David Barton says to read a book… 01

Captivity and identity: Ishmael comments


Some years ago I bought my son a dog, a big black chow, whose name I want to share right now because that is what you put at the end of the sentence where you introduce something. Nonetheless, when I purchased the dog I intentionally decided not to name her so that my son could have the pleasure of naming her himself. However, I got the dog about two weeks before he, Toby was to arrive in Montana. It is remarkably difficult not to assign a name to any animal. Of course we’re probably worse at that than many because our family names our cars names our bikes, names for lots of things. We are a very anthropomorphic family. Although not the point of this particular paper, I will tell you that he named the pup, Pip.
I just started the book, Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. So far it deals extensively with the concepts of identity and captivity. Identity is an important idea. We are a species that names things. At many levels we can’t not name things because our ability to conceive and think is tied so closely to our language. Language of course is naming. Naming is identifying.

We have identities as individuals: I am Kevin. We have identity as families: We are the Kvalvik’s. We have identity as a culture: we are Americans. We have lots of tribalism beneath that level though. And the concept of tribe is the concept of identity. But tribes can be loosely identified, like say redheads. Or tribes can be tightly identified like, say, Mormons. And we can shift between tribes, wherein we may love Porsches through our 20s, and migrate to some other affection and club in our 30s and 40s. All this to say that identity is a very complicated, shifting concept.

Another concept that might seem unrelated is called American exceptionalism. This is a fascinating turn of phrase that references a self assigned national privilege. That while we recognize many countries have many strengths and weaknesses. America doesn’t fall into the same grading system as everyone else. While it’s “all good and well for other countries to abide by certain rules, we are America, doggone it and we are not going to be shown how to do things by other countries.”

Yet if our identity is tied wholly to being American, or Baptist, or as an educator, or a man (as opposed to woman), or Republican, or what have you; rather than adding to one’s identity it seems that it actually lessens it. It forces one to be drawn with a broader brush. The more labels that one can assign to themselves. Or to which they may be assigned, the less specific and truly idiosyncratic an individual will tend to be, well maybe not “be” but seem to be. Is it possible that as we age we don’t seem more cartoonish or two-dimensional, but rather we become more cartoonish or two-dimensional?

Our identity as Americans, if tied to a series of clichés, does not seem to make us better Americans but rather makes us a parodies of Americans.

Ishmael teaching humans about captivity.

Ishmael teaching humans about captivity.

Identity as described in Quinn’s book, Ishmael, is defined with a passing reference to Nazi Germany. The point he makes, which is made often, is that while the Jews were certainly captives, the general populace was captive. One could not choose to NOT be a good Nazi. To not be a good Nazi or to fight them was to be deceased in amny cases. This is not a license for people to do nothing. But it is important to consider that your actions define your identity and your identity defines the type of captivity you choose, or is chosen for you. You get the idea. So I take from the book so far the illustration that one’s identity rather than describing their likely actions, describes instead their likely obligations. Obligations as captives. In our culture we are obligated to work, obey laws, pay taxes, dress before we go out the door and an almost limitless collection of reasonable to the wholly arbitrary conventions of our time and place within the culture in which we exist.


We are captives. Our freedoms are select, our obligations are as well. We can no more deny our time and place than we can decide to go to work without our pants on, or decide that we want to start putting our trash out in the front lawn.. One might feel that they have these choices, but will be subscribed to the places where our culture assigns those with no sense of cultural obligation: No sense of identity as assigned.

More as I proceed through the text…

kevin kvalvik


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