From the culture of identity to the politics of identity

We thought we were progressing towards a world of greater inclusiveness and wider, deeper integration. Suddenly, the horizon is now darkened by the ghost of identity politics that is spreading its tentacles

The proverb ‘birds of the same feather flock together’ that we most innocently learnt in high school turns out, on reflection, to express a truism that now threatens to make the world regress to the chaos of the dark ages. A cultural anthropologist would probably tell us that the human tendency of looking out for one’s own kind, for a shared ‘sameness’ in groups or within defined territorial boundaries, is a primordial need dating from mankind’s beginnings. From an evolutionary biologist’s perspective, it is likely to be a mechanism for protection and group survival to be found in all living organisms. So what’s the problem with having an identity?

Plenty, it seems, when man (in the generic sense of humans) steps in. Given that the issue of identity has been thrust acutely in the frontline and mainstream in and by the West in recent times, and more particularly so in the run-up to the US elections, we will look at it from that angle. Not only because it seems to dominate current discourse, but also because there are policy decisions with wide impact on people, relations between countries, trade and business that are flowing from that concern.

A stepback to the colonial period shows that it was defined by two broad narratives: that of the colonisers and the colonised usually referred to as the ‘natives’, and that of white versus coloured. The latter comprised all shades that were not white, generally broken down into black, brown and yellow races. Interestingly, despite science in general and more recently genetics having established that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as race as we have always understood it, this notion continues to endure and to affect societies, some more so than others, and with deadly consequences too as we are currently seeing in a number of them.

In the US, for example, the election of the Barack Obama did not, as it was hoped, change what American analysts themselves have called the ‘insitutionalised racism’ that pervades American society. Thus, despite being the progeny of a white mother and a black father, Barack Obama has always been referred to as America’s first ‘black’ president, a description based solely on his phenotype or physical appearance, his white ‘half’ and his other laudable qualities as a human being and as a professional being simply put aside. To add insult to injury, during the election campaign last year, one opponent even went so low as to refer to the First Lady Michelle Obama having ‘simian’ features. And she is no less a highly successful woman in her own right, this having nothing to do with her skin colour or what her face looks like.

The broad picture is that as decolonization took place and was practically completed by the 1960s/70s, in most countries with indigenous populations where they had taken over, the French and English occupiers went back to France and England respectively, and the Belgians to Belgium. However, they continued to have ties and interests in the former colonies, mainly for economic reasons. The Boers and Britishers who settled in South Africa and the Germans who were concentrated in Namibia stayed on.

In the course of these movements, people who had been brought in from elsewhere, mainly Africa as slaves also settled in the destination countries, as did a large proportion of indentured labour that came from India. However, after the Second World War, there was migration to the UK and France from the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean and Africa respectively. The first wave was of those who came in to do low-skilled jobs that the locals would not do. Then, and in the UK especially with the creation of the National Health Service, there was a need for health professionals such as doctors and nurses who came in as a second ‘wave’. A similar phenomenon in the rich countries of the European Union such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium took place, from mainly Arab countries. They were migrants seeking a better life and, in the process, have come to occupy significant places in these societies on the economic, social and demographic fronts.

As for the United States, in addition to the original Quakers who came on the Mayflower to Massachusetts, the indigenous Red Indians (who were no ‘Indians’ at all!), and the slaves, waves of migration occurred successively from several countries of Europe, such as Ireland, Italy, Germany, eastern Europe, and from South America. Subsequently, people from China, Japan, India and other Asian countries have migrated too. America prided itself on its ‘melting pot’ model of the co-existence of people from practically all over the world. And this despite the regular racist killings that have kept occurring, especially by policemen, targeting Blacks in particular.

In Europe meaning essentially the UK, France and Germany, for the model of these different and diverse peoples living side by side with each other the equivalent descriptors were ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘secularism’. In all these countries, the image that was projected till at least pre-9/11 was one of happy coexistence.

This was despite the warning by a British minister, Enoch Powell, who first blew the bugle as far back as the 1960s, with his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. In 1965, Britain passed a new immigration law that sought to restrict the entry of nationals from the Commonwealth, and prior to its coming into effect there was a flood of migration from British passport holders in Commonwealth countries to beat the deadline.

I recall a General Paper class in 1964 that was being taken by Herbert Bullen, the British Rector at the Royal College Curepipe. It was about that immigration law. One remark of Mr Bullen during the discussion still rings in my ears: ‘The Englishman,’ he said, ‘doesn’t mind having the African as his brother, but not as his brother-in-law.’ And yet I would not call Mr Bullen a rank racist, because he was an excellent Rector and teacher of English who strove hard, with variable success, to polish our English accent so that it would be as close as possible to his own Oxonian one.

Fast forward to the festering ‘banlieues’ problem in France, to the ghettos in Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavian countries, and the migrant crisis of 2015 caused by the massive influx of Syrian refugees. They added to the regular surges from across the Mediterranean, joined by others coming from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc., availing as it were of the Syrian refugee ‘window of opportunity’. As they overwhelmed the receptive and absorptive capacities of the countries concerned, and in the wake of incidents of sexual assaults from among those given generous hospitality (in Germany and Sweden) and terrorist acts perpetrated on European soil (as well as those in the US), the models of coexistence began to fall apart. As a result, divisiveness and polarization have taken place rapidly, and this acrimonious social mood has translated into political populism which some leaders have discovered may benefit them.

The first beneficiary has been Donald Trump who easily rode to power as President of the United States. The series of executive orders he has signed has, according to experts, caused further polarization within the US itself; they were not wrong. Indeed, even before these executive orders, racist attacks against Indians, causing death as well, began to take place. Jews too became victims.

The other damage is that of upsetting a world order where the gains of globalization are set to be neutralized or reversed. The latest one is the revisiting of the H1-B visa for high-skilled workers that severely restricts the categories of such workers, especially IT specialists, for employment by US firms. Whether this is coincidence or a fall-out of similar political ‘mood’ as one commentator noted, Australia has also devised more stringent criteria in the 457 visa for the same category of workers, and New Zealand too has followed suit. In the UK, Prime Minister Teresa May has just announced snap general elections which she feels will give her a more solid mandate to negotiate Brexit. It is felt that this is likely to accelerate the independence of Scotland from England.

The allegorical flock has morphed into a hostile nationalism which is perhaps epitomised by Brexit. It has been followed by the call for enhanced protectionism from Donald Trump: Americans first, and next Australians and kiwis first. We thought we were progressing towards a world of greater inclusiveness and wider, deeper integration. Suddenly, the horizon is now darkened by the ghost of identity politics that is spreading its tentacles.

Welcome to Brave New World 2.0 (with apologies to Aldous Huxley).

RN Gopee

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