We are not really ‘equal’ right now, are we?

Does claiming “There is no ‘other’ — we’re all inherently equal” have similar problems as claiming, “I’m colorblind”?

Does claiming “all are equal” unconsciously serve to rationalize the position of the privileged?

Can a well-intended insistence on descriptive, “innate equality” become a dogmatic belief that belies normative social inequity, structures?

Which statement is more equitable? To say, “We are all equal” or “At present, we are not, in fact, equal in our rights and opportunities”?

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Who is served by the reconciliation agenda?

On Friday, March 24, 2017, I heard a lecture by Glen Coulthard at the Organizing Equality conference.

Coulthard’s thesis is that the contemporary colonizing nation-state (in this case, Canada) lives in a contradiction. On one hand, the state is sovereign over its the people, resources, and land. On the other hand, the state simultaneously recognizes the presence and rights of indigenous peoples, its historical role in colonization, and the treaties it has signed along the way. Now the nation-state, the Crown, has a dilemma: how does it continue to extract the resources it wants or requires to compete in the global arena of nation-states? At the end of the day, posits Coulthard, the state can march in and overtly take the resources it wants by force, or it can manufacture a narrative of reconciliation that functions as a political distraction to its inherent economic/resource agenda.

From another talk (November 16, 2011) by Glen Coulthard on YouTube:

Since at least the early 1990s a global industry has emerged promoting the issuing of state-orchestrated apologies, advocating ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ as an important precondition for resolving the devastating social impacts caused by intrastate violence, state perpetuated mass atrocity, and historical injustice.

Coulthard and others argue that the proliferation of so-called ‘Reconciliation Inc’ has a systemically negative impact on indigenous rights. Referring to the work of Leanne Simpson, Coulthard writes:

In the end, the optics created by these grand gestures of recognition and reconciliation suggests to the dominant society that we no longer have a legitimate ground to stand on in expressing our grievances. Instead, Indigenous people appear unappreciative, angry, and resentful… (Coulthard 2014:153-4)

Coulthard et al argue that the politics of indigenous recognition, as trumpeted by liberal democracies the world over, ultimately serve the political interests of states, not indigenous people.

All this raises some provocative questions we all need to wrestle with, like whose agenda is served by reconciliation? Perhaps the only way to begin answering the question is to investigate who is driving the reconciliation agenda. Power is power — and the principal interest of power is maintaining its power — even when it shows up tenderly announcing its heartfelt concern for your identity and apologies for its legacy and history. What better way to keep power centralized than to remind everyone dispensing reconciliation is the prerogative of whoever owns the power in the first place?

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Is there any equality without economic equality?

Take a few minutes and watch/listen to this clip of Francis Fukuyama discussing the relationship between economics and identity politics. What follows is a brief synthesis and reflection.

Fukuyama’s premise is that political left in the United States has shifted from the traditional liberal concern for economic equality and is now scattered a million directions à la identity politics.

…gay marriage, feminism, whether we elect a woman to the White House, ethnic politics, multiculturalism — all of these things are much more preoccupying, but they are also divisive because the left doesn’t really agree on a common agenda. And economic inequality is just one cause in addition to all of these other identity politics issues, and I think that’s been a distraction.

For Fukuyama, the vacuum of a shared vision for the left explains in part why Occupy — and movements like it — have not been able to acquire adequate social traction. (There are echoes here of Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics that I shared recently.) The central observation here is about the role of the economy in political movements. At the current trajectory, the left’s capacity to mobilize effectively is stuck in a stalemate with itself until an economic shock or crisis pulls all the disparate identity actors around a common, shared goal.

Now it may be that over time inequality will get so bad people will refocus on this, but I think for the time being the energies of the left have been dissipated on a lot of other kinds of issues.

Taking it one step farther, Fukuyama seems to entertain the possibility that identity politics is even a predictable outcome of economic success in a democracy. When the masses are starving for the scraps of the elites, we all know why the revolution needs to happen. When it comes to practicing middle-class politics from our sofas and smartphones, the temptation is ripe for turning political action into an expression of individual identity. Hence the theory: only increasing hyper inequality is an adequate force for reuniting and galvanizing liberal political action.

If you can take prosperity and democracy for granted then the terms of the debate shift to a different set of issues having to do with identity. And in a certain sense identity is the Achilles heel of modern democracies…

This line of thinking yields several interesting questions to me: to what extent should we think of equality (generally) and economic equality (specifically) as synonymous or distinct concepts? To what degree was economic inequality the animating force behind our constitutions and charters? Does our capacity as a society to care about equality diminish the wealthier our society becomes?

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Identity Politics v Universalism?

On Sunday I read a fascinating blog post by Kenan Malik about identity politics. As usual, Malik raises some fascinating perspectives. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. What follows comprises of my notes, personal interpretation, and a question.

First, Malik traces the history of identity politics to a time before it was even called ‘identity politics.’ He draws attention to critics of the Enlightenment, who decried the universalizing ideals of the movement. These original champions of identity-oriented politics were those who felt that the calls for equality would strip away the safe, ethnocentric nationalism of the status quo. In other words, the original ‘identity politics’ was grounded in attitudes and agendas we would define as ‘racist’ or ‘supremacist’ today.

By and large, the 18-19th-century defenders of equality took a wholly different approach: they advocated for universal rights. This notion of universality — especially when practiced politically — stood in direct contrast to the reactionary ethnic/identity-based politics standing in defense of the status quo.

In Malik’s view, the original iteration of ‘identity politics’ dissipated after the Second World War. The Holocaust effectively made the notion orienting one’s political agenda around an ethnic identity unpalatable. But in the wake of the war — and amid the hyper identity-conscious restructuring of borders — the role of identity in politics shifted dramatically. The transformation was slow but significant.

The most crucial change, argues Malik, is our definition and practice of solidarity. Identity politics “stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture,” whereas solidarity “draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.” Ironically, identity-based politics makes forming mass political movements increasingly difficult. The number of large-scale solidarity movements that have drawn people together across distinctive backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures has declined significantly. It is arguably easier to galvanize people into direct-action solidarity over shared values — such as a common conception of justice — than it is to make the distinct identity and experience of an oppressed group the focal reason for engagement.

In other words, we’re collectively spending more time asking ourselves, “Who are we?” and less time thinking about, “What kind of society do we want to build?” But we can’t equate identity-building with nation-building. To change the structural and institutional landscape of a state — that is, to address power — requires a coordination of ideological values (the Zeitgeist, so to speak) that must by definition transcend any particular camp of identity.

But perhaps the most chilling point of Malik’s account is the idea that the ‘mainstreaming’ of identity politics has paved the way for the way for white identity politics:

as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

The question for all of us who value the hope and dream of living in truly equitable societies boils down to this: are universalism and identity politics fundamentally at odds with one another? For Malik,

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it…only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.

What do you think?

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