Now that my time at Columbia is winding to a close, I've found myself looking back and trying to remember exactly what it was that I supposedly learned. I've forgotten most of it already. But I found this one little paper, for my informal Danchin class back in 2005, that sums up the way I felt about the program when I was finishing up classes. I found it interesting to look back on. It pretty much still describes my feelings about the program as I prepare to graduate, so I thought I'd post it here.
At the meeting at Professor Martin’s house on Friday, I raised the idea that maybe a politics of identity is often more destructive than constructive. Defining identity is as much about exclusion as inclusion, definition by difference as much as commonality. No one really took up that idea, so it may be a dead end. But I thought I’d write a little bit about it, just to play devil’s advocate.
I’ve always thought of myself as a good little liberal universalist. Some of what I’ve read in this class has made me realize that I stray from rigid Liberal doctrine more than I had thought. But still, multiculturalism, in its purest form, makes me uncomfortable. I took a gender and human rights class last semester, and it made me feel like a bad feminist. Why? Because I found the tone of the class very negative. Instead of addressing positive changes to be made, the rhetoric was all about Western patriarchy. I found myself writing a final paper that I didn’t even necessarily agree with, because it mirrored what I thought the point of the class was. In that class, identity as woman was defined through being embattled. The class was thoroughly couched in relativistic terms; i.e. the reason that women in the West are marginalized is because the Western system is inherently patriarchal, and imposing that system on other parts of the world will inevitably lead to a form of victimization just as terrible as the supposedly backwards culture we are trying to replace. Isn’t it possible that there’s a way to walk between the two poles, to embrace strands of Western thought that should lend themselves to the furtherance of liberty and equality while simultaneously taking similar elements from other cultures? Isn’t a good idea a good idea everywhere? In many ways, a lot of modern human rights debate is a reaction against a Western ideological imposition as a matter of principle, not because of a disagreement with the fundamental theories that ideology entails. Because of Western dominance, critics are on the defensive, and sometimes seem only able to create an identity as anti-something, rather than pro-something.
As an undergraduate, I studied nationalism, particularly the role nationalism played in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In my final Bachelor’s paper, I wrote at some length about the idea of definition by comparison with “the other”. Serbs and Croats lived fairly peacefully for long period of time before more modern notions of nation began creeping into the picture during the World Wars. The rise of nationalism rose alongside the downfall of empires, and it has been rare that the wielding of nationalism as a political tool has ended peacefully. The line between state and nation is eternally blurry. Are all states nations? Should all nations have states?
The first question can be answered with a fairly obvious “no”, as many wars have evidenced. Many African nations have demonstrated the arbitrariness of their Western-imposed borders through civil, tribal wars; one particularly vivid example at the moment is the Sudan. Yugoslavia was a multi-national state, wherein a strong center played diverse nations off one another in a highly structured political way. Once that center became a vacuum, the road to power was paved with nationalism. By kindling separate national identities, men like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman were able to use the furor created between abutting nations to boost their own rises to authority. This is a particularly telling example because, when the Serb/Croat and Serb/Slovene wars began, there was no side that was hopelessly marginalized within a society dominated by the other. The example doesn’t run parallel to the Kurds in Iraq, or Palestinians in Israel, or even, later, the Muslims in Bosnia or Albanians in Kosovo, where there was and is a narrative of prejudice and suppression. Creating a Serb identity or a Croat identity wasn’t a response to hardship. In a way, it was identity politics gone out of control. Because there was difference, there was a way to define one’s group by comparison, and each group wanted to assert dominance. It was a case, in my humble opinion, of self-determination through selfishness.
Self-determination is a concept that I find myself fascinated by. When taking international law, it was the subject that I was most interested in – the way that, legally, states were created in the post-war international system, and how or if new states can be validly created in the present day. So, obviously, I was particularly curious about what the representative of the Sioux nation would say at our class on indigenous rights. He was a compelling speaker. His point about how it’s impossible to secede from a country that you were never part of is well taken. I fully believe that the United States’ treatment of the Native Americans is and was reprehensible, and that a way should be found to fairly deal with the numerous ways treaty obligations have been ignored to the detriment of the Sioux people. But I had a practical problem with his speech. Reclaiming land that belongs to the Sioux under treaty obligations would create a parallel to the Israeli/Palestinian situation in the West Bank. He had no strategy that he presented to deal with that problem, other than to say that anyone would be welcome to live under the laws of the Sioux nation. He also had no apparent plan as to how any Sioux state would be a viable state. If they forced their hand and “seceded”, they would no longer have the option of any support from the US. What would be the economic base for the nation, now that the US’s actions over time have impoverished their people except for casino owners? When asked about the possibility of a federation with other Native American nations, he looked blank. It seems that for all his rhetoric, he hasn’t actually worked out a real plan for how independence would work – he’s simply working on an ideological, rather than a practical, basis. In this way, his nationalism is destructive, because his commitment to the purity of his cause is distracting him from the reality of the situation. His speech reminded me of the aspirations of the Palestinian people, in that his ideology is admirable, but his inability to compromise will inevitably paralyze his ability to see any version of his dream come to fruition.
Many people at Professor Martin’s apartment spoke of their identities as activists, and how frustrated they are by the career-driven structure of SIPA. But I wonder if what they are really chafing against is the imposition of the boundaries of reality on their boundless aspirations for how to change the world. I think it’s important to look forward, explore critical approaches to the status quo. But it’s also important to understand the way the world works, and how we can fit our strategies for progress and change into an existing framework, rather than constantly raging against limitations. I think what it boils down to is that I’m not the revolutionary I was in my teens. Somewhere along the line I became a moderate within my community. And I feel like whenever I profess my moderate opinions, my right to assert my identity as an activist is questioned. This is why I think identity politics can often be divisive. It has become a battleground, where ideological purity determines one’s right to subscribe to a certain political identity. I think that in the end, it’s just as important to keep looking for commonalities as it is to embrace our differences.