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« Wonder of Wonders | Main | I Knew It All Along! »

July 05, 2007


It seems like such a long while ago that I read that Maalouf book, though a search for his name in my email (oh, that handy Google-y gmail, so convenient, until the FBI comes and hauls us all away...) suggests it was only about a year and a half ago, maybe early February 2006. This is what I wrote you at the time, Ruchira, an apology (as usual), for not posting:

"I also keep meaning to write something about a terrific short book I read recently, with the bland title, 'On Identity' (the original French title, 'Les Identites Meurtrieres,' or 'Killer Identities,' is better), by the novelist Amin Maalouf. Maalouf, a Lebanese Catholic living in France, argues from personal experience, and as a matter of political philosophy, for a more particularized and fluid conception of identity. Descriptively, the book makes a number of salient points, though prescriptively, it's somewhat abstract and idealistic. That may be the best approach for a novelist to take when approaching such a subject."

I think you capture all these brief thoughts, better fleshed out, above. Interestingly, in light of your binary contrast between Maalouf and Huntington and Lewis (and Hitchens, you could have added), to another friend to whom I recommended the book around the same time, I added the following note, "In any event, I found it a welcome antidote to all the essentializing, 'Clash of Civilizations' background noise in our culture these days."

I think that background noise is part of the reason that the book's personal, anecdotal quality combined with schematic idealism appealed to me and the red flags that, as you note and I agree, are either dubious or incoherent with the general argument for "enlightened" commonality didn't bother me too much. I remember very much enjoying the engaging, writerly quality of the book, a "public intellectual" mode, neither crushingly analytic nor vapidly bombastic, a balance which can be hard to find in American writers, with exceptions, of course. I also remember appreciating the political stance (if something so amorphous can be called that), anxious but hopeful, in the best mode of the Left.

Also of note on this, the 4th of July, is the context of my recommendation of the Maalouf book to the friend to whom I added the "clash of civilizations" comment, since the context highlights the relevance of these questions in American domestic politics. The friend, who is Vietnamese American, had written to ask me to contribute to an Asian-American Political Action Committee with which he is very involved, and which raises money for Asian-American political candidates. My friend had written, "Diversity has to me become more important over time, especially the understanding that we must still fight, and fight very hard to ensure that the backgrounds and experiences--and yes, the faces--of those in power mirror those of our citizens."

In response, I wrote:

"I'm with you so long as the faces you want to represent your face are Democrats: Hubert Vo, not Viet Dinh. Reaching out to and organizing Asian voters through a Democratic PAC seems like a good idea, though my more general thoughts on this issue are complicated. Though there has been a general shift, see
five or ten years ago, promoting the most exact representation of the backgrounds, experiences as well as faces of the Orange County Vietnamese community would have meant asking me to pay to increase the power of the Republican Party. I can hear my father's voice saying that this would have furthered the interests of true diversity more than a hypocritical Liberal like me is willing to support. Similarly, while I feel Daniel Inouye represents my interests in Congress, I'm sure [a mutual, Japanese American friend's] mother, an ardent Bush supporter and Fox News viewer does not. And don't get me started on the Wolfowitzs of the world."

"Still, I support the importance of diversity even in its most dishonest forms: I think that there is exemplary value in having Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, even if he was chosen as the African-American jurist whose thinking is most like that of a white conservative. And particularly given the nature of the stereotypes and racism that Asian Americans face-- foreign and therefore untrustworthy (see Wen Ho Lee, the Thai Temple scandal, etc.)--representation in politics seems like a particularly important goal."

"Anyway, I'll give you money, since you're my friend, have politics similar to mine, and this is an issue that is clearly important to you. But, the policy choices related to promoting ethnic diversity remain open questions in my mind."

All this cut and paste should probably be another post (it's really a very lazy effort to avoid having to think of more to say about Maalouf). But I do think for the many of us with complicated identities, and for the whole of us who ought to think about how we approach assimilation and particularity in a increasingly close-knit and consistently violent world, the Maalouf book is a worthwhile read.

I enjoyed reading your review, Ruchira. Maalouf's book seems strikingly similar to Amartya Sen's most recent book, Identity and Violence. I haven't read it but I have read other stuff by Sen, so this short and reasonable review resonated with me. The crux of it is this:

The strength of Sen's argument lies in its intuitive nature: "In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups." Its weakness lies in its failure to explain why, at critical junctures, we disown that knowledge.
Sounds like Maalouf doesn't attempt an explanation either, or does he? That would be a tall order.

Yeah, you were supposed to have written this review :-) But that's okay, as long as you brought the book to my attention and I found it interesting enough to review. Thanks for buttressing it with a substantive comment.

Like you, I too have a problem with voting for "diversity" candidates if their ideology doesn't move me. I agree with your dad that a smorgasbord of ideologies in the public sphere too is "diversity." But some of the conservative minority candidates are so far out on the other side (the zeal of a new convert to outdo the old hands?) of the political spectrum, that I prefer in some cases to vote for the " bland white male" whose vision is more palatable to me. And as Maalouf says, identity is not just "faces like ours" but also "minds like ours." And incidentally, I too have on more than one occasion, written large parts of a blog post by "cutttin and pasting" from old e-mails!

Amartya Sen's book is indeed on the same subject. (I wonder if Sen had read Maalouf's book) I too haven't read Sen's book but did turn a few pages. Much of what he says is very similar to Maalouf and also, as you pointed out what he has said elsewhere. I considered making a mention of Identity and Violence in the review above but left it out in the end for the sake of focus and brevity. From the little browsing I did of Sen's version, I must say that I found Maalouf's passion a bit more engaging.

As for Sen's book, I was struck by a scathing review of it by Fouad Ajami. A brief excerpt:

"Over this discursive little book lies the shadow of Sen's formidable Harvard colleague, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, with his celebrated theory of the "clash of civilizations." Sen has assigned himself the role of the anti-Huntington: Sen sees Huntington's thesis of cultural conflict yielding a one-dimensional approach to human identity -- and leading to the "civilizational and religious partitioning of the world," which can only occasion greater global disorder. .... Sen's faith in the multiplicity of claims on human loyalty is admirable, but it can hardly stand up to the fury of the true believers. In our combustible world today, Huntington's outlook has much greater power."

So, Ajami sides with Huntington, which is very interesting. Ajami has for some time, aligned himself with the neo-cons and is now their brainy and erudite "Arab" mouthpiece on middle east affairs. This of course is doubly interesting because Ajami is a Lebanese Shia of Iranian descent (his last name means something like "foreigner" or "Persian" in Arabic), who grew up as an "ousider" in his Arab birth place. I wonder why he would be such a hardliner on identity. But then why do the "oppressed" turn to oppression once they themselves are liberated? Another question for the ages. (BTW, I just posted the review at Shunya's Notes)

Yes, for a while now, my orientation towards the "clash of civilizations" theorists has been one of boredom and disdain. They take a rather narrow view of the motive forces of recent history. Clashes between civilizations are evident enough, but they're far less significant compared to, say, how much closer and interconnected and communicative the world has become in recent decades, not to mention the big clashes that happen within individual civilizations.

Today, a far bigger global dialectic than "clash" is "integration", but the former is more racy and exciting and therefore more newsworthy. Meanwhile, vast changes continue to occur in much of the world's knowledge, lifestyles, and ideas of self and human potential (which of course create their own, new clashes, centered on shifting dynamics of power and identity). Taking a 30,000 ft. view, I see today's clashes between civilizations as yet another byproduct (collateral damage, to use that lovely phrase) of a larger "integration" and change, a byproduct nowhere near as bad as it has frequently been in recent centuries (using proportion of humans dying from it as a metric).

As Percy Julian noted, the story of human beings is not only a story of meanness and stupidity and tears, but also of kindness and nobility and laughter. Seems to me that by focusing on "clash" alone, too many theorists miss the other, larger human story.

Amin Maalouf Website

Have a nice visit!

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