Book Review: Identity by Francis Fukuyama

The end of history never actually occurred, Well the end of the “era” that Fukuyama had mentioned was on the verge of occurring never happened. History, it seems, had a mind of its own. So to explain his view of the world that we now live in, the eminent political scientist, has basically backtracked.

9780374129293Why? It’s actually what Yuval Noah Harari writes about in his book 21 Questions for the 21 Century, and that is the realization that the end of history, the supplanting of every form of human government with liberal democracies did not happen. History did not come to an end whereby humanity lives this utopian existence of free thought, free expression, and human dignity. Quite the contrary. If anything, history has decided to do a complete 180 and head societies toward a cliff. Not off, just yet, but its quite possible that one day we will actually get there.

So in order to explain, how he was abjectly wrong, Fukuyama has penned a retrospective of sorts, a book entitled Identity. And it all comes down to this: human beings have disappointed other human beings and they need to figure out exactly what happened. It’s Trump and Brexit in one year and not one intellectual, not one governing elite, not one journalist, sociologist, political scientist, saw it coming. So of course, the reason can’t be that people felt abused, neglected and taken for granted. It had to have a more psychological, deep seated, intrinsic reason. And so we have this book.

Listen the book is interesting. Read in conjunction with all a series of other introspective books coming out now about the Trump revolution, the success of Putin, and the rise of the right leaning nationalist fervor of blood and soil, it makes a lot of sense. There is a reason that people, look towards someone that speaks to their own purposes. Someone understands them. Someone remembers that they are there.

People want identity, but not in the modern political identity divineness that has overtaken our political specter according to Fukuyama. It is something else. Something more ethereal.  Jonah Goldberg disagrees. In his book,  The Suicide of the West, he writes about the return to “tribalism.” In fact, he avers that tribalism never really left us, it merely went underground.  Of course, tribalism doesn’t have a positive meaning. It is seen as negative, and ignorant, a backwards view of how to govern and see the world. And yet, it is our most enduring version of ourselves.

In truth, identity, is not specifically about being divisive. Fukuyama gives us a quick discussion of the “ethno-state,” of course not in so many words, more of a historical understanding of how nations rose to be, and what those underpinnings actually mean. It is a discussion of exactly what we mean when we talk about the concept of being French, and German, or the under valued meaning behind the Arab Spring in 2011, versus what does it mean to be an American.

And why is that important? Because America is the wealthiest, militarily strongest, most free nation in human history. It is our strength that has propelled the last 150 years of civilization. And whether the naysayers like it or not, it is America, much to the consternation of her enemies, that is pushing the 21st century forward as well. So it is important to understand who we are, and where exactly is our society headed.

America is unique in the history of the world. We are an amalgamation of ethnicities. We are not a nation based on a shared homogeneous identity. Now we didn’t start out that way, but it is how we have developed.

So, in all honesty, who are we America? What does it mean to be an American. Where do we come from and where are we going? How does identity politics, which in the long run has nothing to do with identity, but is a fractious version of divide and conquer the populace, and everything to do with what is actually wrong with our politics right now, impact our own future?. Honestly, the blame does not all lie with Trump. It did not start with him. He simply played a better long game than anyone else.

Moreover, Fukuyama goes on to describe the three levels of identity in society. He explains how the third level, is the one which surpasses the average human need to identify. This is where you get egotists and egocentric personalities. Demagogues, mega-egos, for want of a a better term, and Donald Trump is the “mega-ist.” As an aside, Fukuyama, is not a Trump fan, and in fact abandoned the movement of Reagan neoconservatism that he helped start. (Of course, being a true Reagan republican actually means you are not a Trump fan by any means either, but this is a discussion for another time.)

Trump is a personality, something, that the founding fathers of the US had foreseen. As students of history and law, Fukuyama, tries to explain how one they tried to forestall these mega-egos from every taking over American politics. The checks and balances system so brilliantly executed in the US Constitution, is though flawed, as we all know so well.

But then again, every form of government is bound to have a glitch, because they are all outgrowths of human thinking, reasoning and incite, or lack thereof of course. But this does not mean we throw away who we are as Americans. The US Constitution though flawed is the essence of our identity as Americans and it is a good identity one that strives for equality, justice, and maintaining liberty. The Constitution is predicated on dignity, creating an identity where none existed beforehand. (And the best part about it, is the fact that it can be amended to right it’s own wrongs and bring into the fold those that had been previously marginalized and abused.)

Reality is, as we are finding out, that identity lies in a state of dignity. It is not about things per se. It is not always not even about power. But let’s be honest, striving for things and power is part of how we feel we are able to live in a dignified manner. However, Fukuyama thinks its more of the socratic didactic version of identity that humanity is missing right now. A more introspective view of who we are, rather more of what feeds our souls rather than what feeds our psyche.

He could be right. But I don’t think so. As Harari points out the reason for the rise of Trumpian politics is because as society does globalize, as the world moves forward in strange and very unclear ways, the identity politics, the identity that people seek, is one importance, of being relevant to their own lives. People want to matter.

In many ways the three books mentioned in this review go together. They are an interesting look at the phenomena we are facing in the modern era. A reactionary attitude towards freedom.  No matter what you call it, tribalism, ethno-nationalism or a search for identity in a world of resentment, something is happening to the world order. Figuring out what it all means, well that depends on whether politics is important to you.

You may think the entire exercise is also nonsense. That maybe those who cannot accept the turn of history have determined that they need to figure out exactly why the little person actually means so much more in the scheme of things than the big elite thinker, who it turns out, has no effect on the politics of history whatsoever. Much to their chagrin, and much to their daily catastrophizing, as Harari explains.

So where do we go from here? Whatever the choice, we cannot let history define us, we do need to define politics, in order to have a say in our own future.

Remember as Pericles, once told the Athenians, [paraphrase] you may not be interested in politics, but that doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you.


This book is available September 11.

About Elise "Ronan"

#JewishandProud ...
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