Wall IV – The Identity Illusion: Four Men and the Psychology of the Other

Dedicated to my youngest son, Gabriel, and my oldest daughter, Shon

I want to understand the identity illusion and go beyond it. I do not want to simply repeat all the horrific traits of Donald Trump and his appalling administration simply to hold a mirror up to it. Bookstores are now awash in essays, books and other tomes that do precisely that. I want to comprehend what I have seen and analyzed. Out of that analysis, I hope to probe the character of our modern ethical compass premised on freedom in the form of rights, equality and democracy after developing a psychological and sociological theory rooted in hard facts, what in Russian is called truth or pravda. Instead of the delusional effort to make fairy tales real, I want to closely examine the cruelty of the reality of the rise of populist nativism we are living through to raise it to the level of insight without pretending I have discovered a new transcendental truth, istina in Russian.

I proceed by offering a ham and cheese sandwich. The bottom bread slice features Fritz Kuhn in a short documentary film of a 1939 Nazi rally in New York. The top slice is a portrait of Jordan Peterson, a U. of T. psychologist and current media superstar about whom I have written before. In between, I offer the ham of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on identity politics and the cheese of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s views on the same subject. The two slices of bread reveal behaviour, though the top slice claims to be rooted in theory. In between, we find two efforts at theorizing about the relationship of self to the Other.

Eighty years ago, on 21 February 1939, 22,000 Nazis marched through Manhattan and held a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This long-forgotten event is recaptured in a short 7-minute riveting, but truly revolting, documentary film, Night at the Garden, using archival footage shot that evening. The film is directed and edited by Marshall Curry with the support of Field of Vision. Curry believed that this episode has long been forgotten because Americans wanted to forget this shameful incident. But Katja Petrowskaja in her novel, Maybe Esther: A Family Story, covering the effort of the USSR to erase from history the Ukraine famine and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, offers another more insightful thesis.

Not shame and embarrassment, not repression of a deplored past, but rather the deaf-muteness of opportunists who change costumes to suit the times. There are no unbearable memories, only memories we deliberately bury, not out of shame, but to escape being targeted, caught, labeled, rejected and marginalized. To remember, however, is more than recognition, is more than honest identification. It is to empathize, to reenact a past as if one were there, as if one was a participant. To remember is to accept the possibility of the subjunctive. To forget is to deny this enormous power of the imagination and substitute contrived and repeated illusions and delusions, reducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, to the readily recognizable in formulaic language. In contrast, to remember is to recover the unfamiliar without the quest for redemption or the insistence on judgement. Remembering entails an encounter with the unvarnished truth, unmediated by pundits and commentaries, that allows you to see, to hear, to watch, to observe and to wrestle with what your eyes and ears are taking in.

Listen to, do not just read, the following:

William Randolph Hearst: “Whenever you hear a prominent American called a fascist, you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism,” in Hearst’s view, for true Americanism.

Halford E. Luccock  (effectively replying to Hearst): “When and if fascism comes to America, it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.”

Fritz Kuhn, the German Bund Orator in the Madison Square Garden 1939 rally as an ostensible memorial to George Washington, whom he characterized as “immortal,” insisted that:

  • We are the silent majority
  • We are faced with the denial of justice and a reign of terror
  • Jews are the source of that denial and the source of terror
  • We have the right to speak up against the Jewish-controlled liberal press and media
  • We will succeed no matter who blocks our way.

What we hear is the expected demagoguery, the attacks on the press, the insistence that they are “the silent majority,” the claim that the members of the German-American Bund are the true Americans who simply want to take the country back from the usurpers – the Jews. There is no civility, only the implication that kindness and respect for others is simply equal to political correctness.

From The New York Times this morning:

Trump, for his part, characteristically spent the weekend venting his spleen on Twitter. He brought up “retribution” against “Saturday Night Live” and TV networks that he believed were unfairly ridiculing his administration. And he inveighed against the “RIGGED” and “CORRUPT” media, whom he yet again branded as the “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

As familiar as the script may be at this point, analysts are no less concerned. Now that Trump has taken the extraordinary step of seeking emergency powers for politically controversial ends, he joins a long, dark history of would-be and actual authoritarians doing the same.

I now turn to my second male, the ham in my sandwich offering. Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame, in his latest book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, explains why, contrary to his predictions, liberal democracy faltered and went into reverse. Why? Identity politics. Identity politics explains why “white nationalism” has moved from a fringe movement to something much more mainstream in American politics.

However, white nationalism has been central to American politics and has never been a fringe movement. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts in the U.S., many successful, were made to limit voting rights to whites. Following the Civil War during Reconstruction, a systematic effort, using both legal means and violence, was used to “eliminate the nigger from politics.” Even the champions of the anti-slavery movement, the Republican Party, in spite of controlling both houses of Congress, over several decades at the end of the nineteenth century and in the decade after WWI, never could find its way to enacting an anti-lynching law. Over the last four decades, voter suppression, using legislation and intimidation, has been used to undermine the Voting Rights Act. Rather than marginal, the suppression of Black rights has been central to American politics.

Based on his witless misconstrued history, Fukuyama offers the now standard explanation for the overwrought fears of white, middle American citizens, largely male, to both immigration and minority rights. He traces that obsession to anxiety about loss of status in the globalized economy. True enough. But why did this anxiety express itself in resisting Black voting rights and immigration from the “brown” south? Fukuyama’s answer – it was a response to the Democratic Party “cult of diversity.” Activists on the left abandoned the New Deal and the quest for equality that required attending to relatively declining incomes for the American working class and opted to “coddle minorities,” thereby impelling voters to rally around their Christian and white identity. Identity politics on the right was a response to identity politics on the left, not a resurrection of a standard trope in American history in a new form.

The left is blamed for proliferating identities and undermining a common one, for fostering intercommunal suspicions and reinforcing insulated communities, and for the postmodern insistence that truth cannot be differentiated from lies for there are only different perspectives given one’s group identity.

I am not trying to defend postmodernism, the view that almost every action is an expression of racism and that Western culture is inherently colonialist and patriarchal. However, I do want to counter the effort to displace responsibility from the anti-democratic right onto the shoulders of the left. The intolerant right have powerful roots in the history of America that did not need left identity politics to reinforce its exclusionist ideology.

Fukuyama attributed these developments to the effects of modernization that both enormously multiplied choices available while undermining authoritative norms to guide those choices for the majority of humans who are anxious about autonomy and inclined towards conformity. In addition, he directly blamed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s distinction between an inner authentic self of subjective feelings, which Rousseau valorized, and an outer imposed self of cultivated so-called “rational” norms, which Rousseau identified with repression. These beliefs about American history, the current global zeitgeist and a historical intellectual psychological view of the self in relationship to others, together are used to justify an assimilationist approach to immigration combined with a very cautious approach to absorptive capacity which would strictly limit immigration lest those fears Fukuyama depicts be exacerbated.

In contrast to Francis Fukuyama, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture, is a vocal pluralist rather than assimilationist, a promoter of cosmopolitanism rather than a supposedly responsible and broader nationalism, and a self-critical rather than declamatory thinker. For Fukuyama, the disposition to conformity is overriding, whereas for Appiah the need for identity is not determined by identification with another, but as a reference point to frame what we see, how we see and how we evaluate what we see.

There is no essential character to a religion, a nation, social status or even culture. Each has a range of meanings with only a family resemblance among them. Lacking any essentialism, there is no norm to determine assimilation, which, in any case, is always a two-way street, a process and an interchange rather than an immigrant conforming and adapting to a dominant culture. The meaning of social status, the interpretation of one’s religion and belief system, the conception of what is brightest and best in one’s nation, and, most of all, one’s culture, will shift over time in response to a multiplicity of differences and their respective valences.

Homogeneity, presumed to be an ideal by assimilationist advocates, is a chimera. We live in a shape-shifting world. That means that even our definitions of freedom and equality will vary over time and from nation to nation. Its democratic expressions will be expressed in a wide spectrum. Cosmopolitanism is the recognition of and tolerance for these variations.

But then how can we say that our freedoms are being undermined, that we are receding even further from the goal of minimizing inequalities. More significantly, Appiah buys into the basic explanatory thesis that Fukuyama accepts, and that I once did as well, that the election of Donald Trump was mostly an expression of resentment, but against the cosmopolitan ideal rather than the emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism, which may be the same thing. But where Fukuyama places the responsibility for instigation on the pluralists, Appiah celebrates their pluralism and is proud that he lives in a city like New York that fosters a respect for difference. The issue for both is whether that resentment characterizes the bottom line or whether it too must be interpreted in terms of something more basic.

My thesis, as expressed in previous blogs, is not to deny the politics of resentment in either of the above expressions, but to suggest, perversely, that deeper than the sense of rejection, of looming and experiencing marginalization, is an unconscious identification with the very ones one targets, whether it be Jews, Blacks or migrants from Mexico and Central America.

I cannot prove it. But perhaps I can illustrate my thesis by a reference from right field. Jordan Peterson deplores leftist identity politics. His ardent opposition has propelled him from a position as an obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto to a superstar public intellectual in three years, in large part because of the new media. What are the core facts of his rise to international celebrity status?

Though he was a very popular professor, and though many of his ideas long pre-dated his rise into the intellectual stratosphere, his fame took off when he declared that he would not comply with Bill C-1, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code introduced in the Canadian Parliament on 17 May 2016 just when Donald Trump was sewing up his effort to become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. The week before, Donald Trump won the primaries in both West Virginia and Nebraska. The changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code added gender identity and hate propaganda as protected grounds.

Bill C-1 became law on 17 June 2017 after being passed with huge majorities at a time when Trump had been in office for almost six months and just when reports appeared that special counsel, Robert Mueller, had been investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice and whether he tried to end an inquiry into his sacked national security adviser.

Peterson publicly and vociferously insisted that he would not comply with the Act’s requirement that he refer to certain students who requested to be addressed in gender neutral pronouns. He insisted that he was willing to go to jail rather than comply. Had he not read the bill? It was explicit. It was not a bill to dictate language use, but to protect individuals from discrimination and from being targets of hate propaganda. To be an offence, an action had to be proven to have been motivated by bias, prejudice or hate. It was very difficult to see how any prosecutor, let alone court of law, could construe Peterson’s actions in defence of traditional linguistics to be a hate crime. And none did.

Peterson entered the global public sphere based on misrepresentation, sensationalism and a quest for martyrdom where there was virtually no possibility he could or would ever be charged let alone given a fine or even a jail sentence.

This act of defiance against alleged political correctness created a storm of controversy that quickly rocketed Jordan’s profile skyward, but this would not have happened if he had not mastered the new media and established his brand on it. Further, he had grounded his protest on the same grounds as Fritz Kuhn in the 1939 Madison Square Garden rally, an insistence that the foundation of the protest was a defence of the right to free speech when no one was challenging that right.

Tomorrow morning, I will explore Peterson’s position further as I shift from a focus on America to Germany.


Wall V – The Psychological Version of the Berlin Wall in Germany


With the help of Alex Zisman


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