Identity and Interest

I had a conversation, when I was working at BridgeNews in Washington, D.C., with one of our economics reporters about Palestinians and Israelis. The person — whose name I cannot remember — was more than just a reporter. He had apparently invented a series of algorithms that were able to predict, with alarming accuracy, the behavior of some segment of the market or the economy or something.

The guy was also Jewish and a supporter of Israel. The second Palestinian uprising had just started, and he confessed he did not understand — why did the Palestinians bother fighting the Israelis, when that was pointless? It would be better for them to try and improve their lives by starting businesses and the like. I tried explaining that for the most part, the Palestinians were fighting for the dignity, their sense of self-worth as human beings, and that there were no Palestinian property rights an Israeli government would respect anyway.

He appeared not to understand. “Dignity does not feed a family,” he said.

There is a certain materialist approach — poverty and lack of opportunity are the cause of terrorism, for example — which assume that material lack is responsible for the world’s unrest and violence. All that needs happen is that people need to become either better off or hopeful that with hard work they can be become better. Improve material conditions, and you reduce violence. This drives much (though not all) progressive and conservative thinking on the world, for example. Whether you wish to “share the wealth” of “kickstart development,” you are subscribing to the view that the causes of most human angst are material, concrete and tangible, or somehow very closely related to the material.

I don’t but it. It is my experience — both personally and having known a number of Palestinians — that human beings will sacrifice more for intangibles than they will for concrete things. A full belly is not so meaningful if people regularly humiliate you in the process. Yes, human beings will sacrifice a great deal for people they love. In Dubai, I watched grown men suffer significant personal degradation and humiliation because they knew they needed the jobs they worked in order to care for wives, children and extended families. It happens here, too, though not quite so brutally. But there are points in which people can and do snap, in which they will no longer live with their degradation, and will rise up to do something about it. Even if it expresses itself in an inchoate burst of rage that ends up destroying the self. Which it often does.

You deprive people of their dignity as human beings at your own risk.

This all came to mind as an acquaintance on facebook asked a question — a rhetorical one, I think, to which I responded, about looking for a poor fiscal conservative who does not have health care. I don’t wish to read too much into the question, but I suspect a little bit of materialism in the question’s sarcasm (or vice versa). People vote, or should, their material interests — and I suspect (but I am open to being proven wrong) the person who asked the question is inclined to believe people do, or ought to, vote their interests. Their material interests.

But I don’t think people do. I think people vote their identities, not their interests. (Yes, the two are often intertwined.) America is the sanctified community. But what does it mean to be sanctified? Americans are good and decent people. But what does it mean to be good and decent? Americans are history’s chosen people. But what does it mean to be chosen? Progressives and Conservatives have understandings of this that overlap less and less as time goes on. (Though oddly enough, both seem to agree on the need to bomb brown people into submission.) But none of these are, on the face of it, matters of interest. They are matters of identity. Neither fills the belly or pays the mortgage or sends the taxman away happy and satisfied. All tell stories of who the self is in relation to others and to the world.

A poor person who would in many ways “benefit” from state-run health care might strenuously oppose such a thing because the sanctified community he or she believes he or she is or should be a part of doesn’t manage people’s lives that way. I, for example, do not believe the welfare state is “the sanctified community” or even a terribly caring one because the welfare state is still the state, and the state needs force to function, and while kind people do care for each other, they don’t threaten to shoot people as part of that caring. Which is what the state does — threaten to shoot people if they don’t behave.