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The Case for Individualism: An Interview with Kmele Foster

Image via PBS

Kmele Foster is a media entrepreneur and political commentator. He co-founded TelcolQ and Freethink and currently co-hosts the Fifth Column Podcast. He also co-hosted a 2013-2015 Fox News Business Network Program, The Independents, which offered business and political commentary from a libertarian standpoint. Foster is a prominent critic of cancel culture and identity politics. He has written for various news outlets including The New York Times and Reason Magazine.

Maya Rackoff: You speak and write extensively about the idea that we should advance beyond self-conceiving based on racial identity. On the one hand, it seems intuitively illogical to feel pride on the basis of skin color or ethnicity, attributes the individual has no control over, as opposed to personal accomplishments. On the other hand, I think about my Jewish identity. I love being Jewish, and I do feel pride on the basis of my Jewishness. Is that a bad thing? 

Kmele Foster: What I advocate for isn’t so much against race but in favor of individualism. With respect to pride, we have to say, “What does it mean to say that I’m proud of being Black, that I’m proud of some immutable characteristic that I happen to have?” I prefer a framework for pride that has to do with things I’ve actually achieved and accomplished. It’s not a matter of heredity. It’s not a matter of biology. It’s a matter of actual, tangible action and active belief.

There is a very understandable inclination toward race pride amongst particular communities in the context of Blackness and Jewishness, for example. There is this history of suffering and narrative about a people collectively. But there is a really obvious reason why it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to invest the superficial characteristics with a sense of pride and esteem. The appropriate relationship to have to one’s racial identity is neutrality.

I think cultivating esteem on the sand of racial identity as an amelioration for past discrimination is a mistake. What they robbed you of was a sense of dignity that was actually rooted in your humanity. This notion of a racial identity was something that was contrived for the purposes of creating these delineations between humans and ascribing to them specific qualities and values. That’s erroneous. If we’re talking about what the world we want to live in ought to look like, is it one where we’re continuing to esteem the taxonomy of human races, or is it one where we can move beyond that and embrace a standard that says, “You have dignity, and you deserve respect on the basis of your being a fully human individual?” I just think the latter is obviously the place where we should want to go.

MR: Are there any political or cultural downfalls to investing one’s sense of dignity and pride in individualism?

KF: I don’t think so. Individualism is not a concept that suggests that there isn’t anything important about associations of individuals. It doesn’t diminish your ability to form allegiances with others or to work together in pursuit of some shared goal. It does suggest that the fact that you are corporately working together doesn’t deprive you of a certain set of foundational rights and freedoms. 

Individualism is not the only important value. It’s foundational, but there are other important values, such as mutual respect. If you value mutual respect, that makes it very hard for you to be a good individualist and, say, rob your neighbor. Individualism is the belief that every person has dignity as a function of their humanity. So, it’s impossible for any defensible notion of individualism to be compatible with a kind of serial abuse. 

MR: What is the political significance of individual dignity?

KF: The sanitation workers who struck in Memphis in 1968 carried signs that said, “I am a man.” This is an assertion of dignity on the basis of their humanity. These signs harkened back to early abolitionist slogans. There was this seal that read, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This challenged anyone who believed in the slavocracy, who believed in the right to rob people of their dignity and their freedom, to answer, “Can’t you see that I am fully human in the same way that you are fully human, and I am entitled to all of the same things that you are?” The claim was, on that basis, we are the same. 

This is a fundamentally different claim than “I deserve things because of my Blackness, and you are depriving me of them on account of my Blackness.” People can deprive you of things on the basis of your Blackness or your sexuality, but your assertion that you should have those things has merit only on the basis of the fact that you have human dignity.

MR: Speaking of political slogans, I want to hear your perspective on Black Lives Matter (BLM). There is a popular argument that, even if you disagree with certain aspects of the BLM organization, to say you don’t align with BLM is to say that you don’t believe in the overarching ideal that Black lives do matter. What do you think of that?

KF: I think that is circular nonsense. It’s tautological foolishness. The idea that my claims are so fundamentally true that if you disagree with them in any way, shape, or form and are unwilling to support them that you effectively are supporting the opposite of them is preposterous. This isn’t a binary position. More importantly, Black Lives Matter is not merely a slogan; it’s part of a political movement. There is an actual organization that has particular values, and one may object to any number of those values. 

One of the organizers referred to themselves as a trained Marxist and said that they have issues with the nuclear family. If you object to Marxism or you think that the nuclear family is important—and I’m not even stating my opinions on these things—rejecting the movement and declining to endorse the slogan on that basis is certainly permissible. I think we have an obligation to think seriously about the philosophical and moral commitments that we’re making and to scrutinize the assertions of people who are publicly advocating for certain principles. To disagree forcefully and on principled grounds with some portion of a movement is the right of any person.

MR: Do you think the phrase “All Lives Matter” expresses the antithesis of “Black Lives Matter?”

KF: There is a narrow claim, Black Lives Matter, and there is a broader claim that subsumes the narrow claim rather than refuting it, which is All Lives Matter. In that respect, there is a commitment to a broader political program of the most fundamental idea imaginable, that human dignity is the centerpiece of our project. If you reject the premise that all lives matter, you’re out of step with the norms of classical liberal, free society. If your branding is incompatible with people making a true claim about the world, this very foundational moral assertion, then your branding is actually the problem, not those who have an issue with it.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.