“I am large, I contain multitudes”

Walt Whitman understood identity. We no longer do

Craig Axford

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This article needs to open with a warning. For the first few paragraphs at least, it’s going to ask that you remain open to the possibility that two very different and rather controversial men have a pretty good understanding of our current conception of identity. I’m referring here to Bill Maher and Donald Trump. The first rightly finds our present focus on identity problematic while the second exploits his understanding of it for political gain.

After briefly dealing with the comedian and the president, I will be turning to a less polarizing figure whose primary sin is being born a nineteenth century white male. That accident of birth aside, Walt Whitman was, I think you’ll agree, no Bill Maher or Donald Trump. As such, he offers us a way out of our current weaponized view of the self that I don’t really hear anyone else offering, including identity politics most articulate critics.

Maher and Trump have made it this far because our modern concept of identity is inherently flawed and ultimately unworkable from a classical liberal perspective. Maher makes a pretty good living mocking modern notions of identity and ranting about the consequences, while Trump harnesses the energy of identity’s emotional rollercoaster by dismissing its relevance on the one hand and appealing to a traditional white Christian version of it on the other. The whole fight, however, is largely being fought on the authoritarians’ terms.

Identity politics, however well intentioned some of its advocates may be, has made it especially tricky for a white male like myself to use any group other than “my own” as an example of anything without risking being seriously misunderstood. Even then, I run the risk of being accused of portraying a group commonly lumped together as oppressors as victims instead. There’s really no room being made available for nuance here, so I’m not going to waste space trying to create any. I’ll just say that if you think this article is about feeling sorry for white guys, you’re seriously missing the point.

With that disclaimer out of the way, consider the fact that contemporary views of identity practically mandate that white straight men behave like caricatures of white straight men…

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Craig Axford

M.A. in Environment and Management and undergraduate degrees in Anthropology & Environmental Studies. Living in Moab, Utah. A generalist, not a specialist.