Monday, March 14, 2005

Notes from Aspen: The Fault Line of Identity

In a wonderful week of thought and reflection at the Aspen Institute, we explored community and culture. An observation was made, which I agree with, that we are in a post-modern period where we are searching for meaning. Below is the second of three specific fault lines that I personally feel as a part of my search.

The Fault Line of Identity

The second fault line is identity. A sense of community is only possible where we have a common sense of identity. David Hume, Adam Smith and others in the Scottish Enlightenment described the emergence of a capitalistic middle class culture on the periphery of the empire, Scotland. One precipitating cause of the Revolution of 1776 was the growing consciousness of another people on the periphery of the empire as a new breed of "Americans" distinct from their British cousins. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the first self-conscious "American," described the emergence of the "middling people," or what we today call the middle class. A common, albeit nascent, culture is why the sages of the Scottish Enlightenment resonated with the Founding Fathers.

But four score and seven years later, a top graduate of West Point, Robert E. Lee, decided that his loyalty as a citizen of the State of Virginia created a higher obligation than his loyalty as a citizen of the United States of America. Looking through our modern paradigm as American citizens, we can not conceive of making this choice today.

When I was in college, we studied "multinational corporations," which did business as distinct business units in different countries and cultures around the world. Today I work for KEMET Corporation, which consciously promotes itself as a "global company," with one corporate culture seamlessly doing business wherever facilities of global customers are located in the world.

Recently I founded InnoVenture, to develop a culture of innovation in a region we define as the "Southeastern Innovation Corridor," which is within roughly a four hour drive of Greenville but touches parts of five states. I have found this definition of our region enthusiastically supported by business people and academics who will benefit from its critical mass of talent and resources, but disorienting to politicians who feel confined by voting constituencies in political jurisdictions.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom and others are attempting to create a common identity as "Europeans." I often wonder if eighty-seven years from now, Tony Blair's perception of himself as "British" or George Bush's as an "American" will seem as quaint as Robert E. Lee’s perception of himself as a "Virginian." That was until September 11th brought home the brutal reality that "providing for the common defense’ was an essential mission of the government of the United States of America. Who we are and where our loyalties lay are as confusing today as they were to some in 1860.

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