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What is identity?

Both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism

Anand Giridharadas | NYT 

People gather for a rally in protest of the shootings of African-American men by police in Minnesota and in Baton Rouge, La., at Lee Circle in New Orleans on Friday  Photo: PTI
Representative image

The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
218 pages; $26


Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Liveright Publishing
256 pages; $27.95

A Japanese-American political scientist and a Ghanaian-British-American philosopher walk into a bar where a brawl over is underway. “Stop fighting!” the philosopher cries. “The identities you’re fighting for are lies.” The political scientist steps forward. “They’re not lies,” he says. “They’re just the wrong identities to be fighting for!”

The scholars succeed in ending the conflict, because the brawlers leave for a less contentious bar. The political scientist in my meh joke is Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared “the end of history,” and then, when history continued, said it depends on what the meaning of the word “end” is. The philosopher is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a cosmopolitan by background and choice who argues that we are all citizens of the world. The bar, sadly, is our brawling country — and others like it.

Here are a couple of sage PhDs seeing if they might intervene in the wars now plaguing so many nations. Both belong to one of today’s most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-Also-Sort-Of-About-Trump, or NATBASOAT, book.

And both help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the US.

Mr Appiah believes we’re in wars of because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Mr Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.

Mr Appiah’s project is to point out our most common errors in thinking about five types of identity, all conveniently beginning with the letter “c”: creed, country, colour, class and

Among the errors we make: On “c” No. 1, creed, we tend to think of religions as “sets of immutable beliefs” instead of as “mutable practices and communities.” We make religion a noun when it should really be a verb, which gives rise to fundamentalism. When religion is “revealed as an activity, not a thing,” it is easier to accept that “it’s the nature of activities to bring change.”

On country, we create “a forced choice between globalism and patriotism.” We prefer people with simple answers to the question “What are you?”; we disparage and deport those Mr Appiah calls “the confessors of ambivalence.” We often forget that a modern, pluralist, liberal democracy like America is “not a fate but a project.”

On culture, he argues that we should “give up the very idea of Western civilization,” because the notion of a distinct Western essence — “individualistic and democratic and liberty-minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific” — ignores basic facts about the West and everywhere else.

If Mr Appiah has a blind spot, it is in assuming that everyone can be as comfortably cosmopolitan as he. He quotes the Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.” “Now there’s an identity that should bind us all,” he writes.

Mr Fukuyama is more sympathetic to that need. The assertion of particular identities, and the insistence that respect be paid to them, is a hallmark of our age. And it is, in his telling, not because people are bad at reasoning or narrow, but because of how discombobulating our age has been.

Globalisation, the internet, automation, mass migration, the emergence of India and China, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of women and their displacing of men in more service-oriented economies, the civil rights movement and the emancipation of other groups and the loss of status for white people — these are just some of what we have lived through of late. Yes, the world has gotten better for hundreds of millions. But Mr Fukuyama reminds us that across much of the West, people have suffered dislocation and elites have captured the fruits.

Amid these changes, Mr Fukuyama writes, identity politics has come to the fore, and it has become our common culture, no longer the province of a party or side. In American politics, for example, the left used to focus on economic equality, he argues, and the right on limited government. Today, the left concentrates on “promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized,” whereas the right “is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.”

A low-key shortcoming of Mr Fukuyama’s book is that, like Mr Appiah’s, it is a book about about books. On the one hand, theorists gotta theorise. On the other, with an issue so fraught and a world so full of rage, each author could have made good use of a rental car and the Voice Memos app. For all their strengths, both books lack the earth and funk and complexity of dreaming, hurting human beings.

We need more thinkers as wise as Appiah and Fukuyama digging their fingers into the soil of our predicament. And we need more readers reading what they harvest.

First Published: Sun, September 02 2018. 22:43 IST