“Destroy this Mad Brute.”
It’s one of the most iconic images in the history of U.S. propaganda. The “Hun” (a term that is itself a misappropriated racial slur) is a savage ape, wearing the Kaiser’s mustache and a German military helmet. He’s carrying a half-naked Lady Liberty in one arm while wielding the bloodied club of German “Kultur” in the other.
I stood looking at the image in the World War I exhibit at the Library of Congress. While I had seen it many times before, I hadn’t for a long time, not once during the past 18 months of on again/off again research I had been doing.
My grandfather was one of those “Huns,” something that never really registered before. By the time this poster was hanging in U.S. Post Offices, he had been drafted into the Kaiser’s Army, spent over a year in combat in disease-infested trenches, survived one of the bloodiest days of the war (and history) by saving many other men, and saw most of his unit wiped out and replaced with even younger recruits.
But he was a brutish Hun.
“What state are you from?” said a friendly voice from behind me.
I turned and saw a staff member with a name tag and a clipboard. It was dark in the exhibition area, and I couldn’t read her name. I froze for a second. I was confused. Disoriented. What state am I from? I’m not from any state. What does that have to do with anything?
My wife and I had split up that morning. She went to the Museum of Natural History and I came here, to the Library of Congress, alone. Books and research and writing are my things, not hers. Normally I would have loved to visit the museum with her, but time was limited.
The Library of Congress was one of the places I most looked forward to seeing during our visit to the capital. As a lifelong wannabe writer, I love libraries, and this year the world’s largest library has a World War I exhibition in recognition of the Great War’s centennial. I was there to see this exhibit and then the European Reading Room.
So we went our separate ways in front of the Smithsonian and I trudged over to the Library of Congress on my own. The walk was longer than I expected, and the temperature rose steadily as I walked. I was already tired and maybe a little cranky when I entered the World War I exhibit.
“Um. New Jersey?” I managed to stutter.
The staff member pointed to the display case on my left, where there was a list of states and how many men had fought in the war from each. I was mildly surprised to see that New Jersey was in the top ten until I remembered what U.S. population distribution looked like in the nineteen-teens.
I explained that a hundred years ago none of my family was in the U.S. yet, let alone in New Jersey. I briefly explained why I was there and what I was looking for.
I was probably a little abrupt. I wasn’t rude, but it occurs to me now that she probably would have liked to talk to me more.
When I stood in front of that poster my identity was not a tourist from New Jersey. I was the son of immigrants from Germany. I was the grandson of a German veteran of the Great War. I was a writer researching that same war.
The question “What state are you from?” had nothing to do with my identity.
“Identity Politics” is something that conservatives accuse liberals of using. Issues regarding gender, sexual preference, immigration, etc. are something that is the Left uses to divide us, and the Left’s reliance on them has created a backlash.
The idea that people can approach politics while ignoring their identity—who they think they are—is ridiculous. Politics is the process we use to get what we want from the government, and who we are is what determines what we want. Even if you want nothing from the government, that is your identity.
Of course, identity can become what one is not. It can be turned into a battle against the other, whether the other is the one who is accused of trying to take something away or of keeping everything for themselves.
The story that made me think about this is pretty trivial. While I often find myself struggling with my identity as an American, something that ironically, stems more from my time in the U.S. Army than anything else, it’s a struggle that doesn’t cost me anything. No one is trying to take anything away from me because of who I am.
It would be easy for me to dismiss “identity politics,” but only because I have one of the better identities one can have.