I recently read ‘The Lies that Bind’ by Anthony Kwame Appiah. I thought it was fantastic book and left me with many thoughts and responses. I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t reply, so I shall share it here… Hopefully some of them make sense for those that haven’t read the book, and for anyone who has, would be fascinated to hear.
Dear Professor Appiah
Firstly, apologies for this unsolicited note, and the second rate undergrad-level thoughts it contains.
After finishing ‘The Lies that Bind’, I really wanted to put down some thoughts – I hope you don’t thing its too weird that I have then sent them to you….
I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you explore about identity within your book. Identity – and in particular nationality and it’s composite bits – is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and a little bit for a long time, particularly as mixed-race Afro-caribbean Brit living in an British Asian former colony (Singapore) for the last four years. (I could write multiple emails just picking apart my observations on identity here in response to some of your writing – one of my neighbours told me the story of how, as a young boy, he went to bed waving one flag and woke up waving another 53 years ago)
On a personal level I really connected with the elements you wove in of your own story and how your unique viewpoint allows you to describe the absurdity of reductive and singular notions of identity that essentialists and ethnocentrists cling to. Having in my own small way straddled multiple worlds during my own experience; most obviously of race, but also of class and of culture, I have always had a sense that ‘obvious’ category divides and definitions aren’t particularly natural or clear or obvious, but I also feel that is the gift of a privileged viewpoint. I smiled when you referred to yourself as ‘English’ as I remember one particularly revealing late night debate with a very good friend (he still is now) from my college who vehemently denied me use of the title because I “don’t have the blood”.
The thing that really struck me as I read your work was the outsized role that Country or the Nation plays in tying together the contemporary versions of the four other sorts of identity that you explore. It seems that (to borrow one of your most lovely turns of phrase in the book) Nation, or the Nationalism born of the industrial nation state is the ‘Medusa Gaze’ that fixes and reduces the other facets identities. Between the French Revolution, the 19th Century romantic liberal-national movements and the technological and economic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, the overlapping, multilayered versions of identity that still lingered at the time of Ettore’s birth were hammered flat, collapsed and co-opted by modern Nationalism. Ironic that what at the start of the 19th Century was the great ideal of the liberal (I remember studying why ‘Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles’ was a message initially to inspire citizens of a patchwork of grand-duchies and principalities to ‘feel’ German above ‘Protestant’ or ‘Hanseatic’ or ‘Prussian’) became the refuge and strength of the authoritarian. Perhaps natural too, as once the liberal-national dream to ‘create’ has been fulfilled, the logical next step is to ‘conserve’?
Then of course this was exported to the rest of the world, through amongst other things the ‘Census, Map, Museum’ as Benedict Anderson puts it, and as you recognise when you talk about the invention of the Hindu (the same is true of the definition ‘Malay’ in Singapore – there has been some fantastic work done on how this authoritarian island utopia is a post colonial government deploying unreconstituted colonial structures and powers.
By lashing together states-wide tribalism for mass mobilisation – for war and for industry, using the vines and tentacles of creed and colour and culture, Country became Nation and it fixed these ideas, creating a mass cultural product that was compellingly simple and dangerously compelling. The lies we tell ourselves aren’t a problem in themselves – as you highlight in so many of your pre-industrial examples, until they are denied the elasticity and vibrancy to continue to flex and grow. Some of the examples you use from religion and evolving consensus on values highlight this beautifully, and in part I wanted to write to you to see what your response would be to the thought which struck me – namely, that it was this industrial homogenisation of these other elements by the Nation-State (to which I would add language, at least as a historical category to this) which caused so many of the problems we see now in ‘identity politics’; that identity politics as we see it, is a product of this process. Religious fundamentalism, racial essentialism and cultural ossification are all modern industrial products, and like Nationalism, are profoundly unsuited to the reality of the contemporary world – it’s no coincidence that it primarily is supranational bodies like the EU that are suited to – and have at least had some limited success being – a counterpoint to transnational corporations.
When you then went on to argue the opposite when it came to class, that we do not pay enough attention to it’s continuity and the myth of meritocracy (our 20th Century version of Mayer’s ‘Persistence of the Old Regime’) I was even more excited. Perhaps here I push my reading of you work too far into my limited (and rusty) intellectual realm as a historian by training, a democratic socialist by inclination and someone working in the ‘commercial application of social sciences’ (I say grandiosely – I am but a humble market researcher…) but could in some ways this be the counterpoint to Nation? Maybe I have been listening to Paul Robeson sing ‘Joe Hill’ too often recently, but it struck me that if the two work in opposite directions and by making class as you describe it more visible, class could provide a counterpoint to the problems of Nation? Or at least as a lever to prise back apart some richness and layers?
Lastly, as a liberal, the thing that you touch upon which touched me most is in your section on Cultural appropriation. When other ‘liberals’ throw it round cheaply, I shudder. That is truly (to use another of your phrases – and I have been using these a lot talking to people recently, so it’s not just here to flatter you in this email) a source code fallacy. By engaging on those terms, they truly are reinforcing exactly the essentialism that you rail against, and having had this argument with so many people recently, and ‘tarnishing’ my ‘correct’ cosmopolitan/liberal credentials it was relief to read someone far more eloquent and intelligent and me articulate the sentiment. he yardstick of ‘respect’ is a useful heuristic for making the phrase redundant. There are a few copies of the book along with specific pages called out already on their way to some people. You express the idea far better than I have ever managed!
Anyway, I hope you have time to read this, and certainly don’t expect a reply, but I really just wanted to say thank you for writing something so thought provoking and refreshing – definitely one of my books of the year so far,
P.S I do also really wonder if you have read any, and what you think of the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I feel like that must be an irritating question you get asked all the time, and the FT was wise enough to avoid it in their recent interview with you, so I shall do the same. His work does remind me of a bad joke someone told me – Why is race like Santa Claus? They are both not real, but have both caused so much genuine sorrow and suffering…