Identity

When I was in college, I wrote for the student newspaper. I followed an unwritten code: teachers and members of the school's administration were always identified by name; students were usually anonymous, unless they were speaking in an official capacity as a student representative. The student newspaper also had what could clearly be thought of as a written policy: news stories, think pieces, reviews and so on usually had bylines.

As a result of the latter policy, I was beyond famous at my college during my days there (and for long thereafter, it turns out). I was a devoted reporter and prolific writer, and my byline frequently appeared in the paper, somtimes several times on the front page. For the early seventies, my personal appearance was unique: long hair that got fuller and longer as the years progressed. By the time of my senior year, everyone knew who I was. I had no anonymity whatsoever.

It was a relatively small college of under a thousand students but, as could be reasonably expected, I certainly did not know who everybody else was. When, years before, a frat member had written a news article critical of the political power of his own frat (the other frats and student clubs had actually joined forces to form a competing election "slate"), the absence of a byline led members of the frat to believe that I had written it as well (the author was actually the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper; who knows what lies he told his frat to keep his cover and justify the paper's right to cover something everyone was talking about). I was the paper's lead reporter, a convenient scapegoat, and the newspaper was considered "my paper" (although I never asserted as such). There were undoubtedly other stories I had written which weren't frat-specific but which had disturbed some of the more prominent frat memebers.

The frat maintained a "shit list" which I apparently was given a prominent position on. At the end of my senior year, some freshmen seeking admittance to the frat were given an initiation assignment to harass me. One of the frat boys even took my picture without my permission, and distributed a spoof of our paper in which the lead story was my death by piano wire. Apparently, some members of the frat found imagining my violent demise to be amusing.

The frat members who harassed me were anonymous. The frat member who took my picture was anonymous. The frat member (or members) who wrote the vicious hate piece were anonymous. The only one who was not anonymous, who had never chosen to be anonymous, was me. If I had a right to privacy, I gave it up the moment I chose to participate in the rough and tumble of school politics by covering it.

As a short-haired nerd in elementary school and high school, I was never anonymous. As a different kind of long-haired nerd in college, I was never anonymous. During my brief career as a teacher, I became a union shop steward and wrote and published the union newsletter. I co-moderate an international music-theatre listserv. As an honest and outspoken employee in my professional career, I am never faceless.

My music-theatre work often deals with issues of the biographical and the confessional, of journalism and truth, of the problems of the psychological claim to "know" and understand any human, of our natural hypocrisy. Typhoid Mary was a theatrical representation of an individual who fought hard not to be represented. Alamo!" and Brandt use the actual words of their real subjects. The Couch is semi-autobiographical, and in Hoover, the singer-actors speak as themselves, and as the authors, among other portrayals.

The concept of a "Post-September 11 world" jibes well with questions of what life in the new century and new millenium will be like. We Jewish New Yorkers look to the suffering of our brethren in Israel, living with the reality of constant terrorism, and try to imagine what we can do to protect ourselves against threats both internal and external. The Unabomber, the militias, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-abortion bombers, suicidal and homicidal religious cults and political movements are as much a threat to our liberty and freedom as anti-American international terrorists. To me, they are all the same - not irrational lunatics but modern people who have rationalized their fears into a view of others as evil or inferior and conspirators or collaborators in a cultural system they condemn and try to overthrow.

Except, perhaps, for a single ringleader, another thing they have in common is their anonymity. Do Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro single-handedly threaten their countries, or are they empowered to do so by a combination of public officials giving orders to anonymous enforcers? Can you name moonies, Branch Davidians, followers of Koresh and Manson? Our troops and policemen and firefighters wear uniforms; terrorists do not.

I am a radical civil libertarian. I believe that the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is an absolute with few qualifiers. I will not argue here whether being free to speak includes a right to remain anonymous while doing so. I am not against anonymity in the voting booth, and privacy in the home. But I would like to articulate something new, a right to an identity, a right to choose not to be anonymous.

America is a radical experimental place, re-inventing itself continuously. The idea of a right to identity is an idea whose time has come.

As someone who has never had anonymity, the idea that freedom of speech is contingent upon anonymity has never made sense to me. Similarly, whistle-blowers are not afforded anonymity. Anonymous lies masquerading as tips could lead to investigations that could ruin a person's reputation. Anonymity is not to be trusted.

Most of us are intent on asserting our identity, not on preserving our anonymity. When we use our credit card, in person or online, we are trying to prove we are who we are. We identify ourselves to the government as E-ZPass holders; those who insist on using cash are still riding in vehicles with identifiable license plates on them, and, if challenged, we all must produce a valid driver's license. To board an airplane, we must have a valid ID.

The America of the previous millenium was so obsessed with preserving anonymity under the guise of privacy, that it is the right to an identity that is burdened, and identity theft and credit card fraud are problems with no solutions. I am not proposing that we eliminate anonymity, but that the pendulum swing towards a presumption of identity. Imagine such a world.

Telephones intrude into the privacy of our homes. Caller-ID could be the norm, not the exception. A person could choose to block all callers who do not identify themselves. And this identity could go beyond a telephone number, to a location, identifiable human and, for commercial calls, a business.

Aside from private spaces, both commercial and not, we think of most of our public spaces as public amenities. Our streets are zoned, licensed, and regulated, as are our sidewalks. Our parks and libraries are controlled and full of rules, and our governmental buildings and monuments are secured and monitored. I imagine a world where those who are willing (if not eager) to identify themselves are given freer passage into and out of and amongst the various public and private spaces, while those who choose anonymity are allowed their anonymity - but searched for weapons, bombs, etc.

We experience this loss of anonymity every day as we encounter doormen, guards and surveillance cameras in apartment and office buildings, sports and performance spaces, stores and supermarkets. The courts have affirmed that the right of assembly enjoyed by the sponsors of the St. Patrick's Day parade does not contain within it a right of an Irish gay and lesbian group to assemble with them. We fully expect doormen and guards to refuse entry to those who do not have permission to enter, as we expect to confront those who have entered limited-access areas and are detected by video surveillance or motion detectors.

In the case of private property, the owners of that property have the right to bar entry and to expel anyone, and to have the government enforce that right as trespassing. In the case of public amenities, there are restricted areas, and there are areas where I am suggesting that the act of entry may take one of two forms - easy entry for those who identify themselves, slower entry for those who don't.

Abortion clinics are amongst the few private spaces where buffer zones that extend into nearby public spaces became necessary. But as we confront forms of terrorism that do not distingush between public and private spaces, between symbolic governmental structures and places of assembly, both private (like houses and worship, shopping malls, college campuses, sports arenas) and public (like parks, libraries, schools, post offices), we will seek out solutions that preserve our ability to gather but are protected.

It is irrelevant to me whether the creation and sustenance of an identity system is governmental or private. Certainly, there is no constitutional issue if the citizens of the United States of America choose to subscribe to a form of identification that the private sector trusts. With employee ID badges, credit cards, keys and the use of social security numbers, drivers licenses and passports as forms of "valid ID", we already have the primitive beginnings of such private use already.

But the right to identity could go way beyond that. There are forms of communication we use now which carry assumptions of anonymity on the part of the sender or of the receiver that need not be designed that way. At the moment, broadcast media, like television and radio, are received anonymously but sent by a licensed identifiable entity (the station).

In the country, anonymous people can place unidentified objects in private mailboxes, as the recent pipe-bomb spree by a college student illustrated. The ownership of the private property is traceable, although not immediately identifiable. In the city, many mailboxes are not identified and do not have even slits for access; delivery establishments try to run around buildings slipping menus and brochures under doors instead. Nevertheless, it is possible to send a package anonymously to an address by apartment number or name.

Our telephone system has been working out the issues of anonymity and identity for some time. You can pay for an unlisted number. You can pay for caller-ID. You can block caller-ID. You can register with a telemarketer index and not be bothered by telemarketer calls. You can go to the police and have them track anonymous harrassing telephone calls. The police can go to a judge and have your telephone wiretapped.

E-mail and the Internet were designed primarily by Californian academics with an inclination towards anonymity. E-mail can have the sender's identity removed, or be passed through a machine that anonymizes it. The phyical location of the sender is completely unknown. Unlike telemarketers, there are no regulations against spam. It is also possible for people to receive e-mail into accounts that they can access anonymously. There is nothing inherent in e-mail and in Internet communications that says that these capabilities toward anonymity are inherent in the medium - instead, the Internet was simply designed that way. Just as machines were made Y2K-compliant, Internet servers and the software clients that connect to them could be reprogrammed to be biased towards identity.

In a world in which the Internet is identity-based not anonymity-based, users could refuse to receive e-mail from those who want to remain anonymous. They could choose to never visit sites (or trust the content of sites) which did not carry proper identification. Since the presumption of identification would be two-way, sites could refuse to give access to anonymous users, and could choose to be a site that does or does not respect the anonymity of its visitors.

In a brave new world of identity, creators of content would sell commercial-free content to those who were willing to pay for it, and allow others to create profiles about the kind and sort of commercials that they wished to see (for me, a no to car and alcohol commercials, a yes to funny commercials, and so on).

When we meet someone, we could choose to identify them. A person could choose to not identify themselves, but without a culturally obvious and apparent reason for doing so, others might shun social contact with them. People can choose to not own telephones or television sets.

Of course, it is not my intent to create an economic system whereby only the rich or those with a place of residence can afford identities, and therefore only those have access to public and private entities. All American citizens have a right to a birth certificate, as they have a right to a court-appointed lawyer in a criminal trial. If the identification system was privately-based rather than governmentally enforced, there would certainly be a private interest in verifying the identities of the indigent. Charities could be established to provide the means.

Instead of putting all of our creativity into trying to imagine how to preserve our anonymity, we would put all of our creativity into trying to imagine how to protect our identity. It would be hard to obtain a valid identity, and it would be impossible to obtain mutliple identities. It would be impossible to counterfeit an identity, or to pass your identity to somebody else. It would be easy to verify that an identity is valid and belongs to the person using it.

We live in a world where cash passes anonymously from person to person, where it can be stolen and hidden and used to fund illegal activities. The money itself, however, is protected from duplication by sophisticated anti-counterfeiting measures. Meanwhile, ghost companies can be created and enjoy corporate rights, and our identities can appear and disappear in a flicker. We think up neutron bombs which will kill the people but leave the structures intact, and we shut down our transportation infrastructure in emergencies to protect the infrastructure, rather than to evacuate the people who need to use it.

I am well aware of the famous quote, "Those who would give up liberty for a little security deserve neither." I am not proposing that an identity-based culture be one in which discrimination and censorship flourishes. My hope would be that we would be more vigilant against discrimination and censorship, that we would cherish our liberty, our freedoms and our rights more and exercise them proudly, as I do. It is the anonymity of the mob, not the power of the government, which I fear. We can preserve a right to anonymity while promoting a right to identity. We should have a choice.

Link back to My Personal September 11 Page.

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Last Updated: September 12, 2007