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Analysis From Washington: The Politics Of Identity

Washington, 12 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Media reports about the Jewish roots of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, roots she had not known about, highlight some important issues about the nature of identity and the right of individuals to decide who they are.

Over the last month, the American media have devoted a number of stories to the background of Albright, the Czech emigre who has become the first woman to head the U.S. State Department.

Research into her background has discovered that her grandparents were Jewish and that many of them perished in the Nazi holocaust, something Albright's parents had kept from their daughter.

After fleeing from first Nazi and then Communist tyranny, Albright's parents converted to Roman Catholicism, and at the time of her marriage, she became an Episcopalian.

The newly-confirmed secretary of state has defined herself as a Protestant and an American who came to the United States from Czechoslovakia.

But the attention to her background has continued to be so intense that it even prompted one Washington Post columnist to urge that the media give her a break and allow her to do her job.

Unfortunately, the flurry of media attention to this issue is likely to continue, but it is also likely to continue to miss the fundamental issue at stake here.

In the U.S., each person is entitled to decide who he is and how he will define himself. And while that right is far from absolute -- identity is always about both who we think we are and what others think as well -- it is fundamental to the kind of open society America has always aspired to.

Albright has made her choice on the basis of her knowledge of her heritage.

As she knows better than most because of her own biography, many regimes, especially totalitarian ones, routinely deny to their subjects the right to make such a choice.

And on the basis of that denial, these regimes begin the process of crushing the individual in other ways as well.

The Nazis based their entire ideology on a state-imposed distinction between Aryans and Jews. And the Communists, through the use of passport nationality, made equally invidious distinctions between people without their consent.

In the former Soviet Union, for instance, the state defined a person's identity by his parentage, and with rare exceptions, the individual could not change his "nationality" on the notorious line five of his internal passport -- whatever he believed himself to be.

Moreover, these state-imposed distinctions had real consequences for Soviet citizens who often found their access to education, their right to a residence permit, and their ability to get and hold a job determined by that line in the passport.

With the collapse of communism in Europe, so-called "passport nationality" has also declined in importance. But as members of various ethnic groups regularly complain, they are not always free to make choices about who they are now.

In some countries, individuals who are members of one ethnic community on the basis of Soviet-era definitions cannot easily reidentify themselves whatever they feel.

And that limitation, as much as anything else, has served as a brake on progress toward an open democratic society in many places.

That some individuals and groups in the United States may seek to impose an identity on Albright for their own purposes is no surprise, given the limitations of human nature.

But that they should succeed to any degree would undercut both what the United States stands for and the progress many nations and countries have made in recent years to escape the awful consequences of state-defined nationality.