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Francis Fukuyama on Identity Politics and Diversity::: “the problem with the contemporary left is,” “the particular forms of identity that it has increasingly chosen to celebrate. Rather than building a solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited, it has focused on ever smaller groups being marginalized in specific ways…”

Francis Fukuyama on Identity Politics and Diversity

ADAM RUBENSTEIN

@RUBENSTEINADAM 11 MIN READ Francis FukuyamaFrancis Fukuyama.ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

October 9, 2018 at 4:08 AM

When identity politics are good, when they’re bad, and when they’re just plain stupid.

Francis Fukuyama is Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, where he’s also a professor of political science. His books include the 1992 bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man, and Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Fukuyama’s newest book is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment . We spoke recently about his new book, cultural appropriation, and what the president should read. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

***

Adam Rubenstein: How is identity politics a “dignity-seeking” politics, a “demand for recognition?” Is identity politics for some more than just a yearning to be recognized?

Francis Fukuyama: I think that identity politics stems from this feeling that you have an inner identity that is not the same as your outer persona and that it is not being recognized by other people around you in your society.

That it’s not being given respect and what you want is respect for yourself either as an individual or as a member of a group. And because it’s a demand for recognition, it takes a political form, because that’s how we recognize people in political life. People have to give you rights, institutional respect, by changing their behavior towards you or the like. So that’s the way in which it proceeds from this psychological feeling that you have this inner source of dignity that needs to be recognized publicly.

AR: Has the shift toward a dignity-seeking politics—one that prioritizes “political correctness”—been at the expense of a truth-seeking politics?

FF: No, not really. Identity politics as I’ve defined it is really a broad category and it encompasses a lot of things. Nationalism is a form of identity politics.

A Serbian nationalist before World War I didn’t feel that Serbia was given adequate recognition because there were a lot of Serbs living in the Austro-Hungarian empire that were not part of Serbia and they wanted recognition for those people. So that’s a form of recognition that has nothing to do with what we call political correctness right now.

I think that some forms of Islamism are actually driven by a desire for recognition, in which case the inner dignity is that of being a Muslim and that of feeling that Muslims are being persecuted or killed or repressed in different parts of the world and the dignity you seek, as a Muslim is to be part of this ummah is given respect by non-Muslims. That’s a form of dignity politics also.

Then we have the form of dignity politics that we call identity politics in Britain, Australia, the United States or other developed countries that takes a slightly different form, but the psychological structure is the same. You are a member of a group that has been marginalized, and you feel your identity as a member of that group is not respected and you want respect for that identity. I think that’s driven the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, LGBT rights. All of these things are different manifestations of the same phenomenon in dignity politics or the politics of recognition.

AR: Take the developed world. The presupposition in the United States, when you make an identity-based claim about yourself is that it’s true of that identity as a whole. Might it at times be in contradiction with the truth?

FF: Well, not necessarily. You know, the reason that groups are marginalized is that mainstream society doesn’t treat people purely as individuals that are being judged on their individual merits. We all have stereotypes and we categorize people based on superficial characteristics. And we discriminate against people based on those characteristics. So it’s not as if mainstream society is treating everybody as a real individual, in a fair manner.

That’s the origin of the anger over group discrimination. So I don’t think it’s right to say that it is somehow in contradiction with the truth. A lot of people are discriminated against simply because of their skin color or their gender or their sexual orientation and so forth. So I don’t think that’s the problem with identity politics. I think that identity politics crosses over into a position where it begins to erode liberal values at a different point than that. When that group identity overrides—I think this is the point you were hinting at—you can believe in that group characteristic overrides individual judgment or that it should be determinative of the way that you think about a certain issue, or that it should determine your cultural preferences. I think that’s the moment at which this kind of group-consciousness really beings to erode our liberal understanding of individualism.

AR: Right, that’s sort of the point I’m getting at. That because you’re a member of a particular group, you must have a certain experience. In broad strokes: The left’s view of race-based Affirmative Action is that the would-be beneficiaries of the policy are marginalized and therefore need help. The right’s view of it is more mixed, but tends not to privilege—at least publicly—a particular identity over any other. So both ways, the assumption doesn’t get to the actual matter, is the person in question marginalized and by extension, needing help?

FF: These questions are really complicated because it’s almost impossible to actually make a fair judgment as to whether someone’s life situation is actually the product of their membership in a group or whether it is the product of individual choices they made. So you have an African-American kid who’s struggling in school: What’s the cause of that? Is it, as an individual, he’s just not up to doing the work, or is it that he comes from a family that didn’t have books in the home and wasn’t conducive to learning which makes it, really, not his fault. And why was he growing up in that kind of a household, well, it may be because he’s part of a community in which that was kind of the norm, a product of a lot of historical circumstances and not just the individual choices that people make. So it’s not as if there’s a true judgment about why people are behaving in a certain way, or achieving at a certain level that you can clearly attribute to one’s individual characteristics as opposed to conditions that are forced on them by their members in a group. That is why I think these judgments are pretty hard to make.

I’ve been struggling with this as I’ve been doing my book tour. A lot of people will ask,

“What’s wrong with identity politics? Aren’t these marginalized groups marginalized as groups and so they’re just fighting for justice?” And so I must say, the clearest examples where I think it goes off the rails actually take place in a fairly narrow-circle.

So this is within the arts community or within academia, where you say, if you are a white person, you are, ipso facto, privileged and your judgments about some race, gender, ethnicity issue is suspect simply because of who you are. That I think is an intrinsically wrong position to take.

On the other hand, I’m actually of two minds about something like affirmative action, because it does seem to me that minorities suffer as a result of their membership in that minority group and therefore compensatory things that are based on groups are not completely unjust. I think we need to distinguish between these things.

AR: So why exactly is that position of “inescapable” “white privilege” prevalent in the arts community or in academia wrong? Too often we dismiss it, but why exactly is it a wrong view?

FF: Well, as an individual you aren’t simply determined by your group membership. I guess that’s the distinction. We are shaped by our membership in groups but not entirely and a lot of what we are is different from that common experience. And so you have to make further distinctions.

AR: You write that “the problem with the contemporary left is,” “the particular forms of identity that it has increasingly chosen to celebrate.

Rather than building a solidarity around large collectivities such as the working class or the economically exploited,

it has focused on ever smaller groups

being marginalized in specific ways...”

BASICALLY – IF BROWN – U MUST BE HISPANIC OR MUSLIM – NOT JEW OR HINDU – IS – BLUNT WAY TO SAY IT – THANKS, AJAY

 

This seems to get at a deeper question about liberalism, what might be the benefits of diversity as understood as multiculturalism?

FF: Part of the book actually deals explicitly with that issue. I do think that there is, at least in economic terms, an intrinsic value to diversity, simply because, more different ways of seeing things oftentimes yield better results. People with different experiences come at the same problem differently and so if they can cooperate and deliberate as a result of those differences oftentimes they’ll get a better solution to the particular problem that needs to be solved. It produces a different kind of competitive atmosphere. Some of the worst industries are ones where there isn’t competition because there isn’t sufficient diversity in the participants in the market, so in that sense, I think it’s valuable.

But as I also say, you can’t have a society unless people hold certain things in common. So the diversity has to be limited. You know, Syria and Iraq and Libya are all really diverse societies but they don’t have a common national identity and so they’ve fallen apart as states. So that’s a very destructive kind of diversity. And so I think that what you want is diversity in the framework of a political system and national identity that allows you to communicate and cooperate with fellow citizens, not to agree with them on all policy issues, but to believe in the fundamental legitimacy of the institutions that allow you to make decisions and act collectively. So I think the need for collective action is what puts limits on the degree of tolerable diversity in a democratic society.

So in other words, you would not tolerate someone who’s an authoritarian and didn’t believe in the American Constitution. You would be perfectly justified in saying that if you have a culture that wouldn’t accept that basic kind of understanding of the rule of law, you don’t belong in our society.

Part of it, also, I guess, is a matter of cultural preference. If you imagine what the United States would be like if it were just homogeneously a bunch of Anglo-Saxon protestants, no Italians, no Jews, no Asians, nothing other than these kind of straitlaced puritan types, I don’t know what it would be like economically, I suspect that it wouldn’t be nearly as prosperous as it is today. You wouldn’t have diversity in food or in culture.

I think about — You know I have these really old fashioned tastes in music. I really like a lot of the jazz from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I was just listening to this song “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” that Benny Goodman used to play, and that seems to me a perfect example. That song, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen ,” it’s a Yiddish song, and if you think about the way that American popular music developed in the 1920s, you know, Irving Berlin and Gershwin, all these people weren’t Anglo-Saxon protestants, right. And they wouldn’t have created the type of musical culture that existed or that came to be kind of associated with American music, you know, The Great American Songbook. And rock ‘n’ roll would not have existed if not for African-Americans and the cultural appropriation of that by Elvis Presley and other white musicians. And so I just think that diversity actually benefits us in a lot of ways. But like I said, the diversity has to be in certain political boundaries that allow you to coexist in the same society so that you can get the benefits of diversity but also make collective decisions and to act as a single society when that’s necessary.

AR: So you used the phrase cultural appropriation. What do you think of this, it’s sort of interrelated to this concept of identity politics?

FF: I just think it’s a kind of silly idea. I mean, you can own a piece of intellectual property, there’s a legal definition for that. But the way that “cultural appropriation” is used is basically to assert an extra-legal form of ownership simply because you come from a particular cultural group that is usually extremely poorly defined. I think that’s ridiculous. You’d never have any cultural progress in the world if people weren’t appropriating from other people’s cultures.

AR: You see, a few years ago at Oberlin College students complained that, among other foods, the chicken in its dining hall wasn’t made authentically by members of its culture of origin.

FF: That’s a lot of—that’s just stupid. People have been borrowing from other people’s cultures, in fact, if they don’t borrow, like I said, you’ll never get any cultural progress because it usually is based on this kind of cultural appropriation. I just think that this sort of thing is— you know what it is, it is one’s way of defending monopoly privilege, “you’re the only people that are able to exploit economically a certain aspect of culture and again, we have a legal definition for that. If you create a piece of intellectual property, yeah, that is yours, and we want to encourage that. But if it’s something as broad as a certain style of cooking that nobody owns the rights to, I think that’s kind of ridiculous.

AR: What should the president read? And why?

Given that he doesn’t seem to have ever read a book in his life, you’ve got a lot to choose from. Well that is a really tough question. He should probably read Macbeth. There’s this really nice line in it, at the end, when Macbeth is going down, where he says: “My way of life Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have, but, in their stead, / Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath / Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.” It seems to me that describes Donald Trump’s position right now where he’s spent his whole life getting all of these unworthy people to praise him and getting to a point in his life, where actually, he doesn’t have the approval of people with any kind of moral judgment; he might want to ponder that.