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'Can a White Man Still Be Elected President?' How Identity Politics Are Creating Public Anxiety and Moral Panic

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.

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It is in no small part because the borders of our identities are so porous and fluid that some seek to police them so rigorously. Appeals to the innate, fixed, pure and essential nature of any identity are the stock-in-trade of any fundamentalist and generally have the same effect – to isolate one particular group from the rest of the human race.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the French Revolution. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.”

On the face of it, to underline our common and universal humanity seems obvious to the point of being trite: a “Kumbayah” for all seasons; the weak, inadequate balm applied to minimum effect by the vicar, stoner or diplomat; an agenda for those who espouse global citizenship, Esperanto and a whole litany of other worthy utopian projects that are never going to happen. And yet, at the root of all of this lies the deeply radical notion that those various ways in which we are distinct are dwarfed by the essential facts of our commonality: facts that have simultaneously been brought to the fore by global issues—from climate change to various epidemics— that pose a potential threat to us as a species, even as they have been diminished by efforts to dismantle the post–World War II consensus that human rights are universal.

The United Nations charter on asylum is routinely ignored, while the Geneva Convention on torture has been declared obsolete. Meanwhile, freedom of movement is now only supported in the most abstract terms. The world’s poor quite simply do not have the right to travel in an effort to improve their lives, while many governments have assumed the right to snatch people off the street and transport them across the world to be tortured. For the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who roam the globe without papers, rights or citizenship, the crucial issue is not to have their particular identity recognized but to have their essential humanity acknowledged and respected.

In 2009, more than 100 immigrants, roughly a quarter of them children, were found living in a sewer system under Rome’s railway stations. Above ground, an anti-Gypsy pogrom took place in Naples while prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (who would later become embroiled in a sex-scandal with a teenage Moroccan model) branded undocumented workers “an army of evil” and voiced his opposition to a multiethnic society. It was just one, graphic metaphor in a world of many illustrating global economic inequality, local racial fragility and general political anomie.

But to evoke universal humanism also throws down a gauntlet to the Pan-Africanist, Islamist, Zionist, patriot, radical feminist and others, to reach beyond their immediate term of reference and make common cause on the basis of a common bond – our humanity. Women may have led the charge for suffrage, but there were many men who supported them, and many women who did not. Ghanaians may have led the campaign for independence, but there were Britons who supported them and Ghanaians who did not. Ghanaian independence and feminism, in turn, had their ideological roots in aspirations of liberation and equality that go beyond either anticolonialism or gender equality. People are not hostage to their identities – we have free will, imagination, morality and principle.

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