Here and there – The politics of identity and identity politics

The German nationalist party AfD pledged to ‘take back our country and our people.’  Who might ‘our people’ be?  The party did very well in Saxony – that had been part of East Germany.  Many young people left there for jobs in the west.  A Dresden observer said that in the east, the church wasn’t strong, and families had splintered.  The state was not seen to represent these people.  By saying that it will take back these people, AfD was giving them a sense of identity.

Giving people a sense of identity is the traditional model for all nationalist parties.  Their supporters feel neglected if not rejected.  The party offers them self-respect by allowing them to identify with the nation.  Symbols like the flag and the anthem become not just more valued, but sacred.  Citizenship means so much to these people.  It’s their most cherished asset.  So, they are fiercely opposed to diluting it by offering it to others.

It’s a curious word, ‘identity.’  The OED relevantly has the ‘quality or condition of being the same’ and ‘individuality, personality, individual existence.’  Your identity is what enables others to identify you – say who you are.  You don’t want to be taken for someone else, or, worse, not be identified at all.  Being not identified is tragically close to being not recognised.

Political parties like One Nation and AfD say that they fear that their nation is losing its identity.  For both, the main threats come from immigration and Islam.  These parties talk a lot about ‘sovereignty’ and national pride.  They are against any foreign relations that may diminish either.  It was exactly the same with both Farage and Trump.  They went head to head in exploiting popular prejudice against Muslims.

One Nation is full of nonsense about what it stands for, like:

Australian values include honesty and speaking openly, directly and respectfully with complete freedom of speech and expression to ensure integrity and accountability. 

But the party is very open about the fact that it appeals to life’s losers and victims:

We believe that our country’s future wealth and the prosperity of all Australians can be assured only through listening and then caring enough to openly address the problems that Liberal-Labor-Nationals-Greens created politically and continue to make. We listen and we care enough to speak for the voiceless and the powerless.

One Nation is not just against Islam, but embarrassingly for many Christians, the party claims to stand for a Christian nation.

We are a Christian country with one law for all…..

One Nation supports the refugee programme, but we must have a say in who comes in. We must be mindful of taking people that are Christian, and genuine refugees.  

If a nation is in some unspecified way a Christian nation, where does that leave Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists?  Or Muslims?

The AfD is, like One Nation, against Islam.

Islam does not belong to Germany.  Its expansion and the ever-increasing number of Muslims in the country are viewed by the AfD as a danger to our state, our society, and our values.

Naturally, both these parties believe that climate change is a myth.

It’s curious that people like Hanson, Farage and Trump are so preoccupied with religion, and saying that they want to protect their nation from one faith in particular, when nothing about their history, demeanour or conduct suggests that they have ever had more than passing contact with anything even remotely resembling God, and they do this in nations that purport to cherish religious freedom and neutrality.  This is another facet of the sad fact that nationalist parties inevitably, it seems, provoke conflict in their nations.

Now, all parties target groups – analysts speak of ‘focus groups’ – but nationalists specifically target those who feel ‘voiceless and powerless.’  It’s the same for Farage and Trump, as well as Hanson.  They trade on resentment and jealousy.  The cliché is ‘politics of envy.’  They are big on attack but rotten at building.  (Farage didn’t even bother to hang around to try to build.  His job was done with the detonation.)  In discussing the collapse of the Republican Party, Bret Stephens referred to ‘fury factories’ like Fox and Breitbart, and said:

Opinion journalism is meant to influence and inflame, and it does. Especially in an age in which civics is taught poorly (and, increasingly, rarely), people are politically suggestible.  Bill O’Reilly is now the right’s historian, Mark Levin its go-to legal expert, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham its moral conscience.  These are not ideas guys.  They’re anger guys.  Their specialty is the communication of rage to an audience prone to histrionics.  It can feel awfully good to be awfully mad.

People who aren’t familiar with Fox News or Sky don’t know how vicious and predatory they can be.  The ‘fury factories’ share and incite anger.  The problem is that feeling ‘awfully mad’ does not of itself get ‘politically suggestible’ people anywhere.  Nor does it get them representatives who have the training or patience to negotiate laws that will work for their supporters.

So, nationalists take aim at groups within the community.  You might, if you were that way disposed, say that they were engaging in ‘identity politics’.  But that term is one of abuse for those in Australia who admire Trump or Farage.  They get very worked up when people agitate politically based on common interests held by people of a particular sex, sexuality, faith, colour, class, or age.  I have had some trouble understanding why in a free country it is not good for people to seek to advance their common interests.  Was it wrong for the Quakers to campaign against slavery?

Well people on Sky or at The Australian get very worked up about ‘identity politics.’  Steve Bannon said he could crush the Democrats if they persisted with identity politics.  But that is just how Trump and Farage and Hanson operate.  What is the difference between people coming together to say bad things about Muslims and to seek to hold them back, and people coming to say good things about Lesbian women or married men and seeking to move them forward?

All this suggests that we could drop the word ‘identity’ from politics either as an appeal or as a rebuke.  It’s another instance of our intellectual wooliness.

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