Monday, July 20, 2009

Identity Politics, Part 3, A Polarized Society

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Yugoslavia. When it existed as a country it was in the Balkan region, an area known for ethnic and religious strife and for fomenting violence. That violence too often spread to other countries and even triggered World War I. Yugoslavia itself was composed of diverse groups with historical animosities. Yet for a time under Tito the country was relatively peaceful. Whatever Tito’s faults, he kept ethnic tensions under control by not allowing demagogues to stir up old hatreds. That all ended after his death. Slobodan Milosevic re-ignited the historical mistrust and tensions. He undoubtedly saw political gain for himself by use of “divide and conquer” rhetoric. The result was that the country disintegrated, but not before thousands died in internecine violence.

Sri Lanka is another example. The Tamil and Sinhalese generally got along peacefully for decades. Then the newly independent government decided to make Sinhalese the official language and to institute an affirmative action plan, ostensibly to make up for past discrimination against the Sinhalese majority. The result was 25 years of nasty civil war and terrorist actions, even now only partly settled.

Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka illustrate the dangers of identity politics. Sadly, they are not isolated examples. Sunni and Shiites in Iraq, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Armenians and Turks, etc. Wherever one group is pitted against another there will be strife, and it is not possible at the outset to know where that strife will lead. Favoritism in education, employment, and government benefits is nearly certain, but the problem often goes farther. It is common for both sides (or all sides when more than two groups are involved) to see themselves as victims and others as oppressors. That leads to a mob-like mentality, regarding the “oppressors” as a group of faceless enemies. This helps justify all manner of anti-social behavior, ranging from isolated attacks on individuals all the way up to armed revolution.

Where will the identity politics in the U.S. today take us? It is impossible to say. However we can know where it has taken us in the past. This country has seen Blacks lynched just because someone accused them of looking at white women. We have seen church burnings and bombings. We have seen race riots in which innocent shopkeepers were assaulted for the crime of being of a different ethnicity than the neighborhood majority. Fortunately at present we do not face overthrow of our government by armed revolutionaries, at least as far as I can foresee. However continued demagoguery can stir up strife in this country, including riots and other violence.

What can we do about this? First we must publicly and vociferously oppose the demagogues who try to pit one group against another. When a politician or other misleader advocates favoritism we must call it the bigotry it is.

Secondly we should emulate those parts of our society in which bias is most nearly eradicated. The most color-blind areas today are probably the military and professional sports. In those fields people are rewarded for performance, not for skin color. Few people care much about the color of LeBron James’ or Tom Brady’s skin. However both men have fans who care very much about their ability to get a basketball in a basket or a football into the hands of a receiver. Millions of young people work very hard to develop abilities similar to those of Brady and James.

What if we could spread the ethic of hard work and personnel qualification beyond sports and the military? What if we told the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world that they should encourage education and work instead of preference as the way to succeed (something Jackson used to do)? How would that change our society? Imagine millions of young people working as hard to learn math as some do to learn basketball. What would that do for them individually and for the country as a whole within a few years?

Let us tell the identity politics demagogues to crawl back under their rocks. Instead let’s encourage everybody to find enjoyable, fulfilling work and to become good at their work. And let’s reward them for performance, not for ethnicity or gender.

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