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Identity Is a Uniform
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Identity Is a Uniform

We are captains of our own souls and we cannot hand the tiller to anyone else.

Harrison Richard Young in 'Saving Private Ryan.' (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Dear Reader (even those of you who can’t keep your fowl in check),

I did a lot of punditry this week and I’m sick of it. So look elsewhere if that’s what you’re in the mood for. 

I cried a bit yesterday, watching some of the coverage of the D-Day commemoration. And then later in the day, I got this text from my wife: “It’s raining so I just listened to the Pointe du Hoc speech. You should too. It will make you cry.” I didn’t listen to it, because I knew she was right.  

Every now and then on The Remnant (or in the G-File for that matter), I’ll mention the final scene in Saving Private Ryan in which an aged James Ryan (Matt Damon) visits the grave of Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and asks his wife, “Tell me I’m a good man.” It’s always hard for me even to mention it, never mind watch it, because I always get choked up (including right now). I’ll admit, I don’t get choked up because it conjures the heroic sacrifice of American troops. It’s the more fundamental yearning of a good man, at the end of his life, wanting to know he was in fact a good man, and pleading with his wife to reassure him that he is. Despite my highly cultivated misanthropy and curmudgeonliness, I’m actually a pretty sentimental guy. And there’s just something about the existential fear of a decent old man worrying that he wasn’t a good man that just wrecks me.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. But I don’t think this feeling is universal, either. 

Yes, I think everybody likes to think they’re good in some basic way. I always point out that very few villains in history decided to be villains. Everyone—from lone serial killers to murderous mobs to Nazis and Hamas—tells themselves stories about how they’re right in their objective wrongness. But any morally and intellectually serious desire to be a good person requires the ability to question the convenient stories we tell ourselves. 

Plus, conscience rightly understood requires some degree of self-doubt. The pang of guilt is like a warning light on your internal dashboard. It can be wrong, but it demands that you run through a checklist just in case. In the Abrahamic faiths, one way to access this checklist is to ask yourself, “What would God say about what I’m doing?” Adam Smith, who was an ethicist more than an economist, invented the idea of an imaginary “impartial spectator” who judges your actions objectively.  I’m sure there are similar mechanisms in other cultures and faiths, but you get the point. Taking a moral inventory of your actions requires the ability to step outside yourself and ask whether you’re just taking the path of greatest convenience, pleasure, or self-interest. We are captains of our own souls, and we cannot hand the tiller to anyone else. 

This is ultimately an individualistic process, but individualism is an often misunderstood and abused concept. No man—or woman—is an island. Ryan sought his wife’s counsel. The impartial spectator may be imaginary, but he is a stand-in for the opinions of others. God, obviously, is an outside authority. But our understanding of what God wants is informed by others. Even Martin Luther, who rebelled against the authority of priests, believed that to understand God’s will you needed to consult the Bible—which was written by men. The Founders were firm believers in individualism, but their idea of a good citizen was deeply informed by objective standards of good conduct. As George Washington put it, “Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.” 

The Romantic cult of individualism, which runs riot like a drunk teenager through our culture, holds that human happiness is a moral duty.  What I mean is that Romantic zeal for personal authenticity—being “true to oneself”—is the highest good. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people abandon any sense of moral duty, but their definitions of moral duty are written to be in perfect accordance with their personal or political passions. Explain to a mob toppling a statue that they are hurting their own cause and they will look at you like you’re a fool or monster. It feels good to smash idols, so smashing idols must be good. When Oliver Stone was asked if he felt the slightest guilt over his many opulent homes and lavish lifestyle—made possible by the very capitalist system he loathes and crusades against—he waved it off. “That’s a Western Christian trip,” he replied dismissively. 

Nor does it mean that the Romantic individual is an individualist, as much as he or she might claim to be. People derive great pleasure and meaning by being part of a group. The crowd in The Life of Brian that screams “Yes we’re all individuals!” doesn’t get the joke. On elite college campuses, there are few tropes more conformist and herdlike than, “You’re not the boss of me!” The people who prattle about “personal truths” and “the personal is political” are as often as not acolytes of groupthink, not independent thought. 

So, what does all this have to do with crying about Private Ryan and D-Day?

There’s been a lot of “greatest generation” talk this week. Longtime readers know I really dislike this stuff. I have bottomless gratitude and admiration for the men who stormed Normandy, or who fought in WWII in other theaters. Collectively—and colloquially —it’s fair to say they were heroes. 

But they were heroes for what they did as individuals. The man who stayed home during World War II—whether he just refused to enlist or avoided the draft, for legitimate reasons or otherwise—can share in American pride and admiration for the sacrifices of others. But he deserves none of the honor and glory. This is true of the 4-F patriot and the able-bodied draft-dodger (perhaps not in equal portion); unless you personally earned the “greatness” label, claiming it simply by dint of your birth year is a kind of demographic stolen valor. The guy who spent D-Day in a drunk tank in Cleveland has no right to say, “How dare you talk to someone from the greatest generation that way?!”

We think of identity politics primarily as a shorthand for race, gender, sex, and—to some extent—religion. And that’s fine in most contexts. But these categories are simply the most obvious forms of identitarianism. Age is a powerful form of identitarianism. AARP fights for senior citizens in much the same way the NAACP fights for African Americans. Young people—or rather a slice of activists who politicize their age—practice identity politics. So do government workers, veterans, academics, journalists, unions, police, and all sorts of groups that organize around their identity. In our polarized political climate, even Republicans and Democrats talk and act like they are a special caste. 

These various groups don’t all operate the same way. They aren’t all equally problematic, or necessarily good or bad. Factions based on economic interests don’t trouble me nearly as much as factions formed around immutable characteristics. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with factions of any kind. Politics is about adjudicating the competing interests of groups. The problem is one of degree. When factions become concretized into a form of self-conception that sees itself as a kind morally superior and privileged caste, it ceases to be simply a faction and becomes a form of identity. The tell is when the group stops making arguments based on facts or concrete interests and starts making arguments based on the self-asserted authority of their identity itself. This usually comes with emotional appeals about collective grievance. Young people are particularly prone to this. They often believe that just because they are young they have some special moral status and insight. “In America,” Oscar Wilde observed, “the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience.”

In a way, identity is a means of outsourcing yourself to a group. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic 20 years ago, identity should not “be mistaken for individuality.” He went on: 

Individuality is ancient, identity is modern. In his last essay, in 1938, Marcel Mauss observed: “It is plain that there has never existed a human being who has not been aware, not only of his body, but also at the same time of his individuality, both spiritual and physical.” It is more plausible to think of identity as the solution to the problem of individuality.

I disagree with Wieseltier when he says identity is modern. Though the concept is modern, the phenomenon is ancient—even older than individualism in some ways. The coalition instinct is part of our programming. Yes, every human has always had a sense of self. But primitive humans surely saw themselves as a kind of organic extension of the tribe or platoon. The other was the enemy. Countless premodern groups saw themselves as “the people” and everyone else as an “other.” Members of “us” had rights and privileges, members of them were threats or instruments of our will.  Indeed, throughout history, different groups—praetorians, janissaries, Mandarins, Bolsheviks, et al.—coalesced into in-groups seeking special power and privilege free from legal or moral constraint.

The problem of individuality is that it is hard; the seduction of identity is that it is easy. Identity is a uniform you can put on that gives you permission to march to the beat of someone else’s drum. Individualism, rightly understood, requires work. It demands running through that checklist when your internal warning light goes on. Identity is a way to bypass that warning light. “What is expected of my group? I’ll just do that.”  

“It is never long,” Wiseltier writes, “before identity is reduced to loyalty.” 

For the identitarian, the black individual who defies the orthodoxy is a “race traitor” because racial identity is supposed to do your thinking for you. Max Eastman once observed that Hegelianism “is like a mental disease, you cannot know what it is until you get it, and then you can’t know because you’ve got it.” Identitarianism works the same way. Just as you outsource your individuality to the demands of the group identity, you blind yourself to the individuality of others. The ghoulish hunt for “Zionists” sees them like game pieces on a chessboard: Some may be worth more when you take them off the board, but they’re all worth removing from the game. 

One of the reasons Friedrich Hayek despised the concept of “social justice” is that it’s a species of identitarian thinking. Social justice looks at society and sees groups demanding collective justice. Some classes of people deserve—regardless of the individual actions of its members—reward or punishment based upon their status. The social justice he was arguing with was a species of socialist thinking. But, again, socialism is shot through with identitarian thinking. For Marx, workers, not the meek, would inherit the earth on account of the righteousness of their class. “Class consciousness” is the economic-materialist version of “racial consciousness.” It’s not an accident that identitarian and Marxist thought are so complementary; it’s the same form of categorical thinking. 

For Hayek, though, justice has no meaning above the level of the individual. Membership in a group confers no claims to “justice”—only specific wrongs done by specific people can demand justice. The tribal logic of identitarianism asserts a transitive property to injustice: Your ancestors did X to my ancestors, so you owe me compensation. Or, a member of your group did Y to a member of my group, so we should be able to do likewise to your group. 

Maybe, so. If you want to, do likewise to the person who did Y. But punishing an innocent person for the deeds of someone else isn’t justice—it’s the tribal morality of prison gangs, the mafia, lynch mobs, and Hamas. No one believes that a criminal defendant should be sentenced to prison because he’s a member of the same group— demographic, racial, political, whatever—as the person who actually committed the crime. We are responsible for our actions and our actions alone.

Saying justice is individual and not collective is a way of saying that morality itself is individual.

When the aged James Ryan looks back on his life, desperate to conclude that he was a good man, deserving in some small way for the sacrifices of other good men, he must look back on the things he did. Or, to put it in explicitly Christian terms, when the guy who spent D-Day in the drunk tank appears before the Pearly Gates, he won’t get past St. Peter by yelling at him like he’s a surly bouncer. “Hey man, I’m part of the greatest generation. You gotta let me in.”

Various & Sundry

Canine update: This is a unique canine update, because for the first time since Zoë and Pippa have entered our lives, I’ve been home alone without them for an extended period of time. Earlier this week, the Fair Jessica took the Sprinter on a “girls” trip with the beasts. She’s been touring around New York, New Hampshire, and now Pennsylvania. It sounds like they’ve had an amazing time, and I am jealous. Reports and pictures have been skimpier than I would like. But apparently, they split most lunches three ways and share in the nightly provisions equitably. Zoë is starting to show her age, so she’s not treating this as the primordial safari she would have when she was younger. Don’t get me wrong, she hasn’t completely shirked her responsibilities. No deer or wolverines have been permitted inside their evening perimeters. But she hasn’t gone off into the woods like Daryl from The Walking Dead to return with a collection of pelts and varmint heads, either. However, I think squirrel and groundhog parents still tell their offspring, “Be good or Zoë will get you” when they tuck them in at night. Pippa has done a lot of swimming (thank goodness the Sprinter has an external shower). Meanwhile, their absence from my life has felt a bit like an amputation. In the Goldberg division of domestic labor, I emphatically get off easy (as TFJ will tell you). But, barring illness or my birthday,  I have done the morning walk every single day of the week for 10 years when I’m home. They are the punctuation of my daily sentences. In the evenings, I still get up to feed them, only to realize it’s just me and Gracie. Now, speaking of Gracie, I must report that she is loving having the house—and me—to herself. She’s becoming even more entitled to attention, and without the Dingo to interrupt her, I spend hours rubbing her belly and scratching her head while nostalgically posting archival and greatest hits videos and pictures of the dogs. And yes, I am taking up TFJ’s “responsibilities” with regard to Chester. I miss all my girls, on two legs and four. 


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.