There’s a way in which identity politics are a luxury. To engage in them, you at least need a voice.
Over the past several months I’ve listened to Sam Harris’s interview with Charles Murray, for instance, his subsequent debate with Ezra Klien of Vox magazine, and a later interview by Harris of Coleman Hughes. These were interesting segments that collectively explore the residual difficulties of speaking about the issue of race in America—among other things. The paradox that has emerged for me is that while, on the one hand, I agree with treating each person as an individual and not through the lens of race or ethnicity, I also feel something stands to be lost in the absorption of cultures into the dominant amalgam.
There’s a paradox here. While it is unquestionably virtuous to consider people of all races and ethnicities for a job opening on the basis of their individual talent, character and capabilities, this belies the fact that the jobs which are available, and the ideas which are judged to have merit, are themselves dictated by the dominant culture.
Recently I read There There by Tommy Orange, a novel that I see has been critically acclaimed and which I thoroughly enjoyed. The novel is about various persons of Native American descent, with varying degrees of affiliation for their heritage, who converge upon a powwow in Oakland, CA. Orange gives us a view, up close and personal, of what it means to exist in an American modernity with a heritage that is frayed, diluted and at times nebulous. What does it mean to be a Native American who has never known anything but city life? Who is Native and who is not, and what does it mean if you are?
The one character in this novel with an advanced degree lives with his mother. He pursued an advanced degree in an effort to understand who he is, but after graduation finds himself adrift and unable to find meaningful work, and loses himself in the spree of information that is the world wide web. Another character teaches himself a traditional dance through YouTube, wondering all the while if his grandmother will approve of his interest. Another character brings ruin to his family through drug and alcohol abuse, while tinkering with medicine powers he doesn’t understand. This novel is a tragedy, if nothing else. But the paradox is that it is a tragedy with which we can all relate.
We all grapple with issues of identity, particularly in a world in which we are brought into ever-increasing contact with people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and traditions.
In one segment of the novel, Orange addresses the high rate of suicide in Native American communities, and notes that interventions focused on giving people better reasons not to jump rings hollow. People need reasons to live, not reasons not to jump. Don’t we all need these reasons? And where do we find them if not in our familial and cultural affiliations? Ultimately we find meaning in knowing and sharing who we are, and if we are part of a culture without a voice, the terms on which we meet the world can seem to be limited.
This novel is about the tragedy of not knowing who we are, or what to express, or once we’ve found it, how to even express it. I sometimes think of myself as a member of an incoherent tribe. I’m a middle-aged white man, and from that perspective identifying with my tribe is tricky business. I’m not enamored of mainstream values, I enjoy nuanced conversations, and many of the trends I see at work in the world are troubling to me. So I felt at home in Orange’s novel. Because while on paper I’m not dispossessed, in my heart oftentimes I am.
I don’t know if the times we live in are more turbulent than others. I don’t know if intolerance of other cultures runs higher or lower than in times past. But it seems like the shrinking of the world has made it that much harder for subcultures to carve out their niche. Before I read There, There I read a book called Spirit Talkers by William S. Lyon. It is a book by an anthropologist exploring all of the historical evidence related to the medicine powers of North American indigenous tribes, many of which have waned as a result of the “corporate mergers” affected by the dominant culture of the last few hundred years on our continent–the culture that, on paper, is my own.
There’s no going back, not to the way it was. And the past certainly wasn’t perfect in any culture. But in my opinion it is vital that we create space for other cultures to flourish. I think its akin to seeking to preserve the species of the rain forests and coral reefs, those rich stores of biodiversity that may yet hold cures for the diseases that plague us.