Roving thoughts and provocations

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Edge People

Straus Park, New York, 1997; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

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 the rites and practices of Judaism. So if I grew up Jewish, it was as a decidedly non-Jewish Jew.

Did this tangential relationship to Englishness derive from my father’s birthplace (Antwerp)? Possibly, but then he too lacked a conventional “identity”: he was not a Belgian citizen but the child of stateless migrants who had come to Antwerp from the tsarist empire. Today we would say his parents were born in what had not yet become Poland and Lithuania. However, neither of these newly formed countries would have given the time of day—much less citizenship—to a pair of Belgian Jews. And even though my mother (like me) was born in the East End of London, and was thus a genuine Cockney, her parents came from Russia and Romania: countries of which she knew nothing and whose languages she could not speak. Like hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, they communicated in Yiddish, a language that was of no discernible service to their children.

I was thus neither English nor Jewish. And yet, I feel strongly that I am—in different ways and at different times—both. Perhaps such genetic identifications are less consequential than we suppose? What of the elective affinities I acquired over the years: am I a French historian? I certainly studied the history of France and speak the language well; but unlike most of my fellow Anglo-Saxon students of France, I never fell in love with Paris and have always felt ambivalent about it. I have been accused of thinking and even writing like a French intellectual—a barbed compliment. But French intellectuals, with outstanding exceptions, leave me cold: theirs is a club from which I would happily be excluded.

L’exil, West Berlin, 1977; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

What of political identity? As the child of self-taught Jews brought up in the shadow of the Russian Revolution, I acquired from an early age a superficial familiarity with Marxist texts and socialist history—enough to inoculate me against the wilder strains of 1960s-era New Leftism while leaving me firmly in the social democratic camp. Today, as a “public intellectual” (itself an unhelpful label), I am associated with whatever remains of the left.

But within the university, many colleagues look upon me as a reactionary dinosaur. Understandably so: I teach the textual legacy of long-dead Europeans; have little tolerance for “self-expression” as a substitute for clarity; regard effort as a poor substitute for achievement; treat my discipline as dependent in the first instance upon facts, not “theory”; and view with skepticism much that passes for historical scholarship today. By prevailing academic mores, I am incorrigibly conservative. So which is it?

As an English-born student of European history teaching in the US; as a Jew somewhat uncomfortable with much that passes for “Jewishness” in contemporary America; as a social democrat frequently at odds with my self-described radical colleagues, I suppose I should seek comfort in the familiar insult of “rootless cosmopolitan.” But that seems to me too imprecise, too deliberately universal in its ambitions. Far from being rootless, I am all too well rooted in a variety of contrasting heritages.

In any event, all such labels make me uneasy. We know enough of ideological and political movements to be wary of exclusive solidarity in all its forms. One should keep one’s distance not only from the obviously unappealing “-isms”—fascism, jingoism, chauvinism—but also from the more seductive variety: communism, to be sure, but nationalism and Zionism too. And then there is national pride: more than two centuries after Samuel Johnson first made the point, patriotism—as anyone who passed the last decade in America can testify—is still the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another—where cosmopolitanism is not so much an identity as the normal condition of life. Such places once abounded. Well into the twentieth century there were many cities comprising multiple communities and languages—often mutually antagonistic, occasionally clashing, but somehow coexisting. Sarajevo was one, Alexandria another. Tangiers, Salonica, Odessa, Beirut, and Istanbul all qualified—as did smaller towns like Chernovitz and Uzhhorod. By the standards of American conformism, New York resembles aspects of these lost cosmopolitan cities: that is why I live here.

To be sure, there is something self-indulgent in the assertion that one is always at the edge, on the margin. Such a claim is only open to a certain kind of person exercising very particular privileges. Most people, most of the time, would rather not stand out: it is not safe. If everyone else is a Shia, better to be a Shia. If everyone in Denmark is tall and white, then who—given a choice—would opt to be short and brown? And even in an open democracy, it takes a certain obstinacy of character to work willfully against the grain of one’s community, especially if it is small.

But if you are born at intersecting margins and—thanks to the peculiar institution of academic tenure—are at liberty to remain there, it seems to me a decidedly advantageous perch: What should they know of England, who only England know? If identification with a community of origin was fundamental to my sense of self, I would perhaps hesitate before criticizing Israel—the “Jewish State,” “my people”—so roundly. Intellectuals with a more developed sense of organic affiliation instinctively self-censor: they think twice before washing dirty linen in public.

Unlike the late Edward Said, I believe I can understand and even empathize with those who know what it means to love a country. I don’t regard such sentiments as incomprehensible; I just don’t share them. But over the years these fierce unconditional loyalties—to a country, a God, an idea, or a man—have come to terrify me. The thin veneer of civilization rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity. But illusory or not, we would do well to cling to it. Certainly, it is that faith—and the constraints it places upon human misbehavior—that is the first to go in times of war or civil unrest.

We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself—the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies—will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.

Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people.

—“Edge People” is part of a continuing series of memoirs by Tony Judt.

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