Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Massachusetts Senator who during her career has tried to pass as a “Native American,” a “Cherokee,” and a “woman of color” for careerist advantage, has been stoking the fires of her self-immolation ever since she released results of a DNA test to prove her claim. As the whole country knows, the tests show no such thing, since the DNA results make her between 1/64th and 1⁄1,024th Native American, a proportion less than the average American’s. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham waggishly announced he will test his DNA to show he’s more Indian than Warren.
Warren’s ongoing political suicide-by-gaffe is entertaining. Who doesn’t delight in the numerous, exquisitely multicultural Cherokee activists and organizations scolding Warren for exercising her paleface privilege to appropriate American Indian culture? Then there’s Warren’s bizarre, petulant, passive-aggressive, and clueless twitter rant that made Donald Trump’s tweets read like one of Shakespeare’s soliloquys. One imagines numerous DNC officials and consultants frantically making the cutthroat gesture as Warren’s tweets metastasized.
That’s all great political fun, but the whole episode shines a light on something more serious: the larger incoherence of identity politics, that illiberal reduction of citizens into groups defined by superficial physical characteristics, and by tendentious definitions of “culture” that reduce people to stereotypes. The danger of this political idea is that it undercuts the philosophical foundations of the Constitution in “inalienable” rights possessed by all individuals as part of their common humanity, no matter how varied their ethnicity, cultures, mores, and social habits–– the unum that binds multiple _pluribus._
Warren is a particularly preposterous example of how identity politics often has little to do with the reality of human diversity. One marker of ethnic “culture” is recipes handed down from parents and grandparents. So naturally, Warren contributed five recipes to an American Indian cookbook called The Pow Wow Chow Cookbook, and signed herself as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.” Notice the double verbal cultural appropriation, by the way, in the book’s title: “pow wow” stolen from the Narragansett Indians, “chow” from Chinese.
Another staple of these folk-identity markers comprises stereotypical physical characteristics, such as the “high cheekbones” Warren says her family has “like all Indians do.” An American Indian responding to this claim corrected the Senator in fine identity-politics dudgeon: “These are made-up assumptions originated by white ppl to diminish our existence as Native ppl. Please know we don’t come in parts, that is a stereotype and racist AF!” Just as dancing or basketball skills define all black people, and religious fanaticism tars all working class whites, so do “high cheekbones” or “can’t hold their liquor” reduce American Indians to crude attributes true only of some.
On the one hand, claiming Indian heritage has long been a part of American family folklore, especially in Texas and Oklahoma. Many Dust Bowl migrants in California boast of a Choctaw or Cherokee ancestor. Such family legends are harmless. But Warren has used her fabrication for political gain with a radicalized base, and credibility in the identity politics racket of “diversity.” That requires not just an approved ethnic heritage, but a history of discrimination at the hands of bigoted whites, a history Warren duly provided to burnish her identity-politics bona fides. In 1932 her grandparents had to elope to get married because other bigoted family members were outraged that her grandfather intended to marry an Indian woman. Unfortunately, no documentary evidence exists to back this claim, but some do show that the couple, both identified in records as white, were married in a church ceremony.
The fact is, Elizabeth Warren is no more an American Indian than Ward Churchill, the white man who fraudulently passed himself off as an American Indian and eventually became a tenured professor and chair in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado. Churchill became infamous for his characterization of 9⁄11 victims as “little Eichmanns,” and lost his job after an investigation revealed numerous scholarly offenses including plagiarism.
Here we come to the unholy nexus of identity politics and academic careerism that accounts for Warren’s actions. The enshrinement of “diversity” by the Supreme Court in the 1978 Bakke case has given universities the green light to discriminate in favor of selected, politically favored minorities who had been victims of discrimination. Faculty with a claim to such status are now highly desired and courted by universities. Warren played that game with her family legend of her part-Cherokee grandmother forced to elope with her grandfather because of white racism.
Armed with that sterling P.C. pedigree, in addition to the cookbook, according to The Boston Globe,
Warren also listed herself as a minority in a legal directory published by the Association of American Law Schools from 1986 to 1995. She’s never provided a clear answer on why she stopped self-identifying.
She was also listed as a Native American in federal forms filed by the law schools at Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania where she worked.
And in 1996, as Harvard Law School was being criticized for lacking diversity, a spokesman for the law school told the Harvard Crimson that Warren was Native American.
These prestigious schools were happy to take the blonde, blue-eyed Warren’s word on her “minority” status, as long as her presence at the university helped them placate federal watchdogs and ensure they keep receiving federal funds. And it helped to please the campus diversity commissars ever ready to extort institutional goodies from a school insufficient in its “commitment to diversity.”
This racket has been going on for decades, and is one of the key factors in the degradation of higher education in America. Worse yet, it has eroded academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus. The privileged minority caste––those of a higher economic and social status than the same minorities, and many whites, outside the campus–– has erected and enforced a regime of censorship of diverse points of view. So much for the “free play of the mind on all subjects” that Matthew Arnold put as the core purpose of liberal education.
The campus diversity industry is corrupt. It corrupts the virtue and pursuit of truth, but also corrupts the institution by enabling hustlers and frauds like Ward Churchill and Elizabeth Warren. Given the dearth of genuine ethnic minorities with advanced degrees, it has done so by reviving the old Jim Crow “one-drop” rule, the principle that the slighted shade of African heritage made someone black. So today many half-, quarter-, or even one-eighth blacks are considered “black.” And based on that quantum of melanin, they are bestowed all the credit for historical victimhood no matter how many generations they are removed from the world of their distant ancestors’ suffering. Like Warren, they tick the victim box often by recounting alleged slights indicative of racism, such as women clutching their purses tighter in elevators, or locking their car doors in the presence of a black man––the best examples the half-white, well-educated, well-dressed Barack Obama could come up with to show his personal subjection to racism.
In the end, the worst offenses of identity and diversity politics are the gross reductions of true human diversity to the simplistic, superficial characteristics and “cultures” making up the favored categories of victims. American Indian is one such category, homogenizing over 500 different tribes and hundreds of languages into one noble-savage stereotype. Black is another, erasing the regional, religious, and historical differences among black Americans, let alone the incredible variety of people and cultures inhabiting the vast continent of Africa. Hispanic is the most laughable, including as it does Caucasians, blacks, hundreds of Indian peoples, and mestizos into one empty concept based on a linguistic concept.
This political retribalization of Americans, most of whom have scant connections to their ancestors’ worlds and experiences, is particularly dishonest because the new “tribes” have much more in common with their fellow Americans of any color––tastes, language, mores, consumption patterns, and incomes–– than with the manufactured victim-identities used to divide us for political gain. This makes the illiberalism of “diversity” even more reprehensible. Groups now have rights denied to others based on myths and legends, not on their status as human beings bound together by their possession of individual rights that defines them as human.
This division of our citizenry into zero-sum competitors reduces politics to power. Equal protection under the law, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, the rights of sovereign states, and our other inalienable rights provided the institutional framework for containing the centrifugal forces of “faction” that Madison warned about. Is it any surprise, then, that the progressives today seek to amend and weaken the Bill of Rights, the protection of state sovereignty in the Electoral College, and equal representation in the Senate?
In effect, the progressives seek to transform the United States into something closer to an empire. The multicultural Roman or Austro-Hungarian Empires were centralized, concentrated powers possessed by one ruling caste that allowed their numerous and various subject cultures to keep and practice their separate identities, as long as they didn’t challenge the imperial power. So too today, a tutelary federal government protects its hegemony by diminishing the unum by empowering the pluribus.
Unfortunately, political freedom cannot exist for all in such an arrangement. Nor can truth. Nor can true equality under the law. When divided and balanced government weakens, then power becomes the arbiter of our political fates. Manufactured fake identities predicated on one faction being the victim of another has been the progressives’ modern update of the old imperial playbook for concentrating power not in free citizens, but elites. And that’s what the Founders called tyranny.