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The danger of identity politics

THERE'S something poetic or unnerving, or both, about the fact that Barack Obama has secured the Democratic presidential nomination in the same week that we're remembering Robert F. Kennedy.

THERE'S something poetic or unnerving, or both, about the fact that Barack Obama has secured the Democratic presidential nomination in the same week that we're remembering Robert F. Kennedy.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of RFK's assassination. Hillary Clinton took an absurd amount of flak for mentioning him and the month of June in one breath, but I'm doing it because I believe Bobby still rocks, maybe more than ever. I was born after he died. Yet my generation has something timely, even urgent, to learn from his advice to the world's youth.

On June 6, 1966, exactly two years before his murder, Kennedy visited the University of Capetown. Without losing sight of South African apartheid or U.S. segregation, he adopted a different focus.

Kennedy extolled the "common qualities of conscience and indignation" in students. The 40-year-old New York senator anointed youth "the only true international community." But his message that day was not merely about the virtue of sticking together for social justice. Almost presciently, he challenged the tribal politics of race, gender and sexual orientation so fashionable on campuses today.

Out of Kennedy's soaring rhetoric about solidarity came this dare: Risk backlash from your own for the sake of a greater good. It's a 21st-century dare because our multicultural era often reduces the individual to an unsolicited mascot of this or that group. The result is conformity on various fronts.

You're a liberal, or a conservative. You swallow the dogma of your ethnic, religious and professional clan, or you've sold out. While many of us hunger to defy orthodoxy, only a handful of us give ourselves permission.

Kennedy didn't sanitize the reality. In his Capetown speech, he acknowledged that "few men brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society." Those who do are agents of "moral courage."

We're not talking run-of-the-mill gutsiness. "Moral courage," Kennedy observed, "is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence."

After all, really speaking truth to power frequently requires standing up to your own. This is always more intimidating than pointing fingers at the faceless, unfamiliar enemies on the outside. Indicting outsiders comes with the affirmation that you belong to a circle of insiders. But when you expose injustice within, the security blanket of instant belonging disappears. Then what?

Kennedy's appeal for moral courage illuminates one of the most vexing leadership questions of our time: How do we transform our culture of polarization into one of genuine pluralism? How can individuals develop their unique voices and expand diversity, rather than cave to groupthink and fundamentalism?

For clues, Kennedy could have invoked his contemporary, Martin Luther King. As an agent of moral courage, King confronted the peddlers of insularity within his tribe of religious progressives.

Eight liberal clerics in Alabama alluded to King as an "outsider" whose street marches fomented extremism. Because he took the fight for equality beyond the courts, they accused him of undermining a "constructive and realistic approach to racial problems." The title of their statement: "A Call to Unity."

King cleverly distinguished between unity and uniformity. In his now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, addressed to "Fellow Clergymen," the civil-rights icon wrote: "I must confess I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension but there is a type of constructive, non-violent tension which is necessary for growth."

He was referring not to personal growth, of course, but to that of wider society. If this greater good emerged at the expense of solidarity within the movement, so be it. Like Kennedy, King believed that Americans could do better and be better than many of their religious mentors gave them credit for. So, breaking ranks became an act of faith in community, not a repudiation of it.

Therein lies a tough but relevant lesson for my generation. As we struggle to transcend the us-vs.-them politics that force us into tidy and artificial camps, let's remember Bobby Kennedy's concept of moral courage. It teaches us that when we exercise our authentic voices, we're liberating possibilities that would otherwise be lost to self-censorship. *

Irshad Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University and author of "The Trouble with Islam Today."