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So, it’s Saturday morning after a long week, and a week that isn’t really over yet.  I find myself sitting here with my huge cup of overbrewed tea–forty ounce cup, two teabags, steeped twenty minutes (and no, it doesn’t get cold)–thinking that I’ll just wander off and listen to harpsichords. 

Mostly it’s a feeling that I suddenly have nothing to say.  And that’s interesting, because I don’t think that’s happened for years.

If I am thinking about anything, it’s the entire idea of “identity politics.”  I don’t mean the actual function and structure of them, but the need so many people have to establish an identity.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve never felt the need to go out and get one myself.  I always felt I had one.  In fact, identity for me has always been a given, even when I was traveling (a lot, when I was younger) or switching off professional or private roles.

There is, that is, a Janeness of Jane, an Oranianess of Orania, that has been with me from the beginning and that isn’t going to go away as long as I live.

That there are people out there for whom this is not true seems to me to be obvious, I jut don’t understand the feeling.  I don’t know what it would feel like to not have a meness of me–to somehow need to define something amorphous and call it myself.

That is, certainly, what people do who define themselves by working very hard at their politics or their religion or even their “roots.”  So much of what the adopt as badges of who they are seems to me to be artificial. 

I’m not saying the things in themselves are artificial.  Greek folk dances and a craving for yuvalakia are genuine enough on their own.  I don’t have much use for the former–I don’t much like folk dancing generally–but I’ve got a regular date with the latter. 

The problem is that I know a lot of people who may or may not actually enjoy these things, but you can’t tell, because they’re so busy making sure they’re maintaining their “Greek identity.”  Most of these people are Greek-American at best, and at least the second generation born in the US.  Immigrants and the children of immigrants tend to be like the lead character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and do a lot of eye rolling about all the Greekness around the house.

With politics and religion it’s worse, because the benchmarks for identity are more serious.  Your friends and neighbors can put up with your playing Yianni records and seving soggy spanikopita at your next party far more easily than they can handle your trying to install creationism at the local high school or municipal regulations to charge extra taxes for SUVs at the town hall.

I think the big problem with American political “discourse” (as we’re calling it these days) is that most of the politics. on both the right and the left, is fake.  Most of the people making the proposals have not come to those proposals by reflection or even by commitment.  They’ve come to them as another benchmark in establishing idenity, and the stress is on the identity, not on the proposals.

That’s why so many people can insist, over and over again, on advocating policies that they know do not work–that they know must end in disaster, even.  People don’t idolize Mao or Fidel or the latest Man of the People in subSaharan Africa because they agree with his policies, or even because they expect him to actually do some good.  They idolize him because idolizing him is a badge of identity.  It helps to nail down the themness-of-them, that they don’t seem to have on their own.

I’ve often felt as if I were blithering on this blog, but I now feel like I’m spouting almost complete gibberish.  And, as usual when I think I’m not being clear, what I’m thinking of is perfectly clear in my head.

I don’t understand how people cannot know who they are.

No, it’s more than that.  I don’t understand how people cannot have a single solid core of themselves that cannot be negotiated or denies.  There is a Janeness of Jane and an Oranianess of Orania, and it cannot be changed even when I want it to be.

I don’t mean that there aren’t things about ourselves we can change or negotiate.  I don’t mean that people never change in anyway at all. I used to smoke and now I don’t.  I used to be terribly timid and insecure and now I’m not.  I used to support differential-standards affirmative action and now I don’t.

But in all those cases, although I changed my mind, and even my habits, I didn’t change myself.  And maybe one of the reasons I can change my mind on even important things is that I don’t need to change myself when I do. 

The manifestation of this I am most familiar with is, of course, the tendency of Western academics and revolutionaries to adopt highly affected identities as “revolutionaries” or “leftists,” but it’s hardly the only manifestation out there.  I’ve seen people do it with religion (especially converts to Catholicism), and my guess would be that there’s a fair amount of it in the lamer wing of the militia movement.

If you think about it, though, this idea–that expressing a love of Fidel and wearing a Che t-shirt, or searching out the one church in the area allowed to give the Mass in Latin, isn’t a matter of conviction or honest desire, but a collecting of badges of identity–explains a lot about people who support policies in theory that they would never put up with in fact. 

The really horrible thing, to me, is the way they pass this identity crisis to their children, and the way at least some of those children adopt the identity in ways far more substantitive and real than their parents had any intention of their doing.

Lori Berenson.  John Walker Lindh.  That poor girl in Israel who tried to stand in front of the bulldozers and found out that not every government will pull back just because some silly adolescent is trying to make a statement to the press.

But, for one brief moment of lucidity, I present this:  I think you can tell the difference between a genuine commitment to a set of ideas and a pose for the sake of building an identity by whether or not the person in question is defining himself and everything he does in opposition to other people. 

If the drive seems to be not to be something, but to be not-like-them, you’ve got identity politics in the sense I’m talking about it here.

And I’ve got the feeling that there’s no point talking to people engaged in that enterprise.

They can’t hear you.

Okay.  I’ve got to go actually get something done.

Written by janeh

October 2nd, 2010 at 7:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Stumped'

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  1. “Thank you, Lord, that I am not as other men.”

    Yes, certainly “negative identity” is a part of identity politics–though it’s not always easy to see when we’re practicing it ourselves. I used to maintain a list of all the words I could find which meant “not of a particular group”–from the roma word for non-gypsies, to “leg” or “straight-leg” used to designate non-paratroops. It was a long list, and surely incomplete, but I think it concealed both positive and negative identities. Jane herself, being a mundane, may not be able to appreciate this.

    (A mundane is a term used by SF and fantasy fans to describe someone who is not, and thus places Jane on the same side of the line as most midwestern creationists. It’s a perspective neither of them would appreciate–but what can you expect from a bunch of mundanes?)

    For the United States, an identity game played at certain levels could be fatal. For the past 20 years, give or take, virtually every spy and traitor in America has been letting an ethnic identity–muslim, African, hispanic or Chinese–trump United States citizenship.

    And, of course, we’re already playing it. When our political comentators gloat about their party’s grip on the white vote, the black vote, the Jewish vote or the Hispanic vote, they’re celebrating exactly why democracy tends not to work in tribal societies where “they didn’t take a vote: they took a census.”

    I’d give credit where it’s due if I could remember, but there was a recent article suggesting that some of our stranger poll results made sense in terms of group solidarity. Relatively high percentages of Americans agree that (a) HIV/AIDS is a government plot, (b) 9-11 was an inside job, and (c) Obama and his supporters are concealing his place of birth or religious offiliation. But very few people are ACTING as though they believe these things are true. The author suggests the others are saying “Obama is a Kenyan muslim” as a way of saying “I am of the political right” or “Shrub plotted 9-11” to say “I am of the political left.”

    I think relating identity politics to changing a political program by discussion is a little more subtle. After all, entire large groups do change attitudes, though this makes it less productive to argue one on one. But a policy can always be one of three things–a means to a stated end, an object in itself, or a means to an unstated end. If someone advocates a national economic policy because they want to reduce inequality or promote economic growth, I can make some progress by demonstrating that a central planning board will not–or at least has not elsewhere–broght about those things. But if chummy is advocating the policy because he wants a seat on the planning board, my arguments would be irrelevant.
    Showing a Marxist that that communism doesn’t promote equality or freedom is not going to influence someone who wants to be a block warden and censor my library.

    If you give up on asking “what is policy X supposed to accomplish?’ and ask “who will benefit from implementing policy X?” you don’t need to fall back on identity politics so often. Plain self-interest will do the trick.


    2 Oct 10 at 9:09 am

  2. You know, while I was writing all that this morning, it occured to me that I knew exactly what Robert is going to say about it.

    So since he’s said it,let me respond.

    I think there are creationists and Marxists who really are creationists and Marxists. And I think there are creationists and Marxists who are in it for their self interest, in the hope of somehow being the person to ban the books or run the Economic Development Department.

    But I think there are a lot more people who fall into neither of these characters, who not only have no hope in hell of ever being able to get anything for themselves out of what they’re advocating–but who would STOP advocating it if there was ever the possibility that they would.

    I know a lot of these people. They don’t want a job on the block committee. They don’t want their policies put into practice at all. They want, quite simply, an identity they can hang onto.

    And hang onto is the right term. They’re not secure in that identity. They’re not secure in anything I can see.

    There is nothing they just like because they do, or just hate because they do. If they recognized such a thing in themselves they would panic, because it would almost surely threaten what little security in identity they have managed to erect for themselves.

    Everything they do is an affectation. Everything they do has to be an affectation, because there’s no there there.

    And because there’s no there there, what looks like positive choice in identity (I like tofurkey or cowboy hats) is actually negative–I like what that group over there doesn’t making me part of this group here.

    I’ve seen this in groups of guys who race stock cars, not one of them academically inclined or upper middle class, and not one of them left of center.

    You can’t tell me that those people were secretly expecting to get on the government stock car racing board, or whatever.

    And note: I’m not saying that most people who want these kinds of things are doing what I’m talking about, only that SOME of them are, and that those people represent a distinct problem and a distinct puzzle.

    If self interest was the issue here, it would be a lot easier to straighten this out.


    2 Oct 10 at 9:28 am

  3. Am I not writing in English?

    I specifically agreed that many people adopted tastes, beliefs and activities as part of a corporate identity. I also said that you shouldn’t assume that identity politics and official objectives are the whole ball of wax, but I didn’t really see that as controversial.

    But as for those hypothetical people who will be horrified should their policies be put into effect–no.

    Over the past century we’ve put some insane policies into effect in the United States, and large sections of the world have implemented policies for which “horrifying” is the right word. In no case has any substantial element of the whackos actually recoiled when the destructive labor camps were set up, or bids were taken for the gas chambers. But OUR academics, because they went to such superior schools, are clearly of a different moral order than, say, Russian, Spanish or German ones? I don’t think so.

    A Holocaust survivor wrote that the primary lesson was “If a man says he’s going to kill you, take him seriously.” For me to do otherwise, you’re going to have to do better than “well, they just wouldn’t.”


    2 Oct 10 at 5:04 pm

  4. It wasn’t the academics I was talking about.

    I was thinking of people I know–and I know lots of them–in the atheist/freethought movement.

    They’ve got ordinary jobs, almost always in the private sector.

    They very self consciously adopt certain fashions–not just fashions in clothes, but in food and speech and a dozen other things.

    It can be tiring talking to these people, because there’s always a gotcha moment, a place where you get a little lecture on how you’re killing the planet by not buying a hybrid or destroying yourself because you drink caffeine or how something or the other is “inappropriate.”

    And I know a few people who apparently have the same tastes but don’t find the need to lecture anybody.

    None of these people are advocating the killing of anybody.

    They advocate things like “equal funding for education,” and if you want to see what happens when they get it–take a look at Vermont and Act 60.

    All the old advocates found ways to send their kids to private schools.

    What they want is not to institute policies or change things, but to have a basis on which to distinquish themselves as better than you.

    If they’d gone to a fancy college and gotten a doctorate, maybe they’d be more into Maoism, but they didn’t. Not usually.


    2 Oct 10 at 5:15 pm

  5. I absolutely abhor identity politics. I first ran into simple examples of it when I was a teenager and discovered that some people would assume – or out-and-out tell you – that ‘you’re a woman/feminist/Newfoundlander/ Then you HAVE to believe X or so Y!!. (You could tell which particular part of the local provincial culture someone adhered to by noticing whether they referred to themselves as ‘Newfoundlanders’ or ‘Newfies’. I got so fed up with it all that I finally decided that I knew exactly which categories I belonged to, and was strongly tempted to tell anyone who expressed suprise that I didn’t speak or act in the ‘expected’ way that, well, I was X and I did Y therefore perhaps their idea of what X meant was…..incomplete. Like Jane, I know there’s something in me that’s just me, with all my faults and strengths. And I damn well don’t need to pay any attention to anyone who tries to tell me that I’m not the kind of person I know I am.

    I agree also that although lots and lots of people do belong fully to whatever thing it is they’re claiming membership in, and believe everything that goes along with that membership, some aren’t so certain. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get so upset and angry when someone who they think should belong with them doesn’t share all their beliefs, or questions some of them

    People over-doing it somewhat when encountering and adopting a new world-view is an old phenomena – ‘more papist than the Pope’ is probably criminally offensive language now; what about ‘more royalist than the King’?

    It’s all part of our need to function with other human beings – to belong, to have an us and them. It doesn’t come easily to everyone, and I think that’s why some of them fake it a bit. I don’t think they’re trying to convince themselves that they’re better than others; they just want to belong – and that can come across as wanting to be better than others.


    2 Oct 10 at 7:00 pm

  6. OK, obviously I have a much higher threshold of horror. But I think the presumption of sincerity works equally well. When this program was implemented in Vermont and proved to be a train wreck, did the “old advocates” say “this wasn’t what we intended!” and fight to reverse the thing? No. They just moved their children to private schools so THEY wouldn’t be affected.

    Here’s a wild guess: said “old advocates” are probably still wandering around claiming what a wonderful idea it was in principle, and blaming other people for the faulty implementation. And the ones the next state over continue to advocate the failed policy, ignoring the consequences next door. I may not know the individuals, but I certainly know the type.

    Mercifully, I am no longer a student. Anyone who wishes to lecture me had best put me on the payroll first. If they believe that “fair trade” coffee or a hybrid car will save the world–well, some people believe aliens built the pyramids, which is almost as strange. But when people advocate something horrible–or something which will have horrible consequences–NEVER let them off the hook. Let them bear the full moral consequences of their advocacy.


    2 Oct 10 at 8:30 pm

  7. Too American for me. I had to look up Vermouth and act 60 and Lori Berenson and John Walker Lindh I did remember the girl in Israel.

    Some newspaper columnists in Australia seem to make a career out of being anti-US. I do get tired of the people who say the US should not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and then ask Why is the US supporting corrupt and oppresswive regime X?

    I’m not sure if that’s what you are talking about but it seems typical of intellectuals down here.


    2 Oct 10 at 9:05 pm

  8. Actually, some of the people, at least, who had advocated for equitable funding fought to change the law to the one they’d actually wanted for some years before they gave up and went to private schools. And in the meantime they found ways to make sure their own public schools still had the facilities they had always had.

    John Irving, the novelist (World According to Garp), was one of those, and he went to the lengths of bringing the entire Act 60 thing to national attention in order to pressure the state of Vermont to change it.

    And to be fair, Act 60 wasn’t what they’d wanted. What they’d wanted was a law that required the state to assure that poor towns had as much money to spend on their schools as rich towns–that is, to subsidize schools in poor towns to bring them up.

    What Act 60 ended up doing was reducing the money for schools in all towns except the poorest, which is “equitable funding,” but not in the way the people who advocated wanted it.

    The weird thing, to me, about the whole Act 60 business was the extent to which it began to seem as if the poor towns wanted what they got–not more money for their own school but a situation that forced rich towns to have less money for theirs.


    3 Oct 10 at 5:32 am

  9. I confess to having only heard here about Act 60, but anytime I’ve encountered people in poor places talking about the differences in funding or facilities, the people in poor places want more, they don’t generally want the rich places to have less. Not unless that’s absolutely essential for the poor places to get more, of course, but generally it isn’t seen to be the case, since everyone ‘knows’ that there’s an inexhaustible fund of government money, so they don’t think it’s a zero sum game, not that they’d put it in those terms. But the form of envy in which getting the desired item is less important than seeing the other deprived of it doesn’t seem to be that common.


    3 Oct 10 at 6:22 am

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