Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions
We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible to take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, and in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped and transformed societies over the next four centuries, but nobody in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (among other things): fuel the Reformation and undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; and even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.
Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into our revolution, the one kicked off by digital technology and networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big deal and that epochal social and economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading and what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.
That’s not for want of trying, mind. Library shelves groan under the weight of books about what digital technology is doing to us and our world. Lots of scholars are thinking, researching and writing about this stuff. But they’re like the blind men trying to describe the elephant in the old fable: everyone has only a partial view, and nobody has the whole picture. So our contemporary state of awareness is – as Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace once put it – one of “informed bewilderment”.
Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, to be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School to hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations and on work. It provided the most insightful account up to that time of how digital technology was changing the work of both managers and workers. And then Zuboff appeared to go quiet, though she was clearly incubating something bigger. The first hint of what was to come was a pair of startling essays – one in an academic journal in 2015, the other in a German newspaper in 2016. What these revealed was that she had come up with a new lens through which to view what Google, Facebook et al were doing – nothing less than spawning a new variant of capitalism. Those essays promised a more comprehensive expansion of this Big Idea.
And now it has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about.
The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.
“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”
While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.
Viewed from this perspective, the behaviour of the digital giants looks rather different from the roseate hallucinations of Wired magazine. What one sees instead is a colonising ruthlessness of which John D Rockefeller would have been proud. First of all there was the arrogant appropriation of users’ behavioural data – viewed as a free resource, there for the taking. Then the use of patented methods to extract or infer data even when users had explicitly denied permission, followed by the use of technologies that were opaque by design and fostered user ignorance.
And, of course, there is also the fact that the entire project was conducted in what was effectively lawless – or at any rate law-free – territory. Thus Google decided that it would digitise and store every book ever printed, regardless of copyright issues. Or that it would photograph every street and house on the planet without asking anyone’s permission. Facebook launched its infamous “beacons”, which reported a user’s online activities and published them to others’ news feeds without the knowledge of the user. And so on, in accordance with the disrupter’s mantra that “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission”.
When the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business model of the internet” he was really only hinting at the reality that Zuboff has now illuminated. The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.
And it won’t be easy to fix because it requires us to tackle the essence of the problem – the logic of accumulation implicit in surveillance capitalism. That means that self-regulation is a nonstarter. “Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists,” says Zuboff, “or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking old Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand. It’s like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck, or a cow to give up chewing. These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”
The Age of Surveillance Capital is a striking and illuminating book. A fellow reader remarked to me that it reminded him of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in that it opens one’s eyes to things we ought to have noticed, but hadn’t. And if we fail to tame the new capitalist mutant rampaging through our societies then we will only have ourselves to blame, for we can no longer plead ignorance.
Ten questions for Shoshana Zuboff: ‘Larry Page saw that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood’
The PM leads a party that is divided and a country stockpiling food and medicines as if preparing for war. She needs to humbly reach out to her opponents and find a way to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU in weeks.
The overwhelming and decisive rejection by MPs of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union is a shattering blow to the authority of the prime minister. She has spent two years negotiating a deal, which in substance was the opposite of what she said she wanted in public, only to see it repudiated by parliament. Her minority government has now been defeated on no fewer than 28 occasions
Britain is leaving the EU in weeks and Mrs May leads a cabinet that is hopelessly split, a party that is riven with disagreements and a country that is deeply divided. So emphatic is the Commons historic rebuff that Mrs May’s deal is finished. Mrs May lost by 230 votes – the greatest defeat of a government ever. The scale of the opposition means it is not credible Mrs May could bring the motion back to the Commons, modified with a few tweaks from Brussels, and hope for success a second time round.
We do not have to settle for the Hobson’s choice of the May deal or no deal. The trouble is the Tory party is split between those who want a deal and those who do not. Mrs May has intensified the divisions within her party, rather than resolve them. She chose to start negotiations over Brexit not with the EU but with her own hardliners.
The red lines Mrs May subsequently set made it impossible for her to get a deal that would bring her fractious party together, let alone reach out to her political opponents. Her agreement ended up shaped by Mrs May’s obsession with immigration and placating Brexit extremists. The result is a “blindfold Brexit” –where almost everything about the future relationship with Europe is up in the air for two more years. It required a leap of faith to place trust in a prime minister who, the Commons wisely decided, deserved very little.
In the current circumstances, there is no majority in parliament for any of the alternative Brexit deals. This could lead to a disaster: Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. That is why MPs must remove it as an option.
Labour has triggered a vote of no confidence in the government but is unlikely to win. That points to the need for a mechanism to allow a Commons majority to take control of the Brexit process. This would require innovation, of the kind seen last week, so committees can be empowered and laws brought forward. But to have other options would require asking the EU for more time. It requires parliamentary cooperation of the kind hitherto unseen.
Jeremy Corbyn and Mrs May ought not to stand in the way of such dealings. Constitutional devices such as citizens’ assemblies, raised by Labour MP Lisa Nandy, and another referendum would allow leaders to hold their parties together and provide legitimacy for whatever the public decides. These are not denials of democracy but a reinforcement of it.
Mrs May’s decision to put party politics ahead of national interest means this country will aimlessly drift as the government attempts to recast a withdrawal agreement. An absence of leadership can lead to a sense of panic, one inflated by a government stockpiling food and medicines as if preparing for a war.
We need to end the chaos and division that have done so much to disfigure our country. The question we face is whether there can be a durable relationship between Brexit Britain and the EU, which allows both to cooperate on the basis of shared interests and values. Mrs May left it far too late to accept the costs of leaving, preferring to pander to MPs whose snake-oil sales pitch is that there will not be any cost associated with Brexit at all. “Having your cake and eating it” is the Brexiter attitude that encapsulates this inability to think in terms of costs and benefits.
Yet coming clean about these things is necessary to move forward. The country now faces a situation without precedent in its constitutional history: how to reconcile the sovereignty of the people with the sovereignty of parliament.
The prime minister has been humbled into admitting she needs to win her opponents over. The Brexit vote was driven by stagnant wages, regional disparities and a soulless form of capital accumulation. These were not caused by the EU, nor will they be solved by leaving it. Only policies enacted by purposeful government can do that. Mrs May has not provided either.
Note : The Democrats have taken control of The US House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would work to restore checks and balances and be a buffer against Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s “assault” on Medicare, Medicaid, affordable healthcare, and on Americans with pre-existing conditions.
These elections are more important than any in recent memory. Only a vote for a Democratic Congress can constrain Donald Trump and hiscampaigns of hate
The United States midterm elections are always important. But the elections on Tuesday matter in ways that few midterm contests can have matched. Yes, it will take more than one election to mend the damaged and angry political mood that, in the last two weeks alone, has seen a fervent Donald Trump supporter send bombs to several Democrats, and a white supremacist commit the most heinous act of antisemitic violence in the country’s history. The man in the White House is not the only thing that must change. But the journey has to start somewhere. You only have to imagine how much more difficult the journey will otherwise be to grasp the exceptional responsibility that rests on the shoulders of US voters on Tuesday.
“Mr. Trump was the product of already existing toxicity, shaken faith and declining prestige “.–The Guardian
Donald Trump is not the sole reason why American politics have become so toxic, why Americans’ faith in their institutions has been so shaken, or the influence of the US for good in the world so diminished. In many ways Mr Trump was the product of already existing toxicity, shaken faith and declining prestige. But he has turbo-charged this decline deliberately, as a matter of conscious policy. He seeks consistently to be the president of some of the United States, not of the country as a whole. Against those who do not support or agree with him he deploys only hate and scorn. He lies and provokes as a matter of strategy. This is a president without precedent, and although in the US democracy is strong, it is not indestructible.
Take the issue of voting rights. It is often assumed that the US constitution embodies a federal right to vote. It does not. Voting is administered by the states. Most states are in Republican hands, and the districts that will send members of Congress to Washington this week have frequently been gerrymandered. In many states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republicans have imposed restrictions on early voting, postal voting and voter identification, all of them designed to prevent black Americans from voting. In Georgia, officials tried to close seven out the nine voting places in a predominantly black area on the pretext that disabled access was inadequate.
The US constitution is celebrated for its checks and balances. Yet partisanship is now so entrenched and unbending that institutions themselves are beginning to creak. The White House is in the hands of a lying and rule-breaking racist executive who, apart from all his policy failings, refuses to release his tax returns, blurs the distinction between official and personal interests, meddles in investigations in which he has no business and who deployed thousands of US troops for a purely partisan reason. Meanwhile, since the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, the supreme court is now more firmly than ever under partisan rightwing control, opening up the near certainty of an attempt to overturn US abortion rights.
So there is a strong constitutional case, as well as a strong political one, for recapturing the legislative branch from its dishonest and sycophantic right wing Republican leadership. Democratic control of the House of Representatives would constrain Mr Trump by investigating issues that have been shamelessly ignored by the current House leadership. Democratic control of the Senate, a long shot, would clip his wings even more. Democratic failure this week, by contrast, would be – and would be taken to be – an electoral endorsement of Mr Trump.
This is a pivotal election for Americans, for American democracy, and for the rest of the world. Yet it comes at a time of decent US economic growth and high employment, when Republicans are energised, and Democrats are divided about their future course. It is far from guaranteed, in the light of 2016, that Democratic enthusiasm and money will turn into the blue wave that we want. But there is no more important political task anywhere in the world today than to seize this moment.
As ex-Prime Minister, he has a duty to offer a solution on Brexit, but lacks the guts
“David Cameron is a former PM. He not only has the right to offer his solution but a duty. If he is to earn the right to a hearing, however, he must first find not only self-knowledge and courage, but an un-English seriousness of purpose he has evaded all his life.”–Nick Cohen
John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have warned of the dangers of Brexit. But where is the former Prime Minister who called the referendum that will blight Britain for as far ahead as anyone can see? Whatever happened to that likely lad? David Cameron doesn’t want to talk about it, one of his friends tells me. “He doesn’t defend the referendum, but won’t say he made a mistake either. Europe is like a family scandal. We know what’s happened but we don’t say a word: it’s his no-go zone.”
At a personal level, the consequences swirl around him. I may be exhausting your capacity for compassion but the smallest of the casualties of Brexit has been the good fellowship of the Chipping Norton set. Naturally, the Cotswolds’ wealthy Leavers are grateful. But Cameron must resent them. He must know that he has been the useful idiot who succumbed to the demands of Rupert Murdoch’s Rebekah Brooks, a member of the local nouveau gentry by virtue of her converted barn, in the crashingly stupid belief that no harm would come from his surrender.
Invitations to “kitchen suppers” from Remainers, however, can only include Samantha Cameron’s name – if, they are extended at all. Tania Rotherwick invited the Camerons to her pool at the magnificent Cornbury Park estate before she split from her husband and Cameron split Britain from Europe. She is now particularly contemptuous, I hear.
Cameron’s memoirs were meant to be published this month but have been delayed until next year. The early signs are ominous. A book has to be coherent if it is to find a readership: its opening must prefigure its conclusion. As described in the publishing press, Cameron’s effort will have no consistency. He will tell the story of the formation of the coalition, his contributions to economic, welfare and foreign policy, his surprise victory in the 2015 election and then – as if from nowhere – the conventional memoir will end with the author carelessly deciding he will settle the European question, without planning a campaign or preparing an argument and, instead, launching a crisis that will last for decades. Nothing will make sense. Nothing will hang together. It’s as if a romcom were to conclude with serial killers murdering the cooing lovers or Hilary Mantel were to have aliens invade Tudor England on the last page of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
The book Cameron cannot write would accept that his political battles and achievements were as nothing when set against his decision to appeal to the worst of the Tory party. It would begin with Cameron honouring the decision that won him the Conservative leadership in 2005. He would confess that he should have known better than to pull the Conservatives out of the centre-right group in the European parliament and align them with Law and Justice, the know-nothing Polish nationalists who are reducing their country to an ill-governed autocracy. The manoeuvre was pure Cameron: tactics above strategy; appeasement instead of confrontation.
The pattern continued throughout his premiership. He thought he could buy off the right by refusing to explain the benefits of EU membership to the voters. At one point in 2014 he threatened to leave the EU. He then turned around in 2016 and asked the public to believe that leaving would be a disaster and was surprised when 17.4 million men and women he had never treated as adults worthy of inclusion in a serious conversation ignored him.
If he were being honest, Cameron would admit too that Brexit ought to bring an end to a British or, to be specific, English, style that is by no means confined to the upper class, but was everywhere present among the public-school boys who ruled us.
I mean the ironic style that gives us our famously impenetrable sense of humour (which we will need now the rest of the world is laughing at us). The perfidious style that allows us to hide behind masks and has made England superb at producing brilliant actors for the West End but hopeless at producing practical politicians for Westminster. The teasing style of speaking in codes that benighted foreigners can never understand, however well they speak English. The cliquey style that treats England as a club, not a country, and allowed Jeremy Corbyn to say that Jews cannot “understand English irony”, however long their ancestors have lived here.
Theresa May is no Dame Margaret Thatcher but a bumbling Cameronite
The deferential style that allowed one Etonian to lead the Remain campaign and another to lead the Leave campaign and for the English to not even see why that was wrong. The life’s-a-game-you-shouldn’t-take-too-seriously style that inspired Cameron to say he holds “no grudges” against Boris Johnson now the match is over and the covers back on the pitch.
The gentleman amateur style that convinced Cameron he could treat a momentous decision like an Oxford essay crisis and charm the electorate into agreeing with him in a couple of weeks, as if voters were a sherry-soaked don who could be won round with a few clever asides. The effortlessly superior style that never makes the effort to ask what the hell the English have to feel superior about. The gutless, dilettantish and fatally flippant style that has dominated England for so long and failed it so completely. The time for its funeral has long passed.
A politician who bumped into Cameron said he thinks the referendum result must be respected, but that Britain should protect living standards by going for the softest Brexit imaginable and staying in the single market. This is a compromise well to the “left” of Theresa May and Corbyn’s plans and is worth discussing. Whatever his critics say, David Cameron is a former PM. He not only has the right to offer his solution but a duty. If he is to earn the right to a hearing, however, he must first find not only self-knowledge and courage, but an un-English seriousness of purpose he has evaded all his life.
Caitlyn Jenner is a trans woman, ‘asexual for now’; Rachel Dolezal identifies as black. Who owns your identity, and how can old ways of thinking be replaced?
by Kwame Anthony Appiah
In April 2015, after a long and very public career, first as a male decathlete, then as a reality TV star, Caitlyn Jenner announced to the world she was a trans woman. Asked about her sexuality, Jenner explained that she had always been heterosexual, and indeed she had fathered six children in three marriages. She understood, though, that many people were confused about the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, and so she said: “Let’s go with ‘asexual’ for now.”
Isn’t it up to her? What could be more personal than the question of who she is – what she is? Isn’t your identity, as people often say, “your truth”? The question is straightforward; the answer is anything but. And that’s because a seismic fault line runs through contemporary talk of identity, regularly issuing tremors and quakes. Your identity is meant to be the truth of who you are. But what’s the truth about identity?
An identity, at its simplest, is a label we apply to ourselves and to others. Your gender. Your sexuality. Your class, nationality, ethnicity, region, religion, to start a list of categories. (Raise your hand if you are a straight, male, working-class, Afro-Latinx evangelical US southerner.) Labels always come with rules of ascription. When we apply a label to ourselves, we’re accepting that we have some qualifying trait – say, Latin or African ancestry, male or female sex organs, attractions to one gender or another, the right to a German passport.
More important, there are things we believe we should feel and think and do as a result. Identities, for the people who have them, are not inert facts; they are living guides. Women and men dress the way they do in part because they’re women and men. Given that we connect these labels with our behaviour, it’s natural to expect other people to do the same. And that means we’re going to have to tell other people not just which labels they can claim, but what they must do if they are to fit our labels. So identities don’t just affect our own behaviour; they help determine how we treat other people.
At the same time, all the ascription conditions here are contested. Are you a trans woman if you haven’t transitioned? Is someone with seven European great-grandparents and one African one truly black? Would a Daughter of the American Revolution who renounced her American citizenship still be an American? So are the associated norms of behaviour: is a reform Jew less Jewish than an orthodox one? Is an effeminate man less of a man? Because identity, in the sense we typically use it these days, is a social category – something shared with vast numbers of other people – everything is up for negotiation and nothing is determined by individual fiat. In this sense, identity is at once loose and tight.
To say that the borders are contested is also to say that they are policed. Boys who default from gender norms of behaviour are deemed “sissies”; girls are “tomboys”. Some old-guard radical feminists, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Marge Piercy and Faith Ringgold, have suggested that trans women aren’t really women. Black authenticity, too, is a perennial battleground. Here’s Pusha T on Drake, in a recent, widely publicised rap beef: “Confused, always felt you weren’t Black enough / Afraid to grow it ’cause your ’fro wouldn’t nap enough.” Latinos sometimes hurl the insult “coconut” at other Latinos who “act white”, suggesting that deep down they’re not Latino at all.
So, in a liberal spirit, we could wonder: why not ditch the guards and adopt an open-border policy? Why not agree that people are whatever they say they are? We could follow the lead of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
By the logic of Humpty Dumpty, everyone should be able to assume whatever identity they choose. There’s glory for you.
Or maybe not. Like all the words in our language, the identity labels we use are a common possession. Were everybody to follow Humpty Dumpty’s example, we simply couldn’t understand one another. If Toni Morrison isn’t a black woman, the term isn’t doing any work. The ability to apply identity labels in a broadly consistent way is what allows us to use them to tell people who someone is, and so, in particular, to tell others who we are ourselves. It’s because there’s some agreement about menswear that “man” is a useful label when you’re shopping. And labelling ourselves only helps others if it can guide expectations about what we will think, or feel, or do. “Lesbian” isn’t much use if you’re looking for a partner on Bumble unless it signifies a woman who might be open to sex with another woman.
If identity continues to vex us, we should bear in mind that this usage of the term is historically recent. Until the middle of the 20th century, in fact, nobody who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion. When George Eliot writes in Middlemarch that Rosamond “was almost losing the sense of her identity”, it’s because she is faced with profoundly new experiences when she learns that the man she thinks she loves is hopelessly devoted to someone else. Identity here is totally personal.
Then sociologists such as Erik Erikson and Alvin Gouldner introduced the modern sense of the term in the 1950s and 60s. In recent decades, identity has exploded as a political theme; identity groups, especially marginalised ones, sought recognition and respect precisely as bearers of an identity. Yet talk of social identities – the identity of “identity politics” – often rubbed up against these earlier notions of authenticity. Hence the faultline I mentioned. Don’t try to tell me who I am: this motto will have power as long as Eliot’s sense of an innermost self contends with the modern sense of identity as a vehicle and vector of recognition.
Not all identities fit their bearers like a glove; sometimes we’re talking oven mitts. Over the years and around the world, taxi drivers, putting their expertise to the test, have sized me up. In São Paulo, I’ve been taken for a Brazilian and addressed in Portuguese; in Cape Town, I’ve been taken for a “Coloured” person; in Rome, for an Ethiopian; and one London cabbie refused to believe I didn’t speak Hindi. The Parisian who thought I was from Belgium perhaps took me for a Maghrebi; and, wearing a kaftan, I’ve faded into a crowd in Tangier. Puzzled by the combination of my accent and my appearance, once our ride is under way, taxi drivers regularly ask me where I was born. “In London,” I tell them, but that’s not what they really want to know. What they mean to ask is where my family came from originally. They’re wondering about my ancestry and all that might come with it.
The answer to the question of origins is that I come from two families in two places pretty far apart. My mother was English, a countrywoman at heart, who in the 1950s was working for an anti-racist organisation in London that supported colonial students. It was called Racial Unity. That was how she met my father, a law student from Ghana (then the Gold Coast). He was an anticolonial activist, the president of the West African Students’ Union, and a British representative of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who was to lead Ghana to independence in 1957. You might say she practised what she preached.
My father raised us with stories of his family, and one of the names he gave me, Akroma-Ampin, was that of the illustrious 18th-century general who founded his lineage. In a sense, though, it wasn’t really our family. Just as my mother’s people, being patrilineal, thought you belonged to your father’s family, my father’s, being matrilineal, thought you belonged to your mother’s. I could have told those taxi drivers I had no family at all.
“Identities,” the cultural theorist Stuart Hall once observed, “are the different names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past.” Yet it’s also true that the labels can sometimes displace the narrative. In the case of my “racial” ancestry, efficient identity experts come up with a summary: black father, white mother, grew up in Ghana and England – got it. I recall attending a sports day, a few decades ago, at a school in Dorset I’d attended as a preteen, and meeting the now elderly man who had been headmaster in my day. “You won’t remember me,” I apologised, as I introduced myself to him. Hearing my name, he brightened and took my hand warmly. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were our first coloured head boy.” That wasn’t a formulation that would have occurred to me at the time; but inasmuch as identities are social, my formulations weren’t the only ones that mattered.
And precisely because social identities continue to be shadowed by that precursor sense of an innermost self, the dance on the borderlines of identity can be delicate. Shaun King, the Black Lives Matters activist, speaks, dresses and wears his hair in ways that are marked as black. When reports circulated that both the parents cited on his birth certificate were white (though, not his biological father), his wife responded with an artful online post, calling his story “beautifully difficult”, and declaring: “What’s white about him is white, and what’s Black about him is Black and always has been from the time he was a child.” In other words, accept the mystery.
Mostly, people have. But there are limit cases. A much-loved episode of Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta presents a mock reported segment about “Harrison Booth”, a black teenager (birth name: Antoine Smalls), who identifies as a 35-year-old white man. Preparing for his transition, he wears a button-down Oxford shirt, wanders through farmers’ markets, plays golf, and asks a bartender: “What IPA do you have on tap?”
In the real world, the German model Martina Adam has announced that she has transitioned to black (with the help of melanin-promoting hormones and various filler injections) and, citing a baptismal ceremony she underwent in Kenya, is to be called Malaika Kubwa. The public response was no more supportive than that which greeted the retired baseball great Sammy Sosa when he dramatically whitened his once dark visage.
There is a rich imaginative literature on African American “passing”, a groaning shelf that includes James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex‑Colored Man (1912), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000). There’s also a rich tradition of such passing; millions of white Americans have unsuspected black ancestry. Going from white to black isn’t nearly as common. But most people knew how they felt about Rachel Dolezal, who, carefully permed and tanned, had officially identified herself as black and spent a year running the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, until she resigned amid suspicions that she’d fabricated reports of hate crimes she’d suffered. When her white midwestern parents outed her and sparked headlines, one black commentator suggested that Dolezal embraced “an a la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside”. Dolezal now says she identifies as black, but not as African American. That’s a bid, though; it doesn’t count if there are no takers.
That identity is contested, then, doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs. We don’t own our words; other people get a say.
Identity norms are enforced in myriad ways, and the work that goes into entrenching them reveals their vulnerability. The fact that identities need to have some common meaning doesn’t require that we leave them just as they are. It’s obvious that conceptions of gender half a century ago suited some people better than others. No doubt many middle-class women were and are perfectly happy as managers of households and primary caregivers for children. (No doubt this arrangement suited many men, too.) But it left lots of women unsatisfied. The women’s movement challenged ideas about the proper places of women in the home and outside. Now, in much of the developed world, we mostly agree that sharing parenting more equally doesn’t make a woman less of a woman, or a man less of a man, and though the ideal of workplace equality remains unrealised, it is no longer controversial.
Being a real man or woman once meant being straight. That suited many people, but it was deeply unsatisfactory for those women and men who found their erotic attractions were to people of their own sex. A movement gained momentum in the North Atlantic world, and engaged in a long project of reshaping the general understanding of gender, so that being homosexual was no longer a defective way of being a man or woman. But in those long struggles, the advance guard of these movements couldn’t simply declare a new meaning for womanhood or manhood. They had to negotiate with others, women with men but also with other women, gay people with straight people but also with one another, to try to reconfigure the shared understandings that shape the opportunities available to us. The trans movement is a predictable extension of these earlier struggles.
When people responded to Jenner by saying she was just a man pretending to be a woman, they weren’t just being discourteous and unkind: they were taking the meaning of the words “man” and “woman” as fixed and non-negotiable and insisting on their right to use them as they always had. That’s what Republican legislators in North Carolina were doing when they passed a law in March 2016 denying trans people the right to use public bathrooms of the identity they claimed for themselves. When the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that Jenner could use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower, Jenner, who supported him in the race, took him up on his offer, posting a video of herself entering a women’s room. It was an argument about rights, but it was also an argument about language.
At the same time, talk of the “LGBTQ community” sometimes runs aground because it seems to treat gender identity as akin to sexual orientation, and many trans activists are especially concerned to head off any confusion between the two. That’s why many transgender people would like to remove the “T” in “LGBT”. In the words of one Belfast-based trans woman columnist: “It’s not a sexuality. It’s a gender. It makes no more sense being included with LGB than if you were to add ‘female’ in there.” She explains that she’s now heterosexual, and asks, “when talking about issues that concern sexuality why is transgender included?” When trans women such as Jenner or the Wachowskis, the illustrious film-making siblings, decline to identify as lesbian, they may be responding to a sense that their gender identity should be considered separately from their sexual or affectional orientation.
“What I want to do is to widen the bandwidth of gender,” says Alex Drummond, the Cardiff psychologist and author and a trans woman, who decided to keep her beard, while also forgoing surgery or hormones. Drummond, who identifies as lesbian, told BuzzFeed: “If all you ever see is trans women who completely pass and are completely convincing as natal females, then those of us who just don’t have that kind of luck won’t have the confidence to come out.” (Most trans women have not had genital surgery, according to a recent survey by the American National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.) Her project of “gender queering” hasn’t met universal acceptance; one trans woman writer has likened her to “the older, oversized bully” who “throws himself into the toddlers’ sandpit and kicks everyone else out”. Did I mention quakes and tremors?
But a conversation – a negotiation – has begun, gloriously. Every day, men negotiate with one another about what masculinity means. And not just men. “Man” and “woman” are part of a system of interacting identities. Nor, for that matter, can black and white and Asian and brown racial identities be negotiated separately by black and white and Asian and brown people. That’s why we have to resist the liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. In truth, identities without demands would be lifeless. Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too. If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you have to work with others inside and outside the labelled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognise that the results must serve others as well.
There will soon be 8 billion of us on this planet, and the chances are slim that every one of us will find that the particular set of identities in the society into which we are born perfectly fits our needs. Conflicts are inevitable, because a system of identities that fits snugly around me will not perfectly suit everyone else. Changing the old gender system that gave pride of place to the middle-class female homemaker and the male breadwinner involved making some people uncomfortable not least because, in the new configuration, their existing options were no longer seen as the unique and honoured ideal. The old racial system that we have gradually tried to dismantle in the United States offered something to all white people, namely the sense that, however little money or power or status they had, they were, at least, better than black people. This was not, evidently, great for black people. Not a few white people were discomfited by it, too; their sense of justice was offended by it – they didn’t want whiteness to mean that. In some of the darker recesses of the internet, meanwhile, enthusiasts for the idea of Anglo-America as the home of the white race make it plain that the old dispensation suited them better. You might think there is no space here for compromise.
But in our renegotiations of race, there are in fact compromises available. White people are entitled to ask that they not be assumed to be bigots or blamed for the racism of other whites. They can choose to distance themselves from the privileges of whiteness by refusing them when they see them – and by learning to see them more often. Black people can recognise that, since the system of racial identities is made by all of us, it’s absurd to blame individual white people for the privileges they experience. Privilege is not something an individual is guilty of. But, when it’s unjust, it is something you ought to help undo. And in that process you’ll discover that our identities can only become more livable for everyone if we work on the task of reshaping them together.
So, too, when Caitlyn Jenner offered to “go with ‘asexual’ for now”, she was recognising that to get to where she wanted to go, she might have to compromise with others. It may not have been the best offer to make, but she was right to see that she had to start the bidding. Let’s see what we can negotiate tomorrow.
• Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity is published by Profile. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Woodward and Bernstein: Watergate echoes loud in Donald Trump era
Veteran journalists may have thought their biggest story was behind them, then Trump came along. ‘This is worse than Watergate’, says Bernstein
by David Smith in Washington @smithinamerica
Carl Bernstein received an email from Bob Woodward the other day. “Can you believe this?” it read, “44 years!”
It was a reference to President Richard Nixon’s resignation on 8 August 1974, following years of dogged reporting by the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein into the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
The most famous double act in journalism were in their early 30s at the time and, like the Beatles when they broke up, could have been forgiven for assuming that the biggest story of their career was behind them. But then along came Donald Trump with Watergate echoes too loud to ignore. “Woodstein”, as the affectionate compound noun has them, are elder statesmen now but the hunger is still there.
Woodward’s upcoming book, Fear: Trump in the White House, shot to number one on Amazon.com within a day of its announcement. It is expected to be the most authoritative account yet of the first 18 months of the administration.
Bernstein was among three CNN reporters who recently broke the story of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s allegation that the Republican candidate knew in advance of the June 2016 meeting between his son, Don Jr, and Russian representatives.
Bernstein is clearly galvanised by covering a big story again but there is no hint of glee. “I would hardly call covering Trump a joyous experience,” he told the Guardian. “I think that this is a dangerous time for America, that we have a president with no regard for the rule of law or for the truth. I say those things not pejoratively. It’s reportorially established and I think that’s what’s so extraordinary.”
Some parallels with Watergate are inescapable, he said. “Obviously there are similarities, not least of which is part of the story is about undermining the electoral process. You’re also dealing with cover-ups in both instances and special prosecutors.”
But the differences from that era appear more profound to him. Bernstein explained: “This is worse than Watergate in the sense that the system worked in Watergate and it’s not apparent yet that the system is working in the current situation. No president has done anything like Trump to characterise the American press and its exercise of the first amendment as the enemy of the people, a phrase associated with the greatest despots of the 20th century.”
Currently writing a memoir of growing up in the newspaper business from age 16 to 21, Bernstein has seen many presidents come and go but Trump is “sui generis”, he believes. “One might have thought that Richard Nixon was but they’re very different. Even using the word demagogue and saying that the president of the United States is a habitual liar, one would not have said that about Nixon. He lied often to hide his criminality but what sounds pejorative when I’m on the air is reportorially about him being a habitual liar, about what demagoguery is.”
Woodward, 75, and Bernstein, 74, never stopped reporting or writing. Bernstein is a political commentator for CNN whose books include A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Woodward has worked at the Post for nearly half a century and is now associate editor. He has written several bestselling chronicles of presidencies from Nixon to Barack Obama.
Fear: Trump in the White House, out next month, is his 19th book and one of most eagerly awaited. Publisher Simon & Schuster teases that it will show the “harrowing life” of the Trump administration, drawing upon “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, contemporaneous meeting notes, files, documents and personal diaries”.
The title is based on a remark that Trump made to Woodward and another Post reporter in a 2016 interview: “Real power is through respect. Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.”
Former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who in May chaired a panel discussion with Woodward, Bernstein and Trump’s first Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, said: “I think a lot of the old juices are flowing. The experience both of them had with Watergate in many ways has prepared them to deal with the challenges of the Trump administration. They’re now in the same position as they were before as young reporters.”
Yet the political and media environment has changed in unthinkable ways. The Post office where, under swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein hammered out reports on typewriters, and where newspapers ran off underground presses, has been demolished. Now owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Post has moved into hi-tech headquarters geared up for the digital age. From Facebook to Fox News, the media is fragmented and polarised with disputes over what constitutes truth itself.
Panetta said of Woodward and Bernstein: “Their basic expertise was in trying to find the truth but we’re in a time when facts are under attack. They’re dealing with a more challenging world where the mere fact of who they are doesn’t carry the kind of respect it once did.”
In 1974 they co-wrote the book All the President’s Men, which was turned into a Hollywood film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and featuring gloomy car park meetings with the mysterious source “Deep Throat”. It might now be tempting for Trump-weary liberals to fantasise about Woodward and Bernstein reuniting to save the republic again.
Asked if there is any prospect of another collaboration, Bernstein replied: “I wouldn’t rule anything out altogether. There’s certainly no plans but we run things by each other and we counsel each other.”
The men’s professional and personal relationship was said to have become strained for a time in the 1970s but they are otherwise very close. “We talk a couple times a week and have for years and obviously there’s some things we can’t share with each other but we have a pretty good idea. We keep a dialogue going about Trump and the story and the presidency. We’ve been doing this for 45, 46 years.”
And does it trouble Bernstein that, as automatically as Laurel and Hardy or Lennon and McCartney, the duo is commonly referred to as Woodward and Bernstein rather Bernstein and Woodward? “Not in the least,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t think you worry about that sort of thing.”