Identity

There was a story in the Wall Street Journal yesteday about Csanad Szegedi, a Hungarian politican with the extreme far-right Jobbik party, and known for his hate speech, who was forced to resign from his party position when it was discovered that his grandmother was Jewish.

Mr. Szegedi said his grandparents, who both survived Nazi terror in World War II, had chosen to remain silent about their Jewish heritage and he had only found out about his family’s religious background in December 2011.

Szegedi came to prominence as a founding member of the anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard, an organization that wore black uniforms similar to the Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party which governed Hungary at the end of World War II and killed thousands of Jews.

Now, Szegedi is apologetic about his former anti-Semitism.

“Had I made any comments in the past years that offended the Jewish community, I ask for forgiveness,” Mr. Szegedi told Rabbi Slomo Koves, according to Nepszabadsag. “Now that I have been faced with my Jewish roots, that I do not regret at all, keeping in touch with the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community has become especially important for me,” he said.

A few commenters viewed this news story as a postitive story of a man’s redemption and change. I find the story depressing.

Does understanding and compassion only come into play when our own identity is directly involved? Wouldn’t Szegedi have remained an anti-Semite if the information about his grandmother didn’t go public?  This incident begs the question, does our identity come from someplace within, or is it forced on us from the outside, by our heritage and birth?

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(note:  the following section has 0% truth quotient)  —

A few months ago, I had lunch with my mother.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” she said. “Do you remember your Grandma Ida?”

“Of course I do,” I said, even though she passed away when I was young.  I have fond memories of this gentle woman’s  love for “prune compote” and the way her apartment always smelled like home-made Gefilte fish.”

“Well, Grandma Ida wasn’t Jewish. She was a Navajo Indian.”

“A Navajo Indian? That’s crazy. She had a completely Eastern European accent!”

“Oh, she was just faking it to fit in with the rest of her friends in the Bronx. She was born on a reservation in New Mexico.”

I was shocked, and intrigued by this news. If my grandmother was Navajo, that made me part Navajo. And I knew absolutely nothing about my heritage.

I went to the New York Public Library to begin my journey into my new heritage. I read about my history, my food, my storytelling. I took a trip to Colorado in order to experience my land. I learned to fish and hunt, and to make beautiful traditional jewelry and clay pottery.

Yesterday, I was having breakfast. I was wearing a breechcloths made of woven yucca fiber, moccassins, and a cloak of rabbit fur, my latest attempt to embrace my identity.

“I have something serious to discuss with you,” said my mother.

“What now?” I asked.

“I wasn’t wearing my glasses on that day I read Grandma Ida’s birth certificate. She wasn’t a Navajo Indian. She was a Nairobian Tribeswoman.”

I was shocked, and intrigued. I alway wanted to be black.

“Screw the Navajos,” I yelled, as tossed my itchy rabbit fur cloak onto the floor. After breakfast, I went to the New York Public Library to research my new heritage.

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Who are we? Do our identities come from within or without? And do we get trapped in our identities, receiving our cues on behavior from the groups we join, or from those in which we are excluded?

I am a straight man.  How much of my behavior is part of my DNA and how much is it cultural?

I am an American. Yay, America. Why was I rooting for America during the Olympics? Do I really care that we received more medals than China?

I am Jewish. What does that mean? I know plenty of Hindus who like bagels.

I feel it necessary to be part of something. To associate with others.   A community.   The city I live in.   Other writers.   People who like coffee.   It helps me create my own identity.

We talk about fluidity in identity, within gender.  We want each generation to have less restriction than the one before, less trapped in their gender roles.

But how far do we want to go?  We applaud little girls who throw away their Barbies and playing with trucks, but how many parents are overjoyed when their young son expresses an interest in wearing mommy’s dress?

At the London Olympics opening ceremony, viewers cried when a youth choir sang a touching rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

But in reality, do we honestly wish for this type of faceless society where there are no countries or religions?  I think we prefer many of the restrictions and rules that separation and division creates.   We want differences in men and women.   We want differences in  countries and cultures.   How would we know who we are without these differences? Twitter rankings, perhaps? Blogging niches?

I’m actually surprised that the blogging world has become so niche-oriented.   If anything, the internet could have been the world that John Lennon visualized.   The potential was there — a world where your religion and country didn’t matter.   Friendships were based on one thing alone — the quality of your cat photos!  The internet was created to be the great equalizer.  But I think we like to retreat to those who are most like ourselves.

It’s taken me several years to feel comfortable with my identity online, simply because I am not a parent, and 98% of my online friends are parentbloggers.   Every time I read a post on a parenting blog, I feel a bit as if I am an outsider, like a Jew taking at a Catholic Mass. I might find the sermon fascinating, but I’m never quite sure if the others want me to stay for coffee and cake.

Of course, parentbloggers have the opposite problem.  Their identity online is defined by their parenting.   What do they do when their kids grow up?  What do they write about?  Do they have an identity — a brand online — outside of the parenting fold?

It is all about Identity.

Are we defined by our jobs?  Our POV?  Our marital status?  Our parenting status?  What we say?   What we do? And what if our perception of self are different than how others see us?  Should we always reveal our true identity, or is it better to create a branded version of it?  And what if we start to believe our own false identity?

Identity is also political.  The outing of the Hungarian politician was based on politics.  The Republican effort to name President Obama as a Muslim during the last campaign was purely political.

In America, sexual orientation is frequently a political statement. When someone “comes out,” the person is announcing that he is not fearful of his true “identity.”   But do we have the right to force people to be authentic in their identity?  Would you go on Twitter and write “Sally Jones said in her last post she lives in Dayton, but I know she really lives in Cleveland!”  Would you confront someone who has “fake Twitter followers?”

Recently, the actress Rashida Jones had to go on Twitter to apologize for an interview in which she discussed John Travolta.

She said: “Like John Travolta? Come out! Come on. How many masseurs have to come forward? Let’s do this.”

She later said it was John Travolta’s personal life was none of her business.

We will always struggle with our concept of identity.  Yes, it is personal, but it is also public.  Think about how much data about ourselves we put out into the world.   Why does the government need to know our marital status or age?    And do these pieces of data define us?  I know they define us according to marketers.  I was completely invisible when I walked through the Expo at BlogHer, because I was not part of the demographic that the advertisers were looking for at a woman’s conference.   But should we allow marketers — or pundits — determine how we view ourselves or live our lives?  Who says a “real mom” has to breastfeed has a child, or a mature woman can’t wear a mini-skirt, or a man can’t take up knitting?  Can we create our own identities?

We will join groups and leave groups, looking to find ourselves.  John Lennon’s world will never exits.   We like our differences too much.  The best we can do is create a world where no one is afraid of differences, or their expression of them.  We should hope for a world where the differences are inclusive, not exclusive; where our identities can be fluid, without pressure from those outside or inside our community.

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Yesterday, I changed my Facebook relationship status to “single.” I was slightly embarrassed by this, berating myself for my obsessive need to over share. But t occurred to me that my motivation was not simply oversharing, or need for attention.  It’s not like I haven’t written about my marriage, separation, and divorce.  No, I felt the compulsion to press the button and see words “single” written in print. Not “divorced,” but “single,” as if it was time to embrace the reality, and see myself — identify with — my new status.   My identity.

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22 Responses to Identity

  1. Laurie says:

    My favorite post of yours, ever. One of my favorite posts, ever.

    Damn.
    Laurie posted Happy

  2. heather says:

    Love this, Neil.

  3. Amanda says:

    Yes, let’s start knowing living in this way.
    Amanda posted Anatomy of an Unplanned Memory

  4. kenju says:

    Excellent, and perhaps my favorite too. As a baby adopted by an Irish man and an English woman, I identified all throughout my life as Irish/English. Imagine my surprise to find out that my birth parents were Scots/English. Suddenly, my “Irishness” was taken away and it left me sort of sad. I have not come to terms with that (although….why would I have to?) and at this stage of life, I still think of myself as Irish.
    kenju posted I think I’m at that point now…

  5. Suebob says:

    Who do you think you are, writing this?

    (I made a little joke!)

    I think this is the basis of meditation – sitting and taking time to look at the truth of one’s being, outside of identity. I met a Buddhist monk who says the loving kindness prayer something like this:
    May I be well, happy, and peaceful.
    May my teachers be well, happy, and peaceful.
    May my parents be well, happy, and peaceful.
    May my relatives be well, happy, and peaceful.
    May my friends be well, happy, etc etc

    The idea is you move from those closest to you to those you see as least like you, wishing that everyone, no exceptions, be well, happy and peaceful. He said the interesting part about doing this regularly is “Everyone starts to look alike!” – you start to see worthy people wherever you go. This is especially interesting to me, as lately I am taking time to observe what an endless fount of judgment I am.
    Suebob posted Wordless Wednesday: Flying at the Fair

  6. denise says:

    your brilliance is ever evolving Neil, I love this post. I may love this even more,
    “breechcloths made of woven yucca fiber.”

  7. Bon says:

    you’re doing some serious stuff, here, grasshopper. ;)
    Bon posted if Foucault ran a MOOC

  8. There is how we see ourselves and how others see us. Only one of these really matters long term.
    V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios posted When we’re wondering about the meaning of our lives…

  9. Dawn B says:

    Wow Neil! I agree with the others – this is a really great post. And like kenju, I am adopted. The whole “who am I?” is taken to a whole new level when you don’t know your “real” family, past, medical history, nationality, etc. Surreal. I have more thoughts bouncing around my head that don’t want to line up into cohesive sentences just yet. Looking forward to where this takes the conversation!
    Dawn B posted Tonight is my Artist Reception!!

  10. Mariya says:

    Fascinating. It reminds me of Philip Roth’s book The Human Stain. The main character has always hidden his African American ancestry and has always described himself as Jewish. One of his sons follows an orthodox Jewish path, not knowing that his father made up that identity. Yes, I think blood ancestors are important, but the stories we tell ourselves are even more important.

  11. Terry says:

    Thank you for writing consistently about your journey of self. Clicking on the ‘single’ status is a big step! ‘Single’ sounds so much more fun than ‘Divorced’. I’ve never been fond of my own’ Divorced’ status…it reeks of mistakes and failure. Yuck. My mom was so proud of our Irish heritage….until we researched it and found out we are Scottish. She stayed Irish. It was too hard for her to switch after a lifetime of Erin Go Bragh. Go figure. p.s. you’re welcome to stay for cake and coffee anytime.
    Terry posted Pattinson Braves Press Tour for Cosmopolis

  12. Amy says:

    Howdy. I am: single, a blogger since 2003, no longer on facebook, love children but have none that I have birthed out my canal, never married though was tempted, white, recovering Catholic, 100% Czech (both set of great grandparents came over on the same boat), do not have a twitter account, democrat though will vote republican in November, non-smoker, non-druggie, non-drinker, looking for love ….. aren’t we all????
    Amy posted Gaining Strength

  13. You know, this post highlights a unique thing about Americans. America is a nation based on the idea that you can choose who you want to be. You can start over, make a new life, be a schmuck in the old country and a prince in the new. If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde.

    Some Europeans seem to be less comfortable with this idea. Is it a sign of advancement as a civilisation that Americans are so idento-flexible, or a sign of shallowness? Since living in Europe, I’ve heard much wild discussion about it.
    The Honourable Husband posted Notes from Godzilla Week

  14. Irish Gumbo says:

    Brilliant essay, Neil. Perhaps the best, on a personal level, I’ve read. I like differences, they create interest and remind us that we are not all exactly like nor do we need to be exactly alike. Different does not equate to worse or threatening.

    What I don’t like is the prevalence of fear because of differences, a prevalence that far too many seek to exploit for their own personal gain, self-identification or power trips. I think you said it best to say that the best we can hope for is to create a world where we are not afraid of differences. I have made it a personal quest to look for good souls, no matter what skin, orientation, gender or persona they wear.
    Irish Gumbo posted EHarMatchonyBlog.com

  15. Jennie says:

    love this post. great thoughts.

  16. Marcy says:

    “The best we can do is create a world where no one is afraid of differences, or their expression of them. We should hope for a world where the differences are inclusive, not exclusive; where our identities can be fluid, without pressure from those outside or inside our community.”

    Love this. That is the key, isn’t it? Differences are not bad, the key is not to use them as ways to place value on one group over another.
    Marcy posted Our day in pictures

  17. Sara says:

    Eckhart Tolle says that our identity is a story that we tell ourselves. I think it is just that – a story, some of it made up, some of it real, none of it really integral to who we really are. Or at least, it shouldn’t get in the way of the real us, which may or may not be able to be captured in words anyway. Or as soon as we do, it becomes part of our story, open to distortion. yes, I am a woman, 36 years old, Australian, Mother of two, partnered etc. But what about the bit that is all of that and more, and none of that too? I thought that story that started your essay was a little disturbing too! Or though I thought it may have been a good thing for him on a personal level.
    Sara posted Life Cycles

  18. Cheryl says:

    That last paragraph sums it all up so beautifully. Nicely done.
    Cheryl posted Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

  19. the muskrat says:

    Now that you’re a voice of the year, you seem to want to become a voice of next year, too!
    the muskrat posted my last night in new hampshire and the next 3 in new york city

  20. Liz @ The Six Year Itch says:

    I’m pretty sure – yep – this just became my favorite post I’ve ever read. Grandiose and beautiful. It takes a pair to reference Lennon and pull it off. You, sir, did just that. Awesome. And thank you.
    Liz @ The Six Year Itch posted Favorite Things Friday: I Have Oprah Bags + One Social Thing

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