“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. In Britain, the mandarins of New Labour—not satisfied with installing more closed-circuit surveillance cameras than any other democracy—have sought (so far unsuccessfully) to invoke the “war on terror” as an occasion to introduce mandatory identity cards. In France and the Netherlands, artificially stimulated “national debates” on identity are a flimsy cover for political exploitation of anti-immigrant sentiment—and a blatant ploy to deflect economic anxiety onto minority targets. In Italy, the politics of identity were reduced in December 2009 to house-to-house searches in the Brescia region for unwanted dark faces as the municipality shamelessly promised a “white Christmas.”
In academic life, the word has comparably mischievous uses. Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others. The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves —thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.
As so often, academic taste follows fashion. These programs are byproducts of communitarian solipsism: today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans, African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. In this competition, Jews stand out. Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices.
This warm bath of identity was always alien to me. I grew up in England and English is the language in which I think and write. London—my birthplace—remains familiar to me for all the many changes that it has seen over the decades. I know the country well; I even share some of its prejudices and predilections. But when I think or speak of the English, I instinctively use the third person: I don’t identify with them.
In part this may be because I am Jewish: when I was growing up Jews were the only significant minority in Christian Britain and the object of mild but unmistakable cultural prejudice. On the other hand, my parents stood quite apart from the organized Jewish community. We celebrated no Jewish holidays (I always had a Christmas tree and Easter eggs), followed no rabbinical injunctions, and only identified with Judaism over Friday evening meals with grandparents. Thanks to an English schooling, I am more familiar with the Anglican liturgy than with many of …
‘Edge People’ May 13, 2010