Coming home on the way from the Indymedia event, I heard something offensive. A local DJ say something like, "we have to get rid of the hyphen; stop being African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, European-American, Arab-American, and unite as Americans." It was an appeal to multiculturalism, but in the name of nationalism, for the purposes of war.
Identity in America
In the 70's, people got into identity. These hyphenated Americans added "pride" to their names: Black Pride, Asian Pride, Chicano Pride, Gay Pride, Women's Liberation. They said "this is what I am, and I'm tired of being a second class citizen."
In the 90's identity came back, but with a twist. The hyphens added up: Conservative Chicanos, Black Jews, Asian Feminist. And, people started adding constructed identities that sometimes didn't fit well with each other: White Rasta Punk Vegan, Anti Zionist African Jew, Gay Puerto Rican Hip Hop Activist.
The flipside to this ability to identify was the rise of brand based youth fashion. Ecko, Nike, Fila, Adidas, Doc Martens, Timberland, Enyce, Dickies, Ben Davis, Vans, Lighting Bolt, Town and Country, Kenneth Cole, Calvin Klein, Hilfiger, Armani.
Against these, were the rise of old and new constructed youth subcultures: Hip Hop (black, brown, conscious, white, feminist), Punks (Punk Rock, Crusties, Emo), Metalheads, Junglists, Ravers, Geeks, Vegetarians, Christians, Skaters, Graffiti, Travelers (vagabonds, train hoppers), people into Hello Kitty, etc.
Marquez wrote "I contain multiples", and that was the story of the 90's. We contain multiples, and we contradict ourselves. We conflict internally, but we remain whole. Your internal conflicts eventually become resolved, through private negotiations between your multiple identities.
"What I am" became "all the things I am", where people viewed themselves as intersections of multiple communities, as expressions of many shared perspectives. Identity became defined as the freedom to be many things, and oppression was any space where that freedom didn't exist. And the beautiful thing about this new identity movement was that it didn't come from the "leaders" but from the people. The loudest expressions of it ended up on television shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake.
The "leaders" have "unity" in their interests, and need to create borders. Individuals need to create a personal unity, and need to break down borders within themselves. Sometimes, that means going against the leaders.
Identity Leads to Identification
Is it any wonder why student support against sweatshops worked so well? Youth knew how to adjust their identities so well, that they developed a simple kind of empathy with sweatshop workers. The campaign itself was based on telling stories of the workers, to help people develop a personal understanding of the suffering. It's not difficult to identify with the sweatshop worker when the product exists, on your feet, the stories exist, and you know how to relate to different subcultures.
When you have some empathy, and the ability to identify, your understanding of the world can change. Analyzing a conflict becomes an exercise of learning to inhabit the multiple identities of the involved parties, and then making a moral judgement.
Empathy With The Victim
Multiculturalism threatens the war effort, because it allows us to empathize with the victim.
Imagine what it must be like to wander around the World Trade Center, looking for your husband, wife, brother, sister, mother, or father, who was in the building. Maybe your entire family worked there, in the commissary, and you're going to be an orphan.
Imagine what it must be like to be an Afghani today. You're afraid that the US is going to bomb your city. You probably don't support bin Laden, and might not be any sort of fundamentalist. You're poor. You may hate the US, or, you may not have cared until very recently.
Imagine what it must be like to be an Arab American. You're probably fairly conservative, otherwise, why be in the US. You probably don't like the Taliban. If you're an Afghan, you probably hate the Taliban. You want to fit in, but now, your life is fear.
Finally, imagine what it would be like to be "unified" into the American project. To temporarily give the upper hand to the people who want to erase the freedom of difference. To wear the American Flag logo, to dress up as a soldier. What is it like to finally cross the difficult borders we've created, but only after resolving to kill an Afghan, or to beat up an Arab American?
Against Multicultural Nationalism
The DJ exhorted his audience to what I'd call a multicultural nationalism. His call for American unity demanded that people un-learn how to identify with the rest of the world, so we can kill them. This isn't multiculturalism, it's nationalism.
Nationalism is racism. It's an ideology that says "we're people, but those others, are not". It's the attitude that allows for the Holocaust, Ethnic Cleansing, massacres in Rwanda, Stalinism, and White Power. We find these things offensive, not simply because they kill, but because they seek and destroy groups of people.
A multicultural nationalism is a smokescreen. It's like a Nazi with a Jewish friend, a racist with an Asian friend. It's using a little anti-racism to justify racism.
If multicultural nationalism takes hold, we're being traitors to the greatest freedom that western society has developed: the freedom to be multiple, the freedom to understand.