Keeping Politics Out of Identity
And so the Fourth of July came and went.
To the Trumpian Right, this was a moment of unequivocal glory — their identity indivisibly tied to military hardware rumbling through the capital. Seemingly, the only alternative is decrying caged people drinking from toilets on the Southern Border as un-American.
Yet either approach is dangerous. If there’s anything to learn from European history, it’s that wrapping identity in ideology, flags and partisan politics doesn’t end well. We’re quickly losing apolitical space in the US, which is something that should alarm us more than any individual politician.
To me, and I’d aver to most people around the world, national identity is a combination of the place I was born, the way I grew up speaking, the food I eat and a tapestry of local customs. None of these are political. Celebrating my country of birth doesn’t require a foray into the political realm.
We shouldn’t like either Trumpism or the Left hijack identity. Being American doesn’t make me an Evangelical Christian praying for war with Iran anymore than it makes me support the du jour social justice cause.
This entire conversation shows the complete and utter victory of Trumpism as a paradigm. Even the most vigorous opponents of the President accept the same fundamentals. One’s identity as an American hinges on their either being a Southern Border wall or an open border. Of course, I have my opinion on the efficacy of wall as political solution, but that opinion has no bearing on my Americanness.
I say that Trumpism has won, because even non-Trump supporters accept, on some level, that the United States is equivalent to the government. Thus, it follows that discontent with the government is tantamount to rejection of one’s identity as an American.
This is ahistorical. Europeans have been forging a New-World identity for half a millennium, indigenous peoples far longer. The modern American Republic represents only half of the time that English-speakers have been living in North America. The East Coast cities are older than many of the “ye olde towne” tourists traps in Europe.
It’s a slight of the hand to identify America with a government that’s been a blip on the radar in the history of the land. That’s why I’m frustrated that holidays that were once apolitical have been coopted into the regime’s narrative.
Exceptionalism and superlatives
I see this tendency on the left, albeit in a different form. America still must be spoken of in the superlative. The US is the worst country ever because the government doesn’t recognize the pronouns someone’s transgender dog prefers. Meh.
Like any other land and the various people living on it, the US has had its ups and downs. Among the ups, eradicating smallpox and polio seem to get overlooked while more dubious things like ‘democracy’ are heralded—as if something that peoples have been experimenting with for thousands of years was invented in America. The downs are obvious. What’s lost in the fray is that the US is just like any other country, simply more noticeable because of its scale.
A modern politique
This is obviously not the first time in history that opposing political factions have seen their squabble as taking on existential significance. And no, this is also not the first time that a regime has tried to insert itself into every facet of life.
Resistance isn’t isn’t screaming down Trump supporters in the streets, it’s doing something apolitical and approaching politics rationally. There’s a discussion to be had about the amount of immigration that would lead to economic growth without driving down wages. Such is impossible in our currently climate.
My position is modern rendering of the politiques, who sought to avoid the religious wars of 15th century France with political compromise. As long as political questions are framed in terms of good and evil as well as tied to national identity, there’s no hope for compromise.
Sarah Bakewell describes the politiques thus in her book on Montaigne, How to Live:
There was indeed much of Stoic philosophy in the politiques. They did not urge revolution or regicide, but recommended acceptance of life as it is, on the Stoic principle of amor fati, or love of fate. They also promoted the Stoic sense of continuity: the belief that the world would probably continue to cycle through episodes of decay and rejuvenation, rather than accelerating into a one-directional rush towards the End. While the religious parties imagined the armies of Armageddon assembling in the sky, politiques suspected that sooner or later everything would calm down and people would come back to their senses. In millenarian times, they were the only people systematically to shift their perspective and think ahead to a time when the “troubles” would have become history—and to plan exactly how to build this future world.
This isn’t escapism. Instead, this taking the long view of politics. Stepping away from the brink of alarmism on a personal level is the first step in healing a society that’s in a stupor.
A birthright to an identity
The identity that I was born with and was shaped throughout my formative years can’t be politicized. My native language, habits, where I grew up — none of these can be changed by whom I vote for. Trying to rob someone of their birthright over day-to-day political views is the beginning of political violence.
Hence, I’ll hold firm in not speaking of the US as neither a country on a hill or the scourge of the earth. Likewise, I’ll continue to see my American identity as unrelated to any government, political ideology or person.