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Identity politics and the retreat from reason

Afua Hirsch’s new book confirms that the narcissism of the new elites is undermining the Enlightenment.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books Culture Identity Politics UK

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One of the weirdest things about identitarian activists is that they hate being asked where they’re from but they love telling you where they’re from. Politely inquire about their ethnic or cultural origins and they’ll damn you as a racist. ‘How dare you, I’m as British as you!’, they’ll yell, either to your face or in a column in the Guardian in which they’ll document at great, yawn-inducing length the horror of having some dim pleb ask about their family origins.

Then, in the next breath, before you’ve even had a chance to splutter your apology, they’ll tell you their entire ancestral history. You’ll know where their great grandmother was born, the exact quantity of melanin grandad had in his skin, which maternal haplogroup they belong to, as revealed by 23andMe. Just don’t say ‘Oh, that’s where you’re from’, because they’ll call you racist again.

This political schizophrenia of taking offence at the question ‘Where are you from?’ while simultaneously feeling a burning urge to tell the entire world where you are from was best captured in the Ngozi Fulani controversy. You remember Ms Fulani: she’s the black charity worker from Hackney in London whose ‘racist’ run-in with long-serving royal aide Lady Susan Hussey hit the headlines last year. Lady Hussey’s crime? At a Buckingham Palace do, she asked Ms Fulani where she is from. Call the cops! What a bigoted old bat.

Not so fast. Ms Fulani was adorned in African threads at the palace. She frequently decks herself out in the Pan-African colours and Africa-shaped earrings. To constantly suggest to the world that you are from somewhere else and then reach for the smelling salts when someone asks ‘Where, exactly?’ is a bit much, no?

Now, in literary form, Afua Hirsch has done the same thing. Ms Hirsch is an author, broadcaster and writer for the Guardian. Her first book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, was all about the horror, the sheer indignity, of ‘The Question’. The question, of course, is ‘Where are you from?’. I am asked this ‘every single day, often multiple times’, said Hirsch. Really? Where’s she hanging out? It feels like a ‘daily ritual of unsettling’, she wrote. Oh, please. If I penned a sad book every time someone asked me, on account of my very un-British name, ‘What part of Ireland are you from?’, or ‘Where were your parents born?’, I’d be the most prolific author in Christendom.

Now, we have Ms Hirsch’s second book, Decolonising My Body. And you’ll never believe it: it is an eye-wateringly detailed answer to… The Question! Here’s my question: if Hirsch hates being asked where she is from, why has she written a whole tome on where she is ‘from’?

I now know more about Ms Hirsch’s ethnic and cultural origins than I do about my own. To her credit, she admits that this is because she comes from a staggeringly privileged background. I ‘know quite a lot about my ancestors’ and ‘there’s a privilege attached to this’, she says. Her African ancestors were not the ‘enslaved’, but rather were ‘antecedents about whom written records were kept’. Fancy. As someone who knows next to nothing about his colonised forebears – largely thanks to the Potato Famine of the 1840s and the catastrophic fire at the Public Records Office in Dublin in 1922 – I confess to feeling envy while reading Ms Hirsch’s comprehensive tale of her origins. How the other half live, eh?

When I say her new book is detailed, I mean it is detailed. In her first book, she told us off for being nosey about her family origins; in her new book, she’s telling us about the time she got her butthole lasered. She finds herself in ‘the undignified position of spreading my butt cheeks under the chill of a laser clinician’s hosepipe-like nozzle, as atoms are excised, electrons rise and fall, and light beams are making their way into my crack’. The whole thing cost her £1,000. They must be paying well at the Guardian if contributors can splash out a grand on having their anal fluff zapped.

Surely we need to talk about how easily the identitarian elites can shift from exasperation at being asked ‘Where are you from?’ to absolute blaséness about telling the world what their ringpieces look like. Don’t you dare ask where my family is from but please listen to me describe the hair follicles on my arsehole. Excuse me, what?

As its title suggests, Hirsch’s book is a somewhat narcissistic endeavour. It’s all about her body. More specifically, it’s about how empire and colonialism interrupted the mystical traditions through which Hirsch’s African ancestors marked and celebrated their bodies – with tribal tattoos, menstrual festivals and whatnot – and how Hirsch now wants to rediscover all that stuff.

She says she wants to ‘decolonise’ her body of its ‘Western’ expectations – thinness, hairlessness, white-defined attractiveness – and let it become more African. Imagine how time-rich, and literally rich, you would need to be to spend so much energy obsessing over your own flesh and skin. To publish a book about decolonising the body of a privately educated Guardianista while everyone else is wondering if they have enough cash to keep the lights on speaks to the pathological self-regard of the new elites. In this era of economic, military and moral crises, Hirsch is going to have to work a lot harder to convince me that the fact that her period ‘still often takes me by surprise’ is something we need to know.

Hirsch’s argument is that she has been violently ripped from the ‘magical’ traditions of her African history by colonialism and capitalism. So where her historical forebears held menstruation ceremonies and celebrated women for having hairy legs and insisted upon the tattooing of female flesh, our new era heaps shame on women for bleeding, discourages female hair growth, and idolises ‘pure’ over ‘marked’ flesh. None of this is quite right though, is it? Period chatter is everywhere these days. You can’t so much as click on Instagram without seeing some feted female influencer showing off hair-covered shins that would make Peter Sellers wonder if he should reach for some Veet. As for tats – not having a tattoo is the great shame in the 21st-century West. What, you haven’t had a tribal slogan pasted on your pasty flesh by a needle-wielder in Camden? What’s wrong with you?

And yet our body-decolonising Ms Hirsch perseveres, regardless. To counter the evil West’s disdain for old African tribes’ celebration of menstruation, she takes her poor daughter to a tribal period shindig in south London. They have to traverse the South Circular, ‘one of the most congested roads not just in London, but in the world’, and Hirsch, under instruction from the London-based tribal priestess, must wear all-white clothing, which in this case means a ‘floor-length summer robe, made from soft sheets of cotton’. Still, at least it connects Hirsch to her tribal lineage, even if her daughter, by Hirsch’s own admission, would rather be anywhere else.

Hirsch’s favourite word is ‘conditioning’. She thinks women like her – women of non-British origins – have been ‘conditioned’ to discard the tribal rituals their elders engaged in. Perhaps. Or perhaps black women and all women in London in 2023 would just rather buy some tampons for their pubescent daughters than subject them to an old-world menstrual ritual in a posh garden in south London. Who can tell?

Hirsch says ‘the forces of globalisation’ lead to a situation where ‘people like me’ – people of colour – have been ‘conditioned’ to behave and think in a particular way. That is, in a Western way. There’s a darkly ironic twist here. Hirsch’s obsession with the idea of ‘conditioning’ means she ends up viewing African-origin people in a similar way to how old colonialists viewed them – as vacant-brained entities swayed this way and that by the messaging of their superiors under capitalism. It smells like neo-colonialism disguised as anti-colonialism.

Hirsch thinks that even she – an expensively educated, successful writer – has been ‘conditioned’. She wonders if her submission to laser hair-removal is a craven acceptance of Western culture’s white-supremacist loathing of female hair. ‘Why do I keep on coming back’, she wonders, ‘to uncomfortable and expensive appointments, just to squash the capillaries which nature, in its wisdom, wanted us to have in our nether regions’? Again with the nether regions. She ends up staring at her vagina and reminiscing about her lost hair. She beholds the ‘pathetic little tuft of hair clinging to my bikini area, with a forlorn sense of having banished something that may have loved me’. I cannot imagine ever having a deep thought about my pubes – is that only me?

Who is responsible for the fact that even Hirsch, with all her education, has done things to her body that she later thinks she shouldn’t have done? It’s Charles Darwin. It’s always Charles Darwin. On the thousands of pounds she’s spent on ‘pink-packaged razors’ and ‘painful, expensive waxing’, Hirsch says, ‘The person I do blame… is Charles Darwin’. You might think of Darwin as the most important scientific figure of the period of Enlightenment, the brilliant man who revealed to us the truth of both nature and humanity, but to Ms Hirsch he’s the bloke whose ‘paradigm-shifting work on evolution’ led to the inexorable destruction of ‘attitudes to body hair [that] were as diverse as the cultures [they were] rooted in’.

In short, Darwin’s exploration of the origins of species, of the origins of man, helped to nurture a colonial discomfort with tribal culture. Imagine witnessing the epoch-shaping discoveries of a man like Darwin and thinking: ‘He’s the reason I feel compelled to get my butthole lasered.’ The narcissism of it, the anti-Enlightenment of it.

Anti-Enlightenment is the right phrase for where Hirsch ends up. Throughout the book she dabbles not only with tribal cultures – which, in my view, declined and fell for good reason – but also with astrology and even witchcraft. She quotes authors who bemoan the disdaining by ‘intelligent persons’ of ‘witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophecies, ghosts and fairies’. It falls to her sensible-sounding parents to keep a check on her descent into pre-modern hysteria. Her father, the esteemed geophysicist Peter Hirsch, responds to her pleas that a planetary ‘conjunction’ in the sky must be a sign that she should change her life by saying: ‘It’s just from our arbitrary viewpoint that the planets appear close together… It doesn’t mean anything deeper.’ Yes, dad!

Her mum is even better. Asked by Afua why women of African origin don’t wear ‘waist beads’ anymore, her mum essentially says: ‘Because we have nice knickers now.’ Hirsch discovers, alongside the wonder of menstrual rituals and tribal tats, that wearing beads across one’s belly is a great African way to demonstrate a) that you are fertile and b) you have a chunky ass. Why don’t you wear them, she asks her Ghanaian-British mum? To which comes the glorious reply: ‘As soon as we heard about Marks & Spencer’s underwear, we stopped wearing beads…’ Exactly. All those desperately poor African ladies who hold up their sanitary / undergarment equipment with beads around their bellies would love a pair of comfy high-street knickers, even if wealthy writers like Afua Hirsch frown upon such basic desires. Give me good underwear over tribal realness any day of the week.

Fundamentally, this is a daft book. It bemoans Western capitalism while singing the praises of billionaires like Oprah Winfrey and Rihanna. (And the people, black and white, whose labour is exploited by Oprah’s media machine and Rihanna’s make-up machine? Shush! Don’t mention them.) It attacks cultural appropriation while telling the tale of this hyper-privileged Londoner who gets ‘adorned’ in the fashions of ancient Africans.

I hate to be the one to ask this, but how is it any different for a privately educated woman of colour from Wimbledon to experiment in the cultures and jewelleries of African nations than it is for a right-on white ‘appropriator’ to do the same? It would be like me donning the animal skins my ancestors wore as they searched high and low for grub in the wilds of pre-modern Ireland. ‘Wanker’ would be the cry of friends and family if I were to put on the rough uniform of my tragic, regressive forebears.

Hirsch’s retreat from modernity into the witchy traditions of old is some rich lady shit. Anyone who can traipse through London to attend menstrual rituals and traverse Africa to examine beads and pants is clearly someone with too much time on their hands. And that’s the rub. Identity politics is a fundamentally privileged pursuit. Indeed, it is the means through which the well-off launder their class privilege and turn it into oppression. There is nothing in Ms Hirsch’s plush, lovely life that can be described as oppression – apart from being asked The Question, of course… – and so she plunders ancient communities for little pieces of victimhood she might claim as her own. And thus is her cultural power in the here and now fortified, with more of that hottest currency of all: ethnic suffering.

Hirsch’s book confirms that the new elites have retreated from reason, fleeing from Enlightenment into the tattooed arms of fashionable tribalism. ‘Educated people, and people like me, [were] brought up to learn about, understand and respect science’, she writes, but now many of us are ‘following our curiosity’ and embracing ‘systems of ancestral knowledge’. Yes you are. From ‘decolonise the curriculum’ to the upper-middle-class fads for everything from African jewellery to Tibetan spiritualism, the right-on and rich are turning their backs on modernity and its gains and knowledge. Knock yourselves out. The rest of us, however, who have no cultural clout to gain from dabbling in magic and other ancient bullshit, prefer science, civilisation and comfortable undergarments.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Books Culture Identity Politics UK

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