"The Identity Illusion" by Stephen Holmes (NYRB)


Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 218 pp., $26.00

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture by Kwame Anthony Appiah Liveright, 256 pp., $27.95



Tribalism and clannishness are coeval with human social life. Yet the recent worldwide outbreak of fundamentalisms, nativisms, nationalisms, and separatisms suggests that something portentously new is afoot, a kind of global backlash against the perceived failures of liberal societies. One familiar example, in both America and Europe, is panic in the face of a real or threatened influx of culturally diverse immigrants. That the president of the United States finds political advantage in stoking such anxieties is another sign of our identity-troubled times. Francis Fukuyama in Identity and Anthony Appiah in The Lies That Bind share an admirable ambition: to change the way we see membership and belonging in the hope that this will help defang religious bigotry, ethnic prejudice, and other ill-disposed forms of group self-understanding and thus allow individuals with dissimilar traits and backgrounds to coexist peaceably and enrich each other’s lives.

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

He confesses at the outset that Identity would not have been written had Trump not been elected president, revealing the extent to which “white nationalism has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.” In the overwrought fears of “hard-core immigration opponents” who reject all proposals to grant undocumented aliens a path to citizenship, Fukuyama sees a “proxy” for white middle-class anxieties about loss of status in the globalized economy. To make sense of white nationalism, he argues, we must recognize that personal economic reversals are often experienced as a painful loss of social status and that joblessness and declining incomes, compounded by family breakdown and an explosion of deaths by overdose, make downwardly mobile citizens feel socially “invisible.”

After surveying a few economic trends that he believes have fueled xenophobic nativism in Europe as well as America, Fukuyama shifts to apportioning blame. Left-wing multiculturalism turns out to be the principal culprit: “Identity politics as currently practiced on the left…has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right.” Without the left’s cult of diversity, apparently, there would have been no white nationalist backlash. Trump did little more, it seems, than help move “the focus of identity politics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now taking root.”

As this debatable thesis suggests, Fukuyama sides with those who fault the Democratic Party for attempting to build “a coalition of disparate identity groups.” “Activists on the left” turned their backs on the antipoverty programs and redistributive policies that would have helped struggling whites in order to pursue positive discrimination for marginalized groups—blacks, women, immigrants, and LGBT people. They stopped paying attention to “the white American working class” just as it was being “dragged into an underclass.” Without questioning how important “Donald Trump’s working-class supporters” were to his Electoral College victory, Fukuyama wants us to know that they were not wrong to “feel they have been disregarded by the national elites.” On this interpretation, the left’s coddling of minorities compelled many economically distressed voters to rally around their own white Christian identity in self-defense.

Fukuyama is not wholly opposed to identity politics. The two examples he cites as welcome correctives of injustice are the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. But his main point is that positive discrimination in favor of minorities has fomented a dangerous backlash among a population already traumatized by deindustrialization and and an inverted world where “women were displacing men in an increasingly service-dominated new economy.” And he adds a second charge: the multiculturalist apotheosis of separate, distinct, and internally homogeneous social groupings is incompatible with the national integration of a diverse population through shared primary and secondary education. Fukuyama is especially shocked by those who view the integrationist demand for monolingual public schooling as somehow racist and intolerant when it is actually eminently democratic.

He recognizes, of course, that the fragmentation of the American public into “self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by belief in shared identity” has been “facilitated by technological change.” What disturbs him, however, is less the mutually inaccessible niches of reciprocally applauding partisans made possible by the Internet than the politically motivated shift of attention, allegedly pioneered by the left, “toward the protection of ever narrower group identities.” The “ever-proliferating identity groups inaccessible to outsiders” celebrated by multiculturalists not only threaten to destroy democracy, they augur the end of rationality. Mutually suspicious and insulated groupings are incapable of rational debate. They no longer share a common world or a common understanding of the difference between truths and lies.

But if identity politics on the left provoked the emergence of identity politics on the right, what caused the rise of identity politics on the left? Fukuyama answers this question with his signature invocation of economic and cultural factors. On the one hand, deunionization of workers and tax evasion by the wealthy have made the resort to fiscally undemanding symbolic politics almost inevitable. For the left, in particular, budgetary austerity made it “easier to talk about respect and dignity than to come up with potentially costly plans that would concretely reduce inequality.” But constraints on spending alone cannot explain the rise of multiculturalism and minority rights.

More important, from Fukuyama’s perspective, is a cultural story involving the way that “the left has moved further to the left,” by which he means not toward egalitarianism but toward condemning Western culture as “the incubator of colonialism, patriarchy, and environmental destruction.” He accuses US leftists in particular of seeking to

undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasizing victimization, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are somehow intrinsic to the country’s DNA.

Digging deeper, Fukuyama believes he has unearthed the origins of modern identity politics, first, in the way “societies started to modernize a few hundred years ago” and, second, in Rousseau’s valorization of “subjective inner feeling over the shared norms and understandings of the surrounding society.” At the origins of human civilization, people farmed and raised their families in settled agricultural villages where the grip of inherited social roles meant that no one ever asked the modern question: Who am I? That changed when urbanization, commercialization, literacy, science, and the other acids of modernity confronted human beings for the first time with a myriad of options from which to choose while simultaneously depriving them of authoritative social norms to guide them in their choices. He calls this the “identity confusion created by rapid modernization.”

The crucial development that purportedly paved the way to our current crisis was the emergence in European intellectual circles, under the conditions just described, of an unprecedented distinction between an “authentic inner self” that is “intrinsically valuable” and an “outer society” that is “systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation” of that self. Quintessentially modern thinkers, including Rousseau, worked out “a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.”

You might think it far-fetched to locate the historical origins of America’s current political dysfunction in the inwardness of sentimental individualists. But Fukuyama believes he can make this idiosyncratic genealogy work by deploying the distinction between Erlebnis (subjectively lived experience that is incommunicable to others) andErfahrung (objective and shared experience on which scientific experiments are based). First Rousseau elevated the ineffable experience of private individuals over socially shared and publicly verifiable experience, and then his heirs applied a similar approach to groups. The idea that each person harbors an innermost self that is inscrutable to others eventually morphed into the “idea that each group has its own identity that was not accessible to outsiders.”

To this unconventional storyline Fukuyama adds the more familiar idea that modern society places an unbearable strain on ordinary men and women who are natural conformists and personally uncomfortable with autonomy. The kind of “expressive individualism” that makes sense for a few exceptional people can’t possibly work for the vast majority because “most people do not have infinite depths of individuality that is theirs alone.” Deprived by modernization of a shared moral horizon, such people will “not know who their true self is” and will therefore seek to rebind themselves “to a social group and reestablish a clear moral horizon.” This apparently explains why nationalism “appeared on the world stage” at a moment “of social transition from traditional isolated agrarian societies to modern ones.”

Alongside this grand narrative with only patchy empirical support, Fukuyama fields a handful of policy proposals. His premise is that liberal democracy will not survive “if citizens do not believe they are part of the same polity.” The “remedy” he advocates is “to define larger and more integrative national identities that take account of the de facto diversity of existing liberal democratic societies.” Because political coherence cannot be restored to America on the basis of common ancestry or a shared cultural heritage, no matter how judiciously the country manages immigration and assimilation, he urges Americans to adopt “an inclusive sense of national identity” anchored in constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

On this basis, Fukuyama trumpets an agenda aimed at “the successful assimilation of foreigners” into what he sees as America’s “dominant culture.” The United States should continue to be open to immigrants from across the world. But it should do so only in modest enough numbers to facilitate the gradual process of assimilation and to avoid the kind of cultural shock that is bound to excite demographic panic. We must make sure that newcomers become “irrationally attached” to America’s “creedal identity,” which boils down to a “belief in equality and democratic values.” These abstract principles should be woven into uplifting “narratives” that are taught to the children of immigrants in public schools. Their emotions of “pride and patriotism,” and not only their intellects, must be engaged.

Fukuyama’s analysis is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Similarly, to blame the rise of white nationalism in America chiefly on the left’s profligate attentiveness to marginalized groups is to deemphasize the multiplicity of factors involved, including a history of anti-immigrant nativism that long predates the emergence of multiculturalism. One wonders, for example, if resentment of Barack Obama, whose presidency upended a racial hierarchy that has been fundamental to US nationhood since its inception, might not provide a simpler and more realistic explanation for the country’s relapse into nativism than outrage at multiculturalism and inequality.

Another problem concerns Fukuyama’s overly romantic understanding of “lived experience.” It seems fair to say that white American motorists have difficulty comprehending the experience of black motorists stopped by lethally armed police officers. What is completely implausible is to suggest, as Fukuyama’s analysis does, that late-eighteenth-century ideas about incommunicable interiority and plenitudes of inner feeling help explain that difficulty.

Finally, Fukuyama’s occasional suggestion that white nationalism reflects a rational concern that new immigrants will not successfully assimilate can also be questioned. Could not extreme nationalists be more afraid that newcomers will successfully assimilate? After all, the implication of successful assimilation is that the identity of natives is something wholly superficial and not really an indelible inheritance that connects them profoundly to their dead forefathers. If so, intensified efforts at assimilation, rather than dousing the flames of white nationalism, might unintentionally add fuel to the fire.


Anthony Appiah’s contribution to the debate on identity is predictably stylish and erudite. He weaves his philosophical argument into “scores of stories,” often about individuals with multiple or hybrid identities. Gliding comfortably across many civilizations and time periods, he writes not as a historian or comparativist but as a raconteur who selects captivating episodes to illustrate his themes, including “family stories” dramatizing the experience of children born with two grandmother tongues. Associating himself with “tolerant, pluralist, self-questioning, cosmopolitan” values, he adds that “I can love what is best in anyone’s traditions while sharing it gladly with others.”

Although cultural diversity seems more darkly ominous to Fukuyama and more brightly auspicious to Appiah, their approaches otherwise have much in common. Identities “matter to people” because they determine how we behave as well as how we see and evaluate ourselves and one another. Because “many of our thoughts about the identities that define us are misleading,” it follows that “we would have a better grasp on the real challenges that face us if we thought about them in new ways.”

The core of The Lies That Bind is a sequential study of five subjects: religion, nation, race, culture, and what Appiah calls “class” but would be better described as inherited social status. In each case, he exposes the mistakes, fallacies, and misunderstandings inherent in the way these classifications are generally understood and applied. All of them are “false” in some important sense and distort the way we see ourselves and treat one another. Although “every identity has its own distinctive misconceptions,” each of the ones Appiah studies (class aside) suffers from a fault he calls “essentialism about identities,” which is to assume that there exists an “inner something” common to all members of an identity group. This is untrue: “In general, there isn’t some inner essence that explains why people of a certain social identity are the way they are.” The facile supposition that “similarity” or “sameness” can create group cohesion or explain why groups “hold together” is absurd on its face, since similarity and sameness are not social relations at all but simply comparisons that imply nothing about cooperative inclinations or emotional identifications.

As a philosophical nominalist, Appiah wants us to reconceive religious, national, racial, and cultural identities as “labels.” They are not accurate representations of or references to existing realities but rather coordinating devices or “ways of grouping people” that, for good or ill, allow us to simplify a complex reality by attributing a spurious homogeneity and unchanging nature to heterogeneous and constantly shape-shifting swaths of the human population. For example, you may think of yourself as sharing an ethnic or religious identity with predecessors who lived centuries ago, but this is a delusion. All you have in common is the “label.” Indeed, you probably share more habits of the heart, not to mention DNA, with a next-door neighbor who adheres to a different religious tradition than with distant ancestors who bore your beloved label.

Appiah addresses himself directly to his readers on this basis: “You may not realize how much your religion has drifted from the religion of those you view as your congregational predecessors.” He aligns himself, by contrast, with the “objective observers” who “can see that religion, like everything else that is important in human life, evolves.” That is also true of nations, which, far from being biological entities that last forever, are contingent social constructions that never cease to undergo convulsive internal transformations. The “new Romantic sense of what made a people a people,” which arose in late-eighteenth-century Europe, is a childish mirage. The line between members and nonmembers of the nation has nothing to do with consanguinity or an “ancient spirit of the Folk.” If we falsely believe that the label “nation” refers to some underlying essence, on the other hand, we may be tempted into “genocides…perpetrated in the name of one people against another with the aim of securing a homogeneous nation.”

Neither is there any biological basis for most common ideas of race, bequeathed to a scientifically unenlightened public by now discredited nineteenth-century science. Genetically, populations are not homogeneous and unchanging but mixed and fluid. Belief to the contrary is not only erroneous but produces such abominations as “white racial nationalism” whose bigoted adherents doubt that “you could be black and American.”

Similarly, those who extol “the West” or “Western civilization” mistakenly believe that a culture is an organic whole that tightly knits together all its parts. Racists among them assume that biological ancestry presents almost insuperable barriers to the cultural Westernization of non-Westerners. In truth, “Western civilization” is a vacuous concept since a culture, by definition, “is messy and muddled, not pristine and pure.” It follows that we “should give up the very idea of Western civilization,” not only because it is associated with racialist prejudice, but also because it refers to nothing except “a loose assemblage of disparate fragments” perpetually undergoing kaleidoscopic reconfigurings.

Because it makes no mention of the fatal flaw of essentialism around which his other “test cases” are organized, Appiah’s fascinating chapter on “Class” needs to be mentioned separately. He begins with the sociologist and social activist Michael Young’s idea that meritocracy, if it were ever established, would be an especially humiliating form of social hierarchy because those at the top would try to justify their privileges on the grounds that “equality of opportunity” is eminently fair and therefore those who succeed deserve to enjoy the fruits of their talents and efforts. Young’s attack on this spurious justification focuses on “the desire of families to pass on advantages to their children.” The capacity of parents to prepare their offspring for life’s challenges varies greatly across class lines. As a result, what passes for equality of opportunity will inevitably produce the oxymoron of an inherited meritocracy.

In a modest effort to align Young’s analysis with the central thesis of his book, Appiah emphasizes a second way in which the myth of meritocracy leads us to assign credit where no credit is due. No one deserves their natural talents or capacity to make an effort any more than they deserve their parents. Rewarding effort and talent, therefore, amounts to a morally arbitrary and unjustifiable allocation of benefits to those who won a genetic lottery. As a philosophically rigorous analysis of what individuals genuinely “deserve,” this argument is unexceptionable. If generally accepted, however, it would make nonsense of most of the culturally (and legally) familiar ways in which we assign praise and blame. This suggests a potential weakness in Appiah’s project of unmasking socially consequential lies. Even though his deeper truths may make good sense in theory, they are unlikely to have much effect in practice.

Appiah’s approach has a few other problems as well. He may have a good reason for associating “essentialism” with characteristically nineteenth-century mistakes about identity while simultaneously declaring that the human species has always, from time immemorial, been “prone to essentialism.” But he leaves his readers unsure if he is fighting a period-specific fallacy or human nature itself. Second, his decision to treat his five identities sequentially means that he devotes insufficient attention to the crucial phenomenon of cross-cutting identities. In most of the book he comes out in favor of fluid, ambiguous, and constantly “renegotiated” identities, which he associates with tolerance for diversity and an openness to all humanity. But a shared religion, for example, can lead fellow believers to ignore differences of nationality, just as a joint combat mission in wartime can lead fellow soldiers to ignore differences of race that would otherwise be unbridgeable.

In his detailed exposition, Appiah illustrates this point a number of times, explaining, for example, that every identity “comes with mechanisms by which fellow members recognize one another.” The self-conscious in-groups that result are inclusive because they are exclusive, as when Americans devoted solely to gay rights make common cause with LGBT advocates in culturally remote countries. Particular identities, as a result, “can expand our horizons to communities larger than the ones we personally inhabit,” connecting “the small scale where we live our lives alongside our kith and kin with larger movements, causes, and concerns.” Such passages contain an implicit admission that particular and inflexibly entrenched identities not only “divide us and set us against one another” but can also connect us with geographically distant members of our narrowly defined identity group. That Appiah understands perfectly well the antiparochial potential inherent in particularistic identities is implied by his mild boast that “intellectuals like me” have readers among “educated people in every continent.” But he fails to integrate this insight persuasively into his general theory.

His project of liberalizing and loosening all arrogant, entrenched, dogmatic, aggressive, and barricaded identities by showing how they are based on nothing substantial runs into another problem as well. Without grouping ourselves and others in ways that overlook intragroup variety and change, he admits, human beings could never solve their collective action problems or mobilize loyalty to pursue important shared objectives. So what would happen if Appiah succeeded in replacing the lies that bind with pictures that are “closer to the truth”? Consider an identity steeled in underground resistance and evading manhunts, such as that of decolonization partisans in, say, 1950s West Africa. If this identity had been less unrelenting and aggressive, if it had not imbued group members with a partisan definition of their shared task and purpose, would it have been equally successful?

Admittedly, he twice cites Ernest Renan’s thesis that historical error “is an essential element in the creation of a nation.” But if the “errors” this book is devoted to exposing are “also central to the way identities unite us today,” what price is to be paid for correcting them? Inhabiting a particular identity means accepting a set of evaluations about the world: good versus bad, appropriate versus inappropriate, beautiful versus ugly, and so forth. Won’t persuading people of the empirical baselessness of their identity claims necessarily weaken the grip of such evaluations on their perception and behavior? The closest Appiah gets to confronting this problem is to state lamely that he wants to revise our fallacious concepts of identity, not to align them completely with the disheartening truth but only to make them “roughly” adequate to the flux and heterogeneity lurking beneath all superficial labels. Such a nonsolution presumably illustrates his modest commitment “to start conversations, not to end them.”

According to Appiah, finally, the “cosmopolitan impulse” today “has become a necessity.” That this statement is more autobiographical than sociological is implied by his conclusion that the 2016 American presidential election was in part an “expression of resentment against…cosmopolitan, degree-laden people.” This brings us to one of the most charming details in the book: an implicit comparison between, on the one hand, Appiah’s Manhattan—“the marvelous city I live in”—and, on the other, Italo Svevo’s Trieste and C.P. Cavafy’s Alexandria. The place where you live can be more or less “hospitable” to a cosmopolitan identity. The most important turn in his own life, Appiah reports, was moving to New York City, a “cultural hodgepodge that could provide the space” for a lifestyle not boxed in by patriarchal assumptions and that can be experienced as “a dance with ambiguities.” Stressing the need for a favorable environment to make cosmopolitan identity possible, he concludes: “If I had stayed in Ghana…I would…have a long road still to travel.”

What this passage and indeed this entire book make clear is that Appiah himself possesses a distinctive personal identity involving rather stable (not constantly renegotiated) moral commitments of an admirable and arguably noble kind. His cosmopolitan identity is no less a “label” and no more firmly grounded on the realities of the human condition than the parochial identities that he, like Cavafy and Svevo, would find personally insufferable. But the reader need not accept any suggestion to the contrary to appreciate the breadth of knowledge and wealth of insight contained in this exquisitely conducted tour of identity’s many troubled and promising contemporary horizons.



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