Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Identity Politics and Muslim Outrage Over Danish Cartoons

Jeff Goldstein sends a link to Identity Politics, Free Speech, and the Future of worldwide Liberalism, 2: a follow-up. (Part 1 here).

Wait till you have a lazy Sunday afternoon to spend some time reading through, because it will take some time to read through and digest.

Just one point of criticism. It seems to me that the bulk of Jeff's identity politics posts have focused on the American political balkanization that comes from giving an oligarchy of spokesmen/women for a group the absolute right to speak for and define the authenticity of that group -- but in the context of unalterable (by accident of birth) traits. For example, Jesse Jackson speaking for the "authentic" black man, and demonizing blacks who won't buy into his (clearly self-interested and self-promoting) program. Feminism, Latino groups, gay rights activists -- if you're part of that group, you better act like it, or you're going to get demonized as a traitor.

I don't know how well that thesis translates into the context of the Muslim protests riots, because unlike gender or race (or, some argue, sexual orientation), religion is not an unalterable state. That Jeff fails to always make the distinction is clear when he refers to "cultural ownership over individual ethnic narratives..." But of course Islam is not an ethnic narrative (any more than Catholicism is). And religion has been in the business of casting out the heretics and apostates since loooong before American race-warriors denied black authenticity for failure to toe a political line. To an extent, I think in the context of religion, "identity politics" (if that's the best term I can find) is actually defensible.

Because people actually can choose what to believe. And if you call yourself a Catholic, but you believe that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, then other Catholics would be well within reason to, at the very least, raise some eyebrows, and at most decide you're not really a Catholic at all. Same thing with a Protestant who believes the Pope is the vicar of Christ on Earth.

Thus, Jeff laments "the peculiarly dangerous sociopolitical situation in which cultures were allowed to define their own rules of authenticity (and so, by extension, could exclude based on behavior or internal dissent), as well as lay claim to persecution when the Other dared criticize the group’s established narrative." I think the criticism may work in the context of race/culture or gender/culture, but not in terms of revealed religion (that is, any religion that claims to be based on revelation). Because if the foundation of a religion is based on naturalistic principles, they may be evaluated by anyone, inside or outside the group. If the foundation is based on revelation, the system/culture almost by definition cannot be validly critiqued by someone who has not participated in that revelation.

Why does a certain African tribe create permanent scars on teen-aged males as a rite of passage? Because the tribesmen value the physical strength it requires to endure the scarring process, and have devised a test to prove that physical strength. Principles like "strength" and cultural value may be evaluated and critiqued even if you're not the one getting the scars. Why did Muhammad tell his followers to fight the Battle of Badr? Because God told him to. If you don't believe God told him to, then no argument or reasoning will persuade Muhammad otherwise. If you do believe God told him to, then no argument or reasoning will persuade Muhammad to disbelieve it.

Does that sound monstrous? Perhaps an example more familiar to western eyes. Abraham went to the mount to kill his own son, Isaac. Why? Because God told him to. What could someone who doesn't not believe in the God of Abraham possibly say to persuade him to abandon his plans? That killing children is objectively wrong? But only God determines what is right and what is wrong, and God told him to go sacrifice Isaac. Perhaps the outsider can persuade Abraham that it wasn't really God (in which case Abraham will abandon the revelation as bogus), but you cannot dissuade him from killing Isaac without first dismantling the revelatory event.

Just so with Islam. If a Christian tries to tell Muslims to act in ways that contradict the revelatory event, the argument will fall on deaf ears, because the revelation trumps pleading or reasoning from an external source.

My critique, then, is that Jeff's identity politics framework to criticize race- or gender-based identity politics makes good sense as applied to those subjects, but loses force when applied to different contexts.