Identity

Author: Gary Hart

Scholars and practitioners are investing much effort these days searching for the root cause or causes of the tidal wave of nationalism, xenophobia, and right-wing politics throughout much of Western democracy.  Early victims of this wave are immigrants, trade and security agreements, and abandonment of much of the post-World War II international order.  Spokesmen, not leaders, of this historic shift—Trump, Bannon, Orban, Five Star, and others—stir up a stew of hostility, resentment, racism, and an occasional dose of fascism to feed the rising tribes

A recent assignment in Northern Ireland on behalf of the U.S. Government helped provide some clues to the causes of this wave.  There the division between Protestant unionism, the desire to remain part of Great Britain, and largely Catholic republicanism, the desire to be part of the Republic of Ireland, has plagued the province since it was carved out of the new Republic following the Irish civil war in the 1920s.

To say that feelings run deep is a gross understatement.  After power sharing arrangements associated with the Good Friday Agreement gave way to these tensions last year, there has been a stalemate over standing up Stormont, the Northern Ireland parliament, once again and how to resolve the impact on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic brought on by Brexit.  With exception for the on-going stalemate in the Middle East, it is as complex a nightmare as exists anywhere in the world.

One of the canny party leaders in Northern Ireland boiled it down to this: identity.  The unionists see themselves as British, the more ardent as English.  The republicans see themselves as Irish.

Recent re-immersion in early American history suggests there was a struggle then over whether Founders and various constituencies saw themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers or as citizens of a new nation called America.  The history, and particularly the Federalist, largely skirted confronting the identity issue directly.  But the issue underlay all the debates over North and South, finance and trade versus agriculture, small states and large states, and the slave question.

They were in the process of creating a new nation and much of the debate across the board was over where power was located and who would possess it.

A century and a half later, Americans had clearly become Americans and thought of themselves as such, but the world of nation-states, with decades of war over territory and then war over fascism, required U.S. leadership to create an international order, one that would provide collective security, a managed international trade structure, and international institutions to help manage mass migration, failed states, post-colonial transfers of power, arms control, and emerging threats from climate change and much else summarized as globalization.

Four decades ago, as a young parliamentarian and ardent internationalist, I was a small voice of warning against assuming all aspects of globalization were benign and beneficial.  Too many U.S. factory workers lost their jobs overnight, mass south-north migrations across the globe were altering political landscapes, and more nations were joining the nuclear club.

There are huge economic reasons for the revolt against the international order.  But for the everyday citizen, it is changing demographics that threaten their identity.  It was as predictable as sunrise.  When did Americans become dark-skinned?  Why are most of the products I buy made in China?  Because “liberals” are also internationalists, aren’t they to blame?

Right now, we are in the midst of an historic struggle over identity.  To preserve my identity as an American, many now think, I must erect walls—against immigrants, foreign products, the world’s troubles, and all these agreements and treaties.  We will become great America again by returning to some wonderful time that never was, except in some nostalgic recollection.

Western democracy is now trying to recreate a 19th century world of the nation-state with rigid borders against movement and commerce.  Any clear reading of that century’s history makes it less than ideal.  It may have seemed grand in retrospect as we grew into America as a nation, but it was much less than grand in fractious, colonizing Europe.

Thus, the challenge to us all is to imagine a new American identity that truly does comport with out best principles and ideals, those in our Founding documents that brought 13 and eventually 37 more states into a nation.

This will not be easy or quick.  It will not be achieved in one national election.  It will require leaders who know how to combine international collaboration with a renewed national identity.  If we achieve this, other democratic nations will follow.  But it means understanding that national identity is not the preserve of right-wing authoritarians.

 

3 Responses to “Identity”

  1. Neil McCarthy Says:

    I think the biggest threat may be the decline in public education. America is an iea, not a culture or continent or demographic group. The idea ended slavery, albeit at thed cost of a Civil War and a century of legal racism; the idea also allowed for the integration of immigrant groups, again not without struggle and in many cases violence.

    Part of the reason the idea triumphed is that it was taught in history and civics classes. But that isn’t happening in the same way today. Young people know very little of the history of the founding or the ensuing 200 plus years. They hear a lot from the tribes screaming about their rights, and from the loud patriots chanting “USA” without much knowledge of the history from whence it arose. But until they actually read the Federalist and Linclon and understand how we got from 1776 to here, it will be difficult to transcend narrow identity.

    The history of America is a history of struggle between the idea — rule of law, equality, liberty, free speech and association, freedom of religion — and fundamental prejudices that subverted it — slavery, racism, anti-immigrant know-nothing-ism, greed and economic inequality. But if that history is not learned, it will be hard for Americans to unleash the “better angels of [their] nature” that Lincoln and this site’s host reasonably offer as an alternative to the current morass.

  2. Paul G Says:

    SMALL VOICE? THIS IS 1984 FORGOTTEN “BEEF” SENATOR HART WAS PROPOSING WHEN THE MEDIA GROSSLY AMPLIFIED HIS OPPONENT’S WENDY COMMERCIAL:

    “Four decades ago, as a young parliamentarian and ardent internationalist, I was a small voice of warning against assuming all aspects of globalization were benign and beneficial … It was as predictable as sunrise. Thus, the challenge to us all is to imagine a new American identity that truly does comport without best principles and ideals, those in our Founding documents that brought 13 and eventually 37 more states into a nation. This will not be easy … it will require leaders who know how to combine international collaboration with a renewed national identity.”

    – Gary Hart, “Identity.”

    SMALL VOICE? THESE MODERN ROOTS OF APARTHEID IN WESTERN DEMOCRACY THAT SENATOR HART’S 1984 PROPOSAL HELPED BECOME THE 1997 GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT:

    “A recent assignment in Northern Ireland on behalf of the U.S. Government helped provide some clues to the causes of this wave. There the division between Protestant unionism, the desire to remain part of Great Britain, and largely Catholic republicanism, the desire to be part of the Republic of Ireland, has plagued the province since it was carved out of the new Republic following the Irish civil war in the 1920s … With exception for the on-going stalemate in the Middle East, it is as complex a nightmare as exists anywhere in the world.”

    – Gary Hart, “Identity.”

    UK COMPLEX NIGHTMARE “SOLUTION” FOR IRELAND IN 1919 … NOT A MIXED DRINK:
    https://www.porchdrinking.com/articles/2018/03/14/black-and-tans-a-reminder-of-a-dark-period-in-irish-history/

    SMALL NOTE: Of Ireland’s four centuries-old provinces, Britain excluded three of Ulster’s nine historic counties thereby giving remaining six counties domination by their official religion from 1920 to the present, while ignoring Ireland’s 1918 “Ourselves Alone” (Sinn Fein) vote. The unintended consequence of repressing an independent republic’s will was as predictable as a former US colonies’ declaration, or a sunrise.

  3. LORENZO CHERIN Says:

    Senator Hart, please read my comments on the immediate piece preceding this, thanks for your words of encouragement to all here.

    This resonates with me. Your work in Northern Ireland was little covered in my country, I admire it, the reference here by all accounts important, Brexit and concern over the border issues very apposite.

    As a start, the Democrats should have been in Liberal International years ago, the Liberalism of this site, a link from Jefferson through FDR and JFK, obvious.

    Identity is now being dominated by debates about it’s importance or otherwise, hijacked by those who “no platform.”

    This issue is important, internationalism as a way of expressing a nation’s identity as outward, is far from popular. PM May, called many in my country, ” citizens of nowhere” for being patriots yes, but internationalists too.

    Please see a website I have set up, theliberalartscause.com

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.