Saturday, January 9, 2010

9 / Who Am I?

James Stockdale was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 Presidential election, and I personally remember watching the debate in which he introduced himself to the American public by asking, "Who am I and what am I doing here?" Wikipedia reports on this occasion as follows:

Initially, the rhetorical questions drew applause from the audience, seeming to be a good-natured acknowledgment of his relatively unknown status and lack of traditional qualifications. However, his unfocused style for the rest of the debate (including asking the moderator to repeat one question because he didn't have his hearing aid turned on) made him appear confused and almost disoriented.
As I remember it, the problem was that Mr. Stockdale didn't seem to know the answer to the questions he posed, and everyone expected that he should. The questions themselves, however, are profoundly philosophical, and any one of us might be hard pressed to provide a cogent and coherent answer.

For me, the "Who am I?" inquiry is the most telling. Am I an individual alone, or am "I" somehow part of a greater whole, a member of a community? This is, indeed, a profoundly philosophical question, and the character of different cultures and civilizations is bound directly to the kind of answer they provide.

My conclusion is that I am not simply an "individual," but am part of humankind, which means that while I can help create the human world by my individual action, the essence of the human creation is a collective effort. For me, in other words, the right response to the "Who am I?" question leads inevitably to an understanding that politics is the primary method by which we construct the realities we inhabit.

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