Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Who Are We? The Illusion Of Identity And The Corrosive Nature Of Identity Politics
A friend of mine is researching her genealogy. In her case, descendant of the earliest colonists, settlers of Jamestown and Tidewater Virginia, it is a look not only into her past but that of America. Her family history is linked not only to John Smith and Pocahontas, but to King Carter – entrepreneur, agriculturalist, financier, and territorial visionary. Before he was finished, the entire Northern Neck was his. A visitor to Kilmarnock, Irvington, or Weems will see the Carter name everywhere. Robert Carter’s descendants still live there and own funeral homes, real estate franchises, and restaurants. The Carters, unlike other families, husbanded their wealth, were judicious in their investments, modest in their expenditures, and left their fortune to heirs who were responsible custodians of their inheritance and the family name.
Another friend, similarly interested in family history because it coincided with that of America, followed great-great-great grandfathers on their way west to the Gold Rush and south to the Florida Panhandle. Each of these ancestors were recorded in historical records. One was one of the first land developers of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, helping to plat the new towns of Biloxi and Gulfport and investing in deep water ports and investing in the first railroads to link the coast with the interior. Another made a fortune in California not from panning gold at Sutter’s Mill but from his lucrative wholesale business. He bought unrefined gold from the thousands of newcomers who hoped to get rich quick, and sold it at a significant profit to San Francisco and New York merchants.
Neither Bess nor Marie had any interest in claiming membership to the First Families of Virginia or the Daughters of the American Revolution, or joining the Society of the Cincinnati. They were interested only in the trajectory of their families which happened to coincide with important historical movements of early America. Neither was politically conservative as one might expect. The closer one comes to Jefferson, Madison, and the Founding Fathers; or the more closely one’s career reflects American ambition, ingenuity, and westward expansion, the more legitimate one’s claims to a place of honor. If not in the pantheon of early American heroes, then at least in the same temple.
Both were moderates who made their political choices on the basis of candidates’ positions, moral philosophy, and rectitude – not on any sense of historical right, Constitutional proximity, or democratic fundamentalism. Identity with minor but important figures in America’s past was neither a source of particular family pride nor political legacy.
Nevertheless, both were increasingly intolerant with the ‘progressive’ Left which seemed to veer radically from the foundational principles of the 18th Century – the era in which their first ancestors came to America and prospered. Each of their early relatives were men of unique enterprise, courage, and ambition. Tidewater Virginia would never have been the early locus of American wealth without the Carters and Bess’ family. The Old Florida Southwest – long a battleground of conflicting French, English, Spanish, and American interests – would never have become an important center of trade with the Caribbean, the upstream interior of America, or Europe without Marie’s family.
A particularly interesting offshoot of Bess’ family followed the fictional journey of Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen – a man from the West Virginia hills who made his way to the Mississippi Delta, cleared 100 square miles of bottom land, and made a fortune. Bess’ early American ancestor, a Scots-Irish from Londonderry, who migrated to America in the early 19th century, settled in coastal Virginia. Then, when the tobacco lands lost fertility and productivity because of over-cultivation, he packed up family, slaves, and household and made the trek to Mississippi. His journals chronicle the difficulties of the trek – snakes, disease, Indians, and impossibly impenetrable thickets.
Not only did he survive, but after only a decade was one of the richest land owners of the Delta.
How could Bess not be a political conservative with this personal history? Her identity was so linked with the risk-taking entrepreneurs, that there was no way that she could abide the culture of entitlement and patronization in vogue in 21st Century America.
Bess’ identity was clear and undisputed. She was the descendant of early Americans who through their vision, enterprise, and ambition built the foundations of the new Republic. Hers was a storied family history, one which encompassed more than two centuries. She was proud of her ancestors’ determination, ambition, and fearlessness. Yes, many of her family were slave-owners, but so were Washington and Jefferson. Yes, her forefathers made fortunes from cotton and tobacco thanks to slave labor.
Yet Bess did not dwell on these historical factors – slavery was a common and familiar institution since the Aryans and ancient Greeks – nor on the intersection of Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and Native American rights. America was all about enterprise, territory, wealth, and industry; and she was proud of her ancestors for having built the Republic and laid the foundations for what it was today.
Bess Carter never defined herself in historical terms. In fact, she never felt the need to describe herself within any particular category. or context. “One simply is”, she said – a necessary combination of genetics, environment, history, geography, and personal preference that need neither be touted or defended or even brought up. Identity is really only relevant to one’s private self; and exaggerated pride in any one of the random pieces that make up the quilt is nonsense.
What to make, therefore, of today’s identity politics? Why is it that Americans are so anxious to define themselves? And perhaps more importantly, why in so exclusively narrow racial, ethnic, and gender categories?
Granted that few people have Bess’ or Marie’s American history; and fewer have ties to the royal families of Europe. Most of us are cultural mongrels – Irish potato farmers, Italian peasants, itinerant Jewish tailors, Chinese laborers on the Western railroad. We have nothing in our family histories to be particularly proud of and often much to hide. It is easy for us to subsume our personal family histories within the democratic culture of America. An Italian-American whose grandfathers left Naples in the 1880s feels no link to la patria; nor why should he? A life on the factory floor, laying tar, or cutting hair in America is nothing to brag about per se, nor is the perpetual toil of unproductive lands in the mezzogiorno.
We are not Italian-, Irish-, or Jewish-Americans. We are not even Americans. We are individuals who have benefitted from the ambition and courage of our forefathers, who have seen an advantage in distancing ourselves from their history, and who have become assimilated. We are who we are, not who we were.
Ah, easy for a white male to say, carp ‘progressives’. Assimilation was easy, fluid, and the hard work and enterprise have been overrated. Try being a black American.
Without a doubt, an African American has had a difficult row to hoe in America. Brought over as slaves, taken from a savage and uncivilized environment, deprived of any opportunity for education let alone social integration, then set free into a society which necessarily continued to regard them as backward primitives, how can anyone expect them to look back on their history except in shame?
So why is it then, that racial identity still trumps innate identity? Why are black Americans so insistent on reminding everyone of their color, their history of slaves and African tribal chattel? Why is there not an acceptance of an resignation to a difficult and often brutal past; but a decisive ambition to leave it far behind? An emphasis on individual achievement, enterprise, and innovation would not only fracture the current liberal cast of entitlement, but would enable those most marginalized to gain acceptance into a middle class mainstream which values individual achievement.
Most Anglos of any enlightenment look to Hispanics who cut their lawns, paint their houses, and take care of their children as true Americans, made from the same mold as early immigrants. Why ‘celebrate diversity’ when the way to integration, assimilation, and profit from the American Way is to reject labels, historical, racial, or ethnic.?
Most Americans would not only tolerate but accept gays under any and all conditions if sexual identity were not so much an issue. The current demands for transgender rights and the ‘celebration’ of a lifestyle which most Americans find a bit untoward does little to further the entry of gays into the American social mainstream.
This call for integration and subsumption of particular identity within the larger, middleclass American society misses the point, say gay activists. Our gayness is important and is who we are?
Really? Insisting on gayness, blackness, or any other –ness defers and delays what every minority in America wants – inclusion, prosperity, advancement and equality. Not only would the LGBT community benefit from toning down bathrooms, Bay To Breakers, Castro Halloween, and the Folsom Street Festival; but individuals would benefit. They would not have to walk around with the yoke of insignificant identity around their necks.
“One simply is” Bess Carter said; and no truer words were ever spoken.
Posted by Ron Parlato at 11:45 AM