The passionately written political science books exude the author’s energy to assert that we are in the middle of a war between opposing ways of seeing the world — and that society must be careful not to fall on the wrong side.
This is the case of “The Identity Trap” by German-born American academic Yascha Mounk. The book was released this year in the United States by Penguin Books and is not yet expected to be translated in Brazil.
The concept of identity has exploded in American universities and is now dominant in part of the media, in the Democratic Party, in NGOs that develop public policies and even in large companies.
A black homosexual citizen, for example, will simultaneously belong to two groups that have been historically discriminated against. Alongside ethnic origin and sexual orientation, there are a variety of other groups that are also historically subject to some form of oppression. This includes issues of gender, religious identity or the existence of physical disabilities.
To insist on identity is to conceive of these minorities as small islands that would require priority policies. They would become more important than the fight for the broader platform of democracy.
Yascha Mounk does not disqualify the claims process of these groups. What he argues, however, is that, through identity ideology, a group tends to compete with other groups, in search of visibility, political or budgetary space. The alternative would be for everyone to come together to jointly defend universal values that these groups, in isolation, no longer take seriously. Among the most involved identitarians, it has become out of fashion to evoke human rights or freedom of expression.
But identitarianism did not emerge by magic. Mounk sees its genesis in the European left, more than 60 years ago. Marxism, as a thought at the dominant time, suffered some erosion, such as the denunciation of Stalin’s crimes — and the consequent discarding of the Soviet model — or the infinite delay of a socialist revolution that was imagined to be imminent in the post-War period.
Mounk feels a personal affinity with this left. His four grandparents, all Jews, were communist activists in Poland in the 1930s. He himself, born in Munich in 1982, belonged to the German Social Democratic Party and exudes a healthy aversion to Donald Trump’s ultra-right.
A political scientist trained at Cambridge and Harvard, Mounk points to the French philosopher Michel Foucault as the one who laid the first egg in the serpent’s nest. Identity would be the unfolding of a broad notion of “power”, a source of authority that is plural and diffuse, opposing monolithic power in the Marxist institutional model.
Foucault also rejects “grand narratives” such as that of dialectical materialism. He still claims not to believe in “objective truth” and universal values. In other words, he sowed a field for identity relativism to sprout.
The political scientist also focuses on the Palestinian thinker Edward Said, who refused to join the group of intellectuals who imported theories from the old metropolises to interpret new realities, in a world in which decolonization has taken a toll on Europe’s image. Said rereads oriental literary texts and highlights a “discursive vision” — he claims affiliation with Foucault — that escapes Eurocentrism.
Among some other authors, Mounk focuses on an intellectual open to French influence in the USA. He gives an intelligent reading of Derrick Bell, a black lawyer, and disagrees with the way in which Bell distrusts the moral foundations of the black American civil rights movement.
With this, the author continues, he discredits — like what Foucault had done with gays and the insane — the foundations that supported anti-racism. The idea of universal values that prevailed in activism during the 1960s is discarded.
Bell and those who followed him went further in disbelieving that racial segregation was, for blacks, the central point of the United States public educational system.
Mounk’s book is mainly focused on American standards for collecting historical content and understanding controversies. But the conclusions he reaches, always respectful, are very close to those existing in the debate on the issue of identity in Brazil. The book enriches us in the field of production (or rejection) of new ideas.