The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘Do You Think I Could Ever Be One?’

When I was in college, I’m not sure we had the phrase “identity politics.” But we certainly had the politics. Race, ethnicity, class, sex (or “gender,” as we were by then saying) — it was all there. I didn’t like this kind of politics, at all. I preferred the old Americanism, encapsulated in the motto E pluribus unum.

The identity stuff was pushed by the Left. They were tribal before tribal was cool. (Well, it has always been cool, unfortunately.) Conservatives were very different. Paradoxically, they were far more liberal. Tides shift, of course — and I’m not sure who’s more tribalist today, the Left or the Right. Our national motto might as well be “Tribes ’r’ us.”

I thought of this when reading a stunning passage — one of many — in Mark Helprin’s new novel, Paris in the Present Tense. And I highlight this passage in my column today, which concludes a two-part series of notes on Helprin’s novel.

A man says to the main character, Jules, “What do you think of the Arabs?” Jules says, “I don’t.” The man says, “What do you mean, you ‘don’t’?” Jules says, “I don’t think about Arabs, per se.”

The man presses on. And Jules says this:

“I’m a Jew. My parents were murdered by the Germans because they were Jews. The gravest, most persistent sin of mankind lies in not treating everyone as an individual. So, in short, I take Arabs as they come, just like everyone else.”

The man presses, “But as a group?”

Jules repeats, “As a group?” Then he says, “They have a very high incidence of killing innocents with whom they disagree. It’s part of the culture, part of Islam, part of their nomadic origins. But no individual is merely a reflection of a group. That’s the injustice that ruins the world. So, my answer is that for me an Arab is the same as a Jew, a Frenchman, a Norwegian, anything you’d like. If I were to judge people by their identity, I’d be like the people who killed my parents. Those were called Nazis. Do you think I could ever be one?”

My impression is, this kind of thinking is out of vogue now. But the thing about vogues — they come and go. And I look forward to the return, and wide acceptance, of this one.

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