This is a revised version of the original blog. I wrote it without a thought for the current obsession with identity politics. But that’s the context in which it will be read. I also realised that I was touching on a subject of vast not to say unlimited dimension.
One exercise I tried recently, in the form of a poem (a good way of bringing thoughts into focus): putting myself in the position of what I’m not – a black man – or woman, any category of outsider. Race or gender. White English males born post-war in Manchester have never had their status challenged.
I’ve never had to get out there and assert my identity.
I’ve been a hippy and a rebel. I still believe in the change-the-world positive politics of comradeship and optimism. Never a communist or even a serious left-winger. But still with the belief that we (who are we, I wonder?) could change the world.
I’ve always been in a position to opt in and opt out of identities. On the other hand there have been personal crises, which could have shattered that sense of self-belief and identity. An innate optimism has always seen me through.
Maybe that’s why I reacted sharply when Jon Cruddas in a recent review (Prospect April 2018) of a book on low-wage Britain referred to the need better to understand ‘our deepening sense of national decay’. I’m with Cruddas all the way on the subject of low wages and labour relations. What struck me is that reference to ‘national decay’. That could be the subject of a book let alone a blog. Suffice it to say that I see it as a negative identity, looking back not forward, suggestions of a better, even a golden age. Identities, surely, have to respond to immediate circumstance, however much conditioned they are by the past, and to look forward.
I’ve no simple conclusions to offer on the subject of identity. But I will offer up two other radically different identities. Two Americans, the poet, Charles Olsen, and the writer and journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Positive or negative hardly comes in to it. These are identities born of circumstance – of war and discrimation.
Olsen was writing immediately after the end of the Second World War, when the world was first confronted by the horrors of Buchenwald. Man has only ‘one point of resistance… one organised ground, a ground he comes to by way of the precise contrary of the cross, of spirit in the old sense, of old myths’ …In his body lies the answer, ‘his body intact and fought for, the absolute of his organism in its simplest terms, this structure evolved by nature…’ (A Charles Olsen Reader, Carcanet 2005)
This is raw and angry. Today is Maundy Thursday, and I will be taking part in church services tonight and maybe tomorrow. The cross can also be angry.
There’s another experience, absolutely of our time, but with a long and tragic history. The black, the Afro-American experience, in the USA. I’ve been Coates’s marvellous book, We Were Eight Years in Power. (Reference eight years of Obama, eight years of a black president.) How after the Civil War was over, the ‘now-defeated god lived on, honoured through the human sacrifice of lynchings and racial pogroms’. Malcolm X took up the way of defiance. But there’s more than the edifice of white superiority to defy, to bring down, there’s also that deep-rooted sense of ‘white innocence’, a term that’s new to me, but which resonates. Obama at all stages sought as president to re-assure the white man – white voters, but many, swathes of the American right, could not be re-assured because part of their American identity was and is being white, and part of the wider identity of America itself was – and is – white. Black Americans, as Coates puts it, have to work twice as hard.
Ta-Nehisi Coates I find inspiring. Full stop. No ideology. But something radical to fight for. (And a direct challenge to any white man – he doesn’t have to be American.) Olsen was hard-core, of the moment, rejecting all elements of the spiritual – a sense that you only had yourself. No existentialist angst. Just a rawness.
There’s another angle on the subject. There’s a small but powerful exhibition in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, which I saw after I wrote the main part of this post. It focuses on the homeless and mental health, and includes a few sparse and telling quotations.
Identity, their personal identity, is simply what they can’t face. Better to hide or run away from it.