Sunday, July 30, 2006

When the melting pot freezes over

This post will be part book review and part essay. When I bought my copy of Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence, last spring, I did so entirely because of the title. Prof. Sen's crucially new and wholesome insights peek at us from that title. Where Prof. Sen arrived at his conclusions by 60 years of devoted scholarship and horrific formative experiences, I took a poet's leap to my conclusions:
What I love and the way I love make me who I am.
Marriage is something people do for many reasons and among those reasons is drawing on the status of the institution to borrow an enlargement and improvement of their own standing in their community. The less significant people feel and the less secure they feel about who they are, the more important this assumable aspect of identity becomes.

But on reading, I see that his decades of continent hopping scholarship give him the world as the scope of his concern and the depth of his reasoning and sources is global. In the end, my conclusions are smaller and do not offer the hope which Amartya Sen holds out in this book.

As often happens lately, I was reminded of my purchase by good ol' 3 Quarks Daily. Abbas Raza was calling attention to an article about Sen in The Prospect. Multiple sources pointing me to the multiple valuable messages in a book already on my shelf: clearly I should quit bucking destiny and read the book! The subtitle of the book turns out to be my real soft spot: "The Illusion of Destiny".

Humor my attempt to squash so big a book of 186 pages into one sentence but don't you dare substitute my words for reading the book! Mr. Sen's central observation is that political interests seize upon and exacerbate our common cognitive misstep of ignoring the many identities and affiliations we naturally inherit and instead focus our attention on, insist upon, our being of a single one-dimensional identity. And that identity is too often religious. If "Against the Misuse of Civilization" would not be a fair candidate for an alternative title for Sen's book, it is at least an underpopulated category to which this book is a great contribution.

The author grew up amid the sectarian strife that produced the partition of Pakistan from India and the lessons thus rooted in his mind have blossomed. He could see that most of the thousands who died horrible deaths then had more in common through their shared poverty than separated them in their religious labeling. Why, he now asks, can so few see these many bonds? The answer is in the book.

In nine chapters of professorially muscular English, Sen pries off several of our straight jacket notions:
  • "clash of civilizations"
  • We can loose more of who we are in a melting pot than by reduction to exclusive membership in a sect or "ism".
  • It is OK to identify a group by a single commonality, say their Buddhism, as long as that identity is associated with benign attributes, say their pacifism and such identification won't backfire by keeping the labels in place.
  • Even if segmentation of humanity into religious identities is harmful, segmentation into haves and have-nots or developing nations and commercial superpowers is a fair and fruitful view.
  • Reducing one's concept of self and of others to brutally narrow factions is "human nature" in adverse circumstances and not reversible.
  • Politics must make use of this presumed natural inclination to be most effective.

This is another of those books full of quotable passages, whole and holographically laden with its theme. I may stretch the bounds of fair use but I want to whet your appetite to go and read the book.
"...a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture. The implicit belief in the overarching power of a singular classification can make the world thoroughly inflammable. A uniquely divisive view goes not only against the old-fashioned belief that all human beings are much the same but also against the less discussed but much more plausible understanding that we are diversely different. The world is frequently taken to be a collection of religions (or of "civilizations" or "cultures"), ignoring the other identities that people have and value, involving class, gender, profession, language, science, morals, politics. This unique divisiveness is much more confrontational than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that shape the world in which we actually live. The reductionism of high theory can make a major contribution, often inadvertently, to the violence of low politics."
While strategy is too generous a word for what guides the Bush administration's foreign policy, their "approach" falls face first into the pit Sen describes in that paragraph from the preface. Bush, al-Sadr, or Bin Laden are unwittingly in league even though one chases the ghost of terrorists, one the Sunni Imperialist lackeys and the other the unbelievers who dirtied sacred soil.
The realization that each of us can and do have many different identities related to different significant groups to which we simultaneously belong appears to some as a rather complicated idea. But, is an extremely ordinary and elementary recognition.
The conceptual weakness of the attempt to achieve a singular understanding of the people of the world through civilizational partitioning not only works against our shared humanity, but also undermines the diverse identities we all have which do not place us against each other along one uniquely rigid line of segregation. Misdescription and misconception can make the world a more fragile place than it need be.
In that paragraph, Sen begins to uncover the hopeful: this disjoint subsetting of humanity is a mistake rather than an inevitability.

As a Nobel laureate in economics, Sen deserves close attention when he looks at the misidentification of the parties involved in globalization:
...considerable evidence that global capitalism is typically much more concerned with markets than with, say establishing democracy or expanding public education, or enhancing social opportunities of the underdogs of society.
Not that he didn't already have a lot of company among liberals in anticipating the flop that the war on terror has been but Sen knew from the start, knew from first principles, what the anatomy of the failure would be:
Increasing reliance on religion-based classification of people of the world also tends to make the Western response to global terrorism and conflict peculiarly ham-handed. Respect of "other people" is shown by praising their religious books, rather than by taking note of the many-sided involvements and achievements, in nonreligious as well as religious fields , of different people in a globally interactive world. In confronting what is called "Islamic terrorism", in the muddled vocabulary of contemporary global politics, the intellectual force of Western policy is aimed quite substantially at trying to define--or redefine--Islam. also has the effect of generally magnifying the voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as the ex officio spokesmen for the so-called Islamic world...

As I said, my views on the subject of simplistic and brutal categoric thinking are different, more psychological and far less learned than Prof. Sen's. But I find nothing wrong in any of his analysis and not much left out of his catalog of what forms identity monopolizing has taken. I want to compliment him on a vital service to the efforts of peacemakers. I also hope to bring the debate home by adding my take on why we in America have echoed, or perhaps fomented the oversimplifications that the baser sort of leaders foist upon their constituents. In America, I trace the rise of manipulable single-issue voting blocks as a parallel or a part of our turning away from our old ideal of the melting pot. There were rumors of the demise of the melting pot decades ago but if you ask "who benefits" from its demise, you have only to consider what sort of voter emerged from that pot. For all his stumping as a "uniter", Bush has , and before him most of the post-Reagan conservative gains have, relied on engineering an ideological balkanization. Individuals stripped of their amorphous, multi-faceted American identity and given in its place a skinny "Christian American" or "pro life American" moniker are far more likely to be swayed by the veiled appeals to fear and insecurity that plump up most Bush speeches. In a recent post, I was trying to explain why marriage, as the premier vehicle for propagating identity, had become a political football to the point that it needed to be separated from the entitlements of children when and if children were born:
Let me explain why the time is ripening if not ripe for such change. The tendency I and others spy for our society's pluralism to fragment into ideological enclaves is but one symptom of the advent of melting pots and national harmony losing ground to the cultivation of disrespect and distortion. We in western cultures are reaching a point where we think we can afford to relax the discipline of living within larger communities. We have enough choices of community and news sources to live as if our favored ways were the only ways. Western societies, but especially the US, which strove for, or at least claimed, tolerance of mildly diverse ethnicities and creeds now change direction: we actually were faking it. We smothered the little cultural differences with the blanket of WASP flavored civility, shed languages at Ellis Island, bet heavily on public schooling as the path (and the price) of progress. But now the right rails and legislates against different views but doesn't leave its neighborhoods. Pluralism fades. It was always a compromise between getting things your way and getting along. In a society where the media and even some politicians find benefit in promoting ideological and inevitably cultural balkanization, marriage, as the institution of cultural propagation, must either undergo the same fragmentation or come loose from its role. I don't care what happens to the institution but I do care what happens to the kids.

The point I strain to make here is that the war of singular identities has also taken up marriage as one of its battle grounds. The view has been shifted from marriage as a private covenant with very individual nature as diverse as each couple to a view that it must preserve and enforce public, simple and common notions of union. Does anybody talk about a constitutional amendment to insure that Catholics will have Jewish weddings? Does that preposterous notion not differ more in degree than in kind from the amendments now marching through the state houses? Sen argues that public discourse has abandoned the individual for the oversimplified interest group and I argue that we have also abandoned the real families for symbolic ones in a fight between one dimensional interest groups. Thus I came by my own observations to a point where I see Professor Sen's book as much needed advice. If you are a real person instead of a cardboard cutout with one large label [of your choice] and you would like to be treated like a real person and understand that you can't get that treatment if you do not offer it to others...then you are as ready to appreciate that book as I was.

Marriage is my instance of how "you-must-be-this-or-you-must-be-that" thinking takes over the airwaves and editorials. Sen provides many more intances that have bloodier consequences. The message in all these observations is that as a process of political thought, the singular identity is seriously damaging to the prosperity and harmony we'd like to think is possible. While the malaise of insisting that it is right and/or effective to use narrowing of identities and causes for political ends is not exclusively afflicting the right wing politics, it is more nearly central to conservative political outlooks. Two examples will illustrate who finds benefit in forcing singular identities on real populations..

For the man-on-the street political "thought", talk show commentators are a ubiquitous and flagrant example of casting the variegated and untidy multitudes as "those liberals". The recognition of individuals as having composite identities and affiliations is not to be confused with the sham individualism seen in Rush Limbaugh's empty touting. Limbaugh's individualism claims the rights and spoils of will and self determination but shuns the responsibilities to humanity that each of our overlapped identities entails. The return of identity to the individual for which Sen pleads is an individuality that can shoulder those responsibilities.

For more intellectual treatment here is a paragraph from Roger Kimbal railing against "multiculturalism" in The New Criterion. This is as close as the conservatives can get to seeing that we have lost something of the civility we once claimed yet they still mush-mindedly speak as if it were impossible to have more than one identity:
Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity. As such, they oppose the traditional understanding of what it means to be an American—an understanding hinted at in 1782 by the French-born American farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur in his famous image of America as a country in which “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” This crucible of American identity, this “melting pot,” has two aspects. The negative aspect involves disassociating oneself from the cultural imperatives of one’s country of origin. One sheds a previous identity before assuming a new one. One might preserve certain local habits and tastes, but they are essentially window-dressing. In essence one has left the past behind in order to become an American citizen.

In a contrasting example, Peter Salins writes in ReasonOnline from a fairly typical liberal perspective on the melting pot and multiculturalism and sees commonality rather than some creeping evil eroding our "American identity".

You know I hate complaints unaccompanied by suggestions of what is to be done. What is our part, our culpability if any, in this pernicious miscasting of all the players? If, as citizens and voters, we have demanded simplicity, we have tolerated over simplicity.

When the melting pot freezes over, we will have realized hell on earth...and it will be hot enough to consume us all.

It is an old intuition of mine that violence and identity are entangled. Poetry aside, if you can be convinced of a simple enough idea of "what you are" then your other selves are silenced and attacks on that purported essence will be felt as attack on your self. The poem might read "What I hate and what I will fight for make me who I am."

Update: reader etbnc points us to an interesting book by David Berreby that makes the argument that we could not function if we dispensed with the tribal loyalties we feel. Looks like I got another book report coming.

1 comment:

etbnc said...

You might find complementary and supplementary value in David Berreby's book, Us and Them. He explores the ways we categorize each other and the ways we act upon those categories.

A couple of useful concepts Berreby highlights are the ways we can belong to many categories simultaneously and the ways we adjust our categorizations as circumstances change.

The author's web site is, which includes an FAQ and a blog.