cover image The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-631-49383-6

The supposedly eternal categories people use to group themselves into antagonistic collectives are misleading memes of recent vintage, according to this probing critique of identity politics. New York University philosophy professor Appiah (Cosmopolitanisms) argues that, although people have an innate “clannishness”—an instinct to identify with groups—the common essential properties that bind those groups are arbitrary, inconsistent, and mainly imaginary. The idea of fixed biological races, he contends, developed in the 18th century to justify the transatlantic slave trade; the notion of homogeneous national identities sprouted from a 19th-century romantic philosophy that forced them onto multiethnic, multilingual communities; modern religious divisions are based on contradictory, often unintelligible scriptures; and, contrary to the dicta of both white nationalists and Afrocentrists, Western culture isn’t the creation of Europeans, Egyptians, or any other single people. Writing in erudite but engaging prose, Appiah spotlights figures who created identitarian doctrines or challenged them, including a West African boy who traveled to Germany in 1707 and became a philosophy professor, and ponders his own complicated identity as a gay, biracial man descended from English knights on his mother’s side and Ghanaian royalty on his father’s. With deep learning and incisive reasoning, Appiah makes a forceful argument for building identity from individual aspirations rather than exclusionary dogmas. (Aug.)