The title of this piece is taken from the Broadway Musical based on the book by Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables.” In the musical, the protagonist sings, “Who Am I?” because he is caught between two identities, one being his respected life as the mayor of a town, and the other being his former life as a convict. He struggles between being Jean Valjean and “24601”—his prison number. The prison number is an artificial identity, given to him by the state because of his alleged crime of stealing bread for his sister’s starving child. Yes, he was guilty of theft, but as all of France was starving, and it was probably caused by government interference, the 20 years hard labor punishment to Jean Valjean seems cruelly inappropriate.
The inspiration for the theme of this essay, however, is from the classic holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” George Bailey, the main character, owns a loan and building business, and takes responsibility for missing funds which will bankrupt the business if they cannot find the money misplaced by his uncle. Bailey grows increasingly disturbed and worried over what would happen to the bank—and what would happen to him as the person responsible for the money. He takes out his frustration on his family, which leads him into even more anxiety and depression. At last he considers suicide as his only option for escaping the trouble that will befall his business and family. However, just before jumping into the river, Clarence—an angel sent by God to protect Bailey—jumps over the bridge instead, and Bailey instinctively jumps into the river, not to kill himself but to save Clarence. Later, after Bailey rescues Clarence, they are sitting together drying off and Clarence questions Bailey and his motivations for considering suicide. Clarence is desperate to show Bailey that his life is very important, that he has made an enormous difference in the world, and despite Bailey’s own feelings, the world is better off because of him. So Clarence decides to try a new idea, and shows Bailey what it would be like if he had never been born. Bailey and Clarence go to the local bar for a drink, only to discover that the bartender doesn’t recognize Bailey now, and eventually the two men are thrown out of the bar. By this time Bailey is confused and worried, he still doesn’t realize what Clarence has done. He rummages frantically through his pockets to show Clarence proof that he is George Bailey. But his pockets are empty.
George says, “Then if I wasn’t born, who am I?”
Clarence replies, “You’re nobody. You have no identity.”
“What do you mean, no identity? My name’s George Bailey.”
And Clarence reminds him, “There is no George Bailey. You have no papers, no cards, no driver’s license, no 4-F card, no insurance policy…They’re not there, either.”
And yet we see George Bailey—he is standing there next to Clarence, talking to Clarence, moving, acting, speaking, thinking…we know, as viewers, that Bailey does in fact exist. It is interesting how Bailey’s identity is stripped from him. Bailey does exist, but not as George Bailey, just as a nameless person.
The setting of this scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the early 1940’s, the war is ending, and George’s brother Henry is coming back from Europe a hero. In the modern state, ushered in by Progressive Era ideas and President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, personal identity is granted by the state itself. Bailey has no driver’s license…a card given by the government. Currently, it is very difficult to do anything without a driver’s license. The system is so set up as to force a person to obtain a driver’s license or similar identification card if they want to do anything.
In this new era, without government approval and permission, a person does not exist. The definition of existence and of society has changed, and George Bailey was a victim of it. Society does not accept people who have no official government cards. When a child is born, their identity is inextricably linked to the Social Security number issued to them.
Bailey has “no papers, no cards, no driver’s license, no 4-F card…” and cannot prove his identity without it. We are to assume the papers and cards Clarence refers to must be some type of government identification, for what else could be used to identify George Bailey? The 4-F card is part of military classification. Bailey was unable to be drafted into military service because of his impaired hearing. The 4-F card identifies an individual as being not qualified for military service under the established physical, mental, or moral standards. All of this is given to a person by the government and without it they have no identity, as Bailey discovered.
While Bailey’s loss of identity was caused by angelic interference, I suspect that if the government took away anyone’s personal identity, it would not be quite so heavenly. Whatever the government can give, they can also take away. If the government can give identity, and “belongingness” to a person, they can also refuse or repeal it. Our identity and place in society would depend entirely on the government’s whims.
So the question comes down to, does the state give identity? If I had no government papers, no official cards, nothing—would I still be who I am? Or would I be a nameless person, excluded from society, from human interaction, if I had no government identification? Who am I? A creature of the state? Or a person given life by God?