Iden­tity: The De­mand for Dig­nity and the Pol­i­tics of Re­sent­ment by Francis Fukuyama

The Lies That Bind: Re­think­ing Iden­tity: Creed, Coun­try, Class, Cul­ture by Kwame An­thony Ap­piah

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Stephen Holmes


The De­mand for Dig­nity and the Pol­i­tics of Re­sent­ment by Francis Fukuyama.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux,

218 pp., $26.00

The Lies That Bind: Re­think­ing Iden­tity: Creed, Coun­try, Class, Cul­ture by Kwame An­thony Ap­piah. Liveright, 256 pp., $27.95 1. Trib­al­ism and clan­nish­ness are co­eval with hu­man so­cial life. Yet the re­cent world­wide out­break of fun­da­men­talisms, na­tivisms, na­tion­alisms, and sep­a­ratisms sug­gests that some­thing por­ten­tously new is afoot, a kind of global back­lash against the per­ceived fail­ures of lib­eral so­ci­eties. One fa­mil­iar ex­am­ple, in both Amer­ica and Europe, is panic in the face of a real or threat­ened in­flux of cul­tur­ally di­verse im­mi­grants. That the pres­i­dent of the United States finds po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage in stok­ing such anx­i­eties is an­other sign of our iden­tity-trou­bled times. Francis Fukuyama in Iden­tity and An­thony Ap­piah in The Lies That Bind share an ad­mirable am­bi­tion: to change the way we see mem­ber­ship and be­long­ing in the hope that this will help de­fang re­li­gious big­otry, eth­nic prej­u­dice, and other ill-dis­posed forms of group self-un­der­stand­ing and thus al­low in­di­vid­u­als with dis­sim­i­lar traits and back­grounds to co­ex­ist peace­ably and en­rich each other’s lives.

Fukuyama is right to re­ject crit­i­cism that his first book, The End of His­tory and the Last Man (1992), was an ex­pres­sion of lib­eral tri­umphal­ism. Its gloomy in­sis­tence on the spir­i­tual mean­ing­less­ness likely to be­fall late cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­eties, in which athe­ist con­sumers have noth­ing se­ri­ous to live for, rules out such breezy op­ti­mism. But he did im­ply, para­dox­i­cally, that af­ter the wholly unan­tic­i­pated col­lapse of com­mu­nism there would be no more sur­prises about “the de­fault form of gov­ern­ment for much of the world, at least in as­pi­ra­tion.” What he now sees, but could not have fore­seen at the time, was that the high tide of lib­eral democ­racy would last a mere fif­teen years: “Be­gin­ning in the mid-2000s, the mo­men­tum to­ward an in­creas­ingly open and lib­eral world or­der be­gan to fal­ter, then went into re­verse.” Iden­tity pol­i­tics, he has now con­cluded, ex­plains why lib­eral democ­racy has ceased to im­press much of the world as the ideal form of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion.

He con­fesses at the out­set that Iden­tity would not have been writ­ten had Trump not been elected pres­i­dent, re­veal­ing the ex­tent to which “white na­tion­al­ism has moved from a fringe move­ment to some­thing much more main­stream in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.” In the over­wrought fears of “hard-core im­mi­gra­tion op­po­nents” who re­ject all pro­pos­als to grant un­doc­u­mented aliens a path to cit­i­zen­ship, Fukuyama sees a “proxy” for white mid­dle-class anx­i­eties about loss of sta­tus in the glob­al­ized econ­omy. To make sense of white na­tion­al­ism, he ar­gues, we must rec­og­nize that per­sonal eco­nomic re­ver­sals are of­ten ex­pe­ri­enced as a painful loss of so­cial sta­tus and that job­less­ness and de­clin­ing in­comes, com­pounded by fam­ily break­down and an ex­plo­sion of deaths by over­dose, make down­wardly mo­bile cit­i­zens feel so­cially “in­vis­i­ble.” Af­ter sur­vey­ing a few eco­nomic trends that he be­lieves have fu­eled xeno­pho­bic na­tivism in Europe as well as Amer­ica, Fukuyama shifts to ap­por­tion­ing blame. Left-wing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism turns out to be the prin­ci­pal cul­prit: “Iden­tity pol­i­tics as cur­rently prac­ticed on the left . . . has stim­u­lated the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics on the right.” With­out the left’s cult of di­ver­sity, ap­par­ently, there would have been no white na­tion­al­ist back­lash. Trump did lit­tle more, it seems, than help move “the fo­cus of iden­tity pol­i­tics from the left, where it was born, to the right, where it is now tak­ing root.”

As this de­bat­able the­sis sug­gests, Fukuyama sides with those who fault the Demo­cratic Party for at­tempt­ing to build “a coali­tion of dis­parate iden­tity groups.” “Ac­tivists on the left” turned their backs on the an­tipoverty pro­grams and re­dis­tribu­tive poli­cies that would have helped strug­gling whites in or­der to pur­sue pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion for marginal­ized groups—blacks, women, im­mi­grants, and LGBT peo­ple. They stopped pay­ing at­ten­tion to “the white Amer­i­can work­ing class” just as it was be­ing “dragged into an un­der­class.” With­out ques­tion­ing how im­por­tant “Don­ald Trump’s work­ing­class sup­port­ers” were to his Elec­toral Col­lege vic­tory, Fukuyama wants us to know that they were not wrong to “feel they have been dis­re­garded by the na­tional elites.” On this in­ter­pre­ta­tion, the left’s cod­dling of mi­nori­ties com­pelled many eco­nom­i­cally dis­tressed vot­ers to rally around their own white Chris­tian iden­tity in self-de­fense.

Fukuyama is not wholly op­posed to iden­tity pol­i­tics. The two ex­am­ples he cites as wel­come cor­rec­tives of in­jus­tice are the #MeToo move­ment and Black Lives Mat­ter. But his main point is that pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion in fa­vor of mi­nori­ties has fo­mented a dan­ger­ous back­lash among a pop­u­la­tion al­ready trau­ma­tized by dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and and an in­verted world where “women were dis­plac­ing men in an in­creas­ingly ser­vice-dom­i­nated new econ­omy.” And he adds a sec­ond charge: the mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist apoth­e­o­sis of sep­a­rate, dis­tinct, and in­ter­nally ho­mo­ge­neous so­cial group­ings is in­com­pat­i­ble with the na­tional in­te­gra­tion of a di­verse pop­u­la­tion through shared pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. Fukuyama is es­pe­cially shocked by those who view the in­te­gra­tionist de­mand for mono­lin­gual pub­lic school­ing as some­how racist and in­tol­er­ant when it is ac­tu­ally em­i­nently demo­cratic.

He rec­og­nizes, of course, that the frag­men­ta­tion of the Amer­i­can pub­lic into “self-con­tained com­mu­ni­ties, walled off not by phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers but by be­lief in shared iden­tity” has been “fa­cil­i­tated by tech­no­log­i­cal change.” What dis­turbs him, how­ever, is less the mu­tu­ally in­ac­ces­si­ble niches of re­cip­ro­cally ap­plaud­ing par­ti­sans made pos­si­ble by the In­ter­net than the po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated shift of at­ten­tion, al­legedly pi­o­neered by the left, “to­ward the pro­tec­tion of ever nar­rower group iden­ti­ties.” The “ever-pro­lif­er­at­ing iden­tity groups in­ac­ces­si­ble to out­siders” cel­e­brated by mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists not only threaten to de­stroy democ­racy, they au­gur the end of ra­tio­nal­ity. Mu­tu­ally sus­pi­cious and in­su­lated group­ings are in­ca­pable of ra­tio­nal de­bate. They no longer share a com­mon world or a com­mon un­der­stand­ing of the dif­fer­ence be­tween truths and lies.

But if iden­tity pol­i­tics on the left pro­voked the emer­gence of iden­tity pol­i­tics on the right, what caused the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics on the left? Fukuyama an­swers this ques­tion with his sig­na­ture in­vo­ca­tion of eco­nomic and cul­tural fac­tors. On the one hand, de­u­nion­iza­tion of work­ers and tax eva­sion by the wealthy have made the re­sort to fis­cally un­de­mand­ing sym­bolic pol­i­tics al­most in­evitable. For the left, in par­tic­u­lar, bud­getary aus­ter­ity made it “eas­ier to talk about re­spect and dig­nity than to come up with po­ten­tially costly plans that would con­cretely re­duce in­equal­ity.” But con­straints on spend­ing alone can­not ex­plain the rise of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and mi­nor­ity rights.

More im­por­tant, from Fukuyama’s per­spec­tive, is a cul­tural story in­volv­ing the way that “the left has moved fur­ther to the left,” by which he means not to­ward egal­i­tar­i­an­ism but to­ward con­demn­ing West­ern cul­ture as “the in­cu­ba­tor of colo­nial­ism, pa­tri­archy, and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion.” He ac­cuses US left­ists in par­tic­u­lar of seek­ing to

un­der­mine the le­git­i­macy of the Amer­i­can na­tional story by em­pha­siz­ing vic­tim­iza­tion, in­sin­u­at­ing in some cases that racism, gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, and other forms of sys­tem­atic ex­clu­sion are some­how in­trin­sic to the coun­try’s DNA.

Dig­ging deeper, Fukuyama be­lieves he has un­earthed the ori­gins of modern iden­tity pol­i­tics, first, in the way “so­ci­eties started to mod­ern­ize a few hun­dred years ago” and, sec­ond, in Rousseau’s val­oriza­tion of “sub­jec­tive in­ner feel­ing over the shared norms and un­der­stand­ings of the sur­round­ing so­ci­ety.” At the ori­gins of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion, peo­ple farmed and raised their fam­i­lies in set­tled agri­cul­tural vil­lages where the grip of in­her­ited so­cial roles meant that no one ever asked the modern ques­tion: Who am I? That changed when ur­ban­iza­tion, com­mer­cial­iza­tion, lit­er­acy, sci­ence, and the other acids of moder­nity con­fronted hu­man be­ings for the first time with a myr­iad of op­tions from which to choose while si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­priv­ing them of au­thor­i­ta­tive so­cial norms to guide them in their choices. He calls this the “iden­tity con­fu­sion cre­ated by rapid mod­ern­iza­tion.”

The cru­cial de­vel­op­ment that pur­port­edly paved the way to our cur­rent cri­sis was the emer­gence in Euro­pean in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles, un­der the con­di­tions just de­scribed, of an un­prece­dented dis­tinc­tion be­tween an “au­then­tic in­ner self” that is “in­trin­si­cally valu­able” and an “outer so­ci­ety” that is “sys­tem­at­i­cally wrong and un­fair in its val­u­a­tion” of that self. Quintessen­tially modern thinkers, in­clud­ing Rousseau, worked out “a dis­tinc­tion be­tween one’s true in­ner self and an outer world of so­cial rules that does not ad­e­quately rec­og­nize that in­ner self’s worth or dig­nity.” You might think it far-fetched to lo­cate the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of Amer­ica’s cur­rent po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion in the in­ward­ness of sen­ti­men­tal in­di­vid­u­al­ists. But Fukuyama be­lieves he can make this idio­syn­cratic ge­neal­ogy work by de­ploy­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween Er­leb­nis (sub­jec­tively lived ex­pe­ri­ence that is in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble to oth­ers) and Er­fahrung (ob­jec­tive and shared ex­pe­ri­ence on which sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments are based). First Rousseau el­e­vated the in­ef­fa­ble ex­pe­ri­ence of pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als over so­cially shared and pub­licly

ver­i­fi­able ex­pe­ri­ence, and then his heirs ap­plied a sim­i­lar ap­proach to groups. The idea that each per­son har­bors an in­ner­most self that is in­scrutable to oth­ers even­tu­ally mor­phed into the “idea that each group has its own iden­tity that was not ac­ces­si­ble to out­siders.”

To this un­con­ven­tional sto­ry­line Fukuyama adds the more fa­mil­iar idea that modern so­ci­ety places an un­bear­able strain on or­di­nary men and women who are nat­u­ral con­form­ists and per­son­ally un­com­fort­able with au­ton­omy. The kind of “ex­pres­sive in­di­vid­u­al­ism” that makes sense for a few ex­cep­tional peo­ple can’t pos­si­bly work for the vast ma­jor­ity be­cause “most peo­ple do not have in­fi­nite depths of in­di­vid­u­al­ity that is theirs alone.” De­prived by mod­ern­iza­tion of a shared moral hori­zon, such peo­ple will “not know who their true self is” and will there­fore seek to re­bind them­selves “to a so­cial group and reestab­lish a clear moral hori­zon.” This ap­par­ently ex­plains why na­tion­al­ism “ap­peared on the world stage” at a mo­ment “of so­cial tran­si­tion from tra­di­tional iso­lated agrar­ian so­ci­eties to modern ones.”

Along­side this grand nar­ra­tive with only patchy em­pir­i­cal sup­port, Fukuyama fields a hand­ful of pol­icy pro­pos­als. His premise is that lib­eral democ­racy will not sur­vive “if cit­i­zens do not be­lieve they are part of the same polity.” The “rem­edy” he ad­vo­cates is “to de­fine larger and more in­te­gra­tive na­tional iden­ti­ties that take ac­count of the de facto di­ver­sity of ex­ist­ing lib­eral demo­cratic so­ci­eties.” Be­cause po­lit­i­cal co­her­ence can­not be re­stored to Amer­ica on the ba­sis of com­mon an­ces­try or a shared cul­tural her­itage, no mat­ter how ju­di­ciously the coun­try man­ages im­mi­gra­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion, he urges Amer­i­cans to adopt “an in­clu­sive sense of na­tional iden­tity” an­chored in con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy and the rule of law. On this ba­sis, Fukuyama trum­pets an agenda aimed at “the suc­cess­ful as­sim­i­la­tion of for­eign­ers” into what he sees as Amer­ica’s “dom­i­nant cul­ture.” The United States should con­tinue to be open to im­mi­grants from across the world. But it should do so only in mod­est enough num­bers to fa­cil­i­tate the grad­ual process of as­sim­i­la­tion and to avoid the kind of cul­tural shock that is bound to ex­cite de­mo­graphic panic. We must make sure that new­com­ers be­come “ir­ra­tionally at­tached” to Amer­ica’s “creedal iden­tity,” which boils down to a “be­lief in equal­ity and demo­cratic val­ues.” These ab­stract prin­ci­ples should be wo­ven into up­lift­ing “nar­ra­tives” that are taught to the chil­dren of im­mi­grants in pub­lic schools. Their emo­tions of “pride and pa­tri­o­tism,” and not only their in­tel­lects, must be en­gaged.

Fukuyama’s anal­y­sis is flawed in sev­eral ways. Three decades ago, he ar­gued that the hu­man de­sire for re­spect and recog­ni­tion was the driv­ing force be­hind the univer­sal em­brace of lib­eral democ­racy. To­day, he de­picts the hu­man de­sire for re­spect and recog­ni­tion as the driv­ing force be­hind the re­pu­di­a­tion of lib­eral democ­racy. The reader’s hope for some ac­count, or even men­tion, of this ex­tra­or­di­nary volte face goes un­ful­filled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely ad­dress the im­pos­si­bil­ity of ex­plain­ing re­cent ups and downs in the pres­tige of lib­eral democ­racy by in­vok­ing an eter­nal long­ing of the hu­man soul. What’s more, he fails to con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that af­ter 1989 the obli­ga­tion for ex-Com­mu­nist coun­tries to im­i­tate the West, which was how his End-of-His­tory the­sis was put into prac­tice, might it­self have been ex­pe­ri­enced in coun­tries like Hun­gary and Poland as a source of hu­mil­i­a­tion and sub­or­di­na­tion destined to ex­cite an­tilib­eral re­sent­ment and an ag­gres­sive re­asser­tion of na­tion­al­ism. Sim­i­larly, to blame the rise of white na­tion­al­ism in Amer­ica chiefly on the left’s prof­li­gate at­ten­tive­ness to marginal­ized groups is to deem­pha­size the mul­ti­plic­ity of fac­tors in­volved, in­clud­ing a his­tory of anti-im­mi­grant na­tivism that long pre­dates the emer­gence of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. One won­ders, for ex­am­ple, if re­sent­ment of Barack Obama, whose pres­i­dency up­ended a racial hi­er­ar­chy that has been fun­da­men­tal to US na­tion­hood since its in­cep­tion, might not pro­vide a sim­pler and more re­al­is­tic ex­pla­na­tion for the coun­try’s re­lapse into na­tivism than out­rage at mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and in­equal­ity. An­other prob­lem con­cerns Fukuyama’s overly ro­man­tic un­der­stand­ing of “lived ex­pe­ri­ence.” It seems fair to say that white Amer­i­can mo­torists have dif­fi­culty com­pre­hend­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of black mo­torists stopped by lethally armed po­lice of­fi­cers. What is com­pletely im­plau­si­ble is to sug­gest, as Fukuyama’s anal­y­sis does, that la­teeigh­teenth-cen­tury ideas about in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble in­te­ri­or­ity and plen­i­tudes of in­ner feel­ing help ex­plain that dif­fi­culty. Fi­nally, Fukuyama’s oc­ca­sional sug­ges­tion that white na­tion­al­ism re­flects a ra­tio­nal con­cern that new im­mi­grants will not suc­cess­fully as­sim­i­late can also be ques­tioned. Could not ex­treme na­tion­al­ists be more afraid that new­com­ers will suc­cess­fully as­sim­i­late? Af­ter all, the im­pli­ca­tion of suc­cess­ful as­sim­i­la­tion is that the iden­tity of na­tives is some­thing wholly su­per­fi­cial and not re­ally an in­deli­ble in­her­i­tance that con­nects them pro­foundly to their dead fore­fa­thers. If so, in­ten­si­fied ef­forts at as­sim­i­la­tion, rather than dous­ing the flames of white na­tion­al­ism, might un­in­ten­tion­ally add fuel to the fire. 2. An­thony Ap­piah’s con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate on iden­tity is pre­dictably stylish and eru­dite. He weaves his philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment into “scores of sto­ries,” of­ten about in­di­vid­u­als with mul­ti­ple or hy­brid iden­ti­ties. Glid­ing com­fort­ably across many civ­i­liza­tions and time pe­ri­ods, he writes not as a his­to­rian or com­par­a­tivist but as a racon­teur who se­lects cap­ti­vat­ing episodes to il­lus­trate his themes, in­clud­ing “fam­ily sto­ries” dra­ma­tiz­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of chil­dren born with two grand­mother tongues. As­so­ci­at­ing him­self with “tol­er­ant, plu­ral­ist, self-ques­tion­ing, cos­mopoli­tan” val­ues, he adds that “I can love what is best in any­one’s tra­di­tions while shar­ing it gladly with oth­ers.” Although cul­tural di­ver­sity seems more darkly omi­nous to Fukuyama and more brightly aus­pi­cious to Ap­piah, their ap­proaches oth­er­wise have much in com­mon. Iden­ti­ties “mat­ter to peo­ple” be­cause they de­ter­mine how we be­have as well as how we see and eval­u­ate

our­selves and one an­other. Be­cause “many of our thoughts about the iden­ti­ties that de­fine us are mis­lead­ing,” it fol­lows that “we would have a bet­ter grasp on the real chal­lenges that face us if we thought about them in new ways.” The core of The Lies That Bind is a se­quen­tial study of five sub­jects: re­li­gion, na­tion, race, cul­ture, and what Ap­piah calls “class” but would be bet­ter de­scribed as in­her­ited so­cial sta­tus. In each case, he ex­poses the mis­takes, fal­la­cies, and mis­un­der­stand­ings in­her­ent in the way these clas­si­fi­ca­tions are gen­er­ally un­der­stood and ap­plied. All of them are “false” in some im­por­tant sense and dis­tort the way we see our­selves and treat one an­other. Although “ev­ery iden­tity has its own dis­tinc­tive mis­con­cep­tions,” each of the ones Ap­piah stud­ies (class aside) suf­fers from a fault he calls “es­sen­tial­ism about iden­ti­ties,” which is to as­sume that there ex­ists an “in­ner some­thing” com­mon to all mem­bers of an iden­tity group. This is un­true: “In gen­eral, there isn’t some in­ner essence that ex­plains why peo­ple of a cer­tain so­cial iden­tity are the way they are.” The facile sup­po­si­tion that “sim­i­lar­ity” or “same­ness” can cre­ate group co­he­sion or ex­plain why groups “hold to­gether” is ab­surd on its face, since sim­i­lar­ity and same­ness are not so­cial re­la­tions at all but sim­ply com­par­isons that im­ply noth­ing about co­op­er­a­tive in­cli­na­tions or emo­tional iden­ti­fi­ca­tions.

As a philo­soph­i­cal nom­i­nal­ist, Ap­piah wants us to recon­ceive re­li­gious, na­tional, racial, and cul­tural iden­ti­ties as “la­bels.” They are not ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of or ref­er­ences to ex­ist­ing re­al­i­ties but rather co­or­di­nat­ing de­vices or “ways of group­ing peo­ple” that, for good or ill, al­low us to sim­plify a com­plex re­al­ity by at­tribut­ing a spu­ri­ous ho­mo­gene­ity and un­chang­ing na­ture to het­ero­ge­neous and con­stantly shape-shift­ing swaths of the hu­man pop­u­la­tion. For ex­am­ple, you may think of your­self as shar­ing an eth­nic or re­li­gious iden­tity with pre­de­ces­sors who lived cen­turies ago, but this is a delu­sion. All you have in com­mon is the “la­bel.” In­deed, you prob­a­bly share more habits of the heart, not to men­tion DNA, with a next-door neigh­bor who ad­heres to a dif­fer­ent re­li­gious tra­di­tion than with dis­tant an­ces­tors who bore your beloved la­bel.

Ap­piah ad­dresses him­self di­rectly to his read­ers on this ba­sis: “You may not re­al­ize how much your re­li­gion has drifted from the re­li­gion of those you view as your con­gre­ga­tional pre­de­ces­sors.” He aligns him­self, by con­trast, with the “ob­jec­tive ob­servers” who “can see that re­li­gion, like ev­ery­thing else that is im­por­tant in hu­man life, evolves.” That is also true of na­tions, which, far from be­ing bi­o­log­i­cal en­ti­ties that last for­ever, are con­tin­gent so­cial con­struc­tions that never cease to un­dergo con­vul­sive in­ter­nal trans­for­ma­tions. The “new Ro­man­tic sense of what made a peo­ple a peo­ple,” which arose in late-eigh­teenth-cen­tury Europe, is a child­ish mi­rage. The line be­tween mem­bers and non­mem­bers of the na­tion has noth­ing to do with con­san­guin­ity or an “an­cient spirit of the Folk.” If we falsely be­lieve that the la­bel “na­tion” refers to some un­der­ly­ing essence, on the other hand, we may be tempted into “geno­cides . . . per­pe­trated in the name of one peo­ple against an­other with the aim of se­cur­ing a ho­mo­ge­neous na­tion.” Nei­ther is there any bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis for most com­mon ideas of race, be­queathed to a sci­en­tif­i­cally un­en­light­ened pub­lic by now dis­cred­ited nine­teenth-cen­tury sci­ence. Ge­net­i­cally, pop­u­la­tions are not ho­mo­ge­neous and un­chang­ing but mixed and fluid. Be­lief to the con­trary is not only er­ro­neous but pro­duces such abom­i­na­tions as “white racial na­tion­al­ism” whose big­oted ad­her­ents doubt that “you could be black and Amer­i­can.” Sim­i­larly, those who ex­tol “the West” or “West­ern civ­i­liza­tion” mis­tak­enly be­lieve that a cul­ture is an or­ganic whole that tightly knits to­gether all its parts. Racists among them as­sume that bi­o­log­i­cal an­ces­try presents al­most in­su­per­a­ble bar­ri­ers to the cul­tural West­ern­iza­tion of non-Western­ers. In truth, “West­ern civ­i­liza­tion” is a vac­u­ous con­cept since a cul­ture, by def­i­ni­tion, “is messy and mud­dled, not pris­tine and pure.” It fol­lows that we “should give up the very idea of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion,” not only be­cause it is as­so­ci­ated with racial­ist prej­u­dice, but also be­cause it refers to noth­ing ex­cept “a loose as­sem­blage of dis­parate frag­ments” per­pet­u­ally un­der­go­ing kalei­do­scopic re­con­fig­ur­ings.

Be­cause it makes no men­tion of the fa­tal flaw of es­sen­tial­ism around which his other “test cases” are or­ga­nized, Ap­piah’s fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter on “Class” needs to be men­tioned sep­a­rately. He be­gins with the so­ci­ol­o­gist and so­cial ac­tivist Michael Young’s idea that mer­i­toc­racy, if it were ever es­tab­lished, would be an es­pe­cially hu­mil­i­at­ing form of so­cial hi­er­ar­chy be­cause those at the top would try to jus­tify their priv­i­leges on the grounds that “equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity” is em­i­nently fair and there­fore those who suc­ceed de­serve to en­joy the fruits of their tal­ents and ef­forts. Young’s at­tack on this spu­ri­ous jus­ti­fi­ca­tion fo­cuses on “the de­sire of fam­i­lies to pass on ad­van­tages to their chil­dren.” The ca­pac­ity of par­ents to pre­pare their off­spring for life’s chal­lenges varies greatly across class lines. As a re­sult, what passes for equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity will in­evitably pro­duce the oxy­moron of an in­her­ited mer­i­toc­racy. In a mod­est ef­fort to align Young’s anal­y­sis with the cen­tral the­sis of his book, Ap­piah em­pha­sizes a sec­ond way in which the myth of mer­i­toc­racy leads us to as­sign credit where no credit is due. No one de­serves their nat­u­ral tal­ents or ca­pac­ity to make an ef­fort any more than they de­serve their par­ents. Re­ward­ing ef­fort and tal­ent, there­fore, amounts to a morally ar­bi­trary and un­jus­ti­fi­able al­lo­ca­tion of ben­e­fits to those who won a ge­netic lot­tery. As a philo­soph­i­cally rig­or­ous anal­y­sis of what in­di­vid­u­als gen­uinely “de­serve,” this ar­gu­ment is un­ex­cep­tion­able. If gen­er­ally ac­cepted, how­ever, it would make non­sense of most of the cul­tur­ally (and legally) fa­mil­iar ways in which we as­sign praise and blame. This sug­gests a po­ten­tial weak­ness in Ap­piah’s project of un­mask­ing so­cially con­se­quen­tial lies. Even though his deeper truths may make good sense in the­ory, they are un­likely to have much ef­fect in prac­tice. Ap­piah’s ap­proach has a few other prob­lems as well. He may have a good rea­son for as­so­ci­at­ing “es­sen­tial­ism” with char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally nine­teen­th­cen­tury mis­takes about iden­tity while si­mul­ta­ne­ously declar­ing that the hu­man species has al­ways, from time im­memo­rial, been “prone to es­sen­tial­ism.” But he leaves his read­ers un­sure if he is fight­ing a pe­riod-spe­cific fal­lacy or hu­man na­ture it­self. Sec­ond, his de­ci­sion to treat his five iden­ti­ties se­quen­tially means that he devotes in­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion to the cru­cial phe­nom­e­non of cross-cut­ting iden­ti­ties. In most of the book he comes out in fa­vor of fluid, am­bigu­ous, and con­stantly “rene­go­ti­ated” iden­ti­ties, which he as­so­ciates with tol­er­ance for di­ver­sity and an open­ness to all hu­man­ity. But a shared re­li­gion, for ex­am­ple, can lead fel­low be­liev­ers to ig­nore dif­fer­ences of na­tion­al­ity, just as a joint com­bat mis­sion in wartime can lead fel­low sol­diers to ig­nore dif­fer­ences of race that would oth­er­wise be un­bridge­able. In his de­tailed ex­po­si­tion, Ap­piah il­lus­trates this point a num­ber of times, ex­plain­ing, for ex­am­ple, that ev­ery iden­tity “comes with mech­a­nisms by which fel­low mem­bers rec­og­nize one an­other.” The self-con­scious in-groups that re­sult are in­clu­sive be­cause they are ex­clu­sive, as when Amer­i­cans de­voted solely to gay rights make com­mon cause with LGBT ad­vo­cates in cul­tur­ally re­mote coun­tries. Par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties, as a re­sult, “can ex­pand our hori­zons to com­mu­ni­ties larger than the ones we per­son­ally in­habit,” con­nect­ing “the small scale where we live our lives along­side our kith and kin with larger move­ments, causes, and con­cerns.” Such pas­sages con­tain an im­plicit ad­mis­sion that par­tic­u­lar and in­flex­i­bly en­trenched iden­ti­ties not only “di­vide us and set us against one an­other” but can also con­nect us with ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­tant mem­bers of our nar­rowly de­fined iden­tity group. That Ap­piah un­der­stands per­fectly well the an­tiparochial po­ten­tial in­her­ent in par­tic­u­lar­is­tic iden­ti­ties is im­plied by his mild boast that “in­tel­lec­tu­als like me” have read­ers among “ed­u­cated peo­ple in ev­ery con­ti­nent.” But he fails to in­te­grate this in­sight per­sua­sively into his gen­eral the­ory.

His project of lib­er­al­iz­ing and loos­en­ing all ar­ro­gant, en­trenched, dog­matic, ag­gres­sive, and bar­ri­caded iden­ti­ties by show­ing how they are based on noth­ing sub­stan­tial runs into an­other prob­lem as well. With­out group­ing our­selves and oth­ers in ways that over­look in­tra­group va­ri­ety and change, he ad­mits, hu­man be­ings could never solve their col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lems or mo­bi­lize loy­alty to pur­sue im­por­tant shared ob­jec­tives. So what would hap­pen if Ap­piah suc­ceeded in re­plac­ing the lies that bind with pic­tures that are “closer to the truth”? Con­sider an iden­tity steeled in un­der­ground re­sis­tance and evad­ing man­hunts, such as that of de­col­o­niza­tion par­ti­sans in, say, 1950s West Africa. If this iden­tity had been less un­re­lent­ing and ag­gres­sive, if it had not im­bued group mem­bers with a par­ti­san def­i­ni­tion of their shared task and pur­pose, would it have been equally suc­cess­ful?

Ad­mit­tedly, he twice cites Ernest Re­nan’s the­sis that his­tor­i­cal er­ror “is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment in the cre­ation of a na­tion.” But if the “er­rors” this book is de­voted to ex­pos­ing are “also cen­tral to the way iden­ti­ties unite us to­day,” what price is to be paid for cor­rect­ing them? In­hab­it­ing a par­tic­u­lar iden­tity means ac­cept­ing a set of eval­u­a­tions about the world: good ver­sus bad, ap­pro­pri­ate ver­sus in­ap­pro­pri­ate, beau­ti­ful ver­sus ugly, and so forth. Won’t per­suad­ing peo­ple of the em­pir­i­cal base­less­ness of their iden­tity claims nec­es­sar­ily weaken the grip of such eval­u­a­tions on their per­cep­tion and be­hav­ior? The clos­est Ap­piah gets to con­fronting this prob­lem is to state lamely that he wants to re­vise our fal­la­cious con­cepts of iden­tity, not to align them com­pletely with the dis­heart­en­ing truth but only to make them “roughly” ad­e­quate to the flux and het­ero­gene­ity lurk­ing be­neath all su­per­fi­cial la­bels. Such a non­so­lu­tion pre­sum­ably il­lus­trates his mod­est com­mit­ment “to start con­ver­sa­tions, not to end them.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ap­piah, fi­nally, the “cos­mopoli­tan im­pulse” to­day “has be­come a ne­ces­sity.” That this state­ment is more au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal than so­ci­o­log­i­cal is im­plied by his con­clu­sion that the 2016 Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial elec­tion was in part an “ex­pres­sion of re­sent­ment against...cos­mopoli­tan, de­gree­laden peo­ple.” This brings us to one of the most charm­ing de­tails in the book: an im­plicit com­par­i­son be­tween, on the one hand, Ap­piah’s Man­hat­tan—“the marvelous city I live in”—and, on the other, Italo Svevo’s Tri­este and C. P. Cavafy’s Alexandria. The place where you live can be more or less “hos­pitable” to a cos­mopoli­tan iden­tity. The most im­por­tant turn in his own life, Ap­piah re­ports, was mov­ing to New York City, a “cul­tural hodgepodge that could pro­vide the space” for a life­style not boxed in by pa­tri­ar­chal as­sump­tions and that can be ex­pe­ri­enced as “a dance with am­bi­gu­i­ties.” Stress­ing the need for a fa­vor­able en­vi­ron­ment to make cos­mopoli­tan iden­tity pos­si­ble, he con­cludes: “If I had stayed in Ghana . . . I would . . . have a long road still to travel.”

What this pas­sage and in­deed this en­tire book make clear is that Ap­piah him­self pos­sesses a dis­tinc­tive per­sonal iden­tity in­volv­ing rather sta­ble (not con­stantly rene­go­ti­ated) moral com­mit­ments of an ad­mirable and ar­guably noble kind. His cos­mopoli­tan iden­tity is no less a “la­bel” and no more firmly grounded on the re­al­i­ties of the hu­man con­di­tion than the parochial iden­ti­ties that he, like Cavafy and Svevo, would find per­son­ally in­suf­fer­able. But the reader need not ac­cept any sug­ges­tion to the con­trary to ap­pre­ci­ate the breadth of knowl­edge and wealth of in­sight con­tained in this exquisitely con­ducted tour of iden­tity’s many trou­bled and promis­ing con­tem­po­rary hori­zons.

Francis Fukuyama, Paris, 2015

Kwame An­thony Ap­piah, New York City, 2010

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