My American Identity
to: table of contents
Can I be myself or do I need to be taught?
costumed impersonators and avatars
Nowadays, it’s easy to assume another identity if you do not care for your present one. Many people do this on Halloween. All it takes to create a new outer self is a store-bought costume. There are costumed fans of Star Trek, teenage vampires, Elvis Presley, and comic-book characters like Superman who fight big-city crime.
Among these persons are some hard-core identity-shifters. Perhaps two hundred individuals in Europe and North America, who call themselves “reals”, impersonate comic-book superheroes. One such man known as the “Emerald Enforcer” cruises the streets of Minneapolis dressed in a mask and cape, with an Argentinean bolo (cattle snare) hanging from a holster on his belt. “When you put on this costume and you do something for someone, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m being a hero,’” the Enforcer confessed.
Somewhat less flamboyantly but no less committed to identity shifting are the millions who play electronic fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons, set in mystical environments in pre-medieval Europe. The players create characters who go off on imaginary adventures such as treasure hunts or military campaigns. Each human player controls a “hero” who accumulates power as the game progresses. More than 20 million persons have played this game since it came out in 1974.
Carrying this a step further is the role-playing experience at a web site called “Second Life”, which was launched in 2003. There players assume alternative identities through on-line characters that stay with them known as avatars. Essentially, they build their own fantasy world in a space that others can access as well. The avatars, controlled by different players, can interact socially, transact business, construct buildings, and do most other things on a virtual basis that are done in real life. Second Life uses sophisticated three-dimensional modeling to make “life” in its world seem realistic.
Any game embodies role playing to one degree or another. The time spent in its activity offers “an escape from reality”. When played in moderation, games are generally harmless. They may actually help to build character or skills that spill over into other areas of personal experience. On the other hand, if someone spends hour upon hour absorbed in fantasy events appearing on the computer screen, this is time taken away from life in the physical world. If a make-believe identity becomes confused with the real one, it would not be considered a healthy situation even if the person has chosen this mode of living. The identities may be self-chosen but they are not authentic.
the most authentic identity
The real world can also threaten personal identity. There are well-organized institutions that regularly engage in “identity theft”. Each person would do well to be aware of the danger and, to the best of his ability, protect that which truly belongs to himself. And what might that be? It’s an inner awareness of self that has been with him since infancy. It’s those thoughts that tell a person who he is.
The most authentic identity is the sense of self that was formed in the earliest years of life. An infant’s first connection is with his mother. Whatever role he will assume in this world begins in relation to her. She is his source of food and a remover of dirty diapers. The mother, father, and others in the household comfort the baby when he is crying. They touch him and look him in the face. Whatever identity this baby will have starts with those experiences. He acquires a culture there.
The Dagara people of west Africa have a custom that is worth considering. When a baby is born and starts to cry, a group of elders mimic his cries as a way of welcoming him into the world. The baby is aware that his presence has been acknowledged. He himself has been noticed; and that creates an emotional bond between himself and others in this world.
Babies, children, and even adults like to be recognized. I once won the heart of a two-year-old girl by listening to her sing and then joining with her in singing the song. She beamed as I, an adult, was singing the tune which she had started. This is something that parents can give their children. They can respond to the child’s initiatives as well as set an example. Just by having the child to be in a family, they teach the family culture. With its pliant mind, the child watches and listens, becomes aware of routines, and absorbs many cultural influences.
we learn life from our families
Within family settings, children learn routines of cleanliness. They are toilet-trained. They wash their hands before eating a meal. They learn, in time, to put food on plates and hold eating utensils. One of the most important lessons is spoken language. Being with the parents, siblings, and others, they hear words spoken in a context that makes the meanings clear. They absorb the vocabulary used in the circles to which they belong. They also learn the rules of the household. They sleep in a particular room and must try to keep their clothing off the floor. The parents become taskmasters who enforce these rules.
To a certain extent, what parents teach their children reflects what they themselves were taught many years ago. Certainly that is true of language. The parents remember what their own parents did in certain situations. Each situation has its dos and don’ts. There were also notions of how to bring up children properly. Some may reflect the religious or ethnic traditions of the family. Children as they grow up become aware of belonging to a larger community that has a history and a “way of life”.
Once a majority of people was engaged in agriculture. Children were taught to do chores on the farm. Under their parents’ instruction, they learned the business of growing crops, raising chickens, or whatever else needed to be done to support the family. But now children seldom assume their parents’ occupation. The parents work in places away from home and so this aspect of adult life is hidden from the next generation. Instead parent and child become acquainted with each other in the shrinking part of the day or week that is left for “family time” after the requirements of a job have been met.
Besides parental guidance, some of the most important influences on children come from other children in their play time. I remember a game called “mumbly-peg” that I used to play with other neighborhood kids in Detroit. The object was to stick the blade of a pen knife in the ground after performing certain maneuvers. There was another game called “duck-on-rocks” that involved throwing bottles or beer cans in an alley. The players would tag others or try to avoid being tagged while circling a can upon which another had been placed.
At elementary school, we played soft ball and, in the late afternoon, informal games of catch. Sometimes we would hit balls. In the school playground, we would also play a game of tag in which the kids ran from one end of the yard to another. Each round began with the cry: “Pom, pom, peedaway - take your horse and run away.” Then all the “horses” would gallop across the yard while trying not to be tagged by the one in the middle.
It would be precious now to recall those experiences from so many years ago. We who were lucky to have brothers or sisters had instant companions to share the experience. We had peer teachers who helped us understand through a child’s eyes what was happening. Such relationships were not without turmoil. There was rivalry for the parents’ affection. The older sibling exercised a certain rank over his younger brothers and sisters. He generally wore new clothes while the younger kids were given hand-me-downs. But this was also part of life.
In later years, we may come to appreciate what our brothers and sisters gave us as we were growing up. We have someone who understands who we once were, having shared the same experience. The loss of a brother or sister is therefore, as with losing a parent, an erasure of memories related to our own authentic identity. Garrison Keillor, who recently lost an older brother, wrote: “When your brother dies, your childhood fades, there being one less person to remember it with, and you are left disinherited.”
The parents, who preside over their children’s world, may not realize or appreciate what they have made possible. Their contributions may have come casually or through habit. If asked what would be good for a child, they will typically point to an institution such as a church or school that has a system for handling people. Such institutions instill a set of values. Therefore, a child should attend church regularly; or he should go to school and get a good education. Adults often recommend this kind of thing. But those same institutions also point the way to inauthentic identities. It is what the family gives to the children that makes them more what they are in themselves.
Some parents misinterpret their role, believing that they must cheerlead their children to what society considers improved performance. If the children play soccer, they become “soccer moms”, regularly driving the kids to practice and rooting from the stands. These parents think they are fulfilling their parental duty in pushing their offspring toward excellence, perhaps even a medal in a future Olympics game. However, children need the freedom to be children because this is the prime age for self-discovery.
They had this freedom until recently. “Until the 1980s,” wrote William Doherty, a social-science professor, “young children mostly played in the neighborhood, free of adult observation and supervision. Older kids taught younger ones how to play an endless variety of games. Parents in most neighborhoods were content to have their children out of sight and enjoying themselves ... (But now) fed by understandable anxiety about success in a competitive world, middle-class parents spare no time or expense in enhancing their child’s developmental edge.”
Many critics name “Citizen Kane” as the best American film of all time. It is based on the life of the newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. In the film, young Kane is sliding down a hill on a sled when relatives suddenly arrive to remove the boy from that setting and take him away to a better life. Kane goes to a good school and then becomes a wealthy and influential newspaper publisher.
But the film’s plot centers on an investigative reporter who focuses on the last word Kane before he died: “rosebud”. What did that mean? Why was this rosebud so important to Kane? Was it perhaps a Freudian reference to Kane’s mistress? The answer eluded the movie viewers until the last scene, when Kane’s possessions in his California mansion were stacked in a pile to be burned. On this pile was thrown a boy’s sled and, at the front end of the sled, was painted the emblem of the product’s brand name: rosebud. No, Kane was not thinking of anything esoteric but of the happy time he remembered having as a boy before he was taken away to a “better life”.
My own “rosebud” moment came in the fall of 1951 as I was entering fifth grade in public school. Classes had been in session for about a week. I had just made a new friend on the play ground. Then, I learned that my parents were taking me out of this school and instead sending me to a private school. So I went to the new school with an academically more rigorous program. I became a good student, placing near or at the top of my class. My high-school years were likewise devoted to study and the pursuit of good grades. I was admitted to a prestigious college from which I graduated.
I do not disparage the quality of education in any institution I attended. I do, however, wish to point out that for each such opportunity something else is given up. When I became a book worm, I gave up the freedom to wander around mentally and emotionally in a number of different areas. Instead, I learned to focus my attention in educationally profitable ways. At the expense of absorbing random influences, I learned to remember what might be on the tests. I was a good student who knew how to discipline himself. I gave up an easy acquaintance with people. I was on a path to “success”.
Much that has subsequently happened to me in life has been of my own idiosyncratic choosing and is of no particular interest to others. I might have been happier if I had stayed in that public school and not invested so much of my life in the crafts of reading and writing at an improved level of skill. On the other hand, I would have missed out on many other interesting experiences that have come my way.
The point is that the classroom experience is structured rather than free. Someone has decided that a child will learn more that way and will become a better person than if he fended for himself. Education is “the ticket” to a better life. If, however, the educational process remakes young people, how can we be sure that this is not done for purposes of exploitation? If it destroys the identity formed in early childhood, would not the replacement necessarily be less authentic? Would not the personality be comparatively weak? Could not the substitute experience that extinguishes one’s present identity be serving someone else’s purpose.
make a better self in school
A faculty committee at Harvard issued a report on the purpose of education. It declared: “The aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” In other words, to use a phrase reminiscent of the Vietnam war, we must “destroy” a young person’s identity “in order to save it.” Family tradition goes out the window as kindly professors help students “find ways to reorient themselves.” Why on earth would they want to do that?
This idea of a person reorienting himself through education actually goes back to Plato. It was education’s aim, he said, to turn the mind from worldly things to contemplate eternal essences of being. “Of this very thing,” wrote Plato, “there might be ... an art of the speediest and most effective shifting or conversion of the soul.” Education was not intended to teach skills or even teach the ability to think, but instead to turn mind in the right direction, so it would see and know goodness and therefore want to be good. Education was intended to improve society, in other words.
A second pillar of western education was the Renaissance poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca (“Petrarch”). He lived in a time when ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts were being rediscovered. Petrarch developed a personal fondness for those works and their authors. Their intellectual and artistic merit, he believed, exceeded that of works belonging to the medieval Christian culture. Being a pioneer of textual criticism (a science to determine an author’s original words), he and other humanist scholars taught the children of Renaissance merchants and rulers. Education was seen as a gateway to a superior culture.
So we see that the purpose of education has always been to lift students up to a higher level of understanding and refinement. If one studies the writings of a great poet, one will absorb something of that person’s mentality. The works of William Shakespeare, for instance, exhibit an unusually fertile use of language. In such writings, one has a model of how persons of superior intellect might express themselves. To study great writers in school exposes students to a range of superb expressions - to “the best that has been thought and said” in a nation’s cultural tradition, according to Matthew Arnold. School children are privileged to be exposed to literature that elevates their mind.
On the other hand, education takes one away from one’s native upbringing. It appropriates time that young people might spend on their own projects. Citizen Kane might have preferred to have spent some more time on that “Rosebud” sled. I could have used another few years developing my social skills. But, of course, my or his inarticulate desires cannot withstand the well-organized appeals of an institution: Go to school where you can “better yourself”. We are urged to trade our birth-given identities for a shinier model.
follow Jesus to heaven
Religion is another identity-sucking institution that can destroy the culture of families. Jesus said, in effect: Leave your previous life behind and follow me. It is written in the tenth chapter of Matthew: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son’s wife against her mother-in-law; and a man will find his enemies under his own roof. No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no man is worthy of men who cares more for son or daughter; no man is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and walk in my footsteps.”
In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, Jesus was speaking to a crowd when his mother and brothers appeared. Someone told Jesus that members of his family stood outside waiting to see him. “Jesus turned to the man who brought the message, and said: ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’; and pointing to the disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, my sister, my mother.’”
This religion expresses a higher priority than remaining true to an identity assumed at birth. Jesus was proclaiming the impending Kingdom of God. He was proclaiming, and his listeners understood, that the end of the world would soon take place. All earthly concerns, including family relationships, then would not matter. He, as the future Messiah, was telling people what they needed to do to gain entrance to God’s kingdom when it suddenly arrived. If that prediction came to pass, then, of course, people would be willing to give up their present lives for another one. Otherwise, they would be destroyed when God transformed the earth.
But of course, the world did not come to an end. Christians are still waiting for that event to occur. Many now believe that by that following Christ and remaining true to his teachings they will gain admission to Heaven after death. But Jesus did not promise that. He promised that persons who followed him would enter the Kingdom of God when it appeared on earth. It is not for me to say whether or not religious people should have hopes of salvation arranged by God. That is for they themselves to decide.
I can, however, comment on the effect of religion on society in the "interim" period before its promises are fulfilled. In that interim, Christianity has become, like education, a rich and powerful organization which persuades people to give up their previous identities to join its cause. Religion makes a person into something that he would not otherwise be. It imposes an alien identity on people making them think its tradition is their own. In the process, it has become their cultural tradition going back, perhaps, many generation.
our genetic inheritance
While individuals may have faith in unseen realms, the communities that exist here on earth should be governed by concerns arising from people’s shared experience. Their worldly identities should be respected. We are who we are in the context of a genetic inheritance conditioned by culture. The genes that we receive from our parents are a real but mysterious inheritance. Our authentic identities begin with them. While western peoples tend to disregard this aspect of their being, other peoples see themselves as being in a genetic continuum with their forbearers. That is what makes them a people, sharing a common identity.
In Dafur, it was common for Janjaweed militia men to rape young women and girls as they fetched water or gather firewood outside the refugee camps. Some of the rapes result in pregnancy. These “‘Janjaweed babies’ born of the rapes rarely have a future in the mother’s ethnic group,” a news report disclosed. “Infanticide and abandonment are common. A victim explained: ‘They kill our males and dilute our blood with rape. (The Janjaweed militia) ... want to finish us as a people, end our history.’” This blood dilution was thought to be a form of genocide.
When I think of myself in that regard, I must acknowledge my mixed ethnicity. My ancestors were persons from the British isles who trekked to the midwestern part of the United States. It would be emotionally satisfying for me to imagine that my culture in some sense flowed from my ethnic identity.
Since my name is McGaughey, let’s take the Scottish element in my ancestry. I would naturally be drawn to a culture consisting of bagpipes and plaid kilts, and perhaps I would have a fondness for Scotch whiskey. However, they may all be historical accidents. Nothing in the genes of my ancestors would have ordained that these cultural phenomena appeared in Scotland.
Scottish people are also known for being thrifty. Some have a weight problem. This fact does seem to me to be related to the fact that Scotland has a harsh environment. Food was scarce, and the bodies of Scottish people adjusted over the years to conserve the available nutrients. When Scots later emigrated to a place of food abundance, the caloric balance was upset. We descendants of Scottish emigres easily gain weight.
However, little of this culture was passed on to me by my parents. We were Americans who identified with the mainstream American culture. My mother had her own traditions, especially at Christmas time. She used to make “gingerbread houses”, with a white sugary paste smeared on cardboard in which small pieces of candy were imbedded. My parents also sent out specially designed Christmas cards that resembled magazine covers. On New Year’s Day they hosted an open house at our home. I do none of those things myself.
I envy people who pass along family traditions linked to their place of origin. One of the more unusual examples is the “Pappenfus tomato”. When Greg Pappenfus’ great-great grandparents emigrated to America from Trier, Germany, in the latter part of the 19th Century, they brought with them the seeds of a variety of tomato that the family had cultivated for generations. It was a particularly large pink-red tomato, looking like no other.
This tomato required special care, or “putzing” as Greg put it. Each year for more than a century, a Pappenfus descendant would carefully clean out the pulp and seeds of the better specimens, leave the seeds on paper towels to dry, and then use them for next year’s tomato planting. The roots were always planted in a southerly direction. A special watering system was developed. This planting routine, handed down from generation to generation, went on despite the trouble it caused family members. Grandmother Pappenfus had told her children before she died: “I hope you keep the Pappenfus tomato going.” Up to now, her wish has been fulfilled.
Each family may have little traditions or memories that have been handed down through the generations. They are part of what constitutes its own identity. These things should be cherished because they are authentic. Such things help to make us unique. They help us avoid being swallowed by someone else’s enterprise.
Think of identity as a compass that picks up faint magnetic traces of your nature wherever you go. You have a sense that points truly to yourself. Around you, however, are numerous hucksters telling you to follow them. If you heed that advice, riches and public acclaim might be yours but at a cost of becoming lost.
to next chapter
to: main page to: table of contents
Click for a translation into:
French - Spanish - German - Portuguese - Italian