“Why do you write about identity politics and all that stuff if it’s just going to alienate people?”
I get that question a lot. Why always insist on the big picture, on internationalism, on transculturality? Why not support the nationalism of the oppressed? It makes people angry, it goes against what’s expected, it causes trouble and loses you allies. And it’s tedious. It’s cold, hard logic versus the seemingly liberating fire of intense emotion. It’s abstract argument versus the intimacy of personal experience. I get it. Trust me, I wish this stuff was irrelevant. I hate politics.
But take a good look at that picture.
What you’re seeing there is members of the American Nazi Party attending a Nation of Islam rally. (For those unfamiliar with the American Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam was a black nationalist organization that had very little to do with actual Islam. Its most famous members included Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.) That’s right: members of a white supremacist movement were guests of honour at an event dedicated to the dignity and pride of African-Americans. It gets better: the Nation of Islam also worked with the Ku Klu Klan.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable describes the relationship between the two groups:
Most of the details about the planning and logistics of this meeting are still sketchy. What is established is that, despite a previous exchange of hostile letters [...] both the Klan and the NOI saw advantages to crafting a secret alliance. On January 28 , Malcolm and Atlanta NOI leader Jeremiah X met in Atlanta with KKK representantives. Apparently, the Nation was interested in purchasing tracts of farmland and other properties in the South and, as Malcolm explained, wanted to solicit “the aid of the Klan to obtain the land.” According to FBI surveillance, Malcolm assured the white racists that “his people wanted complete segregation from the white race.” If sufficient territory were obtainable, blacks could establish their own racially separate businesses and even government. Explaining that the Nation exercised a strict discipline over its members, he urged white racists in Georgia to do likewise: to eliminate those white “traitors who assisted integration leaders.”
Jeremiah X, who was actively involved in the Klan negotiations, participated in a daylight Klan rally in Atlanta in 1964, receiving the public praise of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Robert M. Sheldon.
[Manning Marable, A Life of Reinvention, p. 178-179]
I know that this is the kind of disturbing fact, so far outside the common narratives of what it means to be progressive, that one almost instinctively tries to ignore or downplay. But there’s no avoiding the truth. Look at that photo again. Read the last sentence of that quote. Jeremiah X received the public praise of Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Robert M. Sheldon. And it’s hardly the only such case – the collaboration of Zionist organizations with the Nazis is well-documented (including by Jewish historians such as Lenni Brenner). Read this, for example:
Between 9 September and 9 October 1934 the Nazi Party Berlin newspaper Der Angriff, founded and controlled by Joseph Goebbels, published a series of twelve pro-Zionist articles by Mildenstein under the title A National Socialist Goes to Palestine. In honour of his visit, the newspaper issued a commemorative medallion, with the swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other.
[Wikipedia entry on SS officer Leopold von Mildenstein]
Given the events that followed, it’s difficult to imagine anything more horrific and absurd than “a commemorative medallion, with the swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other.” Yet in many ways, it’s a perfect symbol for nationalism.
This is the part that’s important: on a very fundamental level, all these nationalist organizations were in agreement about how the world was structured. Sure, the white supremacists thought white people were better and the black nationalists thought black people were better. But where they all agreed was that there was such a thing as Whites and Blacks and Aryans and Jews, that these were meaningful divisions of humanity and that these divisions should be upheld. To construct an identity always requires the construction of an Other, against which one can be defined; as such, these nationalisms were different sides of the same coin.
They also shared a common enemy: the many, many people on all sides who refused to be categorized. The majority of German Jews, for example, who did not conceive of themselves as a special group based on ethnic identity (Zionism was a fringe movement at the time). The people on both “sides” who fought and died for equality. The people who committed the sin of intermarriage. And the most dangerous bunch of them all: the communists. To defeat the latter, any alliance would do.
To question the nationalism of the oppressed is not to question the existence of oppression; in fact, the very suggestion is one that “silences” or “erases” (to use the terms commonly employed in modern identity politics) all the many, many people who never embraced an ideology of borders in the first place, who fought for full equality and freedom beyond any concept of identity. It ignores the millions of people who fought and died for their right to be people. Not black people or Jewish people. Just people.
Today’s proponents of identity politics/intersectionality are not that different in their goals from the Nation of Islam: pride for their identity, lifting people of that identity up from poverty, creating jobs for people of that identity, creating and maintaining (and policing) communities. They’re opposed to oppression, but rarely to exploitation – i.e. they conceive of the problem with capitalism as being the unfair representation of minorities in positions of power, not the inherent relationship between working people and the system. The poor whites that Martin Luther King Jr. was so concerned about are dismissed as privileged.
And that’s what it always comes down to. All nationalisms – whether the literal kind, or those of gender, religion, or other cultural groups – are ultimately segregationist in nature. To believe that identities intersect, you must believe in separate, clearly divided identities. To believe that appropriation is a problem, you must believe that cultures exist as contained units. And so there must always be an Other; to construct that Other as the “white heterosexual cis man” instead of the “dark foreigner” changes nothing about the underlying logic. The West isn’t superior to the Orient, but neither is the Orient superior to the West – the real point is that there is no Orient, and thus there is no West. Cultural borders are a fantasy, and it is that very fantasy that we must destroy. We can’t do that by reinforcing the very logic that creates the fantasy in the first place.
I write about these issues because I believe that people should have the freedom to live their lives as they choose to. I believe that the world is plagued by inequality, oppression and exploitation. And I firmly believe that history shows us that nationalism, no matter how attractively presented, no matter how emotionally justified, can never lead to freedom.
- Malcolm X, of course, eventually grew disgusted with the Nation of Islam and tried to find a way towards equality that embraced everyone. That’s when he became a real threat to the system, and he was killed long before he managed to complete his evolution.
- “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based on the color of the skin.” – Malcolm X
- Is the Turk a White Man? American liberal politics appear not to have moved on for over a century.
- Transculturality: the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, by Wolfgang Welsch.
- The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel by Shlomo Sand.
- “In the logic of antiracism, exposure of the racial element of an instance of wrongdoing will lead to recognition of injustice, which in turn will lead to remedial action—though not much attention seems ever given to how this part is supposed to work. I suspect this is because the exposure part, which feels so righteously yet undemandingly good, is the real focus. But this exposure convinces only those who are already disposed to recognize.” – Adolph Reed, Jr. in The Limits of Anti-Racism. And yeah, he’s black. Does intersectionality have space for those of the oppressed who don’t subscribe to intersectionality?