Gary Younge - Who Are We and Should it Matter in the 21st Century?
In his new book, journalist Gary Younge tackles the thorny issue of identity. Brian Donaldson hears the latest chapter on a fluid and ever-evolving debate
You’re a Scot living in Scotland. When you think about identity, how do you view yourself? Are you Scottish? British? European? Internationalist? None of the above? The complex philosophical and moral minefield that is the notion of identity is a chief concern of Gary Younge, the British-born Guardian journalist who is now based in Brooklyn and has worked for several years on making his way through the main arguments to bring us Who Are We and Should it Matter in the 21st Century?
The book revolves around a fluid and wide-ranging debate which gives elbow room to those who want to question Barack Obama’s status as the first black US President given that he had a white mother and was raised by his white grandmother. It also appears to give European governments a mandate to ban items of clothing worn by those who represent a miniscule minority of a nation’s population. But, for Younge, these discussions on identity are always a good place to start but a bad place to end: identity is fluid and evolving not rigid and certain. And in the face of individuals and groups abusing notions of identity for their own selfish or even sinister ends, he believes that there is also cause for some optimism. ‘The book is a working through of all this stuff, but I do have some basic principles; I think we are all more alike than we are unalike but the way we are unalike does in fact matter. Both the denial of difference and the fetishisation of difference don’t make much sense to me.’
In his new book, Younge (who studied French and Russian at Heriot-Watt University in the late 80s) discusses the last historic campaign for the Democratic nomination which was partially fought on a battleground of gender (Hillary Clinton) versus race (Barack Obama) which boiled down the candidates to such sweeping simplicities which conveniently ignored the fact that Clinton also had a race and Obama too was of a specific gender. He also picks apart the rancid cliché of the ‘Eastern Europeans/illegal immigrants/Muslim fundamentalists coming to our country and stealing our jobs’ line that the BNP have used to mercifully limited electoral success but which the mainstream parties have also meshed into their policy thinking.
But while identity is a crucial aspect of contemporary society, have these debates not always raged? ‘I think it is especially relevant now because of globalisation,’ insists Younge. ‘People are retreating more into their tribes which 9/11 and its response really brought out. It’s not that these things are particular to our age, but with the decline of democratic levers, those issues become more acute because people have nothing else to hang onto. So when people say that East Europeans are changing our culture, well, our culture is always changing anyway. Would you have it that our culture did not change? In the 60s there were about 27 Indian restaurants in the whole country: is that the kind of the world you want to return to? The book is an attempt to inject a foothold and an anchor to conduct this conversation in a less fraught and panicked manner.’
Who Are We and Should it Matter in the 21st Century? is published by Viking on Thu 3 Jun.