A moral crisis tends to go hand in hand with an identity crisis. It’s when you don’t know who you are that you’re most likely to take refuge in a political or ethical identity that provides you with the comfort of a false sense of superiority. When all other identities fall apart, you can always rely on being the better man, the better nation and the empty space with the moral high ground.
Societies that go multicultural tend to experience identity drift and take refuge in a self-definition based on values. Who are Americans? As generations of presidents on the left and right have told us, they are people who believe in American values. What are American values? They’re the values that Americans are told they need to believe in, in order to be Americans. Like tolerance, immigration, free trade, and respecting the right of anyone to be a member of the Communist Party or the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a time of crisis, nations and peoples have to choose to survive. But what is survival? Proponents of a values-based identity have argued that survival means the survival of our values. If we take Measure X against an enemy, whether it’s outlawing the Communist Party or waterboarding Islamic terrorists, then we have “killed our values” and we are no longer Americans. It doesn’t matter then whether an act saves millions of American lives, if it means we destroy our values, then we have killed the only worthwhile thing about us.
Physical identity and values-based identity are in conflict in a time of crisis when the question is asked, do we want to survive or do we want to be morally pure. A values-based identity appears to be superior, but it is actually the product of an identity crisis. And a nation or a people with an identity crisis is vulnerable because they no longer know who they are. Their identity has been replaced with an identity based on their superior values, values that require them to die rather than give up those values. And if they have forgotten who they are, then they are too afraid to risk their values-based identity by fighting back.
The problem is not a unique one. For example, Jewish assimilation dropped the ‘peoplehood’ aspect leaving behind a values-based identity. When liberal Jews express their identity, it is values-based, built around “Tikkun Olam”, or “Social Justice”. That opens up a hole for someone like Peter Beinart to crawl in with a crisis of Liberal Zionism, a conflict between values-based identity and Jewish survival.
Would you rather live as Jews or die as liberals? The determining factor here is whether you have a Jewish identity. Without a Jewish identity, there is only the posturing of values-based identity, and giving up the high “ethics” of bending over backward for the bad guys seems a lot like the death of the only identity such miserable people have. If all that matters about Jews is their “ethical values”, then to step down from the moral high ground by bombing a terrorist stronghold is suicide.
The first question is; “Who are you?” That’s a question that is asked to individuals and to nations. It’s asked directly in the form of a national dialogue, and it’s asked indirectly in the choices that are made in a time of crisis.
The second question is; “What do you live for?” The answer to this question is determined by the first question. What we live for derives from who we are. Self-knowledge gives purpose, and purpose gives self-knowledge. A lack of identity is also a lack of purpose. And a lack of purpose betrays a lack of identity. A nation adrift has lost its identity; it lacks direction because it has no starting point.
A thing that does not exist for its own sake has no existence. It has no existence, because it is not survival-based. It is well and good to dedicate yourself to higher causes and beliefs, but if they do not begin with your own existence, then they have no more substance than you do. You can volunteer for a thousand causes, but if you don’t care whether you live or die– then you have nothing to contribute to them.