What Is Identity? – The New York Times

What Is Identity? – The New York Times

Fukuyama is more sympathetic to that need in “Identity.” 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.

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Globalization, 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 Fukuyama reminds us that across much of the West, people have suffered dislocation and elites have captured the fruits.

Amid these changes, 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.”

Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed.

Unlike many avuncular critics of identity politics, Fukuyama is sympathetic to the good such politics does — above all, making the privileged aware of their effect on marginalized groups. “Outsiders to those groups often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions,” he writes.

Fukuyama does have his criticisms, however. He fears identity politics “has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.” Fukuyama worries that the “woker” the left gets on identity issues, the weaker it gets on offering a critique of capitalism.

Unlike Appiah, Fukuyama doesn’t seem to think it’s possible or desirable for humans to see themselves as human before all else. He is a believer in the nation-state as a healthy unit of human affairs, and he spends the final part of his smart, crisp book exploring how countries can cultivate “integrative national identities” that are rooted in liberal and democratic values — identities large enough to be inclusive, but small enough to give people a real sense of agency over their society.

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