03 August 2008

Considering Identity

After finishing Natan Sharansky’s Defending Identity, I am reminded just how powerful and important identity is to not only the individual, but also the community – and ultimately the nation-state.

Mr. Sharansky’s main point, which he backs up with personal experiences that few can (or would want to) match, is that freedom and identity are necessarily intertwined. Freedom needs identity – something meaningful to live for beyond the self as well as something to connect past, present, and future for the individual. For a nation-state to practice freedom, the populace needs to have and be allowed to express individual identity while respecting the logical limits of individual liberty. A democracy which tries to extinguish identity is essentially denying its own reason for existence. Identities which try to extinguish freedom are authoritarian or totalitarian.

In a modern, domestic context, the book explains why I am so put off by Senator Obama’s claim in Germany that he was speaking as a “citizen of the world”. The nebulous identity of “world citizen” has no meaning, no defendable history, nothing tangible behind it. As I’ve written before, Sen. Obama’s choice to elevate “world citizenship” above US citizenship debases those of us who take great pride in the fact that we are Americans (not to mention other state and local identifications).

As we consider the upcoming election, Mr. Sharansky’s book is instructive in that, as we hear cries on “unity” and “world citizenship”, it reminds us that our identities cannot be imposed from on high or nebulous. They must be examined, explored, and expressed. Any government that attempts to impose or extinguish identity does so at the peril of its people. Mr. Sharansky would also argue that a government who does this ultimately puts itself in danger.

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