A Good Day to Remember that America is not my Entire Identity

A Good Day to Remember that America is not my Entire Identity January 20, 2017

Although I didn’t need Donald Trump to remind me. As someone who has a life — a Christian, a historian, someone who roots for the Phillies, a lover of cats, a devotee of Coen Brothers movies, happily married — I never assumed that one part of me spoke for the entire mmmeeeeEE. That’s why I also balked at the evangelical version of identity politics — my religious identity must somehow follow me wherever I go — into the classroom, into the voting book, into the pet supplies store.

Leon Wieseltier, former editor of the back of the book at New Republic, was also aware of multiple identities over 20 years ago:

The lure of identity is the lure of wholeness. It proposes to bind up the parts and the pieces of a life and transform them into a unity, into a life that adds up. This provides a mixture of psychological and aesthetic satisfaction. But is there really nothing worse than a life that does not add up? Surely the life that does add up is the easeful one. Erikson was right to remark that “an increasing sense of identity … is experienced as a sense of psychosocial well-being,” but he was making a damning admission.

The desire for wholeness is indistinguishable from the desire for death. Only religion is candid enough to say so.

In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.

A life that does not add up is not a life of irony. Quite the contrary. Its accomplishment is to contain within itself many things that do not go together, all of them unironically. Irony used to have an aspect of courage, in an age in which inconsistency was an occasion for pain. But this is an age in which inconsistency is an occasion for pleasure. (The name of that pleasure is post-modernism.) And so the aspect of courage is to be sought in literalness, in taking words and ideas and things for what they are and following them far.

Two cheers for identity: it is the enemy of irony.

I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life. I think to myself: Just two?

In America, the tribunes of identity are the tribunes of diversity, but the joke is on them. Their ends are contradictory. Diversity means complexity. Identity means simplicity. Anybody who takes diversity seriously will see that identity is an illusion. The multiculturalists will reply that there is no contradiction, that America is a complex society of differently simplified individuals, a multicultural society of monocultural people. But they misunderstand America. The American achievement is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual. And the multicultural individual is what the tribalists and the traditionalists (they are not always the same people) fear. Identity is a promise of singleness, but this is a false promise. Many things are possible in America, but the singleness of identity is not one of them.

Not: my identity, but: my identities. There is a greater truth in the plural. There is also a greater likelihood of decency. The multicultural individual is a figure of moral friction. In such an individual, the mocker, and the hater, and the killer, may hit a bump.

Never Trumpers take heart. Your life is getting even more complicated. Live it. Learn it. Love it.


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