Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: John Lennon

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.

Olympics Opening Ceremony

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Yoko Ono and Peter Gabriel bring John Lennon’s message of peace to the world:

Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do.

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USA! USA! USA!  We’re number one!

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can.

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McDonald’s, an official sponsor of the Olympics. 

Samsung, an official sponsor of the Olympics. 

Kodak, an official sponsor of the Olympics.

You may say I’m a dreamer…

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