Saturday, December 13, 2008


All this recent talk about unity and "the people" has got me to thinking about identities, and I figured it was time to ask a few questions. I'll start with the basics:

Who are you?

For that matter, who am I?

~~ "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth." --Alan W. Watts ~~

Well, I like to believe that I know who I am-- and I imagine you also think you know who you are. I truly hope we're right. It would not be a good thing to go around thinking we know who we are and being wrong about it. So, if I'm me and you're you... how did we get to be me and you? Do we find our identity, or do we make our identity? Where the heck does this thing come from-- and does it ever change?

Well, it does appear that seemingly key parts of my identity have changed. For example, as a child and into early adulthood, I used to think I was a democrat. I grew up surrounded by them, and it was simply the thing to be. It was a big part of my identity-- even though I knew virtually nothing whatsoever about what it really meant, since I received only the sales version of what democrats stand for. I didn't know that being a democrat means supporting abortion and a decaying social/family values system and a weakened military. All of these things are pure anathema to everything I and my family-- the very people who support the democrat party-- believe in. Quite curious, no?

Not really. Those things were not a part of the "old school" democrat party that my family and I associated ourselves with. The very identity of the party has changed-- swinging so far left that someone objectively on the outside can see it as plain as day. Some people on the inside, though, have not yet awoken to the reality that the party's identity no longer reflects their own.

If a political party can change its identity, then it stands to reason that individual people can, as well... right? This would seem to indicate that an identity is malleable and prone to whatever forces might come along to shape it. Running with this supposition for a moment, let's discuss some potential ways an identity might be forged and/or changed.

Is it my occupation that makes me who I am? I suppose it could be satisfying to build my identity based upon a noble profession. Still... what if my employment was just something I did to make money and it held no personal power inside my heart and soul? I suppose, for now, we'll settle for saying that what I do can contribute to who I am without absolutely defining who I am.

Is it, then, what I do for enjoyment that makes me who I am? This is a bit harder for me to pin down, since I have-- as do many people-- several divergent interests that I find pleasant. Maybe I'll settle again and say that what I like to do also contributes to who I am.

How about the people with whom I choose to associate-- do they add to my identity? There is a very old adage about being known by the company we keep. So, at least what some others might think of my identity seems to be tied to the people around me. Does that penetrate inside me and actually affect my real identity? As before, I will, for now, put this in the column of contributing to who I am.

~~ "Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it." --David Quammen ~~

Upon further review, the above settlements are somehow less than satisfying to me. Something keeps nagging at my brain... suggesting that maybe-- just maybe-- I do what I do, and like who I like, not to contribute to who I am, but because of who I am. So, maybe I am drawn to things because of an already established identity?

Hmmm... okay, let's look at that. On the surface, it suggests a bit of pre-destination, does it not? I became a Marine because of who I am (a healthy male seeking to be among the best-- and a glutton for pain). I like playing football because of who I am (a healthy, competitive male who finds sports fun and rewarding). I like to read and write poetry because of who I am (an unapologetic lover of words and Lord Byron fanatic). Etcetera.

Yes, it makes some sense that there is a magnetic attraction between me and the things and people that I have a proclivity for; and my identity is the reason for it.

Well, I think we are now getting somewhere. With apologies to Popeye: I am who I am. Then it just becomes a matter of going around looking for the things I want to do and the people with whom I want to do them, and I'm living my identity. Problem solved.

~~ "First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do." --Epictetus ~~

Oh, damn. Wait a minute.

What if I find a magnetic attraction to something or someone that is not really good or right? Should I just do it anyway, because that is who I am? Or, should I resist doing it because it's not good or right? Well, if I do that, then I'm not being who I am, am I?

Or... is who I am something larger than what I have a magnetic attraction to-- with those attractions being things for me to consider on a case by case basis? In other words, if I surrender to iniquitous lodestones, then I am a person who surrenders to iniquitous lodestones. If I resist them (or try to resist them), then I am a person who does (or tries to do) what is right, thereby trying to forge my identity in the fires of personal discipline.

It is a given that all people have certain attractions that they should probably try to resist for the good of the self-- if not for the good of others. So that may be defined more as a trait of humanity, rather than an aspect of personal identity. The key to it would then be how the individual handles the attractions, n'cest pas? A major key to strengthening and maintaining my identity is always examining the attractions and my response to them. This makes it a matter of consistently judging myself-- which is no easy task, but a very worthy one.

The aforementioned democrat party is a very good example for us here. Many (many) democrats are normal, decent people who think of themselves as... well, good and decent people. Many (many, many) of these democrats have in the past few decades become former-democrats, because they found themselves faced with the tough identity questions. They saw their party become a place where magnetic attractions are never to be questioned... where no personal choice should ever be condemned... where individual rights are to be sacrificed for the rights of "the people." They saw these things and they measured them against their own identity... and they bailed out of that ship that was sailing with no moral rudder.

Pressing on here, we move to the next logical part of the identity discussion: self versus group identity. Must my identity in a society be like a snowflake when it lands in the drift, or a drop of water when it meets an ocean? Do I retain my identity if I surrender to the group identity? Can I ever be truly free without a free identity? Okay, that was too many questions in a row.

Let's deal with the last question-- being free-- since it encompasses and transcends the others. I submit that real freedom absolutely requires an individual identity. The notion of a collective identity that reigns supreme is patently insulting (and frightening) to anyone who holds dear their own personal identity. Those former democrats mentioned above are key in this aspect of the discussion, since their personal identity apparently won out over the group identity.

The political season we just survived is a macrocosm of this concept. We saw massive groups of people, on both political sides, attempting to display their identity to anyone watching. To someone observing the rallies and speeches-- the big exhibitions of group enthusiasm and the emotional power displayed at them-- it would appear that Americans on both sides were only too willing to join a group identity. To a point, that idea is correct; but if you drill a bit deeper into the core of it, you will see a difference.

In this election, I saw two kinds of people in these groups. For one kind, the rallying group gives them an identity. For the other, it was a celebration of a party that allows them to have their own identity. Which is better? I suppose some people need a collective to solidify their identity... but I much prefer to be patriotic because my rare and special country allows me to be me.

I think it is empirically obvious that Conservatives-- for the most part-- flocked to Sarah Palin rallies, not because they needed her to fill in some blank in their identity; but because she represented their already established (and cherished) identity. They were seeking a candidate that was going to fight for their right to retain their individual rights and identities. They wanted leaders who seek a bigger pie for everyone, rather than leaders who demand some give up their pie so others can have more.

Conversely, those at a typical Obama concert were there to feel like a part of "Change," and to feel the "Hope" that was sweeping the nation. Exactly what Change were they all Hoping for? Don't bother asking. If you get an answer at all, it will be a different one from every person. One thing is certain, they did not want to be bothered by the details of the various magnetic attractions their messiah was unable to resist. Unlike the former democrats, the true Obamatons were enthusiastic about submerging their individual selves in the murky waters of the collective identity.

~~ "Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices." --Benjamin Franklin ~~

Too often, people look to others to find themselves. The phenomenon that was the Obama campaign was perfectly illustrative of this point. The candidate himself said that "...I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." I'm not so sure about the "vastly different political stripes" part of that quote, but the rest of it is spot on.

Americans can be as guilty as anyone of using a charismatic demagogue (a brilliant expression borrowed from the great Mark Levin) to give their empty lives meaning-- and there are few greater charismatic demagogues than President-Elect Obama. What exactly does he offer them, with respect to their identity? I'm really not sure, but it appears to be a simple case of "he's great and I support him, thus, I'm great, too."

Perhaps it's just like the sports-fan phenomenon, wherein a person gets a real and provable improvement in mood and self-esteem when his team wins. "They're champions, so I feel like a champion." Pretty normal, right? For sports-fans, I would say yes, quite normal. It is worth noting, however, that for most fans, it's at best a satisfying, but temporary, escape. Most don't carry it too far by developing the bulk of their personal identity from a group of strangers playing ball. So the sports analogy only goes so far.

The real test of an identity is how it stands up to a powerful populist assault that can tear through a population like the most virulent plague. Several previous generations of Americans were tested by this as we are being tested now. Their results were mixed, but generally show that the idea of the American as an individual is quite powerful and not easily defeated. That is not to say that some Americans have not had their identities usurped-- or even destroyed-- by collectivism. In fact, the opposite is blatantly obvious to anyone who lived through this past election.

Even with many Obama voters, though, there was a sense of denial that individual identities were being sacrificed. You could see that they knew intrinsically that giving up their values and identity to the collective was wrong. So even Americans who were voting for Obama, and thus against American principles, somehow knew it was wrong. These Obamatons who were still struggling mightily to retain some vestige of personal identity would find cold solace in saying things like, "oh, he didn't really want to kill babies who survived botched abortions," or "oh, he didn't really know how bad all those people he associated with were," or "oh, he's not going to attack the 2nd Amendment," or "oh, he is actually going to give almost everyone a tax cut."

This is the denial that spells the beginning of the end for their individual identities-- and the saddest part is that the people surrendering themselves to the collective are, somewhere inside of themselves, aware of how bad that really is, but too weak to fight it. It seems that perhaps the greatest of all magnetic attractions one should fight against is the one that seeks to pull the individual into the collective.

As our previous, only slightly sarcastic, "Unity" discussion showed, the founding of America is based on the individual. The individual identity fed the individual purpose, which combined-- without melding-- with others to build all the great institutions of our nation. Our Founders knew that the only way to truly unleash the power inside humanity was to appeal to the individual. Only when we act in our own self-interest do we retain the full power of our own identity-- which is the power that brings out our very best talents and efforts.

Take a military example, which I can relate closely with. Does a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine risk his life for the concept of some collective utopia? Well, I can honestly say I never have or would. No, it is the individual who makes the sacrifice-- for the sake of the individual. I believe that our designer hard-wired into us a strong propensity for self-interest and survival, and as Americans, we deeply cherish that. This leads to the altruism-- the empathy and charity-- necessary to say that we will fight for not only our own individual rights and interest, but for those of our fellows, as well. Once you fully understand how valuable an individual right is, you are far more likely to defend it for any one person's sake.

So, is it a paradox to say that our national identity should be one of individual identity? If it is, then it is a beautiful and deeply satisfying paradox; and one I am happy to embrace and share with all the enthusiasm, and none of the vacuousness, of a typical Obamaton.

Well, it is becoming clear that this question of identity is not so complicated, after all. Going back to my original question, then: who am I?

I am an individual who believes in the simple but profoundly meaningful formula that states that no collective right holds any validity whatsoever, so long as it infringes on any individual right.

I am an individual who will gladly and enthusiastically join a group of like-minded individuals to accomplish any task that makes life better for me and for others, without taking away from anyone's personal freedom.

I am an individual who thinks personal identity is worth working hard on, and worth fighting for.

I am an individual who wants to be who I think I should be, and I am willing to judge myself and act accordingly-- even in the face of repeated personal failures.

Finally, I am an American who will always want what is best for me and my family, because I know that is ultimately what is best for my country.

Now, then, who are you?


web counter
web counter