Liberal commentators on American foreign policy used to say that Islamist terrorism was motivated less by ideology than by gender. The thinking went that young men with no prospects will inevitably become violent and anti-social. Liberals may still believe that about Middle Eastern societies, but the consensus on the left in America today is that young men can be safely denied positions of undeserved authority and, moreover, given no meaningful alternative but to atone quietly for the sins of their fathers.

Journalist and critic Wesley Yang’s first book, The Souls of Yellow Folk, is about the possibility that this consensus is mistaken. Representing a decade of journalism and essential reading for those concerned with identity in America today, Yang’s essays range from profiles of pickup artists to critiques of campus activism, but they tend to center on those — often Asian, usually male — who find themselves excluded from certain intangible perquisites of American life: love, success, security, and belonging.

The opening essay sets the collection’s tone. Published in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, ‘The Face of Seung-Hui Cho’ allows Yang to meditate on his literal resemblance to the school shooter’s ‘perfectly unremarkable Korean face’. Yang identifies Cho as a type of alienated male, but also observes that his anomie was inflected by racial politics, and the erotic non-valuation of the Asian American male, stereotypically considered less virile than his white or black counterparts. Cho was a loser not just in general, but a loser in the sexual marketplace: ‘It’s just a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country.’

Nikki Giovanni, Cho’s creative writing professor, pronounced the shooter’s literary submissions ‘weird’ and ‘intimidating’, Yang notes, before quoting Giovanni’s own weird and intimidating poetry from the height of the Black Power movement: ‘Do you know how to draw blood / Can you poison / Can you stab-a-Jew.’ Giovanni’s violent rhetoric, Yang observes, was legitimated by the widespread belief that the history of racism justified black militancy. ‘And so you wonder,’ Yang continues, ‘what would have happened if, for instance, Cho’s poems (and thoughts) had found a way to connect his pain to his ethnic identity.’ Yang here asks if Asian Americans should or even can avail themselves of identity politics to ameliorate their understandable grievances.

Yang’s second essay, ‘Paper Tigers’, revisits this theme as it addresses the ‘bamboo ceiling’ that prevents otherwise successful Asian Americans from reaching the top strata of American class and status. Yang is interested less in those who pursue the bureaucratic solutions offered by identity politics than in those who take action to hack or game the system as they find it — for instance, by getting self-help mavens to coach them on the Western way of calibrated insouciance. This focus on those who try to win by the pre-set rules rather than changing the game itself is echoed later in the collection when Yang gives us a ruefully sympathetic and satirical portrait of pickup artists’ adoption of a Darwinian rulebook for seduction. These lonely men are superficially looking for sex, but Yang implies that their real search is for the goal Darwinism cannot help us to understand: love.

The political philosophy that informs Yang’s sensitivity to the need for love (as opposed to the desire for power) also accounts for his intense ambivalence about identity politics. Yang’s thought is essentially Hegelian. He writes so sympathetically of the unloved because he shares with the German Idealist philosopher a belief that life is not a quest to attain power, still less to spread one’s genes, but rather to find recognition as an equal in a community of equals. Therefore, he commiserates with campus anti-racist activists’ sense of racial injury, even as he worries that the redress they seek — destroying the system rather than working within it — is incompatible with a free society:

‘And yet [the campus activists] also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential.’

He elaborates on these fears in the collection’s final essays, dating from 2016 and 2017. There, Yang accuses today’s social justice activists of having learned a set of bad lessons from postmodern academe. Language and institutions are only vectors of power. Their ethical status depends only on who uses them, the oppressed or the oppressor. In this view, the old liberal ambition to reform law and civil society through rational persuasion — rather than abolishing or capturing them by force — can only seem naïve. Yang concedes the manifold injuries society deals to those who have lost life’s lottery, but he also worries that attempts to reduce harm through undemocratic social controls will only entrench new and unaccountable hierarchies.

Yet the authoritarian identity politics that Yang decries derive less from postmodern philosophy, which always had an anarchist bent, than from adaptations of Hegel himself. Identity politics was arguably invented when Marx drew on Hegel’s depiction of the struggle for recognition between master and slave to identify the revolt of one social class, the industrial proletariat, as the mechanism that would bring about an egalitarian society. Because the proletariat’s exploitation by the bourgeoisie was the engine of the entire capitalist system, its resistance would bring the system itself to an end.

This utopia may not have come to pass, but the dream never died. In the 1977 black feminist manifesto that founded contemporary identity politics, the Combahee River Collective kept Marx’s narrative but inserted a different protagonist: ‘If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.’

Yang believes that the Asian American man, with his experience of both racial grievance and masculine dispossession, can serve as the ideal arbiter between the old white male ruling class and its current largely female and non-white resisters. Given the zero-sum struggle for power between oppressor and oppressed described by Marx and the Combahee River Collective, though, a moderate political philosophy like Yang’s can only look to social-justice activists like immoral dithering or crypto-conservatism.

The collection’s progress from the anti-racism of the opening essays to the concluding polemics against today’s left do in fact suggest that Yang has undergone a rightward shift. The Souls of Yellow Folk may come in the future to appear as a historical marker: the first manifesto of the next neoconservatism. Anyone honestly assessing the surpluses and deficits in the current American ideological economy — overrun as it is with competing identitarianisms and bereft of any universalism untethered to class, race, gender, or party interests — will wonder what on earth took so long.

Then again, Yang occasionally gestures toward the different and apolitical utopia of literature in these essays, and not only with the often stately complexity and eloquent diction of his sentences. Summarizing the views of his younger self, he writes:

‘I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer — “a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who did not seek after material gain. Who was his own law.’

Yang disavows this unabashed literary romanticism as ‘madness’, the ‘self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves’. But readers might wonder if it is not potentially more interesting than the desires described elsewhere in the book: to rise smoothly through the corporate ranks or to successfully seduce young women in bars.

The Souls of Yellow Folk is perhaps most compelling when it expresses not a thirst for equal social standing but rather an acknowledgment of existential alienation, that traditional source of poetry and fiction, rather than politics or journalism. Here Yang recalls the Kafka who asked not how Central European Jews could get ahead in society but rather, ‘What do I have in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.’

The canonical father of such sad young literary men is, ironically, the childless Hamlet. I note in conclusion that Seung-Hui Cho wrote a vulgar adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy called Richard McBeef. If only he had abandoned the quest for social and sexual recognition and stuck to literature instead.

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