Friday, March 19, 2004

Identities in Question

As the “left” has succumbed to collective amnesia about class, various forms of “identity politics” have been invented to fill the vaccuum. In yet another of those ironies that history keeps dumping on us all, those who once complained that class was a narrow, limiting, distorting category, incapable of capturing the richness and variety of human experience (or, at any rate, of their experience) now seek to impose fixed categories - gender, “race”, ethnicity, sexuality and the rest - that have already become just as narrow, limiting and distorting as class identities ever were. At least the notion of class allowed for changes to take place, as individuals shifted from one class, or one “class fraction”, to another. Now we are assured that anatomy, or skin colour, or cultural conditioning equals destiny - and that such “postmodern” stereotyping is necessarily more advanced and more sophisticated than the stereotyping it replaces, yet, strikingly, closely resembles.
Postmodernist assumptions in turn feed into “postcolonial” attitudes, and thus into the institutions created both to defend the interests of minorities - which is, on the whole, a job well worth doing - and to police the self-definition of members of such minorities - which is, again on the whole, a job that is not only not worth doing, but is inevitably ineffective anyway. A case in point is Chongryun, one of the two rival organisations that claim to represent the Korean minority in Japan - and it was this fascinating article about Chongryun that got us thinking about these issues again.
[Brief glossary, if needed: the ROK is the Republic of Korea (South Korea); the DPRK is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); pachinko, the most popular form of gambling in Japan, is “a mixture between slot machine and pinball”; “the nail that stands out ...” is the first half of a Japanese proverb that ends “... gets hammered down”.]
The article usefully sketches in the background:

“At the peak [of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea] more than two million Koreans came to Japan, some freely, many forced. Most hastened home after liberation in 1945, but about 700,000 stayed on, only to face a new dilemma. In a now sundered homeland two rival regimes fought for their loyalty. Despite being geographically southerners, the vast majority chose the North ... these North Koreans of southern origin became ‘communist’ capitalists. Their profits helped Chongryun to build an entire Korean education system, even a university. They also aided, traded with, and invested in North Korea ... Politically, unity plus language-based nationalism gave Chongryun the upper hand against its pro-ROK rival, Mindan, which was usually split into pro-government and dissident camps.”

The article also points to the problems that all organisations claiming to represent minorities have to resolve one way or another:
- defining the minority in question in the first place (but in relation to which majority? - consider, for instance, the difference, which the provincial government of Quebec often ignores, between the Québécois, who form the francophone majority in that province, and hundreds of thousands of francophone Canadians who live as minorities in other provinces);
- gaining recognition from the government, as well as from specific agencies involved in education, health, housing and so on (but recognition as what? - consider “Catholic” versus “Nationalist” vs “Irish-speaker” within the various institutions of Northern Ireland);
- maintaining reliable sources of funding and support, while avoiding both absorption into the state machine (in the “host” country or in the “home” country) and capture by business or other sectional interests (legal or otherwise) - assuming that it’s even possible to walk such a tightrope for long without falling off; and
- above all, maintaining plausibility as being genuinely representative of the whole minority, not just of an elite or some other specially well-placed or unusually vocal minority within the minority (who, for example, elected the people who appear regularly on television and in newspapers to tell the rest of us what, in their opinion, all or most British Muslims think?).
Chongryun’s rivalry with Mindan has created complications that their counterparts in other countries do not have to face, and that reflect the enduring tragedy of the division of the Korean peninsula. However, its entanglements with business interests, with the demands of the education system and, above all, with the maintenance of an identity to which its members are expected to conform are characteristic of many similar organisations around the world.
So too, sooner or later, is its present fate, as described in the article:

“Younger Koreans born in Japan speak mainly Japanese. Most would rather integrate than be the nail that stands out: up to 10,000 a year seek naturalisation. Chongryun schools face falling rolls, while its university teaches less ‘Kim Il-sung-ism’ and more computing. Japan’s long recession has hit pachinko profits and other businesses. Chongryun’s banks are in trouble, and may even be bailed out by Tokyo ... [and] while the ROK is pushing Tokyo to give Koreans the vote, the DPRK and Chongryun resist such integration.”

It is this unstoppable change from generation to generation that makes us think of King Canute failing to command the waves, and then makes us wonder if “identity politics”, which once seemed to offer such bright prospects for a “left” that lost its way in the 1970s and 1980s, really has much of a future. The crucial feature of organisations such as Chongryun and Mindan is that they are voluntary, not compulsory. If even the people they claim to represent no longer feel that they are being adequately represented by them, what is there left for them to do that is worth doing?
What, then, of the “integration” of minorities, with all its side-effects, including - at best - making majorities much more tolerant, better informed and less insular? If (and, of course, it’s a very big “if” indeed) the passage of time brings with it the gradual development of a more diverse and sophisticated culture, genuinely open to all the residents of a given country, and then a transition from narrow ethnic or cultural identities to more universalistic ideological or even (let’s hope ...) class identities, how could anyone who identifies themselves as socialist, or liberal, object?
However, no minority anywhere can hope to withstand the pressures of an intolerant and repressive majority, and we would not want anything we’ve said so far to be taken as casting doubt on the principle that minority rights still need to be recognised and protected. The practice of “identity politics” by minorities and their more or less plausible representatives is only part of the picture: there’s also the “identity politics” of majorities. What is happening in Kosova right now (to take just one example) indicates what “identity politics”, based on carefully nurtured pseudo-historical myths that have been disseminated by a repressive state for decades on end, can lead to. Considering how the Kosovar Albanians were routinely treated when they were a minority within Serbia, it is no surprise at all - though it is certainly regrettable, and inexcusable - that some of them are behaving intolerantly and violently now that they feel that they belong to a majority.
In the end, what makes “identity politics”, at least as it is usually understood and practised, so dangerous and so self-defeating is this: it cannot take account of the fact that each individual human being belongs, not to any fixed majority, nor to to any single minority, but to a majority in respect of some aspects of their identity and to various minorities in respect of others - and even these will vary over time and according to circumstances. Which means that we’ve come a long way round, via Japan, the two Koreas and Kosova, to the banal conclusion that human beings are individuals and deserve to be respected as such - and that, as a celebrated member of several minorities once put it, “Individualism ... is what through socialism we are to attain” (quibble: we'd have said "individuality"). Well, banal as it may be, it’s not a bad position to take a stand on.

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