„Black … and blue … And who knows which is which and who is who” – you don’t need to be a Pink Floyd aficionado to know that these lines from the song “Us and them” from the iconic 1973 album “Dark Side of the Moon” states that divisions between people are random and pointless.
“Which is which and who is who” sounds harmless and just slightly desperate at first – and in the next step it leads right into the heart of the populists and into the minds of the doubters about democracy.
Many are annoyed by the maelstrom of the megatrends
So with annoyance one asks for one’s own place, one’s own #identity in the midst of a stream of megatrends of change. Demographic changes, digitalization, globalization – these are the centrifugal forces that pull at the questioners and doubters, and not only at them.
The Bertelsmann Stiftung, for which I work, is working intensively on this issue. The 2019 Venice Art Biennale, before drowning in the floods, drilled its way room after room, pavilion after pavilion to the centre of our time with the help of this question, and this was not just an aesthetic exercise.
“I’m talking about the imperialism of identities”
Kwame Anthony Appiah, born in 1954 as the son of a Ghanaian from a royal family and an Englishwoman from the Upper Class, today professor of philosophy and law in New York, presented his book “The Lies That Bind: Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture” last year (Profile Books; German translation “Identitäten. Die Fiktionen der Zugehörigkeit” now out by Hanser, Berlin). In an interview #Appiah says, “I once spoke of the imperialism of identities. Identity can colonize your whole person, so that you are nothing more than this one quality”.
As an antidote, Appiah, who declares himself a cosmopolitan – more about this soon hereafter, because that is the other side of his “fictions of belonging” – recommends “an easy, playful handling” of identities: “Do not speak in one quality, speak for yourself!”
What are borders good for – for security and freedom
Difficult, difficult, the Dutch sociologist and essayist Paul Scheffer may be murmuring. He, too, in his new book “Warum Grenzen? Freiheit in Zeiten von Globalisierung und Migration” (German by Hanser Verlag, not yet published in English) is basically dealing with the right mixture of freedom and security, curiosity and fear, Me and Us and You and Them.
Thus, with the question of a balance worth living for between one’s own and the foreign, in times of the dissolution of boundaries, globalization, cosmopolitanization: “Only those who are willing to recognize the meaning of borders can understand the value of crossing borders,” Scheffer writes. And with a key phrase from French President Emmanuel Macron he calls for a “Europe that offers protection – Une Europe qui protège”. Which, by the way, also justifies Macron’s recent harsh criticism of NATO: It no longer protects, that is why it is “braindead”.
If you don’t tame identities, you risk murder and manslaughter
Back to identities. Already more than twenty years ago, the French writer Amin Maalouf, born in Lebanon and grown up with the identitary civil war of the many religious communities there, warned strongly against the “murderous identities” (“Les identités meurtrières”, publishing house Grasset, Paris, English: “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong”, Arcade Publishing; the booklet at that time received the European Essay Prize). The “Panther identity” had to be tamed, otherwise …
The bloodshed in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia – forgotten?
At that time, the call for identity was yelled over the bloody fields of the civil wars in many places. Have you forgotten? At that time the ethnic civil wars raged in disintegrating Yugoslavia. At that time hundreds of thousands, who had just lived together peacefully, died in Rwanda.
“Cosmopolitanism is an attitude towards strangers that one sees as fellow citizens, not as close as our family, not as close as our neighbours… But also not so far away that their fate could remain indifferent to us,” Appiah explains. And he also says this, “Flying from Singapore to Buenos Aires doesn’t make you a cosmopolitan as long as you stay at the Hilton. The cosmopolitan wants to know what’s happening outside the Hilton.”
The Frequent Flyer at the Hilton is far from cosmopolitan
On the other hand, does the identity seeker really want to know what happens beyond his self-defined boundaries, outside his biotope?
This is where the circle closes. Or as the French say: the extremes touch each other, les extrêmes se touchent.
Amin Maalouf is a member of the venerable Académie française. In its walls on the Quai de Conti in Paris, every day he could meet another “immortal”, as the members of the Academy are honoured and also ridiculed a little in French: Alain Finkielkraut.
Does democracy really manage only national disintegration?
This philosopher, essayist and radio presenter, recently the target of anti-Semitic attacks from the yellow vest circles, has been considered by many of his compatriots to be a pioneer of Marine Le Pen’s extreme right-wing party (which I see somewhat differently) at the latest since his speech about the “unfortunate identity” (“L’Identité malheureuse”, 2013, only in French).
The democratic system in France, Finkielkraut concludes, “manages the national decay from day to day” (“la desintégration nationale”). This is the anxious answer to the change of times or, as Finkielkraut would probably say, to the dawning of a new age.
And finally, an optimistic look into the future
Yet the optimistic answer is cautiously and with a beautiful picture given by the Académicien Amin Maalouf at the end of his “Identités Meurtrières”.
The writer hopes that his grandson, once grown up, will one day rummage through his grandfather’s works, first have to free this book from the dust and then shrug his shoulders wondering why his grandfather actually had to write such things back then.