Memo to Americans: For Many in the World, Identity is Something You Die For

This op/ed in the LA Times a few days ago is an excellent follow-up to my post last week on identity.

Two sentence summation of the op/ed: America loves to talk about its melting pot ideal, but the reality is that in most places identity — particularly ethnic identity — is not something whipped out and celebrated on multicultural day at school. It’s something to die for. Key excerpts:

As a nation and as individuals, we tend to view the world through the prism of our own experiences. Over the last few weeks, Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians have reminded us that ethnic nationalism and secessionism are on the rise around the globe. I worry that the American experience leaves the United States and its citizens unprepared to confront it….

And just because one may not want to “believe” in identities — ethnic groups and ethno-religious groups — that doesn’t mean that they somehow disappear from the world.

We pride ourselves on a successful history of incorporating immigrants and assume that other nations should or can do the same. Sure, we have our militias, white Christian identity movements, campus-based race warriors, ethnic and racial street gangs, but these groups generally exist on the margins and don’t play a significant role in national politics in the way that the “Basque question” does in Spain or the Kurdish, Tamil, Igbo, Palestinian, Kosovar or South Ossetian questions do elsewhere.

Our elites are so steeped in the melting-pot idea that they don’t even recognize that they see the world through the bias of the majority….Americans who feel they’ve transcended group membership have a hard time understanding the power of blood, culture and belonging….

For too long, the march of modernity around the globe, and our own sense of great power hubris, led us to believe that the world would only become more like us over time. But the events of the last decade should convince us that this is clearly not the case. If for no other reason than to understand emerging threats, Americans will have to stop pretending that for most people around the globe, identity is something not just to celebrate — once a year, at a street fair or during fill-in-the-blank history month — but to die for.

2 comments on “Memo to Americans: For Many in the World, Identity is Something You Die For
  • I think identity doesn’t get much attention in academic circles because it’s so difficult to simplify. Consumer choice you can simplify, electron orbitals you can simplify, but it’s difficult to describe identity in broad sweeping terms. As soon as you say, “consider all of the Sunni Muslims in Iraq,” then you have to start considering the men vs. women, normal vs. radical, etc.

    Ideally this wouldn’t lead us to ignore the realities, but instead to study them harder.

  • I think the bigger blindspot is not realising that America and Australia (where I am) do have cultual ‘identities’. But in the case of America and Australia, because the majority culture is so dominant, the workings of the culture become largely invisible – the majority culture represents ‘normal’ and all other cultures stand in contrast.

    The dominant culture is so ingrained and so implicit in daily life that there is no need for discussion of ‘identity’. For example, the fact that Christmas is the only religeous celebration that is a public holiday is an unremarkable matter of course whereas in other multicultural societies where 1 culture is not overwhelmingly dominant, Singapore for example, they make a practice of declaring multiple religeous celebrations public holidays.

    America and Australia are multicultural societies but it is within the context of 1 dominant culture – which for the record I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. But we do have to recognise that Americans (and Australians) haven’t so much ‘transcended’ group membership as much as ever had to actually really deal with duelling cultural majorities.

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