The nature of identity is an ancient question—one that has become harder to answer in the modern age, even as it has become more central to our debates and disagreements. The opposing forces of centralization and decentralization in how we define ourselves are paralyzing civic engagement and threatening our future. If we are to do anything about it, we must understand how we got here. Our continued freedom depends on maintaining connections not only with our families, friends, and each other, but also with the past.
The quest to understand and name oneself—particularly in relation to others—is most certainly not a new phenomenon. The second book of Homer’s Iliad, for instance, gives a listing of the thousand ships of the Greek fleet, identifying them by the names and—most importantly—the genealogies of their captains. Likewise, the Gospel of Matthew begins with the ancestry of Jesus. In the ancient world, identity was immutable. To challenge or deny one’s inherited identity—as Odysseus did after blinding the cyclops when he gave his name as “Οὖτις,” which is Greek for “nobody”—was to invoke divine retribution and misery.
In many cultures, common last names are patronyms. Anderson is the son of Andrew. O’Brian is of the descendants of Brian Boru. MacDonald is the son of Donald. In Russian, the patronymic is maintained for each new generation. Some Spanish last names go even further, combining multiple generations of both the mother and father’s lineage. Every person is begotten of a mother and a father, so it is only natural that our names should reflect the reality of our origin. If you expected to be taken seriously as a person of any importance, the further back you could recite your family history, the better. One of my classmates in high school could recite his family names back at least twenty generations. In classical times, this would be the mark of a king.
As literacy has spread and records have become more universal, compiling such exhaustive genealogies has become open to all. My grandfather has spent his life collecting newspaper clippings of obituaries, old photographs, letters, and copies of government records, and visiting gravesites. He has traced our family history back to seventeenth-century Germany, but there the trail runs cold. In the chaos and destruction of the Second World War, many parish records were lost. In a similar way, hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, and Maria have not only taken many lives, but have also taken a piece of people’s identity. Irreplaceable family Bibles and photo albums have been washed away in the storm and flood, and time will do the rest to bury the memory of long-deceased ancestors. However, natural disasters and the catastrophes of war are not the only threat to identity.
Today Credit Scores, Not Ancestry, Determine Our Fate
Today, the loss of ancestral knowledge is no longer a handicap to rising to a position of influence in society. The sexual revolution, battles over LGBT rights, and the increasing use of third-party reproduction increasingly distance us from the biological roots of our identity.
Divorce and remarriage were once unusual but are now commonplace. Further attenuating the ties of ancestry, courts have decided that birth certificates must now display the names not of a child’s biological parents but of whoever wishes to be legally recognized as the parent. In the past, our names were generally transmitted along with our genes; future genealogists will now find many more dead ends. “Blended families” are increasingly normal, with complicated lines of consanguinity to match. It is perfectly legal for a woman to become the surrogate mother of a child who will be legally recognized as her nephew.
Yet, even as our culture has embraced radical individualism, the government, banks, employers, schools, and many other corporate entities are not so flexible. In the founding era, before industrialization and centralization of power shaped our society, a man like Alexander Hamilton could step off a ship in New York harbor as a complete unknown and make a name for himself by relying only on his personal brilliance and natural talents. This idealistic state of affairs could not last. Faced with increasingly mobile populations, nineteenth-century governments began to require much more detailed forms of identification. These have expanded exponentially and now form a web of information on every man, woman, and child.
This is especially true in terms of our finances. Since the 1940s, it has been practically impossible to buy a house with cash up front. At least as far back as the 1960s, median new home prices have continued to be many times the average annual income. In the most populous parts of the country, the ratio of home prices to income is even more outrageous. This is to say nothing of the enormous chasm of consumer debt that keeps our economy puttering along. With all this debt comes an increasing reliance on credit reports, background checks, tax records, and a plethora of other disclosures and permissions to scrutinize your life. A thoroughbred racehorse receives less attention in the paddock before running the Kentucky Derby than does the average American before buying a home. The Equifax breach, which compromised the Social Security numbers of over 140 million citizens, is a natural consequence of this centralization of information.
As we have become divorced from our ancestral roots and more free to define our public identity, hidden actors we will never meet are entrusted with keeping our files in order. If they make a mistake, you might end up on a terrorist watch-list, have your car repossessed, or suddenly find yourself in a living hell of FBI surveillance, anonymous threats, and constant harassment. Like a real-world Kafka novel, there will be very little you can do about it.
Technology and Trust
As we have come to rely on others to verify the identities of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and colleagues, we have lost a sense of evaluating character. To avoid being defrauded, banks do not trust the person sitting in front of them but unthinkingly follow what is on a piece of paper or a computer screen. To avoid being attacked or robbed, we do not trust the hitchhiker on the corner, but we give our Social Security number to virtually anyone who asks for it.
Despite all the evidence, we trust those we do not know with every minute detail of our lives, but our trust is so diluted that it becomes worthless. Indeed, the government and the banks and all our ruling elites have demonstrated time and again that they are thoroughly unworthy of our trust. Contra Hillary Clinton’s bizarre assertion in her recent autobiography, the lesson of the book 1984 is not that we should trust government officials.
Ted Cruz hadn’t been in the news much until a pornographic link on his Twitter account suddenly called into question his entire public persona as an opponent of smut and licentiousness. It seems reasonable enough to believe that this was the action of a staffer as the senator claims, but how can we ever really know? Ultimately, we can only take him at his word. We have developed vast technological infrastructure that is supposed to provide us with assurances about a person’s identity, but what is really true is much harder to find amid the profusion of the useless, the incomprehensible, the trivial, and the downright false mess of information that is now instantly available.
Kellyanne Conway was ridiculed for the phrase “alternative facts,” but in truth this is the very essence of the spirit of our age. Alexis de Tocqueville prophetically predicted the rise of this excessive and irrational individualism in his magnum opus: “not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”
The opposing forces of centralized government identity-recording and decentralized personal freedom in identity-making go to the heart of the most bitter political disputes of our time. Identity politics have become rampant not only on the Left but increasingly among the fascist and white nationalist Alt-Right. Disaffected Millennials seek a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, but when identity is no longer grounded in ancestry, place, and tradition.
In short, when identity is no longer defined by tangible and physical reality, it becomes subsumed by ideology. Now blood has been shed in Berkeley and Charlottesville as these different ideologies have come into conflict. It is no accident that these liberal college towns where safe spaces reign were the first to see political disputes burst into raw violence.
The situation on college campuses today takes exactly the wrong lessons from history and from Orwell’s dystopia. Closing off public debate only drives dissenting views further into the anonymous realm of the internet, where they fester and boil in silent anger. From there, technology gives us the easy ability to block those with whom we disagree—that is, when our technology elites don’t do the blocking for us. Twitter, for example, blocks pro-life advertisements and is now fully censoring Russian media outlets.
Instead of the rough-and-tumble of an engaged and active citizenry, we are moving toward the solitude that Tocqueville warned about. Far from trusting our fellow man, we are shutting ourselves off completely to nurse our grievances, phobias, and antisocial behaviors in isolation. When we are thus atomized and insulated, it becomes all too easy for the government and large businesses to manipulate our emotions and opinions, sapping our ability to translate ideas into action.
If we are to restore peace to our society and ensure the freedom of future generations, we must regain the social structures and institutions that define identity, starting with the intrinsic dignity of the human person. We are more than our driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, and credit cards. We are more than our social media accounts, clever hashtags, and the number of likes we get on pictures of our pets. If our republic is to survive, we must relearn to trust one another as fellow citizens instead of as servants of the state. But in order to trust one another, we must first know who we are.
The ancients understood identity as a continuity with the past. As the union of both body and soul, we inherit obvious physical traits from our parents through biological processes, but we also inherit a whole host of intangible qualities in the course of our upbringing. The family is on the precipice between isolation on the one hand and centralization on the other. As we grow, we form new connections, both neurological and social, that structure and inform who we will be and how we view the world. Without a common basis for social interactions and institutions, we cannot disagree in good faith, much less form a consensus for the greater good. Our continuation as a free people depends on a stable foundation of family, faith, and tradition.