Identity Politics in Wonderland
For the first—and probably the last—time in my life, I recently found myself identifying with Alice in Wonderland. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner moment. I was simply rearranging a few old volumes on one of the neglected upper shelves in my library. One of them, the collected works of Lewis Carroll, fell to the floor opened at the following passage:
The caterpillar and Alice looked at each other warily for some time in silence: at last the caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. “Who are you?” said the caterpillar. …Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
In this increasingly absurd era of identity politics, more and more Americans must be feeling the same way: “Who am I?”
In my own case, depending on which angle you want to play, the answer could be WASP or Asian American; writer, editor, or public servant; conservative traditionalist or libertarian; Calvinist, Catholic, Armenian Monophysite, or Deist…and so on, ad nauseam.
Personally, I prefer “American” to any of the above because it is the only identity I know that is large enough and accepting enough to accommodate all of the often contradictory subsets that go into my biological, geographical, political, and spiritual heritage. Those include the grandson of Armenian immigrants from the Ottoman Empire on my father’s side and the descendant of 17th-century Virginian yeoman farmers and 19th-century Irish and German Catholic immigrants on my mother’s side.
For census purposes I have always identified myself as a Caucasian American (Armenians being as Caucasian as my English, Irish, and German forebears, although their ancestral land was in Asia Minor). This stands in rather stark contrast to the present Congress where members of the new Democratic House majority have routinely identified themselves as Hispanic, Asian, Muslim, gay, bisexual, black, brown, yellow, and various shades of political pink.
It’s all very divisive, and a shameful attempt to separate Americans by identifying them primarily by where their ancestors came from, their color or creed, or their behavior in bed—none of which is anybody’s business or is what goes into making an American.
It can also be incredibly misleading. Consider the designation “Hispanic.” There is no such thing as a Hispanic race or a Hispanic nation. There are a large number of countries ranging from Spain itself to former Spanish colonies like Mexico, Central America, South America, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines where the Spanish language is widely spoken. But, depending on where they came from and which gene pool their ancestors drew on, today’s so-called Hispanic Americans can be of Amerindian, Mestizo, African, mixed European, Jewish, or Asian ancestry. A few of them might even be Spanish. There is no “raza” in “La Raza.”
We are—uniquely—a nation based on founding principles rather than tribal origins. That’s why Yugoslavia dissolved in bloody chaos in less than a century while the United States has gone from strength to strength since 1776, accepting a wide variety of people as long as they embrace our shared values. America is a club, not a racial enclave, and it is open to all who are capable of appreciating—and are willing to live by—the club rules. It should never offer a free pass to those who sneak in the backdoor to become counter-culture squatters, often at great public expense.
Watching some of the multicultural—and highly uncultured—antics of Democratic “freshpersons” taking the congressional oath of office in January, some tossing in a few choice profanities along the way, it struck me that they had achieved something quite miraculous. They had actually made President Donald Trump’s behavior seem dignified, tolerant, and a model of civility by comparison. I predict we will see more of this in the coming months with considerable damage to the Democratic brand.
It even has some liberal pundits worried, as reflected in a column written by The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. After citing a quote from Isaiah Berlin, “Identities are not just things we have, they define who we are. We can compromise and balance interests. We cannot so easily adjust our identities,” Dionne added, “This is important to bear in mind, because political coalitions and democratic nations alike require a degree of solidarity rooted in our willingness to uphold each other’s rights—partly to protect our own rights but also to fashion a more just social order.”
That is what pre-identity crisis America has always managed to do. And it will probably happen again as more and more citizens are turned off by identity politics run amok in the new Congress. Meanwhile, as I suggested in a New Year’s toast:
2018 was bad, and ’19 may be worse,
But muddling through beats a ride in a hearse.
Aram Bakshian Jr. is a former aide to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His writings on politics, history, gastronomy, and the arts have been widely published in the United States and abroad.