Book Reviews

Dissecting the Layers of 21st Century Identity

By Bonita Gupta

Review of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Book), by Francis Fu-kuyama. (2018, September 11) Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (240p) ISBN 978-0-374-12929-3

Francis Fukuyama in his latest book explores yet another big idea, human identity, and presents to the readers a sharp warning about the rise of populist nationalism and racism across the world, particularly in Europe and the United States. Taking a break from the con-ventional style of authors of examining the rise of populism by citing voting trends and economic statistics to make their case, Fukuyama instead quotes extensively from Hegel, Nietzsche, Socrates, Marcuse and Plato.The book begins with a striking thesis about identity politics in which the author explains how identity grows out of a contrast between one's true inner self and the outer sphere of social norms and rules that does not sufficiently recognize that inner self's essence, dignity or worth. Through the course of his book, Fukuyama explains that, "It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society's rules, but society itself that needs to change." The book provides a rather simplified history of notions of the self that travel swiftly through the Protestant Reformation period to the philosophy of Rousseau. Fukuyama identifies human nature, coupled with the desire for recognition and esteem, as the primary triggers for new nationalist and populist movements; this desire was reinforced by the remedial transformation in politics and education of the late 20th century.

Fukuyama also coined two new terms based on the Greek word thymos, meaning "the part of the soul that craves recognition or dignity", to explain the drive for identity in Western Civilization. He defines the first term isothymia, as "the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people." His second new term, megalothymia, is defined as "the desire to be recognized as superior." The conflict between these two drives is prevalent in all liberal democracies, which seek to grant equal respect to one and all. The book indicates that Megalothymia becomes a major issue when aggressive majority groups come to power and seek to socially ostracize and even exterminate minority groups. The ultimate expression of this trend was Nazi Germany in the 20th century. Although the book tries to cover the length and breadth of what ‘identity' essentially entails today, it does not touch upon the effect of social media and information wars on our understanding of the world, and does not address the question of how identities will evolve as more and more time of our lives is spent online. Therefore, it is safe to say that technology and Internet deserve to be assigned a more central position in today's identity crisis than Francis Fukuyama grants them in his book.

Fukuyama's definition of nationalism in the book is quite contestable as he defines national-ism merely as a "doctrine that political borders ought to correspond to cultural communi-ties, with culture defined largely by shared language". This tight definition of a concept as multi-layered as nationalism may not agree with some readers who perceive nationalism as a much wider and enduring feature of modern political life, which is distinct from patriotism and shared culture.While tracing the evolution of nationalism in modern times, the author quotes Johann Herder, who argued that "each human community is unique and separate from its neighbours, and geography and climate have had sizeable impacts on the customs of different people, each of which expresses its own ‘genius' in the ways they have adapted to the local circumstances." Fukuyama unfolds the underpinnings of the modern search for dignity by stating Herder's observations of moments like when the Germans needed to start taking pride in their own traditions and culture and instead of seeking to be second-rate Frenchmen.

Fukuyama realistically outlines the limits of what liberal democracies can offer its citizens; he explains that liberal democracies do not ensure that people will actually be treated equally by their government or even by fellow citizens. They are instead judged on the basis of their ethnicity, skin colour, their gender, their national origin, their looks, and even their sexual orientation. Different individuals and groups experience disrespect in different ways, and seek their own dignity.Fukuyama's examination of identity politics is followed by a set of practical recommendations in the book's last chapter; the title of the chapter, "What Is to be Done?", is a reference to Lenin's political pamphlet of 1902.He suggests that just as iden-tity can be used to divide people, it can also be used as a tool to integrate them by cultivat-ing broad and inclusive identities that bring people together. Only by creating such "integra-tive national identities" rooted in liberal and democratic values can the wave of hypocritical populists come to a halt. His proposals include introducing national service, enforcing state sovereignty and single citizenship within the EU or creating a European legal identity. Therefore, Identity is a rather urgent and necessary book that warns us of impending doom by continued conflict unless a universal understanding of human dignity is forged.

Ms. Bonita Gupta is a Second Year M. A. (International Studies) student at the Symbiosis School of International Studies.