'Can a White Man Still Be Elected President?' How Identity Politics Are Creating Public Anxiety and Moral Panic
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On the other hand, the ways in which we are unalike matter. For all that is common in the human experience, the differences are stark and, in some respects, getting starker, and it is these differences that are increasingly creating the framework for political activity, public anxiety and, at times, moral panic.
In 2008, France denied citizenship to a 32-year-old Moroccan-born woman who was married to a French national, had lived in the country for eight years, spoke good French and had three French-born children, because they believed she was a Muslim fundamentalist. Within half an hour’s train ride from Brussels, the polyglot home to both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Commission, children in Flemish schools are not allowed to speak French on the playground. In China, they have banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission in the hope of crushing nationalist dissent. As familiar as the characters at the Old Farts Club are, their particular obsessions with guns, God and Obama would shock many not only globally but also in the United States. Obvious as it may seem, it bears emphasizing – if only because so many well-meaning people are in denial about it – that, in all sorts of ways, our differences make a difference.
To what extent can our various identities be mobilized to accentuate our universal humanity as opposed to separating us off into various, antagonistic camps? At what point does refusing to acknowledge the importance of difference become a callous denial of human diversity, and when does stressing it become an indulgent and insidious obstruction to what could potentially unite us? When can identity inspire, how can it inflame, what drives it, who does it empower and what does it enable them to do? These are questions that go beyond philosophy to the central issue of power – who has it, how do they wield it and in whose interests do they use it?
That identity stands at the core of political activity is not a new idea. But until relatively recently, in the West, it was tempered by the understanding that the interests of various groups could be filtered through democratic activity and should be underpinned by human rights. Elected majorities would rule while minorities would have protection. That, at least, was the promise and the model. But the escalation of neo-liberal globalization has eroded the relevance of the basic unit of democracy—the nation state—and in so doing disabled the levers previously available to assert our collective will on the world. In the absence of any meaningful way to advance their interests as citizens, many retreat into their laagers of place, race, religion – to name but a few – as a means of self-defense.
But while identity is a crucial place to start in politics, it is a terrible place to finish. As a prism, it is both crucial and deeply flawed. None of the identities we generally work with are even remotely as definite as commonly believed. The dividing lines of who is what and why shift and blur. The French government’s efforts to combat Islamic extremism by banning headscarves in schools were triggered by two sisters who converted to Islam, whose father is a Sephardic Jew. Despite America’s self-image as the primary 21st-century civilizing force, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in angels and miracles and, among countries where people believe religion to be very important, America is closer to Pakistan and Nigeria than to France or Germany. The world champion in the women’s 800 meters, South African Caster Semenya, had to undergo gender-verification tests in 2009 to prove she was really a woman.