Identity as a Zero-Sum Game

I visited the Guggenheim Museum last weekend and viewed the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective. Weems is a photographer and videographer who deftly manipulates her instrument with what is deservedly called a powerful voice. If you live in the area, go see it now: it closes in mid-May.

My thoughts this week continue to coalesce around the idea that forming and achieving American identity is a zero-sum game, that those who hold an image of #BeingAmerican must struggle to maintain their identity real estate, and that becoming more inclusive means diluting what people have. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, which is the point. We have all been raised with the cultural myth of the melting pot: disparate populations coming together to form that savory, balanced stew that nourishes the most exceptional nation in history. I suspect that, in our moments of sobriety, all of us recognize that the myth and the reality are quite divergent.

Of all the moving imagery I saw, there are two in particular that I wish to consider here. They might not be the most memorable or popular images, but they carried the message of zero-sum identity politics.

The first image — a still-life of a living room end table — appears in an early portfolio, Family Pictures and Stories. The print itself is stunning, a dark image with a brilliant range of tone and balanced composition, lustrous wood contrasted by the stark light of the side lamp. On the table, next to the lamp, is a pair of “Chinaman” figurines. My initial reaction was very mixed. I am almost as old as Weems and therefore grew up in the same era, familiar with similar items in either my home or those of my extended family. But orientalism has always made me uncomfortable: it suppresses a true understanding of other cultures and allows one to avoid confronting prejudice by transferring that behavior to what is not real. So why were these types of icons so prevalent? Establishing a hierarchy of identities through stereotyping allows us to claim and hold that identity real estate we need to be American, to prove we are integrated into the whole. Instead of the melting pot being inclusive, we seek to join and remain American by excluding others.

I am not making this observation to excuse it, but merely to identify a weakness that we all share.

The second image — or images — were so powerful they brought me to tears. Weems overlaid a quadtych of four antebellum slave portraits with the words House, Kitchen, Yard, Field. Yes, we are to feel shame. Yes, Weems is making a point about dehumanization. But I also think there is a contrary force in motion here: the base labels take away a basic value for all of us, thus we must confront the consequences of an exclusive identification process throughout our history. To take something away imparts value to it. Denying people identity recognizes its importance. Even [especially] today, the exclusive politics of #BeingAmerican creates a hurtful, counterproductive, and unnecessary process of cultural assimilation.

If you want to know how important a cohesive American identity is to people, look at how white Protestants are responding to the demographic shifts in the United States (don’t forget one of my “favorites”, David Barton.) By seeking to deny American identity to people who are not white, male, and Protestant –okay, maybe I’ll give you Christian — we force the perpetuation of the zero-sum identity game. A game at which Carrie Mae Weems has proven a formidable opponent.

America And Cultural Knowledge

We live in interesting times. It is a testament to the amount of change we face that there is so much cultural reaction: the Tea Party being just one manifestation. While the politics and shouting are certainly colorful, they cause me to reflect on the reasons why our society struggles to incorporate cultural knowledge from generation to generation. Before I speculate on these reasons, I’d like to select a couple of contemporary, critical issues and illustrate the failure to leverage historical knowledge in their resolution.

America faces legitimate policy debates, regardless of whether the standards are born by political parties or others. Our country is still submerged in a deep economic morass, brought about by deregulation and a laissez-faire attitude. After nearly a decade of war in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, a profound military restructuring is occurring before our eyes, with an almost sexy, rebranding program. And, as one of those conflicts winds down, the bellicosity of many politicians towards Iran, North Korea (video via ThinkProgress) and Venezuela increases. While these issues all have history to inform the debate, policy makers are repeating a number of mistakes without much notice on the part of the press or citizenry.

Global Transformation

I’m going to start here because this seems like the easiest item (although I’m sure that many pundits will disagree.) Since the beginning of World War II, there has been an unbroken belief in the ability of America to transform other countries in the world with its military power. Whether through covert action, such as the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, and tinkering throughout Latin America, or full-scale warfare in Vietnam, this belief evolved to its pinnacle with the Bush Doctrine, when our country asserted that we were the sole arbiters of deciding whose values were aligned with our own, and who needed to be deposed. If a political regime is not allied with us, then military force is a desirable transformation tool.

Historically, the United States’ track record on ‘regime change’ is poor. While we did maintain influence in Iran for a quarter-century after the Mossadegh coup, the backlash which led to the Iranian revolution has caused headaches for us in the Persian Gulf for over three decades. The overthrow of Prime Minister Diem in Vietnam was allowed in order to assert more American authority, but we were unable to fill the consequent power vacuum and eventually failed to achieve our objectives in southeast Asia. And then there’s Iraq. George Bush and the neocons opened up a huge vacuum in one of the most unstable parts of the world, and acted surprised when their “reverse domino theory” failed to spread democracy across the region.

Power vacuums behave unpredictably, and are inherently dangerous. This is especially true when authoritarian leaders are overthrown, because nothing has had the opportunity to develop and fill the vacuum in an orderly fashion. Now, I don’t want to sound snarky, but that was one of the first things I learned in International Relations class – Political Science 102 with Dr. Cindy Kaplan. It requires a tremendous amount of hubris to engage in this kind of behavior.

Counterinsurgency (COIN)

I could rant about this for hours, and others have given it serious treatment. However, my only purpose is to outline the issue and illustrate how it applies to my thesis that America has a cultural knowledge problem.

The policy of counterinsurgency is sexy-hot right now, and General David Petraeus – the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan – has more celebrity cache than Brad Pitt. But is our collective memory that short? Most of us think of the military as a brute-force tool to be used as a last resort when lots of people need to be killed in order to force a nation-state to submit. After all, that’s exactly what it was through World War II. For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, that all changed with Vietnam. After realizing that the Vietnamese could not be decisively defeated, the tactic of counterinsurgency was introduced. It was an abject failure, and the Army Officer Corps repented. In fact, the tactic was so unpopular through the 70’s and 80’s that David Petraeus actually divorced himself from the idea in his Ph.D. dissertation.

The Powell Doctrine wiped away the bitter taste of Vietnam when it was applied during the first Gulf War. It was used again for the invasion of Iraq, and the American public was treated to “shock and awe.” However, after the Iraq war went off the rails, and the Bush Administration was handed its head on a pike in the 2006 mid-term elections, something new was needed. In stepped General Petraeus with his counterinsurgency manual. It was a political lifeline for George W. Bush, and the “surge” allowed him to extend the Iraq war as well as redefine the measure of success. As the idea of decisive victory is jettisoned in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are being prepared for “the Long War” – decades of low-grade deployment and indecisiveness – right before our very eyes, and without public debate.

Regulation of Industry

At this writing, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not quite four months old. The well has been temporarily capped, but not before an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into a fishery that supplies 25% of the domestic catch. In 2008, the American financial sector completed a decade-long bender by placing its head between its knees and puking all over its feet, and ours. Just two weeks ago, a half-billion eggs from two factory farms were recalled for salmonella contamination, affecting fourteen states. Asserting that the interests of consumers are not being adequately protected would be a gross understatement.

And yet, the public debate has deteriorated into an uncivil shouting match, with an entire political party doubling-down on the idea that we already have too much regulation. Despite my pleasant, carefree day-to-day life, I am being told that I live under the yoke of tyranny. This hyperbole is now the center of the debate, as opposed to fringe background noise. While it is easy for many people to dismiss, it exerts influence on the parameters of the debate. Our country continues to move towards the fringe, albeit slowly. I wonder what Sir Francis Galton would say about that?

For those ideologues on the right, it is pertinent to point out that even two ‘godfathers’ of libertarian economics – Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek – recognized the importance of regulation to optimize markets. For if a consumer in the market can’t be assured of the contents of a product, it is impossible to assign an accurate value to it. Nicolas Gruen wrote an interesting piece on Smith’s treatment of regulations in the banking industry, but you can also go straight to the horse’s mouth and find passages in The Wealth of Nations. Hayek devotes quite a bit of space to this topic in his seminal piece, The Road to Serfdom. He notes that, in order for free markets to thrive, barriers to entry must be low, and consumers must have adequate information to make decisions. These things and others require an appropriate amount of government regulation, as well as developed legal statutes and an efficient court system with integrity. Laissez-faire is a phrase that is never given consideration.

Preserving Cultural Knowledge

It’s not that I don’t believe in experimentation. But Americans have a tendency to over-apply the notion of sui generis. By seeing each situation as unique and undiscovered, we relieve ourselves of the need to make tough and unpopular decisions. How do we explain the detachment from reality? It’s easy to blame things on ignorance, but that doesn’t explain much. And the cultural knowledge itself – preserved in our literature, oral and written histories, cinema and video – is certainly available to anyone who looks for it. In fact, it requires a concerted effort to weave an alternate mythology, an effort that should be more visible to informed Americans. The process is intense and expensive, so it should come as no surprise that its purpose is to gain power, which illustrates the high value of holding power in this country. That so many of our politicians – people we trust to lead our country – would forego knowledge and accomplishment to the benefit of the nation, for the purpose of gaining power, is beyond disappointing (remember ‘Country First‘?)

The inefficient transfer of cultural knowledge does more than simply vindicate the adage of repeating mistakes, it wastes tremendous societal resources and hinders achievement. If Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the United States included progress through the application of Enlightenment reasoning, then anything less than the preservation and reliance on cultural knowledge will fail to achieve that goal. But beyond the references to Hayek and Smith, conservatism demands pragmatism as well. Edmund Burke, the modern father of conservatism (now called paleo-conservatism to give the neo-conservative radicals a pass) strongly believed that dogma impeded progress, and was anathema to good public policy (see Russell Kirk’s conservative bible, ‘The Conservative Mind’ for a wonderful treatment of many conservative thinkers.) In other words, storing and utilizing cultural knowledge isn’t a political issue, it is – obviously – a societal one. We can strive to move forward and achieve excellence in our public discourse, or we can remain uncivilized.