Who Are We — And Should It Matter in the 21st Century?

The recent tragic shootings in Norway by Anders Breivik lend Gary Younge’s new book an extra measure of importance and highlight the timely utility of this thoughtful and thought-provoking study, dating even from its pre-Oslo conception by an intrepid journalist with his finger firmly on the zeitgeist. Younge’s bold remit is nothing less than the examination of “identity” in all its manifestations — “religious adherence, chromosomal composition or melanin content,” as he wittily phrases it at one point — and identity’s role, for good or ill, in the individual and civic lives of all peoples.

This topic is, of course, the very engine of Breivik’s insane and horrible actions, as he sought to defend his self-constructed Norwegian identity — white, Christian, European — against perceived threats from those who manifested differing identities — colored, Muslim, African, or Middle Eastern. Simply labeling these signifiers at the heart of the Norway massacre is to hint at the immense power they possess. As Younge states, identity is a fire that can warm or burn. And paradoxically, as the globe shrinks and becomes more interconnected, these little hearthfires of identity become more and more fiercely stoked.

Younge begins, fittingly enough, with a mini-autobiography, constructing his own identity for us as an example of how fraught such assemblages are. As a black man of Barbadian extraction growing up in the UK and now resident in the USA, who has spent time abroad in such places as the Sudan and Russia, he surely owns an identity complex enough to have provoked much thought, and suitable for illustration purposes of the minefield that such constructs can become.

In succeeding chapters, Younge picks one topical item as a launch pad from which he can orbit outward in a spiral, his nets cast wide for the absurdities and pitfalls, glories and virtues to be found in various conceptions of self and tribe. In Chapter 2, Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination provides the hook. In Chapter 3, it’s Tiger Woods’s first foray into celebrity. Chapter 4 looks to Israeli religious vettings, while Chapter 5 turns an eye, not unhumorously, upon Ireland’s Rose of Tralee festival. The contrasting identities of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 election propel Chapter 6. The crisis of European multiculturalism lies at the heart of Chapter 7. And Chapter 8 considers the globalization of commerce.

Younge displays a wide-ranging intellect — his oft-quoted-from bibliography forms a university-level reading list on this subject — and a dispassionate yet caring attitude towards all individuals and their dilemmas. True, he’s unrelentingly critical of those who deny the whole concept of identity, but still empathetic toward the motivations that propel such denials.

Yet although he argues, as a survival habit, for an ultimate widening of one’s sense of identity until it reaches the level of the whole human race, Younge seems to regard matters of identity as so ineluctable and intractable that no escape looks possible. Would Younge concede that perhaps the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa had transcended identity? Or would he insist that their being, respectively, Tibetan or Albanian still essentially ruled them? And if there’s no hope for the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa to elevate themselves above such contentious issues, what chance does the average non-saint have?

Younge is ideally working toward a day when his sadly relevant book is moot. But I think he despairs of humanity ever actually reaching such a utopia.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.