Identity as Indispensable for Democracy

By Barnidge, Robert P | Jewish Political Studies Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Identity as Indispensable for Democracy


Barnidge, Robert P, Jewish Political Studies Review


Identity as Indispensable for Democracy Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Natan Sharansky, PublicAffairs, 2008, 259 pp.

Reviewed by Robert P. Bamidge, Jr.

Few people are able to bring the experience of Natan Sharansky to the ongoing debates about how democracies can best respond to totalitarian ideologies that threaten their existence. Currently chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky spent years in the Soviet Gulag for the strength of his convictions and his stubborn refusal to conform to the dialectical straight] acket of Marxism-Leninism. He has tirelessly upheld the legitimate rights of the Jewish people to self-determination in Israel since his immigration there over two decades ago. His activism, furthermore, has rooted itself in a rare moral clarity. As he put it in his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004), "[m]oral clarity provides us with a place to stand, a reference point from where to leverage our talents, ideas, and energies to create a better world. Without moral clarity, without a reference point, those same talents, ideas, and energies are just as likely to do harm as good."1

Sharansky's newest book, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008), builds upon the themes that he raised in The Case for Democracy.2 In Defending Identity, he argues that democracy and identity mutually reinforce one another and that Western democracies risk ruin if they fail to treasure and justifiably take pride in their unique identities. Identity, for Sharansky, provides the sense of purpose that allows one to overcome odds and live a life rich in meaning. It can be rooted in religious, cultural, or ethnic affiliation and acts as the "magnetic force field in which the energies of the world today are moving. It is a force field little understood in the West, but one that influences and even directs events, from the broadest global and international politics to the most local and immediate situations" (1). Indeed, recognizing the role that identity plays as a lodestar, compelling and repelling action and omission, allows for a richer and more nuanced understanding of international affairs.

Defending Identity begins in the Gulag, with stories of suffering by Sharansky and his fellow dissidents. These prisoners of conscience shared a yearning for democracy, "a free life in a free society" (5), but their convictions were as disparate as they were unapologetic. Their identities, in other words, differed, but rather than this being a source of tension, Sharansky recounts how this actually resulted in a valuable solidarity. …

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