One nation undivided under God

Up until 2005, Indonesia seemed sure to succumb to a wave of Islamist terror. But, in the post-Suhar

On the morning of 17 July 2009, the Dutch businessman Max Boon arrived at the J W Marriott in Jakarta for a monthly breakfast meeting organised by his consulting firm, Castle Asia. At 7.50am, as Boon and 17 other executives were sitting around a long dining table at the eastern end of the hotel, a man walked in and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest. Five minutes later, a second bomb exploded at the nearby Ritz Carlton. Nine people died and 52 were injured, including the young Dutchman, who had to have both of his legs amputated and suffered burns to 60 per cent of his body.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is said to have wept when, a month after the bombings, he received a letter from Boon, now in a wheelchair, congratulating him on independence day - 17 August. "He may have lost his legs," declared SBY (as the president is universally known), "but not his heart, spirit or mind." Jakarta newspapers later ran photographs on their front pages of Boon being ­embraced by Yudhoyono. "Indonesia is not a dangerous place to live," said the Dutchman, who announced his intention to stay on in the country and to marry his long-term Indonesian girlfriend.

The July 2009 attacks were not the first on symbols of western corporate power and affluence. The Marriott had been hit before, in 2003, as was the Australian embassy the following year, while bombs were set off on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 and 2005. Over 250 people died as a result of these attacks, all believed to have been orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the south-east Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite being the fourth most populous country in the world, and the 16th-largest economy, Indonesia seldom features in the British media, except for the wrong reasons. Islamist terrorism. The massacre of Christians in East Timor. The western province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, making adultery punishable by stoning to death. Sharia courts handing down barbaric judgments, such as the one on a pregnant, married mother-of-two who was convicted of soliciting in 2006 - the evidence being that she had lipstick and face powder in her handbag as she waited for a bus home after work. The national parliament approving an anti-obscenity law that allows for sentences of up to ten years for "modelling" for pornography and four years for mere possession of pornographic material.

The impression is of a country teetering on the brink of extremism. The anxiety, expressed by the US senator Christopher Bond in his recent book The Next Front: South-East Asia and the Road to Global Peace With Islam, is this:

The region is home to one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims on earth . . . At 250 million, they outnumber the entire Muslim Middle East. The world's most populous Muslim-majority nation is Indonesia, 220 million [now 240 million], three times the largest Arab country, Egypt. But the Muslims of south-east Asia do not register in our mind's eye . . . Moderation is losing the high moral ground . . . Muslims we had considered moderate - or "mainstream" - began to take on the fundamentalist trappings of Arabs . . .

Bond concludes: "We can no longer afford this complacency and the ignorance it breeds." Yet, arriving at Soekarno-Hatta Airport, named after Indonesia's two greatest independence leaders (and retaining the old, Dutch spelling of Sukarno), visitors see little sign of religious affiliation of any kind. Far fewer women cover their head than in neighbouring Malaysia, where only 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, in contrast to Indonesia, with nearly 90 per cent. As you travel east into Jakarta, the city sprawls over a coastal plain of 255 square miles, from the docks in the north by the Java Sea down to the hills in the south. Mosques can be seen from the choked expressways, but the dominant architecture is of concrete, jostling for space with offices, malls and shiny new hotels.

Over coffee at the Pondok Indah Mall, Zuhairi Misrawi of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's 30 million-strong Muslim organisation, advances a theory of startling moderation. "In NU we believe that the struggle for Indonesia is more meaningful than the struggle for Islam," he says, "because we love our country. It says in the Sunnah that to love your country is to believe in your God."

Zuhairi, who is 33 and trim in his crisp black and silver shirt, is not a member of the political party associated with NU, the National Awakening Party (PKB). Instead, in last year's elections, he stood for the secular, leftist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), "to support the paradigm of nationalism through Islamic ideas".

It is hard to overstate the strength of nationalist feeling in Indonesia. This archipelago of 17,500 islands was united under the repressive rule of the Dutch, who established their first trading post on Java in 1603 but did not conquer the last parts of their East Indies colonies until the 20th century. While the British returned to Malaya and Borneo after the Second World War, the Dutch were not welcomed back in Indonesia. Two days after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared independence. The Netherlands' armies did not land until months later, and spent much of the following four years in a brutal attempt to reclaim their empire that outraged world opinion. During the chaos, various "independent" states were set up by the Dutch; both a Soviet republic and an Islamic state were briefly announced by other groups. Even after the Dutch finally departed and Sukarno declared a unitary state in 1950, the mainly Christian area of the South Moluccas proclaimed independence and rebellions broke out on the islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Nationalism came to represent a "unity in diversity" - or bhinneka tunggal ika - that was as much an aspiration as an achievement for this multi-ethnic, multi-religious land. The words are the national motto, and are inscribed on the country's coat of arms. Two attempts to insert the Jakarta Charter - calling for sharia law to be made mandatory for all Muslims - into the constitution have failed, first in 1945, and again in 1998, during the transition to democracy after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

Faith has always been regarded differently here. "We are totally unlike Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa," Zuhairi tells me. "We even have to import our terrorists." He was referring to the JI leaders Azhari Husin and Noordin Top, both Malaysian, who were shot dead during police raids in 2005 and 2009.

Yet Middle Eastern fundamentalism has made inroads into Indonesian Islam, which is traditionally syncretic. "Before, many people were nominally Muslim, but really they were Hindu or animist," the PDI-P parliamentarian Budiman Sujatmiko says over dinner one evening at the Sultan Hotel, whose towers overlook the huge Gelora Bung Karno, the stadium in which President Obama was expected to have delivered a speech during a visit to Indonesia this year, twice postponed.

The language of fundamentalist Islam, whether being proposed by those who truly believe in it or by those merely using it for electoral advantage, is more widespread. "They are both the problem," Sujatmiko says. "Don't ask me which is better or worse."

The opportunists include the business-based Party of the Functional Groups - Golkar - which dominated the Suharto era. Elections were rigged in Golkar's favour, but the semblance of a vote allowed the dictatorship to claim the country was a democracy. Although its support has collapsed post-Suharto, it still won 14 per cent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Support for the key "fundamentalist" (that is to say, Islamist) Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) grew from 1.4 per cent in 1999 to 8 per cent last year.

For millennia, Hinduism, Buddhism and animism were the religions of the archipelago. Islam had arrived by the 13th century, but it never claimed all of the islands. Bali remains predominantly Hindu, while Christianity, brought first by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch, is widespread in the eastern isles. Even where Islam took hold, it overlay rather than obliterated pre-existing belief systems. President Suharto, who ruled from 1967-98, was a Muslim, but he also consulted a dukun, or soothsayer, and made much of his wife's royal lineage to draw on the mystical authority historically vested in Javanese rulers. One biographer referred to him as "Indonesia's last sultan".

Under Sukarno, who instituted "guided democracy" in 1957 (the last free elections before 1999 were held in 1955), and then Suharto, "the Indonesian state . . . was practically hostile to Islam", wrote Bahtiar Effendy, professor of political science at the State Islamic University, Jakarta. In consequence, Muslims adopted a "docile religious-political stance". The waves of radicalisation that swept through the Muslim world, first in reaction to the perceived failure of the pan-Arabist nationalist experiment in the 1970s and then, in the 1980s, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, crashed into an impermeable obstacle in Suharto's authoritarian New Order (whose fervent anti-communism gained it such favour in the west that both the US and Australia backed his invasion of East Timor in 1975).

Although most of the population was Muslim, religion was expected to take second place to Pancasila, the five-pillared national ideology that includes belief in "one God" but deliberately does not specify which. Opposition of all kinds was firmly repressed, resulting in either banishment from the country, as in the case of the radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (who later emerged as JI's spiritual leader), or internal exile, such as the thousands of suspected communists imprisoned on the penal island of Buru in the far east.

Then the unthinkable happened. The Suhar­to regime finally fell, brought down in the middle of the Asian economic crisis by demonstrations, riots, splits in the armed forces and an emboldened opposition. As the political sphere opened to all comers, a multiplicity of parties emerged: 181 between May and October 1998, 42 of which were specifically Islamic.

“We weren't prepared," says Zulkieflimansyah, chief economic strategist for the PKS. Zul and his progressive-minded allies, who want PKS to be inclusive and moderate, thought Suharto wouldn't step down until 2010. They weren't in place when the dictator fell, and the "seniors" who were - PKS has four cabinet ministers today - weren't so forward-thinking. "They were very influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. So people said we were Taliban."

This impression was not helped by PKS's involvement in the passing of the very broadly defined anti-pornography law in October 2008, which was deemed a threat to the erotic dance cultures of Bali and Java and an attempt to impose Islamic values on the non-Muslim east. "Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable," complained one protester at the time.

The Salihara arts complex, in the narrow, winding, low-rise streets of south Jakarta, is one place where the effects of the bill were feared - but never realised. Goenawan Mohamad, a renowned poet and founder-editor of Tempo magazine, says: "The trend to conservatism is unmistakable, more and more women wearing hijabs and so on. What's most worrying is the Islamic militants who might attack your theatre, or seize your books."

Tempo was twice closed down during the New Order. Goenawan's friends were jailed and one was kidnapped, never to be seen again. It must be unnerving to receive death threats. "The first time, yes," he says. "But after that, if I say something blasphemous, people go, 'He's not a famous Muslim intellectual, so what?'"

Goenawan, who is 69, mentions people's attachment to the Pancasila ideology and the strength it gives to those who oppose any attempt to curtail pluralism or free expression. It reaches back into a much older Javanese culture, which has always been very sensual. "It goes far deeper than Wahhabism," he says. "When we say 'unity in diversity', the Muslims can't say anything. We are an archipelagic culture. We have a lot of shores that have always been open to strangers."

Although Pancasila was used partly as an instrument of oppression under Suharto, it also exists to protect liberties.

The day I arrived in Jakarta, anti-government protesters paraded a buffalo named SiBuYa through the streets. The closeness to the president's initials, SBY, was not coincidental. "Under Suharto they would have been shot," Goenawan says.

Confidence may be widespread among Indonesians that their gentle tradition of Islam will endure. The outside world, however, worries. It is little more than a year since the bombs went off in Jakarta; today, hotels and shopping centres insist visitors pass through security scanners before entering. The early release of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, jailed in 2005 in connection with JI terrorist attacks, infuriated Australia and the US. Detachment 88, the country's elite special force unit named in honour of the number of Australians who died in the first Bali bombings of 2002, has had great success in rounding up JI members. What was Indonesia doing releasing the group's spiritual leader so soon?

Goenawan says that criticism was mistaken. "It's good that he's out. Otherwise he would be a hero. Instead, he's a grumpy old man, a joke. Freedom helps. The Muslim Brotherhood flourished under Anwar al-Sadat because Egypt had no democracy. Only a small minority have ever voted for parties here that want an Islamic state. Democracy has the means to quell this."

Through pluralism and confidence in its own traditions, Indonesia, this nation state of 240 million people, offers a different model to the world of what it means to be a democratic, Muslim-majority country. There is unanimity that pursuing the goals of justice and alleviating poverty will ensure that the country's moderation is preserved.

The links with the Middle East will always persist, particularly through al-Azhar University in Cairo and the hajj to Mecca. Al-Azhar is generally considered the oldest university in the world and was historically the greatest centre of Sunni scholarship - so Muslims from Indonesia will always travel there to be educated in theology.

Indonesia has its own centres of Islamic scholarship and moderate networks of pesantren, or Muslim boarding schools. Saudis may fund mosques, it is argued, but the extremist ideology they hope to export along with the buildings fails to take root in a soil too rich and varied for dry, husky seeds from Arabia.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for one, is optimistic. "As I travel around the world," she said during a visit to Jakarta in February last year, "I will be saying to people, if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia."

Zulkieflimansyah makes an even greater prediction. "If we can show that Islam and democratic values are compatible, we are confident the future of Islam can be written here in Indonesia," he says. "Otherwise there is no hope."

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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How the modern addiction to identity politics has fractured the left

This partisan, divisive form of liberalism alienated the working class and helped create the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is the president of the United States. His election in November 2016 turned our campuses in America upside down. The day after his victory, some professors held teach-ins, some students asked to be excused from class, and now many have been joining marches and attending raucous town hall meetings. This warms the heart of an impassioned if centrist liberal like myself.

But something more needs to happen, and soon. All of us liberals in higher education should take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation. We must accept our share of responsibility. Anyone involved in Republican politics will tell you that our campus follies, magnified by Fox News, mobilise their base as few things do. But our responsibility extends beyond feeding the right-wing media by tolerating attempts to control speech, limit debate and stigmatise and bully conservatives, as well as encouraging a culture of complaint that strikes people outside our privileged circles as comically trivial. We have distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognisable.

After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, liberals in the US faced the challenge of developing a fresh and truly political vision of the country’s shared destiny, adapted to the new realities of American society, chastened by the failures of old approaches. And this they failed to do. Instead, they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. An image for Roosevelt-era liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colours, producing a rainbow. This says it all.

The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. And it is not dead, as the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, remind us. The white nationalist march that set off the conflict and then led to a counter-protester’s death was not only directed against minorities. It was also directed at the university and everything it stands for. In May 1933, Nazi students marched at night into the courtyard of the University of Berlin and proceeded to burn “decadent” books in the library. The alt-right organisers were “quoting” this precedent when they flooded Thomas Jefferson’s campus, looking for blood. This was fascist identitarianism, something liberals and progressives have always battled in the name of human equality and universal justice.

What was astonishing during the Reagan years was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, schoolteachers, journalists, movement activists and officials of the Democratic Party. This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalised right.

There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But the only way in a democracy to assist them meaningfully – and not just make empty gestures of recognition and “celebration” – is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does the opposite and just reinforces the alt-right’s picture of politics as a war of competing identity groups.

Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. By the 1980s, it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.

The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it – especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of effective liberal political consciousness.

Campus politics bears a good deal of the blame. Until the 1960s, those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors. Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism and education. Liberal political education, such as it is, now takes place on campuses that, especially at the elite level, are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country. This is not likely to change. As a result, liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.

***

Flash back to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Republican activists are setting out on the road to spread the new individualist gospel of small government and pouring their energies into winning out-of-the-way county, state and congressional elections – a bottom-up strategy. Also on the road, though taking a different exit off the interstate, are former New Left activists in rusting, multicoloured VW buses. Having failed to overturn capitalism and the military-industrial complex, they are heading for college towns all over America, where they hope to practise a very different sort of politics aimed at transforming the outlook of the educated classes – a top-down strategy. Both groups succeeded.

The retreat of the post-1960s left was strategic. In 1962, the authors of The Port Huron Statement – the manifesto of the activist movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) – wrote: “We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.” Universities were no longer isolated preserves of learning. They had become central to American economic life, serving as conduits and accrediting institutions for post-industrial occupations, and to political life, through research and the formation of party elites.

The SDS authors made the case that a New Left should first try to form itself within the university, where they were free to argue among themselves and work out a more ambitious political strategy, recruiting followers along the way. The ultimate point, however, was to enter the wider world, looking “outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice”.

But as hopes for a radical transformation of American life faded, ambitions shrank. Many who returned to campus invested their energies in making their sleepy college towns into socially progressive and environmentally self-sustaining communities. These campus towns still do stand out from the rest of America and are very pleasant places to live, though they have lost much of their utopian allure. Most have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes. They are places where you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso and perhaps attend a workshop to ease your conscience. A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.

That’s the comic side of the story. The other side (heroic or tragic, depending on your politics) concerns how the retreating New Left turned the university into a political theatre for the staging of morality plays and operas. This has generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, political correctness – and with good reason. But these developments mask a quieter, far more significant one.

A young protester at a march in California in June 2017. Photo: Getty

The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. Some certainly try, but that seems not to have slowed the line of graduates shoving their way towards professional schools and then moving on to conventional careers. The real story is that the 1960s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its idiosyncratic historical experience.

The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).

The lesson of these two lessons, so to speak, was that if you want to be a political person, you should begin not by joining a broad-based party but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were already a number of such movements – about nuclear disarmament, war, poverty, the environment – that engaged the self, though they were not about the self. Instead, engaging with those issues required having to engage with the wider world and gain some knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, science and especially history.

With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. This new attitude has had a profound impact on American universities. Marxism, with its concern for the fate of the workers of the world – all of them – gradually lost its allure. The study of identity groups now seemed the most urgent scholarly and political task, and soon there was an extraordinary proliferation of departments, research centres and professorial chairs devoted to it.

This has had many good effects. It has encouraged academic disciplines to widen the scope of their investigations to incorporate the experiences of large groups that had been somewhat invisible, such as women and African Americans. But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present – a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.

***

Imagine a young student entering such an environment today – not your average student pursuing a career, but a recognisable campus type drawn to political questions. She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward towards the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she is encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity that, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not progressively to become a self – the task of a lifetime, Kierkegaard thought – through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.

And so she begins. She takes classes in which she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she determines her identity to be, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus group that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be genuine but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes non-negotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity (economics, war and peace) are hardly perceived.

The more our student gets into the campus identity mindset, the more distrustful she becomes of the word “we”, a term her professors have told her is a universalist ruse used to cover up group differences and maintain the dominance of the privileged. And if she gets deeper into “identity theory”, she will even start to question the reality of the groups to which she thinks she belongs. The intricacies of this pseudo-discipline are only of academic interest. However, where it has left our student is of great political interest.

An earlier generation of young women, for example, might have learned that women as a group have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognised and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address. Today, the theoretically adept are likely to be taught, to the consternation of older feminists, that one cannot generalise about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on. More generally, they will be taught that nothing about gender identity is fixed, that it is all highly malleable. This is either because, on the French view, the self is nothing, just the trace left by the interaction of invisible, tasteless, odourless forces of “power” that determine everything in the flux of life; or, on the all-American view, because the self is whatever we damn well say it is. (The most advanced thinkers hold both views at once.)

A whole scholastic vocabulary has been developed to express these notions: fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, and more. Anyone familiar with medieval scholastic disputes over the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the original identity problem – will feel right at home.

What matters about these academic trends is that they give an intellectual patina to the narcissism that almost everything else in our society encourages. If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it. If, as is more likely, she accepts the all-American idea that her unique identity is something she gets to construct and change as the fancy strikes her, she can hardly be expected to have an enduring political attachment to others, and certainly cannot be expected to hear the call of duty towards them. Instead, she will find herself in the hold of what might be called the Facebook model of identity: the self as a home page I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can “like” and “unlike” at will. Intersectionality is too ephemeral to serve as a lasting foundation for solidarity and commitment.

***

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they are to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade, a new, very revealing locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: “Speaking as an X…” This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

So classroom conversations that once might have begun, “I think A, and here is my argument,” now take the form: “Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.” This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one “epistemology”, and black women have another. So what remains to be said?

What replaces argument is taboo. At times, our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false.

And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.

It’s a depressing development for professors who went to college in the 1960s, rebelled against the knuckle rappers and mussed the schoolmarm’s hair. Things seem to have come full circle: now the students are the narcs.

That was hardly the intention when the New Left, fresh from real political battles in the great out there, returned to campus in the hope of encouraging the young to follow in their footsteps. They imagined raucous, no-holds-barred debates over big ideas, not a roomful of students looking suspiciously at one another. They imagined being provocative and forcing students to defend their positions, not getting emails from deans suggesting they come in for a little chat. They imagined launching their politically committed and informed students into the world, not watching them retreat into themselves.

***

Conservatives are right: our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. Yet they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticising force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. However, by undermining the universal democratic “we” on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end, this approach just strengthens all the atomising forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealise the 1960s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: what was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s “Greatest Generation”, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding – young people who were eager to engage in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice” for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King, Jr (who studied Christian theology), nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy), received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervour of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the 1960s generation, its members were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt that America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like “Yankee Doodle” than Wagner.

That they received a relatively non-partisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get, the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work: that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University, New York. His new book is “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” (Harper), from which this essay is adapted

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days