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A Political Contradictionary from A to Z


Think the Civil Rights Movement. Think Women's Lib. Pushed and prodded by activists carrying banners calling for an end to school segregation or passage of an Equal Rights Amendment, landmark legislative and judicial decisions have been rendered, advancing anti-discriminatory policies in employment, education, health care and housing. Individuals focused their energies and their racial or gender identities to challenge the status quo through what has come to be called 'identity politics'. The practice took off in the 1960s and is still going strong today, more recently taken up by the radical religious right. Think of identity politics as self-identified political pressure groups.

Eric Hobsbawm draws attention to the complexities and contradictions inherent in identity politics. After World War II, as traditional values were either questioned, shaken up, or discarded by the beat and baby boom generations, liberation movements initially rallied in the name of race and gender. Ironically, communities of commonly held identities (including those drawn together on the basis of sexual preference, age, disability and religion/ethnicity) found their political voices just as a social revolution was stretching the traditional definition of community into something new and historically unrecognizable.

"Men and women look for groups to which they can belong, certainly and forever, in a world in which all else is moving and shifting, in which nothing else is certain. And they find it in an identity group. Hence the strange paradox...people choose to belong to an identity group, but 'it is a choice predicated on the strongly held, intensely conceived belief that the individual has absolutely no choice but to belong to that specific group.'"

"Without Outsiders there are no Insiders. In other words, collective identities are based not on what their members have in common -- they may have very little in common except not being the 'Others'. Unionists and Nationalists in Belfast, or Serb, Croat and Muslim Bosnians, who would otherwise be indistinguishable (they speak the same language, have the same life styles, look and behave the same) insist on the one thing that divides them, which happens to be religion. Conversely, what gives unity as Palestinians to a mixed population of Muslims of various kinds, Roman and Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and others who might well -- like their neighbors in Lebanon -- fight each other under different circumstances? Simply that they are not the Israelis, as Israeli policy continually reminds them."

Further complicating matters are the multiplicity of identities one can have, and the fact that identities can and do change, even as the context in which one finds oneself changes. Just ask any traveller who ventures that first time beyond the limits of her citizenship what it feels like to become an instant alien, merely by crossing an international border.

And what of CLASS? Hobsbawm again: "In my view the emergence of identity politics is a consequence of the extraordinarily rapid and profound upheavals and transformations of human society in the third quarter of [the 20th] century....This is not my view alone. The American sociologist Daniel Bell, for instance, argued in 1975 that 'The breakup of the traditional authority structures and the previous affective social units -- historically nation and class...make the ethnic attachment more salient'".

Hobsbawm's essay raises yet another contradiction: can Left or Progressive aims be achieved through identity politics? His answer is no, or unlikely, because the Left is concerned with all people, whatever their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, occupation, nationality or, as the 15th Amendment says, previous condition of servitude. Some groups united by identity politics may be Progressive; but to be Progressive means to have a concern for all peoples, beyond identity politics. While a group united in its political aims by its self-defined identity may be Progressive, i.e., come down on the left side of the political spectrum, ultimately it is the welfare of that group that is the group's primary concern.

Todd Gitlin in The Twilight of Common Dreams asks how a political perspective (the Left in this case) can flourish 'if it is not, plausibly at least, the voice of the whole people?...If there is no people, but only peoples, there is no Left.'

See Eric Hobsbawm Identity Politics and the Left, an address given at the Institute of Education, London 2 May 1996.

Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars, Owl Books, 1996.

INDIRECT COSTS: What the buyer is not told when it comes to figuring whether the proposed purchase is all that good an idea. "Now with the economy as large as it is, the indirect costs of burning coal -- air pollution, acid rain, devastated ecosystems, and climate change -- can exceed the direct costs, those of mining the coal and transporting it to the power plant. As a result of neglecting to account for these indirect costs, the market is undervaluing many goods and services, creating economic distortions."
Plan B 3.0, Lester Brown