Mark Lilla, author and professor, speaks on identity and citizenship

Victoria Carlisle
News Staff Writer
vcarlisl@unca.edu

Students and community members gather together to listen to author and professor Mark Lilla, who urges Americans to focus on the common ground of citizenship instead of individual identities in his most recent book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

“In November 2016, 10 days after the presidential election, Mark Lilla published an op-ed in The New York Times that became the Times’ most read political op-ed of the year and quickly gathered 2,444 comments, most of them hostile,” said Brian Hook, humanities program director and professor of classics.

Rather than stepping away from the backlash of this op-ed, Lilla went on to write the book discussed in his talk Thursday in the Humanities Lecture Hall at UNC Asheville.

“The book is about power, political power. How you get it, how you use it to govern and how you can’t achieve any liberal purpose without power,” Lilla said.

Lilla, who identifies as a liberal, wrote the book to make the argument that too much emphasis on identity politics is what hurts American liberals.

Author, professor and columnist Mark Lilla visited campus last week to talk about his new book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. Photo by Nick Haseloff.

“He’s very clear and careful in his book to say that he values diversity and things like that but he almost thinks that our focus on our personal identity is undercutting a certain solidarity that we need to make democracy work as a political form,” said Ashley Moraguez, assistant professor of political science.

Lilla’s talks and writings focus on identity politics and where it stands in our society. The term identity politics circulates the political conversations of many news sources as well.

“The way I think of identity politics is a process by which people’s personal identity is however they view themselves, whether that be through sex or gender or race or ethnicity, that is the motivating function and how they view the political system or how they develop their political view,” Moraguez said.

Moraguez said identity politics frequently comes up in political conversations because of recent movements.

“We know that with the Black Lives Matter movement and with police brutality that’s focused largely on African-American males, that race is something that we are talking about pretty constantly in politics. It’s also sex and gender being a big thing with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the women’s march upon Trump’s inauguration,” Moraguez said.

Lilla is well educated in history, philosophy, political science, religion and Platonist philosophy. As Hook introduces Lilla for his talk, he mentions the difficulty of reaching the levels of education and understanding Lilla has.

“Interdisciplinarity is the foundation of our liberal arts education here at UNC Asheville, we realize that for the most part in our programs and our curriculum and through our conversations across disciplines. The fact is it’s really hard for one scholar to be converse and agile in more than one discipline,” Hook said.

Lilla said he feels UNCA students are lucky to have a curriculum which forces students outside of their individual selves and to think critically as a group.

“You’re taken outside of yourself to really become a self,” Lilla said. “That’s the point of education.”

Lilla said identifying with something, someone or a group does not equal those said things being a part of your identity.

“It’s different to say you identify with something, it’s another to think you got this special little thing inside, your identity, that’s made up of little parts having to do with gender or race or other things. It’s like a little pet inside that has to be watered and fed,” Lilla said.

Lilla said he understands Americans want a happy ending and they expect to see an easy solution at the end of political books to fix all of the problems, but he does not have that.

“Anti-government sentiment and identity consciousness are here for now and they can’t be wished away,” Lilla said.

Lilla developed an argument he said he hopes to try out on students and people involved in movement politics.

“Citizenship is a political status, it’s nothing less and nothing more. To say that we are all citizens is not to say politics is everything and it’s certainly not to say that we are alike in every respect,”Lilla said. “It is a social fact and a beautiful fact that we are a diverse country and that many Americans are highly aware of the groups they decided to identify with. But there is no reason why we cannot simultaneously think of ourselves as political citizens like everyone else.”

Lilla concluded his talk with his opinion of what he thinks liberalism should mean.  

“If we stand shoulder to shoulder to defend the country against foreign adversaries, we certainly can stand together at home to make sure no one is left behind in any way,” Lilla said. “We’re all Americans and we owe that to each other.”

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