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Identity and the age of rage

Rohingya refugees gather behind the barbed wire fence on the Myanmar border in Rakhine state
Rohingya refugees gather behind the barbed wire fence on the Myanmar border in Rakhine state
Image: AFP Photo

The globalisation that defined the last decades of the past century held a brief promise of a highly idealistic cosmopolitanism, of a borderless world marked by a non-identitarian humanism.

It is difficult to say when, exactly, things went wrong, and when it was that we ended up with a world threatened by the rise of ethno-nationalism, the search for purity, and insistence that we are to be governed by “our own” people – in the narrowest ethnocentric sense.

A thin analysis may suggest that there is little wrong with that. A deeper dive reveals the dangers that emerge when governance and political economy are infused with racial, ethnic or religious exceptionalism and dominance.

Whereas late 20th-century globalisation held that brief promise of a benevolent borderlessness world stripped of ethnic, racial and religious pride, and even of ideological fixity, quite the opposite has happened.

We live in an “age of anger” in which ethno-nationalism, ethnic or racial purity, and even religion has frittered away any hope of a truly cosmopolitan world devoid of ethnic, religious, racial or territorial pride.

One explanation for this retreat is that things began to go wrong when globalisation was driven by vast corporations.

A second suggests that it was when footloose finance drove global capitalism, when vast sums of money circulated around the globe, taking with it shocks from one country to the next.

A third was that the liberal internationalism that shaped post-war integration pushed poverty from the core of wealthy states to the periphery of poor states, and that a push-back occurred. While this third argument is closer to my own, there is a modicum of truth in each of the others.

The one argument that does stand out is related to the “push-back” idea, a type of increased “localisation” which has, in some places, been conflated with identity.

Those of us who imagined the benefits of globalisation, the liberal internationalists and people like myself, who were a lot more idealistic (and naïve, it should be said), underestimated the durability of ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism refers to a belief in the centrality of ethnicity, race, religion and language groups.

A good place to start, if we want a better grasp of our age, is probably with the power and force that Eurocentrism has deployed across the world, especially the spread of the industrial revolution, and so much of what it has achieved, from a corner in England to the rest of the world.

At this point I am probably showing my opposition to Eurocentric fundamentalism – especially the belief that it ought to be applied to everything we do or say.
It is fairly obvious, though, that almost everything we do, from Port Elizabeth, on the southeast coast of South Africa, to Tromso, in the Arctic Circle, is shaped by what Europe has given the world, from mechanisation to the calendar we use.

Now, it would be terribly disingenuous if I were to denounce everything European. This may be because I received most of my formal education in Europe. It may explain why I have a special affinity for Sicily, the Semper Opera House in Dresden, or Paris.

I also believe Swan Lake is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever written, and my favourite film directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian, and Roberto Rossellini, an Italian.

Nonetheless, if we look more closely we may recognise (though not always agree) with the durability of identities and identity politics.

For instance, in some Muslim countries, of the Middle East, the weekend starts with prayers on Friday, and everything shuts down – when markets in the US or western Europe or eastern Asia are operating. In Israel, the Sabbath is on a Saturday. Actually, earlier this year, in the Israeli city of Ashdod, shops that operated on Saturdays were fined by the local municipality, and delicatessens that sold non-kosher food were threatened by more conservative folk.

I should be clear, our drive, in South Africa, towards finding autochthonous (indigenous) ideas and solutions to problems that beset the country are necessary.

What we want to guard against is being sucked into the slipstream of ethno-nationalism and the drive for purity that is powering across the world.

In an essay on the quest for purity in Pakistan (and its inherent dangers) Mohsin Hamed wrote forebodingly:

“In India, a politics of Hindu purity is wrenching open deep and bloody fissures in a diverse society.

“In Myanmar, a politics of Buddhist purity is massacring and expelling the Rohingya.

“In the US, a politics of white purity is marching in white hoods and red baseball caps, demonising Muslims and Hispanic people, killing and brutalising black people, jeering at intellectuals, and spitting in the face of climate science.”

As I wrote at the beginning of this column, I can’t quite put a finger on when the idea of a non-identitarian and humanist globalisation transmogrified into an age of anger.

What is certain is that South Africa’s official classification of racial identities, and our political responses based on these identities, do nothing to ease the concerns about the future of the country, or the world for that matter.

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