Books | The politics of being: ‘Who Are We?’ by Gary Younge
Book Reviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, November 2, 2011 12:53 - 3 Comments
By Musab Younis
There is a point near the end of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier when Sherlock Holmes reflects on his method and comes to realise the vital input that had been provided by Watson who, having taken a wife, is now conspicuously absent: ‘By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.’
Europe is widely thought to be undergoing a crisis of identity: last month, a group of French women became the first in the country’s history to be fined for wearing niqabs, as they delivered an almond cake to Jean-François Copé in an amusing and brave protest; and a community of gypsies and travellers, due to be evicted from a halting site at Dale Farm, were subject to a barrage of negative press. The mass media has for some time fixated on identity, discussing it in myriad and contradictory terms: as a problem for certain groups (what are we to do about those Gypsies?), a proclamation (we want British weights and measures) – sometimes to be enforced (citizenship tests) – a vehicle for populism (it’s all identity politics), a degeneration (‘the whites have become black’), a contest (are you French or Muslim?), and so on.
What has been missing from this deluge – much of it parochial, willfully obtuse and blind to any analysis of power – is not an unwillingness to confront serious questions, but an inability to apply Watson’s cunning questions to Holmes’s systematised common sense. Depressingly few commentators have been willing to exhibit, let alone systematise, anything that remotely resembles common sense. At times it has seemed that almost everything you read on these topics veers into cheap racism or harried hyper-defensiveness.
Luckily, the not-so-simple of art of common sense is precisely what Gary Younge excels at in Who Are We? and the results are indeed a prodigy, as well as a prime example of judicious and subtle thinking on these topics expressed in good, clear prose. The chapters are structured around particular themes, often beginning with the stories of individuals whose lives have in some way encapsulated a particular identity dilemma: Tiger Woods’ rejection of ‘African-American’ identity, the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court as the first Hispanic justice, Israel’s de-conversion of Soviet Jews, and so on.
The stories are used as exploratory tools but this is sensitively done, with a firm avoidance of sensation; the difficult line between individuals and statistics is navigated with precision. Younge also does well to avoid the social-science-textbook approach of labelling chapters ‘Gender’, ‘Race’, ‘Sexuality’, and so on, a temptation that would have yielded a far less interesting book, and the personal narrative sections – especially the first chapter, composed of vignettes from Younge’s own life – are expertly handled, allowing him to draw on his experiences without ever permitting the elevation of autobiography to metanarrative that is, to quote Rao, the worst kind of provincialism.
Younge’s central question (‘to what extent can our various identities be mobilized to accentuate our universal humanity as opposed to separating us off into various, antagonstic camps’ without at the same time becoming ‘a callous denial of human diversity?’) threads through a quick, anecdotal narrative that moves from Younge’s own experiences of French racism and his recent life in Brooklyn, to the reclamation of the politics of victimhood by the American right-wing, the life of a dark-skinned girl born to white parents in apartheid South Africa, and Ireland’s frankly weird-sounding ‘Rose of Tralee’ contest.
Stories are historicised and many times left open-ended, but Younge has firm views, and often ends a story with a strong argument for a particular position. The debate on Sonia Sotomayor’s evocation of her Latina identity as an influence on her judicial decisions was dishonest, says Younge, because the white male Supreme Court justices – a highly disproportionate majority throughout the Court’s history – are also shaped by their experiences as white men even if they refuse to admit it.
One of Younge’s strongest points, reiterated at various points throughout the book, is that identification with a more powerful group often pretends it isn’t an identity at all: people generally don’t think much about being straight, European, or male. Theirs is the default, objective, neutral position. For them, ‘every food with which they are unfamiliar is “ethnic food” and every month is their history month’. Dislocating yourself and coming to an understanding of the power associated with your particular identities is surprisingly difficult and rarely performed; and it isn’t helped by the fact that everyone has a remarkable ability to think themselves the victims.
Power intersects with identity in different ways and thus can create different meanings associated with the same thing: race has different meanings in Europe, the US, and South Africa, for example, and it is easy but unproductive to simply deny its existential presence rooted in place and time. We might agree that race itself is a nonsense construct, of course, but that does not turn into fiction its substantive impact on actual lives. And at the same time – as Younge points out in a compelling section on the US Democratic Primaries in 2008 – the contest between Obama and Clinton could not be reduced to a crude trade-off between race and sex, or blackness and womanhood, as was often implicitly claimed by the US media at the time.
Class, gender, race, and sexual orientation, he explains, are not interchangeable garments with their own measurable limitations and virtues, and one person’s freedom need not (indeed, should not) come at another’s expense. This mentality – opposition to immigration or affirmative action from working class people, for example – is understandable but wrong, accepting as a premise that the powerless must fight for scraps rather than unite for the whole meal. In a welcome conclusion on the election of Obama, Younge points out that ‘while symbols should not be dismissed as insubstantial, they should not be mistaken for substance either.’
Younge sounds reasonable throughout the book, which means that he is persuasive and opinionated without being polemical. At a couple of moments this can result in understatement. The Jyllands-Posten affair and ‘counter-terror’ laws in Britain are discussed without much reference to the relatively recent and dispossessing history of colonialism and exploitation that has always underwritten European racism, and which is currently undergoing a renewed period of denialism from the European right-wing.
Arun Kundnani is acknowledged but not cited, though he has written what is to my mind some of the best recent work on this. American racism is discussed and prisons are mentioned, but the idea that racialised social control is entrenched in the US prison and criminal justice system is not, even though this idea is now virtually mainstream and would have strengthened Younge’s analysis of Obama’s weak role in combatting actually-existing racism in the US. It must be said that these are minor gripes with a book that provides a serious, funny and intelligent analysis across such a wide range of complex topics.
With this book and his regular columns for the Guardian and Nation, Younge has established himself as the premier political commentator on identity, and he writes as someone who has managed to avoid both the parochialism that is entrenched in our political culture (including on the left) and the self-important, listless cosmopolitanism that marks much of our intellectual culture (especially on the left.) It is an achievement that should not be underestimated.
Gary Younge (2011) ‘Who Are We? And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?’