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Mostly about identity politics

8 November 2019

Discussion at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch today revolved mostly around identity politics.

It started with David Levey bringing his copy of Stranger in a strange land, which we had discussed a bit last month.I had noted then that

I thought the first half of the book was OK, but the second half was boring and preachy and nothing much happened, just Earthmen telling each other ad nauseam how happy they were now that they were learning to speak Martian and adopting Martian culture at second hand, and passing it on to others third hand in the guise of a new religion.

David had got further in the book this time, and had nearly finished it, and found it interesting that the protagonist found that the best way to spread what he had learned from Martian culture on earth was to start a new religion.

What I liked about the first half of the book was the cultural reactions: a human with earthly ancestry brought up in an utterly alien culture, and how he reacted to earthly culture, and how earthlings reacted to him, and the difficulty they had in dealing with conflicting expectations. However, I do think that C.S. Lewis had already done that, and done it better, when Weston is interviewed by the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet. Of course, though both Heinlein and Lewis located their alien culture on Mars, what they were really contrasting was an earthly ideal with an earthly reality. In a some ways Heinlein’s ideal culture is a reflection of Ubuntu, which is, in a sense, the exact opposite of identity politics. Identity politics is all about identity in distinction from others. Ubuntu, and Heinlein’s Martian culture, is more about the value of cooperation rather than competition.

Actually “ubuntu” means “humanity” or “humanness”. The irony I found in the second half of Heinlein’s book was that once it had got turned into a religion, it became a mark of identity for its followers, and so was transformed into a form of identity politics, and thus just the opposite of what Martian culture actually was (or at least Heinlein’s vision of it).

Janneke Weidema said the rise of identity politics was often the result of a powerless group asserting itself. This had happened in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century, when the Doppers arose as a counter to the established Hervormde Kerk. Their trouble was that once St George had slain the dragon they needed to resurrect it in order to continue the fight, which had become an end in itself. That linked up with the thought of Abraham Kuyper, whose thought had become influential in certain South African universities, especially those controlled by the Broederbond, and became part of the philosophical underpinning for apartheid.

Duncan Reyburn mentioned a couple of books that dealt in some way with the question of identity politics. One was The madness of crowds by Douglas Murray. Though he did not agree with everything that Murray said, it was a useful introduction to the subject. Another book was The demons of liberal democracy by Adrian Pabst.

Duncan said that the problem with that one was that the meaning of “liberal” has changed. I am not so sure about that. The trouble with “liberal” is that it can mean just about anything. Recently someone asked a very strange (to me, at any rate) question on the Question and Answer web site Quora: What do white South Africans think of white liberals in Europe, the US, Australia, or Canada?

My answer (to save you the bother of clicking on the link) was:

In most cases probably nothing at all.

And in the case of the few who think about them at all, you’d probably get as many opinions as people you asked, including questions about how white liberals in those countries differ from liberals “of colour” (or “of color” in the case of the US), and also questions about the excessively wide range of meanings of “liberal” in those countries.

Because, apart from anything else, “liberal” means something different in each of the places mentioned. The Liberal Party in Australia, for example, is inextricably linked with predatory capitalism, In the UK the Liberals are primarily known for being anti-Brexit. In Canada they mainly seem to be associated with political corruption (to judge by what my Canadian friends post on Facebook), while what liberals are in the US is anybody’s guess. There the main thing about liberals in the USA seems to be that they are not conservatives, and the main thing about conservatives is that they are not liberals (that’s judging from questions asked on Quora).

My observation is that there are different kinds of liberalism, which are not necessarily compatible and should not be confused. There are political, theological and economic liberalism (the last often nowadays called neoliberalism). And theological liberals tend to be political conservatives and vice versa. Theological liberals are always changing their theology to fit the secular status quo, which is conservative by definition (they call this “making theology relevant”). Theological conservatives, on the other hand, are always trying to change the world to fit the vision, so tend to be more revolutionary in secular terms. G.K, Chesterton pointed this out more than a century ago. The book to read is Orthodoxy.

One more thing about identity politics, and then I’m done. When I think of identity politics the most outstanding example, which shapes my thinking, and was ever-present in the background for most of my life, is apartheid.  Apartheid was identity politics par excellence, the paradigm case. Under apartheid, it was absolutely essential that everyone have a racial identity. If you had a racial identity, you had life, without it you were a non-person. With some racial identities you could have a better life than others, but even the worst life was better than the non-personhood that resulted from lacking a racial identity. Yes, white privilege was a thing, and whiteness was a thing, and we were told to prize whiteness if we were white. That’s why I have no time for the discourse of those who want to make people conscious of their whiteness now, like a dog returning to its vomit. When I hear that kind of stuff I want to cry out with Bob Dylan, Oh no, no, no, no, I’ve been through this movie before.

Then David Levey asked what books we’d all been reading recently. Well I’ve just finished the ghost stories of Henry James, and I’ve said most of what I want to say about that in this review here. Janneke has been reading
A man of good hope, by Jonny Steinberg, the story of a man who grew up as a wandering refugee from Somalia. She had also been reading Quaker process and procedure.

Duncan Reyburn, apart from the books already mentioned, had been reading Sleep no more: Six murderous tales by P.D. James, the writer of detective fiction.

If I’ve forgotten any of the books we discussed, please add them in the comments.

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