Book Summary: Who are we — and should it matter in the 21st century

This is my summary of the book “Who are we — and should it matter in the 21st century”, by Gary Younge, about identity and nationalism in a globalised world. This time, instead of following the structure of the book, I’m going to do something similar to what Josh Kaufman does with his summaries: extract the most important ideas from the book. I think it’s especially appropriate in this case because most of the book is stories that support the author’s theories. After the ideas there’s a selection of quotes taken from the book. I hope you like it.


  1. The notion that identity is a refugee for the poor and dispossessed is misguided. The most chained to identity are often the powerful, because they have the most to lose. They don’t just call it “identity”, they call it “tradition”, “heritage”, or simply “history”. See example of girl whose parents would be disappointed if she married someone from another race or religion (p. 30), and “Just assume everybody is gay” theory on p. 38.

  2. Everybody has an identity, but the more power it carries the less likely they’re aware of it. Those that have never been asked “how to you balance childcare and work?” are less likely to think that their masculinity is anything but the normal state of affairs. Because their identity is never interrogated, they’re likely to think they don’t have one. Finally, power seems to have many parents, but the brutality it takes to acquire it is an orphan (those who will claim they didn’t have anything to do with slavery will proudly attach themselves to events at which they were not present and hail achievements to which they contributed nothing).

  3. Every identity has gatekeepers, official or not. They decide who belongs and who doesn’t by ignoring the complexity and enforce the archetype, on what basis and to what end. Official gatekeepers hold great power, for with certain pieces of paper come certain rights. The demanded threshold for entry (which keeps on changing according to the political, social and economic demands of the time, even as they insist they’re authenticating a timeless truth) is typically higher than the norm for those inside. Example of official gatekeepers for the “Jewish” identity, and the difference between Jewish for the Estate, and Jewish for the rabbis, on p. 98.

  4. Identities change over the years, because they’re rooted in people’s lives and aspirations. Occasionally, a single event, such as a terrorist attack, a riot, election, murder or judicial ruling, might appear to change people’s sense of themselves instantaneously. Examples on p. 131, 132. In order to rally people around a flag and anthem, nationalism must convince people not only that their nation has given them exclusive human qualities but that those are eternal. What masquerades as a return to the ancient roots is the invention of tradition, making a desperate bid to prove that the identity doesn’t change (by, in fact, changing it).

  5. We all have multiple identities. But that doesn’t mean that certain identities don’t come to the front sometimes, according to the circumstances. Example on p. 146. Failing to understand the existence and importance of multiple identities is not just a philosophical problem. Example of unemployed Bangladeshi being addressed by the British government as Muslims rather than poor people who could be assisted economically.

  6. Minorities attacking/comparing with other minorities is wrong. Three reasons: (1) it treats identities as interchangeable, when they’re not (they affect different things and work in different ways), (2) it assumes there’s a “league” of better/worse identities, which is wrong and even dangerous, and (3) putting minorities against each other undermines the potential to form coalitions, necessary to eradicate the discrimination.

  7. Identities are rooted in material conditions. They confer power and privilege in relation to one another. Example of British Muslims alienated and excluded on p.180-182, and comparison to American Muslims on p. 184. Refusing to acknowledge the root causes for these problems helps no one. That the response is through religion is no surprise either (“attacked as X, they defend themselves as X”). When Muslims do bad things, it’s never about individuals, national customs, or political/economical context. It’s about Islam.

  8. The question is not whether you draw a line for acceptable and non-acceptable, but who gets to draw it (power) and where they draw it (ideology). No process of integration can have much moral meaning without some reckoning with where power lies and how it might be differently distributed. Very interesting analysis of the Danish cartoons on p.189-193 (in summary, “it was a tale of power, hypocrisy and a crippling lack of self-knowledge”). Finally, see Sarkozy’s quote below. About it: if this relationship is going to work, France will also have to become more Islamic. This is only a problem for those who believe that Islam doesn’t have anything positive to offer France. Otherwise, it is up to them to explain why any self-respecting Muslim would want to integrate in a society that sees his or her faith as incapable of making a valuable contribution.

  9. Globalisation brings identity extremism. The smaller the world seems and the less control we have over it, the more likely we are to retreat into the local spheres where we might have influence. The reason is that globalisation undermines democracy and the sovereignty of the nation state, which results in a dislocation of power because you don’t get to vote for corporations. Feeling they live in a world where they don’t have much control, many resort to the defence of “culture”, the one thing people think they have a grip on. Not only nationalism is on the increase, so too is the number of “nations” seeking to be recognised. The bigger the EU becomes, the smaller the areas where a strong sense of identity may take hold. Some notes about “national languages” on p. 220, 221.


Integration of Islam in European countries

Whether I like it or not, Islam is the second biggest religion in France. So you've got to integrate it to make it more French. —Nicolas Sarkozy

Globalisation brings identity extremism

What ends as Jihad may well begin as a simple search for a local identity, some set of common personal attributes to hold against the numbing and neutering uniformities of industrial modernization and the colonizing culture of McWorld. —Benjamin Barber, _Jihad vs. McWorld_

The lie of nationalism

Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-conciousness. It invents nations were they didn't exist. —Ernest Gellner, _Thought and Change_

Humans being all mixed

Marble cake, crazy quilt and tutti-frutti are all better metaphors of human physical variability than is the x number of races of humankind. —Roger Sanjek

National/minority languages

The danger for minority languages —and for all small languages— is to be excluded from a select circle of languages, for which it is commercially viable to develop system of voice recognition or of translation by computer. —Ned Thomas