Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Politics of Identity and the Birth of a Meme

Max Boot has about the best analysis of the French riots, and their underlying causes, that I've seen. (h/t: Instapundit) It incorporates insights like those of Gabriel Gonzolez at Winds of Change without leaving the false impression that multiculturalism has been vindicated. But it isn't quite clear enough, for my taste, about why multiculturalism is bound to be a failed experiment.

The false account that is emerging is this: France has had a legacy of "assimilation" that derives from its history of colonialism, and in that view all assimilated peoples, of whatever race or religion, are "French." The argument is that this "assimilation paradigm" leaves no place for an independent ethnic identity, so its attempts to force everyone into a single category are bound to fail. Stating the problem this way leads to the conclusion that France simply hasn't been sufficiently multicultural. It's a convenient way of looking at the problem if one wants to avoid the obvious criticism that multiculturalism might be the problem, rather than the solution.

The flaw in this perspective is that it ought to be obvious to even the casual observer that the problem isn't that France has assimilated all of its colonial aspirants into the single "idea" of Gaulic Nationhood, but that it has utterly failed to do so. And the reason, as Boot points out, is also rather obvious: It's easier for an individual from an ethnic or religious minority to think of himself as American than French, because being American isn't a matter of ethnicity, while being French... is. The problem is one of identity.

Or stated another way, it's a matter of factionalization. According to James Madison in the Federalist Papers the failure of Europe's experimentation with representative forms of government was that the natural ethnic and religious faultlines in society were reinforced by socio-economic faultlines, creating factions whose battle for supremacy had a habit of sinking the ship that was supposed to be everyone's refuge. In a contest to set the form of the society, the society is sliced and diced to a bloody pulp. Recognize anything?

Once, as I was sitting in a hotel lobby with Martin Lipset, he explained this Madisonian concept of "cross-cutting alliances" that de-factionalized the American experiment in democracy, allowing it to succeed where all earlier experiments had failed. At the time I didn't quite understand why the adjective "cross-cutting" was used to modify "alliances." Strictly speaking "alliances" ought to have knit the factions together, and "cutting" just didn't seem very therapeutic. Ironically this therapeutic system would have been (had it existed) the fulfillment of the notion of multiculturalism, because it would have accommodated and even reinforced group sovereignty, weaving the "multicultural tapestry" that advocates of the notion say ought to be the ideal. But, in fact, it is precisely these factions that are shredded and neutered by the pragmatic alliances that Madison argued are the essence of a proper federalism. This version of liberalism is not kind to identity politics. The factions, rather than the society, are sliced and diced, pulverized, and pushed out of the long trends of history's highways and trade routes... leaving them open to commerce and comity.

The process of building such a society, therefore, bears a peculiar and not-entirely-incidental resemblance to the process of destroying a parasitic terrorist insurgency, fascinatingly described here by The Belmont Club. In this view American forces, who (due to their superior training and technology) can move freely in both the river valley and desert environments, have an advantage that allows them to "push" the insurgents continuously out of their stealth element by "cross-cutting" those same river valley routes. Similarly, in Madison's paradigm we gain an advantage by utilizing additional dimensions created by cooperation and open/fair competition that the culturally-bound one dimensional politics of identity seems to lack. In such a liberal society we are not only less bound by our ethnicities, but they are gradually de-weaponized and shredded.

Lipset documents, in Jews and the New American Scene the fact that successive waves of Jewish emigrants to the US lost a sense of their ethnic heritage over time, not because it was suppressed but because Americanism was a powerful substitute... providing an identity that didn't reference ethnicity. For the Jews, finding a place where they could relax about their heritage was like finding the Promised Land. It turns out that gaining this extra-dimensionality by going outside identity politics is what it's all about. And those able to achieve such a dimensional advantage will be able to prosper in all environments. The alliances do, indeed, cut the serpent into pieces, each of which tends to lack the critical mass to sustain a threatening life of its own. They wither....

This is the ultimate "push back" against identity politics.