on the table – something seldom done during much in any partisan debate, for want of preserving the integrity of one’s argument.
My mother comes from a politically centrist Italian-Catholic family that spent much of her childhood trying to get her to be ‘normal’ – i.e. to attend hearing schools, use the English language, and make hearing friends. My father comes from a liberal Jewish family that raised him much the same. This was deafness in the mid-20th century – a shameful disability, to be shunned as if it were a choice.
When I was very young, my parents owned a balloon and flower shop. It was in this shop, with my mom laboring over orders to keep our family solvent, that my father started his successful sign language interpreting company. To gloss over his (or anyone’s) entrepreneurial struggle is an injustice to his success. For the sake of brevity, however, it suffices to say that they’re relatively wealthy deaf folks. And when considering that the deaf unemployment rate has been as high as 75%, that is damn near unheard of, so to speak.
My mother’s politics have varied from candidate to candidate, depending largely on her sense of an individual’s integrity more than on their platform. She voted for Hillary and is disappointed in Trump’s character as a leader, but she is hopeful that he will prove able to create jobs. My father is your typical golden-age Republican. Grown tired of the Democrats’ ‘fecklessness’, he simply wants to see his business and investments prosper. Despite our differences, we agree on some basics: mainly that both parties are broken, dogged by policies that have little to do with fixing a flawed system.
Our disagreements lie, ultimately, in the matter of hope. Whereas my father’s experience has taught him to see our system as a reflection of human nature – one as deeply and equally flawed as the other – I see no point in capitulating to a common denominator, as the logical conclusion to such thinking seems like political surrender. While we disagree, I’m sympathetic to his views. He votes in line with his perceived reality, and I vote in line with mine. With Trump he’s gotten his tax cuts and strong stock market. Anything more that my father might want – e.g. installing policies that will enfranchise the deaf population – lies beyond the government’s ability.
Of course, this itself is a representative heuristic. The Civil Rights movement may not have done very much for the deaf, but any movement must begin somewhere. It would be patently incorrect to say that no progress has been made on behalf of deaf rights. In fact, my father himself spent countless years lobbying for deaf rights. He either spearheaded or was involved in everything from the Deaf President Now campaign, which brought Gallaudet University its first deaf president, to the Americans with Disabilities Act, whose chief effect was to require communications access for deaf folks in a wide range of situations. Fifty years ago, we were using the phrase ‘deaf and dumb’. Now, the deaf community resents any affiliation with the term ‘disabled’, has access to captioning on all available media, Video Relay Service, and sign language interpreting, and enjoys growing awareness of deaf rights throughout society in general.
Being deaf, my father was confronted with more than his share of exasperating challenges. There are always, of course, the simple cases, like not understanding the bank teller or missing an important phone call while watching TV in the family room. But these you become inured to. I’ve always had greater interest in the more nuanced situations, barriers thrown up not by metaphysical design, but by those of a structural or political kind. And the one that has always stuck out to me is my father’s attempt to gain 8a Certification for his sign language business.
The 8a Business Development Program awards certification to minority-owned small businesses, which then allows them to bid on contracts set aside for 8a members. The State of Maryland’s 8a admissions group was comprised largely of black folks. After reviewing my father’s application, many of the group were outraged that he thought his life was difficult enough to be awarded certification. It took the courage and wisdom of a single member to convince the group that not being able to participate in the verbal world was perhaps a plight worthy of his admission.
Such experiences – and there were many – began to make him feel as if even the marginalized demographics had selective hearing. Politically, it seemed like it was less about leveling the playing field than it was about who boasted the loudest outrage; a sort of unregulated competitiveness festering in the den of progressivism; a hypocrisy so deep and appalling that, after so many years, it’s easy to imagine why he began focusing more on lowering taxes for his small business rather than contributing to what his experience taught him was an infighting political agenda.
Looking back, when the deaf students stood alone to protest the President’s quarters, it was George Bush Sr. who provided an ultimatum to Gallaudet’s Board of Directors (and yet my father had voted for Dukakis). It was Bill Clinton who ignited mass incarceration and tipped derivative trading over the edge of all reason (and yet my father had voted for Clinton). As an invisible minority, his prosperity began to seem far less dependent on political color than on a customized group of issues that affected him personally.
That the hypocrisy of American politics drove my father to begin voting for himself is entirely understandable. In effect he’s saying, “The U.S. political system has failed to cohere for the better of all, so I have no choice but to vote what’s best for me.” This isn’t a failure on my father’s part. He didn’t break Bernie’s knees in favor of a candidate who speciously trumpets minority rights while upholding the neoliberal structures that keep the disenfranchised from competing fairly.
* * *
My father isn’t just a deaf man who succeeded. He’s a man who overcame an abusive father, who overcame leaving home at sixteen, who overcame a nervous breakdown in his twenties, who overcame being held at gunpoint near Grand Central Station on the eve of purchasing his cab medallion license – and still succeeded. He’s a man who quit his well-paying job at IBM to begin that business in my mother’s balloon and flower shop. He’s a man whose deaf brother robbed my grandmother blind before she passed, leaving nothing for him or his sister. On the one hand, his brother’s iniquities are understandable, due to the state of deaf rights and how the dearth of said rights limited his ability to learn and thrive. On the other hand, despite these limitations, he had been offered countless opportunities by many people, including my father, which he blew through sheer unwillingness to work.
Depending on which hardliners you ask, my uncle was either an inevitable victim of disenfranchisement, or a man given enough opportunities to overcome his deafness. Neither of these perspectives, entirely personal to my uncle, should affect what’s universally true: that deaf rights should exist. So why spend so much time focusing on his personal history at the expense of overwhelming empirical evidence that the deaf (or black, or female, etc.) population is underserved? If we use identity politics, making vast extrapolations from microscopic sample sizes, the individual contradictions and nuances inevitably create a stalemate. (And this binary nature of political judgement is bleeding into our culture; every day there seems to be less room for nuance.) By allotting more energy to the accumulation and deployment of hard facts – unemployment rates, poverty demographics, salary imbalances between genders – we limit our political vulnerability.
There is a place for identity politics. It’s in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Anthem protests, the nonprofits that dig their roots into communities and build upon the foundation of our economic principles. And such advocacy should absolutely be referred to and supported by progressive campaigns and grassroots movements. But in general, we need to view politics – especially national politics – as a holistic affair, one that whittles the virtues of progressive action to their essential core. Identity politics certainly orbit these core values and work to bond with separate cultures and identities. However, like an atom’s electrons, they work at outer valences, and are sometimes repelled by the nuclei of competing matter that hold the country together. Until we begin focusing on the core before the corollary, those latter issues will continue to gaslight and pettifog the political dialectic.
For his part, my father believes the same, albeit from the opposite side of the political spectrum. He voted Trump not because he is deaf, or Jewish, or male. He did so because he thought he’d be best served by his presidency. Though I disagree – and at times might even accuse him of voting selfishly; an equally pernicious converse to the identity coin – he’s never wavered in his triumphant rebuttal: that we need more people to vote for their personal interests; that it’s what makes America free, that which gives voice to our every citizen.
Though there is another argument to be made here about voting your conscience over your interests, he’s right about what it means to vote for oneself: that it’s a rational method of configuring one’s best interests, not a scatter of personal traits, like those which hypocritical sects such as alt-rightists and neoliberals seek to exploit for their political gain – and therein lies identity politics’ most insidious trait, how it implicitly serves the very factions it so vehemently opposes, which in turn works to indirectly oppose progressivism itself.
This is a crucial political moment. For if we fail to throttle our focus on core issues such as district gerrymandering, voter suppression, and all those I listed earlier – issues virtually immune or even hostile to identity politics – I fear more Trumps to come, presidential cutouts in the shape of our irrational rift.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, Brian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, The Smart Set, Potluck Magazine, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, and more. His debut novel, Emerald City, is forthcoming with Dead Rabbits in September 2019. Brian works in development for his family’s deaf access company and lives in Harlem with his partner and their dog.
Image: I love you in American sign language, photo by Bert Heymans (CC BY-SA 2.0)