Mark Lilla, Author of "The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics," Speaks at UNC Asheville on April 19


Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University who specializes in intellectual history with a focus on Western political and religious thought, will give a public lecture, Identity and Citizenship, on Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m. in UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall. This talk is a free ticketed event. Tickets are available at

Lilla stirred national discussion with a New York Times op-ed published in the wake of the 2016 election, followed by his 2017 book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, which he calls “an urgent wake-up call to American liberals to turn from divisive politics of identity and develop a vision of our future that can persuade all citizens they share a common destiny.”

In his op-ed, Lilla describes America’s growing diversity as a beautiful thing to watch, and then asks how diversity should shape America’s politics. “The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and ‘celebrate’ our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age,” writes Lilla. “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

In The Once and Future Liberal, Lilla examines American political history and identifies two political “dispensations” in the last century, the “Roosevelt Dispensation” and the “Reagan Dispensation.” He argues that we stand at the precipice of a new dispensation but lack a political vision for the future. Both left and right, he says, “are just two tired individualistic ideologies intrinsically incapable of discerning the common good and drawing the country together.” Universities receive particular attention in his critique – he contends that campuses have “trained students to be spelunkers of their personal identities” who view politics as a form of “self-expression” rather than a process of persuasion and negotiation.

He instead advocates for an emphasis on shared values and principles for solidarity in place of identity politics. “The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument,” wrote Lilla in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “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.”

Lilla’s talk is presented by UNC Asheville’s Humanities Program. For more information, contact UNC Asheville’s Humanities Program Director and Professor of Classics Brian Hook, at or 828.251.6294.