Books on Politics: We Are All Aggrieved Minorities Now

Books on Politics: We Are All Aggrieved Minorities Now

Francis Fukuyama, in “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” (FSG, 218 pages, $26), sees identity politics as part of a global search for dignity that, although noble in many contexts, has weakened societal bonds of trust and loyalty. Mr. Fukuyama believes that Western policymakers have tended to adopt a “simpleminded economic model” of the human soul—a belief that people only require their governments to meet their physical and material needs. Humans, the author argues, also have a deep need to be recognized as possessors of dignity, and thus of an acknowledged identity. Politicians are good at talking about the dignity of individuals—the constitutions of Germany, Japan, Ireland, Italy and South Africa all use the word—but “scarcely a politician in the Western world if pressed could explain its theoretical basis.”

Mr. Fukuyama’s attempt to explain the theoretical basis of dignity is a bit of a mess. We’re told that the modern quest for dignity may be traced back to Martin Luther, who first expressed “the notion, central to questions of identity, that the inner self is deep and possesses many layers that can be exposed only through private introspection.” It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, who stripped Luther’s proposition of its theological content, elevated the individual to a status of all-importance and gave birth to the ideals of the French Revolution. “The desire for the state to recognize one’s basic dignity has been at the core of democratic movements since the French Revolution,” Mr. Fukuyama writes. “This is what drove Americans to protest during the civil rights movement, South Africans to stand up against apartheid, Mohamed Bouazizi [the Tunisian street vendor whose suicide supposedly started the Arab Spring] to immolate himself, and other protesters to risk their lives in Yangon, Burma, or in the Maidan or Tahrir Square.”

Readers may wonder if the connections between Luther and Rousseau go any deeper than the simple notion of introspection, how Rousseau’s ideas jumped all the way to Burma and Iran, and how it was that…

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