Is anyone “born” anything, except tabula rasa? Is one “born” a Jew, or a Catholic, or a Muslim, or Buddhist, or even an atheist?
Recently, a writer I esteem for his consistently perspicuous and insightful observations on foreign affairs, domestic policies, and modern culture, writing about being Jewish, made this startling statement:
“Jewish is a group identity. There is no such thing as an individual Jew. No man is an island and certainly no Jew is. Someone who is not part of the Jewish people is not a Jew.”
Yes, being Jewish might be a “group identity.” But Jews are individuals first, Jewish second. People can choose to be part of a “group,” but they’re still individuals making individual choices. An individual has no innate collective identity, unless he chooses one, and then it is not “innate.” There is nothing in any person’s genes or physical makeup that determines the content of his mind. Groups or collectives don’t think. One can choose to join a mob or a political party or a fraternity and the like, but this is making an individual choice. No one is destined to be drawn inexorably or helplessly into an imaginary gestalt, however benign or malevolent it might be.
Regardless of one’s circumstances, the element of volition and choice is ever present in any individual, regardless of the circumstances of his birth. One can be born into a Jewish family, a Muslim family, a Catholic one, even an atheist one, a Zulu tribe, and so on, and be raised in strict accordance with the dogma or tenets, traditions, or beliefs shared by that group. At any point in one’s life, one still has the capability of questioning whether what one is taught is true or false. If one has the courage, or the curiosity, one can step outside of one’s “group,” and observe it from the outside. Groups are not necessarily unbreakable chains or boast of “force fields” that prevent one from leaving them.
Tabula rasa, a Roman Latin term for “clean slate,” is an all- important ingredient in this issue. One can write one’s own slate, or let others write it. One can form one’s own independent mind, or allow others to determine what is in it and therefore make one dependent. It’s that simple.
Claiming that one is born anything but tabula rasa is to utter a fallacy, to make oneself a prisoner of circumstances and irrelevancies.
The same truth applies to race. One’s skin color or facial features do not determine the content of one’s mind, no more than do one’s limbs or body weight. Claiming that one has been born “black” or Hispanic or Chinese, and so is unable to change how one thinks, is to surrender to determinism, to accept a fate worse than death, which is to say that one is the helpless pawn of forces beyond one’s control. Then, if one commits a crime – or achieves an admirable value or accomplishes a rational success – one can indulge in the double-edged luxury of claiming: I couldn’t help it, I’m black (or white, or Asian). This is robbing Peter – you – to pay tribute to a tribe of anonymous, undifferentiated Pauls, who had nothing to do with your crime or your achievement, and who may even claim it. You steal from yourself to give to strangers. Group think is altruist. You sacrifice your own identity and pride to and for the group.
Communists can change their minds (even if they were born as “red diaper babies”), and become neoconservatives, vociferously excoriating Communism but not enthralled with capitalism, or are inarticulate in stating what they are for. Christians can convert to Islam, or to Buddhism, or become Moonies, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons – or vice versa – or become founding members of the Front for Free Range Poultry committed to acts of terror on Tyson and Perdue chicken farms, or even join an actual domestic terrorist group.
Children raised in strict or lax religious households can abandon religion all together or switch to another, more earnest-sounding creed. Children born into a family of Progressives or Democrats or Republicans can, when their store of knowledge is sufficient, switch politics and become opponents of their parents’ political beliefs and convictions. Children’s minds are subjected to or immersed in the practice and doctrine of a creed, and really have no means to defend themselves. So they may simply grow to adulthood not questioning anything. They will think: I must be a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim, because no man is an island, I must have been born a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a black, and so I am but a cipher of that group. I cannot take credit or be indicted, one way or another.
That way he can convince himself there is no other alternative, and can consciously or unconsciously disavow responsibility for his own actions or the criminal actions committed by members of his “group.”
But, regardless of the rationality or irrationality of the creed or of one’s choice, choosing to remain “Jewish” or “Christian” is an act of volition.
One can choose not to choose. This is the most serious, damning, and perilous condition. It, too, is an act of volition. This is the more common decision most men make when it comes to politics or a system of ethics or a morality. For one reason or another, it is an act of mental stagnation, of not wanting to bother to think, of being comfortable in a state of mental arrest. Such men are satisfied with the inert, unchallenged contents of their minds, letting the slate written by others remain uncorrected. The basic reasons for refusing to think are either fear or being content with being a mental dullard. Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher, called this “second-handedness.”
When an individual will question his “received wisdom” depends on his courage and determination to know the truth for better or for worse, and having had developed a disposition to investigate other answers to “life’s questions.” Again, it is a matter of choosing to think. Some people don’t begin to question what they believe until some stage or point in their adulthood. Others begin in their teens or early adulthood. Very few individuals are willing to perform a volte-face in their premises and world views once they have reached or passed the age of fifty. They become dependent on a lifelong store of knowledge which they cannot validate or be certain is true or not. They become defensive when it is questioned and hostile to anyone who seems to contradict it or who seems to be a reproach to their life-long held values.
Habits are not necessarily a bad thing. Choosing to think is a good habit. Choosing not to think, as John Galt, the philosopher-inventor in Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, said to the world, is tantamount to the notion of Original Sin.
Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment—on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict “It is.” Non-thinking is an act of annihilation, a wish to negate existence, an attempt to wipe out reality. But existence exists; reality is not to be wiped out, it will merely wipe out the wiper. By refusing to say “It is,” you are refusing to say “I am.” By suspending your judgment, you are negating your person.
The negation can be compartmentalized. An individual can be rational “to a fault” in his career and elsewhere in his life, but still claim that he is either an inseparable member of his group (a race or a religion or a political cause), or even a superb example of his group. (See my column, “The Origins of Modern Black Collectivism” for W.E.B. Du Bois’s early promulgating the notion of a black “Talented Tenth” who would lead, presumably, the “Untalented Ninety Percent,” of blacks out of poverty and discrimination by that other enemy group, whites.)
Groups can be persecuted (as Jews have been for millennia), or Christians slaughtered (as they are now in the Mideast). Centuries ago Catholic France persecuted French Protestants. The Cambodian intelligentsia was sent to the “killing fields” by another group, Pol Pot’s Communists. Stalin, a Georgian Russian, targeted the relatively prosperous Kulaks in Russia for extermination. Instances of one group destroying or persecuting another are legion in human history. The most notorious one in the present, targeted for death, submission, or slavery, are non-Muslim “infidels,” regardless of their race, color, gender, or creed (e.g., Sunni Muslims are battling Shi’ite Muslims, the one group regarding the other as heretical “infidels”).
Groups do exist, but they must be defined by a common thread or denominator of choices made by those who elect – or by default or without thought – to “belong” to them, and by what things are chosen by those who wish to “belong” to any specific group. Hassidic Jews are a distinct group of Jews. The Mennonites differ from the Amish. Catholics who prefer masses said in Latin disparage Catholics who prefer masses said in English. The differences between groups are endless. But what members of these groups all have in common is that it is a consequence of individual volition and choice (but not necessarily of thought).
I might, as Rand did herself, call myself a radical for capitalism. But that is a conscious choice. I was not born tabula rasa except that laissez-faire was already written on it. That never happened. It wasn’t in my genes or in my race, I wasn’t fated to become one. After years of observing men’s behavior in politics and economics and social relationships, I wrote that myself.