Longtime readers of this site will recall that I’ve often tied progressivism (specifically by way of its philosophical assumptions) to totalitarianism, arguing that the resurgence of progressivism as a viable political force is, at least in part, tied to the linguistic turn — a rethinking of where “meaning” is grounded that gave us the kind of structural-linguistic arguments (incoherent and pernicious as they are) that came to undergird our very thinking, and so to insinuate themselves into the political and civic culture in ways that have allowed them to move easily into legislation and court rulings.
Of course, totalitarianism was not always considered evil — particularly among early twentieth century Progressives and, most famously, Mussolini. But after WWII, the term took on darker implications — and so when the linguistic movement that led to its resurgence began to gain traction, its adherents (who, incidentally, were almost uniformly leftists or ethical purists, who took their justifications from academics) were clever enough to use the vernacular of freedom and liberty to couch what is, in effect, a quite illiberal project: “opening up” the text’s meaning to an “interpretive community” at the expense of original intent was cast as “democratizing” interpretation — breaking away from the tyranny of authorial intent. It was liberating and progressive, moving us past the stale old conventions of doing interpretive grunt work at the behest of some dead white guy.
Which, though it sounds high minded, is, upon closer examination, simply a clever ploy to turn meaning into something that can be decided upon by committed “communities,” who in turn can, once their response theoretics is run through Said’s Orientalism filter, become controllers of given master narratives — a move that allows them to bracket competing observations and interpretations by way of appeals to “authenticity,” claims to “ownership” over a particular narrative based upon some essential quality to those in a given interpretive community. Out of such a confection of faulty ideas is spun the gossamer and intellectually cloying cotton candy of identity politics.
All of which I bring up to point back to a previous node in American history — prior to the linguistic turn — at which time identity politics was tied to the soft-fascist political philosophy of the earlier Progressives, the ones who greatly admired the European move toward totalitarianism. Again, from Liberal Fascism:
[Woodrow] Wilson’s vision of “self-determination” has been retroactively gussied up as a purely democratic vision [much as reader response theory, which shifts the locus of meaning making unto the receiver of the speech act, is described as "democratizing" the reading experience, when what it really does is enacts a linguistic coup - ed]. It wasn’t. It was in important respects an organic, Darwinian-Hegelian vision of the need for peoples to organize themselves into collective spiritual and biological units — that is, identity politics. Wilson was a progressive both at home and abroad. He believed in building up nations, peoples, races into single entities. His racial vision was distinct from Hitler’s — and obviously less destructive — but just as inseparable from his worldview.
Wilson’s status as the most racist president of the twentieth century is usually attributed to the fact that he was a southerner, indeed the first southern president since Reconstruction. And it is true that he harbored many Dixiecrat attitudes. His resegregation of the federal government, his support for antimiscegenation laws, his antagonism toward black civil rights leaders as well as antilynching laws, and his notorious fondness for D.W. Griffith’d Birth of a Nation all testify to that. But in fact Wilson’s heritage was incidental to his racism. After all, he was in no way a traditional defender of the South. He embraced Lincoln as a great leader — hardly a typical southern attitude. Moreover, as a believer in consolidating federal power, Wilson, in his opinion on state’s rights, ran counter to those who complained about the “War of Northern Aggression.” No, Wilson’s racism was “modern” and consistent both with the Darwinism of the age and with the Hegelianism of his decidedly Germanic education. In The State and elsewhere, Wilson can sound downright Hitlerian. He informs us, for example, that some races are simply more advanced than others. These “progressive races” deserve progressive systems of government, while backward races or “stagnant rationalities,” lacking the necessary progressive “spirit,” man need an authoritarian form of government (a resurgence of this vision can be found among newly minted “realists” in the wake of the Iraq war). This is what offended him so mightily about the post-Civil War Reconstruction. He would never forgive the attempt to install an “inferior race” in a position superior to southern “Aryans.”
Wilson was also a forthright defender of eugenics. As governor New Jersey — a year before he was sworn in as President — he signed legislation that created, among other things, the Board of Examiners of Feebleminded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives. Under the law, the state could determine when “procreation is inadvisable” for criminals, prisoners, and children living in poorhouses. “Other Defectives” was a fairly open category.
And the bulwark against such a “progressive movement” was…?