Identity is a bloody business. Religion, nationality, or race may not be the primary causes of war and mass murder. These are more likely to be tyranny, or greed for territory, wealth, and power. But “identity” is what gets the blood boiling, what makes people do unspeakable things to their neighbors. It is the fuel used by agitators to set whole countries on fire. When the world is reduced to a battle between “us and them,” Germans and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, Hutus and Tutsis, only mass murder will do, for “we” can only survive if “they” are slaughtered. Before we kill them, “they” must be stripped of our common humanity, by humiliating them, degrading them, and giving them numbers instead of names.
The novelist Amin Maalouf begins his humane and eloquent essay1 with the question of “why so many people commit crimes nowadays in the name of religious, ethnic, national or some other kind of identity.” Was it always so? Or is there something new going on? What is new, I think, is not the phenomenon itself so much as the scale of the damage. There is no easy or single answer to Maalouf’s question. He mentions various reasons why people fear for their sense of belonging: globalization, the erosion of national sovereignty, Western domination over the last three hundred years, the collapse of failed secular regimes.
All these reasons deserve consideration, but none explains the extraordinary bloodlust of identity warriors. Sadism must play a part. Once their basest instincts are given the official nod, some people feel a sense of pleasure, even liberation. The degradation of one’s victims, stripped of their identity, is a way to sooth one’s conscience. This results in a ghastly paradox: the more brutal the method of slaughter, the easier it is on the killers, for the victims are no longer regarded as fully human.
But sadism cannot explain everything. Maalouf observes that mass murder can seem entirely legitimate to people who feel that their community is under threat. He writes: “Even when they commit massacres they are convinced they are merely doing what is necessary to save the lives of their nearest and dearest.” It is difficult to imagine an SS man thinking this while feeding Zyklon-B into the gas chambers of Treblinka, but it was indeed an essential part of Nazi propaganda, and some Germans may have actually believed it, including possibly Hitler himself—but then, from what we know, he didn’t really have any nearest and dearest.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the great demagogues of national identity are themselves not always sure where they belong. Slobodan Milosevic’s family is from Montenegro. Hitler was an Austrian. This suggests that Maalouf may be too optimistic when he claims that people with multiple identities will never be “on the side of the fanatics.” On the contrary, purity is often the compulsive aim of those who feel they have to make up for their complexity. But he is right that we are all made up of a mixture of loyalties and identifications, regional, linguistic, religious, ethnic, national, social, or professional. The ingredients in these mixes can shift with time. Sometimes they disappear altogether, or reappear in grotesque forms. At a literary gathering in San Francisco, I met a distinguished writer from Yugoslavia. In an attempt to break the ice, I asked her whether she was Serb or Croat. She answered me courteously, but with a hint of impatience at my crass ignorance: “I am a Yugoslav. In Yugoslavia, we don’t think in those categories anymore.” This was in 1990.
Circumstances can make the ingredients of individual identities conflict, or click in unexpected ways. A grand lady in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, who grew up speaking Portuguese, Goan, Hindi, and English, described herself to me as a Roman Catholic Brahmin. It struck me as curious that a Christian would still be so conscious of her Hindu caste. Then she explained that in the colonial past Christians had a special need to protect their Indian identity from Portuguese encroachment, and so caste consciousness grew even stronger.
Amin Maalouf is himself a good example of cultural, national and religious complication. He was born in Lebanon, as a Greek Orthodox Christian among Muslims, his mother tongue is Arabic, but he lives in Paris and writes in French. All these elements of his identity are shared by many, but the particular mix is what makes him an individual. His may be an especially rich brew. But the same principle applies to everyone. It is when we take one single element and make it absolute that the trouble begins. This tends to happen, as Maalouf writes, when we feel that our identity, or part of it, is under attack. My own experience confirms this. I am part British, part Dutch; Dutch Anglophobia makes me feel British; British disdain of Holland makes me feel Dutch. This is a low-intensity issue, however; murder, as yet, has not entered my mind.
Some British-born Muslims, on the other hand, felt strongly enough about their Islamic identity to go and kill infidels in Afghanistan, even if they were fellow British citizens. These holy warriors were no longer able to do as Maalouf advocates, and give the various parts of their mix equal weight. For them, Islam became absolute. To draw general conclusions from such cases is risky. Young people, especially in marginal communities, can be swayed by agitators for highly personal reasons: a never-forgotten childhood slight, a sexual rejection, a yearning for significance, or just the adolescent blend of confusion and ennui.
Again, Maalouf is less concerned with such personal matters than with the bigger historical picture. He points out that the superior might of the West has put great strains on non-Westerners. Scientific discovery, political freedoms, economic enterprise, and imperial aggression combined to make much of the non-Western world feel peripheral to the European metropole. To match the Western powers, others had no choice but to take up Western ways. Even those who did so with success, such as the Japanese, felt a sense of humiliation. The break with the past was too abrupt. The foreign graft did not always take. Nerves are still raw even now. Those who did not succeed feel as if they live, as Maalouf puts it, “in a world which belongs to others and obeys rules made by others, a world where they are orphans, strangers, intruders or pariahs…. What can be done to prevent some of them feeling they have been bereft of everything and have nothing more to lose, so that they come, like Samson, to pray to God for the temple to collapse on top of them and their enemies alike?”
Another word, today, for Western domination is “globalization,” and globalization is often used as another word for “US imperialism.” Maalouf takes the fears of globalization seriously. After all, as he says, the French are almost as defensive about their identity in the face of Hollywood, Microsoft, and Big Macs as non-Europeans. What is needed, then, is “a new concept of identity.” Perhaps so, but Maalouf is a little vague about what that concept might be. It should be mixed, and never absolute. We should feel part of our countries, and of “Europe,” or even the world. Religion must be personal and “kept apart from what has to do with identity.” I’m not sure all this is possible. One can feel British or French and “European,” but not quite in the same way, since Europe is not a sovereign entity; neither, of course, is the world. And religion is hard to detach from identity, since identification with a community of believers is part of the religious appeal. I also wonder whether the symbols of Coca-Colonization matter as much as some people think. For the places with the greatest troubles—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Algeria—are the least affected by American commerce. The Thais in Bangkok or the Chinese in Hong Kong are not up in arms against the West. Poor Pakistanis are, but they may never have gone near a Big Mac.
Maalouf states that many people see globalization as a threat to their “culture, identity and values.” This is certainly true of disaffected intellectuals, not just in the old colonial peripheries, but especially in the West itself. Yet I wonder how many ordinary Chinese, Indians, Zambians, or even French really fret about their identity and values because of global trade. It seems more likely that the wellsprings of religious or ethnic fanaticism are political more than cultural. Fanaticism has to do with a lack of representation or free speech. Either can lead to an impotent rage. Maalouf sounds a bit absolutist himself in his stress on the right to speak one’s native language. This is indeed an important right. More important, however, is the right to speak freely at all, never mind in which language.
Modernization in the non-Western world has come to mean Westernization. True enough. But there are different roads to the West. The liberal democratic option is a threat to old or new elites who wish to wield absolute power. This is why variations of fascism or communism have been more alluring to power-holders or power-grabbers in the developing world. Much of the religious fanaticism we see today comes from the failure of autocratic secular states such as Egypt. Maalouf recognizes this: “Secularism without democracy is a disaster for democracy and secularism alike.”
Islamism in Egypt or Algeria came in the wake of failed state socialism. This has nothing to do with globalization, US imperialism, or Coca-Cola. To be sure, US governments have supported religious fundamentalists against the Soviet Empire, and continue to support some authoritarian regimes. But the failure of democracy in Arab countries, or indeed Asian ones, cannot primarily be blamed on Washington or global trade. In fact, pro-Western countries in the non-Western world which are most exposed to global trade are often—not always—the most democratic too. Religious fanaticism comes when politics break down. The same is true of racial or nationalist fanaticism and revolutionary millenarianism, which are all variations of religious zeal.
The furnace of antiglobalism is actually not in the so-called third world, but in Europe. This, too, has something to do with the lack of representation. We live in democracies. But to many citizens, European institutions and multinational corporations appear to be wielding more power than elected national governments. The problem can be overstated, by British Euro-skeptics as much as by anticapitalist agitators, but it cannot be dismissed. Whatever it is, or will be, the EU is not a democratic federation; multinational corporations are both indisputably powerful and undemocratic. But here we are in a tricky bind, for one of the justifications for closer European integration is precisely the capacity to check the power of big business.
Another reason for a European sense of impotence is the utter dependency for its security on the US. This, and the huge success of US commercial enterprise, makes Europeans feel more and more peripheral. As is true in the non-West, this doesn’t affect the average consumer of Coca-Colonization so much as artists and intellectuals, who see it as their role to define, guard, and express “identity,” be it regional, national, or spiritual. This is why Hollywood is seen as such a threat, especially in France; it has swamped our markets and invaded our histories. It has, in the words of a character in an early Wim Wenders film, “colonized our minds.”
In a way, non-Americans are in the position of Germans at the time of Napoleon’s greatest victories. France was dominant not only in arts and culture, but in military affairs. What was most annoying to German poets and thinkers was France’s claim to universality. French values were universal values. Similar claims are being made for America today. There are several ways outsiders can react. They can follow alternative forms of universalism, such as communism or Islamism. They can retreat into romantic nativism, celebrating the national soul, and so on. Or they can boost their confidence by expanding their political freedoms, and taking more responsibility for themselves. There are instances of all three in recent history. But the last decade has shown how often believers can switch their creeds without losing any of their zeal. Some revolutionary socialists began as fervent Catholics, only to become rabid nativists. Amin Maalouf may not have all the answers to such dangers, but he is a rare voice of sanity in this murderous discord.
Maalouf does not go into this, but some of the worst instances of romantic nativism and identity chatter occur in the heart of the metropole itself. Tom Hayden was born in Wisconsin. His great-grandparents were immigrants from Ireland. His parents craved and achieved conventional, midwestern, middle-class American respectability. They attended the Catholic Church but only because it was what they were expected to do. Hayden reacted in the manner of some other sons of respectable American folks: he became a 1960s rebel, was a founder of SDS, led protests against the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights, was one of the Chicago Seven, became a California legislator, and married a movie star. He was far more prominent than most, but, apart from marrying Jane Fonda, his life path was not all that unconventional for a man of his generation.
Then, in 1968, roughly twenty years before the Soviet Empire collapsed and former Communists, such as Slobodan Milosevic, became nationalists, Hayden, in his own phrase, had “an epiphany,” and “discovered that [he] was Irish on the inside.” The moment of revelation came in Northern Ireland, while he was watching marchers sing “We Shall Overcome.” Epiphany developed into a case of full-blown blood-and-soil nationalism, precisely the kind of thing German poets and thinkers adopted to resist the preeminence of France. All the clichés of the genre are there in Hayden’s account. He quotes various Irish sages to the effect that Irish culture is very ancient, older in fact “than the English or even imperial Roman cultures.” The Irish soul, filled with mysticism and “otherworldliness that challenge modernity,” is “like an ancient forest.” (Such woody imagery is always a giveaway for neo-Wagnerian passions.)
Hayden’s inner Irishman is particularly stirred (“my blood still heats involuntarily”) by the poets of national soul who celebrate violent rebellions. One such, Patrick Pearse, wrote a famous funeral ode to O’Donovan Rossa, leader of an armed campaign against the British in the 1880s. Hayden writes: “I was touched by Pearse’s summoning of a mystical courage, rooted in an ancient heroic tradition, so lacking in the world I inhabited.”2 The subject of Hayden’s admiration, Pearse, was a religious fanatic, who saw Ireland’s fate in messianic terms: ancestral ghosts had to be appeased with bloody sacrifice.3 As it happens, Pearse was the son of an English father and Irish mother; so much for Maalouf’s confidence in the natural tolerance fostered by multiple identities.
The unheroic boredom of American affluence drives the reborn Irishman to the old sod once more, where, haunted by ancestral traumas, Hayden sits at the feet of hard men from the IRA, whose every appearance in his book is a cue for haloes to glow in the dark. There, in the glass-strewn streets of Derry or Belfast with the smell of cordite in his florid Irish nose, Hayden feels he can finally live up to his name. Hayden, we learn, is from Ó hAodain, which means “the person of the flame.”
Now, why would a successful American wish to become an Irish fanatic? Or, put in another way, why would an activist of the New Left adopt all the romantic clichés of the Old Right? Perhaps there is a parallel here with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Socialist communitarianism, never a winner in the US, was an utterly lost cause by the 1980s. After 1989 the dream was dead. Identity politics, which began with Black Power in the 1960s, began more and more to replace it. Assimilation was the enemy now, the domestic version of US imperialism. Hayden claims that non-WASPs who aspire to become mainstream Americans are self-hating and in deep denial about their “stolen identities,” like colonial subjects trying to be like their white masters. Much of the book is about his own efforts to shed the “trauma” of assimilation, and to convince himself and his readers that to be Irish is to be nonwhite. Already by page twelve, Hayden has yoked the fate of the Irish to those of the Jews and African-Americans. They had the Holocaust and slavery. The Irish had the Famine. Hayden lobbied to get the Famine included in Californian social science textbooks, for then “our trauma would be recognized alongside those of African Americans, the Jews, the Armenians, and others who had demanded a place in classroom texts.”
The history of the Famine should be among the subjects taught in school, but this jockeying for a place in the charts of victimhood is not only unseemly but also deeply narcissistic. It is really all about “me,” the Person of the Flame, drinking alcohol “to fill a void in my soul that assimilation had caused,” and “me” recovering my “Irish (or racial) identity” from “forced amnesia through the experience of suffering.” Hayden, in his vulgar Freudian angst, actually sounds more like a bored Californian than a poor, suffering Irishman. He also does precisely what Maalouf deplores, which is to give absolute priority to just one aspect of his personal identity. When Hayden applies it to others, this tendency is even more extreme. He claims that Che Guevara had an “Irish soul” because of his Irish great-grandfather. As Conor Cruise O’Brien said: “Irish cultural nationalism is a rum business: probably the rummest form of cul-tural nationalism that has ever existed anywhere.”4
What does Irishness mean in this peculiar fantasyland? This is where things get seriously muddled. Not only does Hayden reduce complex identities to an Irish soul, but he jams his Irishness into a very narrow box. He becomes “painfully aware that all my innermost thoughts and verbal communications were in the language of my colonizer.” So he has a stab at Gaelic: “How could one fight for ‘Irish identity’ without including the ancient language…?” Well, indeed. Alas, however, this was a battle already fought and lost more than a hundred years ago. And Gaelic was in any case too much of a bother for Hayden to learn. So thank goodness that the greatest Irish writers of the twentieth century all wrote in the tongue of the oppressor.
Hayden’s Irish soul really comes down to two things: the trauma of the Famine, and the conflict in Northern Ireland, which, in his view, is simply a continuation of the heroic war against the ancient English foe. The historic Irish sages and rebels who fired Hayden’s imagination are reincarnated in the likes of Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams. Irishmen such as Conor Cruise O’Brien, who hold more skeptical views of the sectarian battles, are dismissed as “self-hating” patsies of the colonial power. Irish-Americans who have similar doubts are also deemed to have trampled on their Irish souls. Hayden, then, is like those Jewish Americans who denounce every Jew with reservations about Ariel Sharon as a self-hater. Or, conversely, like those bigots everywhere who believe that Jews cannot be patriots, since their only loyalty is to God’s chosen tribe.
I wonder, also, where this leaves the rest of us, especially in the US? If our true selves are shaped by ancestral traumas and ancient feuds, what about a person whose veins contain Scottish, English, and Polish blood? Should he or she mourn the dead of Culloden one day, curse the Russians on the next, and toast the Queen on Sunday? Is a Roosevelt only true to himself if he remembers the Spanish oppressing the Dutch? Should Donald Rumsfeld be celebrating his German soul, with Fichte and the Meistersinger providing a chorus against the French? And I had always thought the main reason so many people flocked to America was to be rid of such nonsense.
To reduce a nationality (for what else can Irishness be, except to a racist?) to a sectarian political cause is grotesque. But it is Hayden’s use of Northern Ireland as the playground for his own psychodrama that is truly revolting. Much of the book is devoted to several trips to the windy battlefronts of the North. One of his aims is to show his young son, Troy O’Donovan Garity, his “roots.” Troy, named after an Irish rebel and a Vietnamese who plotted to kill Robert MacNamara, is taught to fear the British enemy as part of his education. Approaching an army checkpoint, he cries out: “Dad, don’t call me Irish because the soldiers will shoot me.” His proud dad notes: “He was learning that his roots could get him killed.”
And consider, for a moment, the following sentences from Hayden’s account of his identity tourism. It is 1976. Hayden and Troy are in Belfast:
There were 180 shooting incidents that month in Belfast, according to the Republican News…. At the same time, my own personal war with assimilation was going well. West Belfast was where Irish identity was being contested and reclaimed. Troy was face to face with his heritage.
“My own personal war…,” Troy’s “heritage”…Adams and McGuiness may be hard men with a violent past, but they deserve better than this. There is more at stake in Northern Ireland than “identity.” If it were only about identity, the conflict really would be insoluble, for if the republicans should be true to their Irish roots, why should the Loyalists not be equally true to their British roots? Or is Hayden suggesting that they go back to the land of their ancestors, which for many of them would be Scotland? In fact, the conflict is as much about social discrimination as it is about religion or political rights. How to find a political solution which safeguards the interests of the Catholic minority as well as the Protestants is extremely difficult. To see it as a colonial war, as Hayden does, which would be solved as soon as the hated enemy goes home, is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. But one doesn’t have to be a Sinn Fein sympathizer to regard the treatment of their battles as a form of personal therapy for American visitors as an insult.
If the main problems with Hayden’s brand of romanticism were bad history and woolly politics (he contrives to enlist his battles over the Irish soul in today’s fashionable struggles with multinationals and globalization), this would make the author look foolish, but that would be that. In fact, his thinking, or rather, his feeling, is more lethal. It is exactly what justifies violence in the name of identity. Like his hero, Patrick Pearse, Hayden is haunted by bloodthirsty ghosts. He is not alone. There are Sikhs in Toronto, Muslims in Britain and France, Jews in Brooklyn, and many others in far-flung places who seek to sooth ancestral voices by encouraging barbarism far from home. Some are prepared to die for their causes. Most are content to let others do the dying, while they work on their identities at home.
April 11, 2002
This is also a tribute to the translator, Barbara Bray. ↩
All this talk of soul, mystical heroism, and higher causes smacks of what Avishai Margalit and I termed “Occidentalism” in an earlier article in these pages; see The New York Review, January 17, 2002. It is one more indication that Occidentalism has no geographical boundaries. ↩
Before an anti-British rebellion in 1916, Pearse wrote that Irish suffering reminded him of King David’s aspiration: “That thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and that the tongue of thy dogs may be red through the same.” ↩
Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994), p. 87. ↩