Personalizing Disasters and Real Identity Politics

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This post is the latest in the series “Connecting All the Dots” an ongoing discussion about and across movements. While connecting two dots only makes a simple line, connecting ALL the dots can create a completely different picture that can help provide new insight on the issues of the day.

I’ve often said that a fundamental paradox of the concept of identity is that it is at the same time the most internally constructed and externally defined aspect of human experience. While “identity” is perhaps the most intimate and personal property a person can have, it is also something that is in many ways, only given meaning in an external reality in how it is perceived by others. Even if you have the most clearly articulated sense of who and what you are, that identity is inherently mediated through socially constructed norms and behaviors that govern how others perceive that identity. When those two are in opposition, they can run counter in ways that have real and palpable consequences.

The tension between internal and external reckonings of identity have come into conflict this week for 800,000 people who seek to, in Jose Antonio Vargas’ words, “Define American” for themselves but who are now threatened by the recent announcement by the Trump Administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A recent article in Slate makes a connection between this rescission of DACA and recent policy attacks on transgender service members. In both these instances Mark Joseph Stern argues, the policy differences between the Obama and Trump Administrations have created a situation where hundreds of thousands of people have put their faith and their personal information in the U.S. government and now that information has put them in jeopardy.

I’ve made the connection elsewhere between the struggles for identity and recognition undertaken by undocumented immigrants, transgender servicemembers, and Filipino WWII veterans. For all of these groups, their identity as they understand it for themselves has been denied by the U.S. government- as a WWII soldier under U.S. command, as a current military service member living in her truth, or an American in spirit if not on paper. Stern makes this argument for transgender servicemembers and undocumented immigrants, but it is applicable to Filipino WWII veterans as well- the trust they put in the government has been broken, with very real consequences.

Opponents of issues such as immigrants rights and transgender equality often marginalize their plight with the label “identity politics.” Although this rhetorical move seeks to minimalize these issues as the complaints of an aggrieved minority, it belies a more sinister reality of the state’s authority to define identity in many ways, from who gets access to benefits to who has the ability to enter institutions like the military, to who gets to be recognized for the military service they did perform.

All of this is happening at a moment when Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have battered Texas, Florida, and surrounding territories. In the swirl of news and emotions surrounding the region, Harvey and Irma Schluter are making news of their own in Spokane, WA as a couple celebrating their 75th anniversary even as their hurricane namesakes are wreaking havoc. Our tradition to name hurricanes is a reminder that the storms (not the couple) that we have bestowed with names and “identities” will have real consequences for all of us moving forward. Even if we don’t perceive these storms to constitute “identity politics” at first blush, the emerging policy debates around relief, disaster preparedness, climate change, and the budget will nevertheless provide additional new dots to connect between Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and all the people in their wake whose lives and life chances are constrained in very real ways by the identities the government allows them to have. All politics is “identity politics” of one sort or another, and it is important to be clear about how the identities we have and support are affected by ALL of the issues that affect us.

Ben de Guzman is on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. He is mindful of all of those who are in the path of the political and meteorological storms this week.