Who Are We – and Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

Who Are We - and Should It Matter in the 21st Century

(Image: Viking)

Most of us grow into our identities as easily as acorns do into oaks – rarely questioning, resisting or protesting those events that do not appear to affect us directly. It is the difficult decisions, the ones that have consequences, challenge orthodoxies, bear risk and threaten status, that take real courage.

One would think such courage would easily find a political home. The Left, after all, made great strides through the sixties and early seventies thanks to the advances of civil rights, gay rights, feminism and anticolonialism, and still nominally supports its historical contributions. But by the early nineties, much of the Left had come to regard the politics of identity as an obstacle to further progress rather than an opportunity for it.

For others on the Left, the journey into the more vague area of identity marks so great a departure from the hallowed class struggle that they are simply unable to take it seriously. Orthodox Marxists believe anyone who has been distracted by the fickle matters of gender, region, ethnicity, race, religion – anything that cannot be reduced to the relations of production – has essentially been duped.

They have half a point. To the extent to which class is about the distribution of resources, there is very little in politics that makes sense unless one understands its class dimension; but, similarly, there is very little that makes sense when viewed only through the prism of class. So, while it may be true that the powerful exploit difference in order to divide the powerless and thereby strengthen their grip, it is no less true that the powerful did not invent difference and oftentimes need do little to keep it alive. Otherwise, the only way to explain poor white Republicans or Hindu nationalists is as people who don't understand what's best for them. “The anguish and disorientation which finds expression in this hunger to belong, and hence 'the politics of identity' is no more a moving force of history than the hunger for 'law and order' which is an equally understandable response to another aspect of social disorganization,” writes Eric Hobsbawm in “Nations and Nationalism.” “Both are symptoms of sickness rather than diagnoses, let alone therapy.” This would be news to Zimbabwe's Shona, Serbian nationalists and British jihadis – to mention but a few – who have “moved history” through their identities in ways that have little connection to the therapeutic.

While liberals occasionally pay lip service to an agenda of social equality that they no longer believe in, conservatives have done the opposite. In principle, the Right has long been opposed to the very idea that identity has any relation to politics at all.
In practice, however, it was always only particular identities the Right had a problem with. Appealing to white, male and national identities has been a central part of conservative politics for more than a century. Indeed, over the last couple of decades, the most full-throated claims of powerlessness and discrimination have come from conservatives in their defense of the most powerful groups in society. When Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina of Puerto Rican parentage, to the Supreme Court, the Right behaved as if the sky would fall in. Even though the court contained six white men- and one black man and one white woman – the threat to white men was, apparently, palpable. “God help you if you're a white male coming before her bench,” said Republican leader Michael Steele (who, incidentally, is black).

Shortly after the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections in 2009, its leader, Nick Griffin, conceded there was a “huge amount of racism in this country,” before going on to explain that “overwhelmingly, it's directed against the indigenous British majority [by which he means white people]…. It's the indigenous majority who are the second-class citizens in every possible sphere, not as a consequence of themselves but because our ruling elite has made us second-class citizens.” The BNP's magazine is called Identity.

Oftentimes the Right will appropriate the symbols of the Left, to hilarious effect. Back in 2003, Roy Moore, the former Republican chief justice of Alabama, led a failed bid to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. “If the 'rule of law' means to do everything a judge tells you to do,” he said, “we would still have slavery in this country.” I remember standing in amazement on the steps of the courthouse watching people in T-shirts that proclaimed “Islam is a lie, homosexuality is a sin, abortion is murder,” as they sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and waved the Confederate flag – the emblem of the slave-holding South.

The absurdity is not the Right's use of identity per se. There is nothing inherent in any identity, or the politics that emerge from it, that makes it necessarily either reactionary or progressive. The rights of white people, Christians or men are no less important than those of black people, Muslims or women. The issue is whether those who seek to rally those groups are campaigning for rights that should be exclusive or universal.

The only arena in which identity has been explicitly and consciously embraced in recent years has been marketing. At the Republican convention that nominated George Bush as its presidential candidate in 2000, the leadership felt the need to transform the party's image, which many Americans regarded as backward-looking, narrow and elitist. To counter that impression, the three cochairs for the convention were an African-American, a Latino and a white single mother. The headline speaker on the first day was Colin Powell. The primetime news slot the next day went to Condoleezza Rice. On the opening night, the pledge of allegiance was delivered by a blind mountaineer while a black woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On one later night of the convention, the entertainment featured Harold Melvin (black) and Jon Secada (Cuban). The convention was closed by Chaka Khan.

But while the emphasis in presentation was on race and ethnicity, the message was not directed at minority voters (whom the Republican party would effectively disenfranchise in order eventually to “win” the election). “What the Republicans are doing is aimed more at white Americans,” said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “Moderates do not want someone who's negative on race. It says something very significant about America as a whole.” Race had simply become a signifier of the Republican desire not to appear mean-spirited.

Similarly, in 2002, the British newspaper The Daily Mail printed a picture of a range of non-white Metropolitan police staff with a caption stating: “It is a picture that reflects changing times and attitudes within the police service … this exclusive picture of Yard employees shows forces are beginning to reflect the racial mix of the community they serve.” The reality couldn't have been further from the truth. At the time, ethnic minorities made up 25 percent of the capital's population but only 4.5 percent of Met staff. Just a month earlier, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, had conceded he might look abroad for black and Asian recruits because he could not attract them in the UK.

They call this “diversity.” A decent idea – that an institution should look like the people it serves and the world in which it operates – has spawned an industry of consultants, advisers and departments that, between them, have corporatized identity beyond all meaning. Having eviscerated from the issue of representation all notions of fairness, equality and justice, “equal opportunities” morph effortlessly into photo opportunities – a way of making things look different but act the same. It is what radical Angela Davis once described to me as “the difference that brings no difference, the change that brings no change.”

So identity lay abandoned – publicly derided and hypocritically exploited by the Right; willfully neglected or carelessly promoted by the Left; shamelessly embraced and marketized by the corporate world. The notion is vulnerable to cynicism but can also act as the lynchpin to great acts of solidarity. It has the potential to be both source and pollutant: the starting point for some of the most inspirational moments in politics; the endpoint for some of the most insidious.

“At a market, a Hutu can spot a Tutsi at 50 meters, and vice versa,” Innocent Rwililiza, a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide, told Jean Hatzfeld in “Into the Quick of Life.” “But to admit to any difference is a taboo subject, even among ourselves…. We have never been comfortable with these nuances which exist between us. In certain ways, ethnicity is like AIDS, the less you dare talk of it the more ravages it causes.” But the way you talk about it matters. So let's talk about it properly.