Who told you that you could define and express an identity?: Spengler

What do progressives really think about the human condition? The most important social statement promulgated by an American government in my lifetime, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision in Obergefell, begins: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” There is something Orwellian in this pop-Existentialist bromide. I will argue that freedom is impossible within the parameters set forth in the Obergefell decision, and that the achievement of human freedom requires precisely the opposite of what the majority prescribed.

If the Supreme Court had argued that homosexuality was a physical phenomenon on a par with skin pigmentation, for example, the Obergefell ruling would have had at least the virtue of consistency. If the Supreme Court can strike down laws that prohibit interracial marriages because they prejudice individuals with one sort of gene, perhaps it can strike down laws that prohibit homosexual marriages because they prejudice individuals with a different sort of gene. But that is not what Justice Kennedy did. He argued on behalf of the right to define and express an identity.

Whether the American Founders imagined such a right is a matter of contention. A more interesting question is this: How is it possible for people to define an identity, let alone to express it? Even if we have the “liberty” to do so, what gives us the power?

The question is pertinent, for the progressives have spent centuries constructing an intellectual apparatus that excludes the possibility of human freedom in the first place. By and large they have succeeded. Most educated people believe that scientists will make machines think the way that humans do, which means that human thought is a physical process. They believe that brain science one day will give an adequate accounting for human consciousness. They believe that our consciousness is the result of random genetic mutations over millions of years. They believe that endocrinologists and surgeons can take a person of one gender and make a person of the other gender. They believe that human behavior is socially determined, and can be altered by changing social circumstances. In short, they believe in man-as-machine (or in machine-as-man, which amounts to the same thing).

There is nothing particularly scientific about such beliefs, to be sure; on the contrary, they are untenable in the face of everything science has accomplished in the past century. The idea that we can equate brainwave patterns with human consciousness seems whimsical after quantum mechanics showed us that we do not quite know what waves and particles are in the first place. The notion that scientists can elicit sentience from silicon seems odd after Kurt Gödel proved that the truth of a mathematical system cannot be found without human intuition. Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy and Gödel’s Incompleteness put the old determinism in its grave, but it still rises up and walks abroad at night and sucks out our brain fluid. The theory of natural selection through random mutation cannot explain why evolution often occurs many times faster than randomness would predict—and often not at all.

Nonetheless such beliefs are held among our educated caste and honored in the popular culture. Such is the narcissism of the determinists, who laugh at the idea that there is a God in heaven, but believe with the fervor of fanatics that they themselves are little gods on earth. The old “scientific socialism” with its drab uniformity and brutal conformism was horrible, but it at least had the virtue of consistency: the suppression of individuality in favor of the collective made “man-as-machine” into a social principle. Not so our modern progressives, who believe that man-as-machine has the freedom to define and express an identity. Man may be alone in an absurd universe, as the French existentialists kindly informed us, and life ultimately may have no meaning, but in the meantime we can play at any sort of game we like.

As scientific determinism gained credence late in the 19th century, rebels like Friedrich Nietzsche warned that if there is no God, and man is the mere object of nature, then life is no inherent value, and can be made tolerable only by absurd, arbitrary “life-affirming” acts of will. Nietzsche had the good sense to ridicule the pretensions of the determinists. His idiot great-grand-children are simply indifferent to the crashing contradiction between the two great premises of their thinking.

Are the determinists correct to believe that free will is an illusion brought on by random brain-wave fluctuations, or are the voluntarists correct to believe that we really do have free will? To paraphrase a number of Soviet-era jokes about Radio Armenia, the dialectical solution is: Some people have free will and others don’t.

The arbitrary assertion of random impulses is not quite the same as freedom. I can assert my ability to fly and leap out of window on the 20th floor, but my supposed freedom will last only for a few seconds. I can assert my independence from respiration and stop breathing, or assert my ability to photosynthesize sugars and stop eating. Or a society can assert its freedom to eschew sexual activity that leads to reproduction of the human race, in which case said society will collapse in a couple of generations. There are fewer than 1.5 children born to European and Japanese women (and presently only 1.6 children in Iran). Below we see the Elder Dependent Ratio (the number of people aged 65+ divided by the number of people aged 15-64). Around mid-century it will stand around 50% for Europe, Japan, and also Iran, meaning that every two people of working age will have a pensioner to support.


This is not a hypothetical matter. The first great power in which homosexuality was the norm was Sparta, and Sparta is also the first power to fail because it ran out of people. Today, most of the wealthy nations are making a “free” choice to cease to exist.  Belgium now euthanizes perfectly healthy young people simply because they do not like living, so one might call this a freedom of sorts. It is hardly the freedom to which most people aspire.

Traditional society, to be sure, produced lots of children, unless war, famine and disease prevented them from doing so. That was not freedom, either: agricultural societies require children as laborers and to care for the elderly. People in traditional society simply do without reflection what generations before have done. Most people who leave traditional society choose to live in such a way that leads to the demise of their society, such that their freedom is ephemeral, to say the least. Oswald Spengler anticipated this in his Decline of the West (1918): ‘The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of ‘mutual understanding.’’’

By a simple objective criterion—the fact that hitting the ground restricts your freedom to jump out of windows—the notion that we have the freedom to define and express our identity is a dicey one. But there is an even more fundamental objection. If we cannot create anything truly new or different, than our “freedom” comes down to an arbitrary choice among a limited number of existing models—rather like the choice of body offered to adolescents in the “Twilight Zone” episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” There is an extensive literature to explain why all hipsters look, dress and act the same, just as all beatniks looked the same in the 1950s. As much as we might wish to choose our identity, the number of available identities is quite limited, despite the 41 genders one might select on Facebook. As Mephistopheles told Faust, you remain what you are, for all the elevator shoes and wigs you might wear.

Is there anything else apart from the coercive socialization of traditional society, and the arbitrary but futile assertion of identity in postmodern culture? One might put the question in a somewhat different way: Can we do anything new and original, or are we condemned to conformity on one hand, and on the other, random and pointless attempts at nonconformity? If we can act only deterministically or arbitrarily, we are not free. Freedom is creativity. Yet very few people appear do anything truly original. Of all the men and women who ever have lived, how many did something that no-one else could have done? A couple of dozen mathematicians, about the same number of physicists, fifteen or so musicians, and twenty philosophers come to mind. If the tally of true originals broke 1,000, I would be surprised.

That is not the only mode of original behavior, though. There is a kind of creativity that is accessible to almost everyone, and that is to bear and raise children. I add the term “bear,” for nothing quite substitutes for the natural bond between parent and child. In traditional society, to be sure, child-rearing required little reflection. Everyone lived the same way, and everyone was socialized in the same way. In the modern world, where individuals have choice, raising children is a different kind of challenge. After two thousand years of exile, Jews have a poignant appreciation of that: We have had to raise our children to live by choice as a minority in societies that often were hostile to us.

Raising children is a creative act, because no two children are alike, and no parent can possibly know what to expect from a new child. Children do not come with an owner’s manual; because they are all different, every parent must learn to parent differently with every child. No-one faces a greater challenge than a parent, or invests more emotional energy in any other field of life. No parent is happier than his or her least happy child, and no parent will feel successful in life in the presence of suffering children. A Beethoven, da Vinci, or Gödel might have better things to do than raise children, but such ethereal minds comprise so small a portion of the world’s people as to make the exceptions practically irrelevant.

Obergefell was a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin of traditional society in America. It is no longer possible to argue that things should be done in a certain way simply because that is the way they are done. We no longer can speak of a traditional family, except when we use the term “traditional” to refer to a faith community established by choice. Two approaches to the pursuit of happiness now contend: the “define-and-express identity” doctrine of arbitrary choice, and the exercise of human creativity in the lives of nuclear families.

It is far from clear which will succeed. Few of us are qualified to “define and express” our own identities, and when we attempt to do so, we simply make ourselves miserable. The victory of progressive thinking after Obergefell will be Pyrrhic, although its ultimate failure might take the form of depopulation and ruin. People of faith no longer can count on public institutions to designate their view of the world as normal, and that poses a challenge to parents who must explain to their children why things everywhere are not as they are in families of faith. Those who deplore the Obergefell decision and gay marriage in general now have the opportunity to exercise freedom: to pursue a different and presumably better sort of life that exemplifies creative freedom, and sets an example in to a culture intent on making itself miserable.


Most individuals have the opportunity to be creative in their capacity as parents. But families live in communities, and the relationship between family members is mirrored in broader society–whether in the form of a covenant of love and mutual obligation as in Judaism and Christianity, or in hierarchical obligations as in East Asia. That is true in Islam as well, where the paterfamilias has the legal status of the governor of a province and thus has the right to inflict violence on his wife. The character of the family and the character of society are inseparable. Destroy the family and society is atomized; destroy society and the family is reduced to a tidepool struggling to survive in a hostile environment. In a society that fosters creative freedom, the humblest, childless individual can contribute to the freedom of the community. Americans who reject the oxymoronic blend of compulsion and caprice that now has been enshrined in law by the Supreme Court face a long and exhausting swim against the current.

Categories: AT Top Writers, David P. Goldman, Spengler

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  • Vikas Sharma

    You almost always touch my heart,god bless you.May nature continue to nurture jewish traditions of intellect which ferment our thinking with yeast of reason.

  • bluedog

    Is US judicial activism the cause of extremely low turn-outs in US Presidential elections? After all, if the judges are elected and if they overturn the will of the Congress, why bother voting for a Congressperson.

  • Jose Jalapeño

    Spengler you also should have mentioned that our moral debacle makes us the laughing stock of the world. Some guy in the Chicago Herald said it greatly: “Sotomayor and Kagan are no Bork”

  • Rob Naardin

    Maybe if we suck on Yahweh’s left nut a little bit harder and ignore the incompetent, psychopath’s; buttf’ing Uncle Sam who pay you to write this crap…

  • Peaceful Janice

    Nice try Mr Goldman but scientifically inept even if you try to invoke quantum mechanics. Neurology can make the case without divine help from elsewhere. So – wrong arguments, but I do appreciate the sentiment in this case. I don’t like it either, but for different reasons.

  • Richard Cattermoul

    The planet is populated by 2 types of human beings – those who have to work for a living, and those who don’t. The financial independence afforded by retirement from working provides the vehicle for making one’s dreams come true, so long as you are still fit and healthy.

    Try living in an African country like Ghana for example, where people are poor but there is an abundance of young, black, beautiful women just aching for a white man to rescue them from poverty and they will take care of your every need, and you don’t have to settle for just one beauty. I personally like to play classical music as well as bring some money into the community and being generous when appropriate.

    Where I live, I am the only white man in the entire town, and that brings with it certain ‘privileges’ like discovering you do have free will after all, and where you can ‘choose’ to believe in God if you so desire. With cash points and Moneygram, you never go short of cash, and the supermarkets provide the food you like if you don’t like fu-fu or banku.

    The article talks about society, but the trick is to discover what we as individuals want out of life, that we are actually part of a human race and NOT of some country or nation state. When you realise that and don’t have to work for a living, anything becomes possible

  • Richard Cattermoul

    I would agree that it’s a beautifully written article, The only problem I have is if someone asked me what he was writing about, I would not have a clue, and after reading it, am sorry to say I cannot remember one single phrase that made any real sense. Perhaps you could clarify? Perhaps you could summarise the main ‘thrust’ of his dissertation?

  • Richard Cattermoul

    Perhaps you could be a little more explicit in what has riled you?

  • Richard Cattermoul

    I am even more confused now. The article is entitled ‘who told you that you could define and express an identity?

    So, who told me that I could define and express an identity? Does the article reveal the answer? My identity comes from deep within me, an inner child if you will that reveaed himself to me during 3 weeks of intensive primal therapy in Santa Monica, California 18 months ago, a child who was sobbing and demanding recognition of his sadness and anger. He and I finally connected after 69 years of pain, misery and suffering, and now I have discovered where my true self lies. It’s in a community of poor people, and where i can be treated like a king.

  • Richard Cattermoul

    Try life in Ghana, or Ethiopia for that matter where I am told the women are even more beautiful and alluring. We forget what we came into this world for, by the time we are old enough to figure it out, our sensibilities have been hijacked by the needs of ‘society’ and we become slaves to the work ethic and the responsibilties foisted on us by parenthood. Hollywood movies pigeonhole us into a view of life that is devoid of passion and creativity, but sees ‘hockey’ mums’ as the standard by which all right minded women should live their lives, and everyone believes in God as the right and proper belief system to uphold.

    The population of the USA is a mere 319 million in a global population of over 7 billion, so the vast majority of humans do not constitute the ‘us’ that you appear to so proudly belong to. In fact, USA is not the laughing stock of the world, and every time I visit, I am also pleased to be in that great nation. You need to stop associating yourself with US foreign policy and follow Britain’s lead which is to spend less on defense and concentrate more on matters at home.

    USA has approximately 6,300 nuclear weapons, Russia 8,000, UK a paltry 225. The remainder have even fewer. CIA tells us there are 267 world entities, so the other 257 don’t possess nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Time we joined them.

  • Richard Cattermoul

    May I point out this is Asia Times and not an offshoot of USA Today. Who gives a fuck for US presidential elections? I think it is more important to know that Russia and China recently signed 30 year deals for Russia to supply China with gas, that Putin signed deals with many latin American countries before watching Germany win the last world cup final, and when he got back to the Kremlin he must have said to himself: ‘Hmmm, what shall I do next, oh I know I’ll blow up a civilian aircraft in Ukraine, and I just hope Fox news blames me 10 minutes after they get news of it. And that’s just what happened.

    It’s good to know there is now an alternative to the IMF, the bank that the BRICS countries have created mainly China, and that Britain is taking great note of China when the House of Lords had a day long debate and not long after, David Cameron visited that country with beneficial outcomes.

    UK identity is gradually changing because powers are being devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in a way that is unprecedented, and they are even debating English laws for England, a total waste of parliamentary time in my view.

    But the Tories are a cunning bunch because they could well award themsevels massive pay rises and then stick 2 fingers up at the other MPs and say ‘sorry guys, but you are not part of the English judicial system cos it is still our Inland Revenue and not yours.

  • Vikas Sharma

    The Gist is – our identity is being true to our roots and traditions by which we are bound to our forefathers and the link is through our family.

  • bluedog

    Umm, right.

  • Ulysses S Grant

    Articles like this are why you are my favorite writer. G-d bless you sir, and well done.

  • StronzoBestiale

    The bit about science

    “There is nothing particularly scientific about such beliefs, to be sure; on the contrary, they are untenable in the face of everything science has accomplished in the past century. The idea that we can equate brainwave patterns with human consciousness seems whimsical after quantum mechanics showed us that we do not quite know what waves and particles are in the first place. The notion that scientists can elicit sentience from silicon seems odd after Kurt Gödel proved that the truth of a mathematical system cannot be found without human intuition. Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy and Gödel’s Incompleteness put the old determinism in its grave, but it still rises up and walks abroad at night and sucks out our brain fluid. The theory of natural selection through random mutation cannot explain why evolution often occurs many times faster than randomness would predict—and often not at all.”

    is not even wrong.

  • Richard Cattermoul

    You may be right Vikas, but whether or not you actually gleaned that from the article is open to question.

    He asks ‘how is it possible for people to define an identity. Right from the word go, Man was shamed from being his natural self with the imposition of restrictive rules of sex and nudity, and being forced to wear clothes – or as Goldman says, an intellectual apparatus was constructed that excluded the possibility of human freedom (right from the word Go)

    Goldman goes on to talk about ‘the suppression of individuality in favor of the collective made “man-as-machine” into a social principle’ and I wrote elsewhere that discovering our own individuality lies at the heart of establishing one’s identity.

    He reminds us that the French existentialists warn us that life may ultimately have no meaning, but for life to have meaning, the individual must be able to feel it, which is difficult since the human race tends to spend much of its time, energy and resources on needless killing, maiming, slaughtering and destroying lives.

    And Goldmann is dead right about Soviet-era jokes – some people have free will, others don’t.

    He rightly says ‘freedom is creativity, yet few people appear to do anything truly original. By and large, the world is full of sports spectators and music listeners.

    Finally, he gets on to parenthood, but Richard Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’ takes care of that. If there is one thing shared by pretty much every single species of life on this planet, it’s the ‘special’ bond between parent and offspring,

    That bond, moreover, is an essential ingredient of the nature of life which is to sustain and preserve. Without it, life for children would indeed be miserable, so in the attainment of personal identity, this does not count, unless we are adopted, we cannot not be raised by the people who spawned us.

    However, the principle of love is at the heart of human endeavour. We may raise our own children, but eventually they grow up and we are left alone. In many African countries, fathers have to work away from home so the children grow up without them, so you see groups of women huddled together preparing food for their children, but no men in evidence.

    Once, I attended a birthday party in which 50 kids showed up. No fathers, I was the only man in attendance, not even the child’s father.

    Back to his essay, and Goldman then kind of ruins everything by talking about parenthood from the Jewish perspective, as if 2.000 years of exile have miraculously awakened them to the requirements of parenthood, or that they are the only race capable of rearing children correctly.

    His paragraph beginning ‘raising children is a creative act. Well duh! Like he’s only just realised that loving children is kind of key to a good outcome. Nowhere is the Jewish attitude towards child rearing more exposed than in Hollywood movies directed by Jewish directors.

    He goes on ‘Few of us are qualified to “define and express” our own identities, and when we attempt to do so, we simply make ourselves miserable’

    What on earth does he mean by this? I have spent my whole life trying to discover my own identity, and 18 months ago I did finally manage it through primal therapy. It is not the journey that makes us miserable Mr Goldman, it’s the crap we have had to carry around with us since we were young and vulnerable to unfeeling parents who were oblivious to the misery they caused.

    The malaise, however, is one of feeling, not intellect.

    To summarise, Goldman does espouse the significance of parenthood, but almost as an aside, as if creativity is the key when it is loving our children that is crucial and making them feel glad they are alive.

    But he then says ‘the relationship between family members is mirrored in broader society’ but I can’t help thinking of all those black kids who have been gunned down by cops in USA cities, so how and where does Goldman think that family life is mirrored in broader society?

  • Vikas Sharma

    You are right,this article rambled off and it was left to the reader to glean the gist.Freedom should be pegged at bondage(s) which hold families and societies together otherwise we lose ourselves and are left to self indulge at the cost of our relationships.This is an elliptical process with the focus being
    our perception of self identity.

  • Vikas Sharma

    I forgot to add that creativity is unbridled and not bound by any ties to
    oneself,family,society but is accountable to the common good,if not,to the times to come

  • northernobserver

    How many kids you got?

  • mijikai

    “the right to inflict violence on his wife”

    Goldman appears fine with that arrangement so long as the passel-full of brats are ensured.