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Blog // Thoughts
December 16, 2008

The Anti & Un Identity Thing

The recent US election season was a fascinating study in political spin. In particular, the far Right’s strategy of claiming Obama was being Anti or Un- American. It’s a “Rovian” strategy; take a politician’s key strength (in this case Obama’s post-global national identity) and turn it into a perceived weakness (like claiming Obama’s cool, cautious […]

The recent US election season was a fascinating study in political spin. In particular, the far Right’s strategy of claiming Obama was being Anti or Un- American. It’s a “Rovian” strategy; take a politician’s key strength (in this case Obama’s post-global national identity) and turn it into a perceived weakness (like claiming Obama’s cool, cautious detachment is really egoism or a lack of passion for “our” America).

But, it’s also a deeply malfeasant strategy that would be familiar to anyone with a minority background – it’s just another version of the “you’re not really one of us” game that has, at its core, the nascent tinge of racism. In a lot of ways, it feels like a tactic from John Howard’s play-book of Australian politics- the hoary claim that someone or some idea is UnAustralian.

Consider Stanley Kurtz’s short op-ed piece, Wright 101. Notice how Kurtz manages to sneak in the phrase “Anti-American(ism)” nine times and “extremist” seven times, without really substantiating either claim. You don’t have to read with much detachment to get the sense that here extremist might just mean someone the author disagrees with.

But, there is a deeper failure in the piece that is highlighted by this quote from Michael Eric Dyson’s study on Pride,

“…most discussion of race in America centers on what it means to be nonwhite. Very few whites are ever asked to think about what it means to be white or how whiteness defines so much of what we take for granted in the world.

White pride works best when it has not been up for discussion – when it can be denied as the purpose of talk or action and can be seen, instead, as the very framework of normal conversation and behaviour.”

and as he goes on,

“White pride has often been smuggled into national discourse under other labels; citizen, American, individual. many whites, failing to see themselves as members of a race, define themselves as citizens, all the while denying that privilege to others. Whites are individuals and Americans; blacks, Latinos, native_Americans and other minorities are viewed as members of racial and ethnic subgroups. Whiteness has a doubly negative effect: it denies its racial roots while denying racial minorities their American identities.”

In “A Woman’s Place Is In The Boardroom” a similar issue is raised when a group of business leaders are asked to reflect on how gender has shaped and determined their identity in the workplace. Women were able to address the issue with depth and clarity while men, overwhelmingly, did not understand the question.

Cohesion and community flow undeniably from shared identities and experiences. That is true, even of the most diverse groups (where what is shared may be the belief in diversity and the experience of its benefits). Homogeneity is not always evidence of sin.

But, we should ask ourselves what good ever comes from exclusion for the sake of exclusion, from the highlighting of otherness as a sole reason to ostracise someone, from the claim that difference disqualifies someone from the ability to lead.

Responses
Chester 14 years ago

Interesting view of identity formatiom. Ever read Benedict Anderson or Anthony Smith’s definition of national identity? Of course it involves shared sense of history and beliefs. But the important thing about identity is that it is an active process, a construction shaped by dominant politically/economic/ethnic classes rather than a natural process. Whites were the the dominant group who historically constructed “American idenity”, they are the ones who defines and controlled it. So of course they would not feel the need to question “pride” in the very system or framework they shaped.

Likewise, you say homogenity and cohesion is not always a sin. But implicit in such terms is a rejection of the “other”. Appadurai’s “Fear of Small Numbers” argues that for some groups, their very identity cohesion is based on rejection and suppression of minorities that somehow affect the “purity” of the dominant group.

The key issue for identity is whether one chose between a civic-based nationalism on principles of democratic liberalism and individual rights or ethnic-based nationalism of having a dominant ethnic group dictating the rights and privileges of their group to the exclusion of miniorities within their country.

Fernando Gros 14 years ago

Chester. I used to believe that homogeneity was always a product of the exclusion of other. For the most part I still believe that, but it’s not a sufficient explanation for me any longer. It means I have to adopt a very negative view of people whose self-reflection is naive. Imposing the theory may be “right” in a abstract sense, but it can also make us tin-eared to the narrative of people’s lives as they understand it.

I agree with you though that the final decision comes down to a choice between a civic identity or an ethnic identity and you’ve put that problem very well.

I will always choose the civic option.

Chester 14 years ago

I think one has to be very careful when one sees “homogeneity”. One the one hand, as you say, it may not necessarily be a bad thing. The U.S is homogeneous in the sense that the vast majority of Americans believe in democracy, personal liberty and individual rights. In that “civic” framework, homogenity is indeed not a bad thing. However, as I am sure you are aware, history shows many cases of homogenity being twisted and warped into rabid nationalism to justify heinous acts targeted at minorities.

As Benedict Andersen puts it, idenities are “imagined communities”, imagined in the sense that they are actively shaped by people to form shared beliefs and experiences. If people “imagined” a homogenus group that tolerates a florishing of a multitude of different ideas and beliefs, then that homogenus group would be quite positive. However, forming a singular and rigid idenity that rejects dissent is potentially dangerous. With the exception of certain tribal societies, nation-states that forms a rigid and exclusionary identity often are the ones that commit war crimes against miniorites (Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 94 Rwandan genocide etc).

So I agree with you homogenity is not by itself a “good” or “bad” attribute, but the key is the characteristics of the homogeneous group.

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