Identity. Hah! What is it Good For? Absolutely Something.

By: Michael Mortimer

I, like many others I know, are struggling to make sense of the what appears to be an inexorable slide towards a viciously divided USA, driven, it seems, in large part by identify politics pitting a version of ethnonationalism against a version of cosmopolitanism. This USA is not only increasingly politically hamstrung, where even minor policy decisions warrant a full-throated war and where every sword is worth falling on, the rancor trickles down to friends and family, who a decade or so ago were just that—friends and family. Now many of them look like the “other.” Like the enemy.

The current political and cultural polarization in the United States is evidence of the demise of a unifying and universal national narrative. Part of the population ardently believes in the exceptional United States, the best country in the world, the “love it or leave it” crowd. Others see the United States as good but flawed, an equal among peers, and are prepared to openly criticize the flaws they perceive. Both can be correct and incorrect at the same time. Is that a nuance? Yes. But the identities, their accompanying values, and ultimately identity-driven behaviors are very seldom seeking a nuanced middle ground. They increasingly seem to be seeking the opposite corners of the room: Barack Obama was either simply and inarguably the greatest American president, or a Kenyan, Muslim (in some versions atheist), and corrupt traitor. Let the buyer beware.

Because my work involves educating graduate students about the broader world around them and the environmental challenges facing that world, it’s handy to use my own situation to help think through where we are.   So a few things about me and my family. Though I have visited 46 US states, for the last two decades my business and holiday travel has almost exclusively required a passport. Flags make me uncomfortable—they seem to be designed to divide us, to create us/them thinking (my team is better than your team), or more accurately us/them feelings—even worse.

I’ve spent time in as many countries as I have US states. I cherish those experiences, and I work hard to nurture my own personal version of a cosmopolitan sensibility. I admit that I do not carry with me a sense of place, of belonging for any particular spot in the world. A ‘citizen of nowhere’ perhaps—I type these words from the Piazza di Santa Croce in Firenze, Italy, burial site of both Michelangelo and Machiavelli. But I’m not alone. A quick show of hands in one of my graduate classes revealed that near two-thirds of the students would gladly exchange their respective national passport for a hypothetical UN Global Passport. Please know that I believe attachment to place is both powerful and important, and I sometimes find myself remorseful that I have to-date been unable to enjoy its embrace.

Now let’s consider my mother. Nearing her octogenarian birthday, she firmly identifies as a nationalist. A proud and self-described member of Donald Trump’s “Deplorables,” she supports a robust set of immigration restrictions. She admits she knows no recent immigrants, illegal or otherwise. My mother has not, in her nearly 80 years, travelled outside of North America. Her standard parting advice to me when I travel abroad, regardless of the destination, is: “I hope ISIS doesn’t kill you.” She is not the future of a US national identity.

Consider then my son, her grandson. He visited a half dozen foreign countries before he had his driver’s license, his best friend in high school was Chinese, and he now studies in that most diverse and global of US cities—New York. But he is not the inevitable avatar of the future either. Because the US is so large, and the values, experiences, and expectations of its diverse citizenry so very different, both of these identities will continue to co-exist, by hook or by crook.

We are now a nation with at least these two competing identities (the jury is out on whether they are incompatible). One, haunted by disorientation with both the degree and speed of change in the last several decades, and seeking the surety of an idealized time gone by. The other, thriving on that same change, looks only forward to the future. The two diverge on how they see the US, what agitates them, and what’s best for the country. Where the anger, the undeniably seething rage (that I bet we’ve all encountered) seems to comes from, appears to be twofold—an individual set of moral foundations that are repeatedly triggered by where American society seems to be headed (less white, less hetero, less patriotic, less religious), or whom our society is utterly failing (women, gays, minorities, the poor), and the associated social identities that by implication come under attack by the perpetrators of these wrongs, by those out-groups, those ‘others’.

The challenge is profound. It is almost impossible to have a measured discussion under these circumstances. Reasonable people cannot agree to disagree, because only one side is ever reasonable. But there may be a path forward. Can you respect another identity or group without empathizing with it or even understanding it? Can you at least acknowledge it, witness it, even as you don’t necessarily agree with it? I think the answer might be “yes.” Or as Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian (Han Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018) resignedly put it “I don’t like it, I don’t agree with it. But I can accept it.” We can too. But only—only—if you are able to check your own version of a nationalist identity, consider that your values, norms, and identity may or may not be superior and is likely an incomplete version, that you don’t have the only claim to truth, that you are a unknowing victim of your own cognitive biases, and to allow that differences aren’t always a threat. They are just differences.

I think liberals can find value in the heightened awareness conservatives hold about threats to our mutual social capital, to the very fabric of our society. Too much, too fast can do great damage—often unintended—even as it strives to solve social ills.  Likewise, conservatives can find value in the way liberals are able to identify societal blind spots, where the values we all share (equality, fairness, the rule of law) are not working as well for all of us as they should or could. The two forces, one pushing and one pulling, seem integral to any society. They need each other and bring balance. When they become openly hostile, when differences erupt as rage (“I hate that lying, MF-ing so and so!”), then something has gone horribly wrong. Maybe it’s the media; maybe it’s the social media, maybe it’s just cynical manipulation by amoral politicians. But it is destructive. To society, to friends, to families.