JUST WHAT IS IDENTITY ANYWAY?

Somewhere there used to be picture of me–I haven’t seen it in a while so I’m not sure I still have it and, if I don’t, no one does–aged about eight or nine. I’m wearing a Confederate hat and carrying (if memory serves) a toy musket.

I look like a regular Johnny Reb and where I was raised that wasn’t something anybody gave a second thought. Regarding the Civil War (which I never noticed anybody making a big deal about calling the War Between the States, though I heard the term), my parents had the attitude shared by most genteel southerners a century on: Be proud of your family and your Southern heritage son. Feel free to take a Rebel’s stand in the back yard war games, even if the neighbor boys from Indiana insist on fighting you for the privilege (i.e., don’t hesitate to remind ’em who the real southerner is).

And, oh by the way: Thank God the Yankees won.

With that for a background, once I got past playing back yard war games (along about the fourth grade), I never gave much thought to being Southern. I never saw much pride or shame in it, or in any other part of my “identity”–White, Male, Hetero (once I learned what that meant), American. I was happy to be all those things–never had a problem with it. But I never saw the point in being proud of any state you were merely born into.

The only part of my identity I’ve ever taken any interest in, let alone pride, is the Christian part.

That’s because it’s the only identity I chose, as opposed to being born with.

Just how much effect that choice has had might best be judged by what others have trouble believing about me.

I don’t generally go around introducing myself to people as a Christian. I’ve never shied away from it. My belief is that it should be evident in my behavior. If people know me long enough or well enough they’ll figure it out. If they’re interested in knowing more, they’ll ask.

The funny thing is, when someone asks and I answer, they are almost always confused, often to the point rejecting my sincerity. (This was perhaps best expressed by a high school classmate who said “Aw, you’re going to Hell just like the rest of us. You’re just not gonna have any fun along the way.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was wrong twice so I just smiled.)

I get a lot of But you’re too….

Too what?

Here’s a few I’ve heard, most of them more than a few times:

Too...open-minded, nonjudgmental, tolerant, smart, humble, even-tempered, laid-back, good-humored, ironic.

There are more, but you get the gist.

Except for intelligence, which is genetic, every quality I possess that surprises non-Christians is a product of Christian teaching–including the ability to be no more than bemused by the very confusion Christ taught his followers to expect.

The man others observe is not, by any stretch, who I was born to be, but who I became by enormous effort–which is why, to whatever extent I’ve achieved any improvement on my nature, I’m proud of it.

I only mention this to differentiate it from the rest of my identity.

As little as I’ve thought about my “southernness” I’ve thought far less about the rest.

Because, really, life’s too short.

But, once in a while, something–or a series of somethings–forces me to look one of my other identities in the face.

Most often, it’s that very Southernness.

My blogging idol, Sheila O’Malley (a Rhode Island native who lives in New York), has a regular feature where she lists what she’s been listening to on her Ipod and makes brief, often witty, comments. It’s one of my favorite things she does. On one of the recent ones she listed a song by the LoCash Cowboys, a modern country act of whose existence I was previously unaware, and part of her comment was:

Now listen. These guys jam. Meant to be played loud. Fun, in a lot of ways. But they’re so defensive. Their entire thing is “We’re better than them snobs up east” which is just … My God, get over it. You lost the war.

That’s a legitimate criticism of a certain tiresome attitude. …until that last part.

First of all, nobody gets over anything as traumatic as existential defeat. Nobody ever has and nobody ever will. If you don’t believe me, listen to black people sing sometime.

The best anybody ever does is pretend for a while–or find some useful outlet (like singing, or playing an instrument) to pour themselves into as a form of release. But that’s not “getting over it.” That’s just bringing it close, where you can grab it by the throat before it grabs you.

Sheila’s a big favorite of mine and I’m the calmest person I know (all that Christian training)…but that last part My God, get over it. You lost the war. made me want to find a Johnny Reb hat and take a picture with a musket that ain’t a toy.

I got over that, of course. I might have gotten over it sooner if I hadn’t been sufficiently interested to look up LoCash Cowboys. I found out there were two of them. I couldn’t make it through one of their songs on YouTube, but my impression was they sounded about as Southern as Joan Baez. That didn’t exactly do anything for my blood pressure.

Then I went to Wikipedia and found out they were from Baltimore and Kokomo.

What the hell war did they lose?

I didn’t bother Sheila with any of this and I won’t.

And, like I say, I got over it soon enough. It wasn’t like losing.

But the world never lets you rest.

A few weeks ago, goons were out taking over the streets of Portland, Oregon again. This time it was Antifa, except it wasn’t their if you don’t stop being a fascist I’ll beat your head in with this lead pipe schtick, but their, we’re closing this city street because we can schtick.

It got interesting when one of the drivers they were intimidating said he was from North Carolina. I think he was trying to point out that he didn’t know his way around and he really preferred to go down the street they were blocking so he wouldn’t risk getting lost.

Whatever his reason, you can hear their response here. (For those who don’t want to waste three minutes of your life, it’s the old you’re-from-the-south-so-you-must-be-in-the-KKK routine.)

This is where it gets personal.

My mother’s family was from North Carolina.

They were all a bunch of rock-ribbed Republicans. Southern Republicans. Southern Republicans in the days when that guaranteed you were in the minority…..and the KKK’s crosshairs. They were Republicans because, in those days (she was born in 1919, the youngest of eight), the Democrats were the party of segregation and Jim Crow (and, yes, the KKK). They despised Franklin Roosevelt because, to them, he was just another Yankee Democrat who made sweetheart deals with race-baiting, KKK-loving governors to gin up votes from their party machines all across the South.

That might not be all Roosevelt was, of course. But that’s who he was to them…because they had to live with it.

That’s what it means to lose. You can explain yourself all you want, but you’ll still end up getting lectures on morality, (not to mention getting over it), from the people who sent Ted Kennedy back to the U.S. Senate seven times after Chappaquiddick.

And there will always be somebody who will tell you to go back to North Carolina and be with the KKK…whose tactics they have adopted wholesale.

Thank God the Yankees won. I’m never gonna wear my Johnny Reb hat again.

But that doesn’t mean I stopped noticing….or forgot what losing means.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwZlhRA0UmA

31 thoughts on “JUST WHAT IS IDENTITY ANYWAY?

  1. Totally get all of that. It’s so much easier to move a mountain than to get a human heart to recognize itself for what it is: more treacherous than anything. Maybe that’s why “cannibal” is generally only applicative to humans.

    >>”But the world never lets you rest.”<<

    That won't come till after the dust settles, friend.

    It's crazy that the thing we need from one another–the need to live and get along together–is the same thing that can drive us apart. Like in all those Ford films: civilization was longed for, fought for; and when it arrived, ground out the very ones who brought it and so in turn began to collapse.

    I think I finally figured out a possible "purpose" to the idiotic man-child character, "Herbert", played by O.Z. Whitehead in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He was the future civilized male: never to grow up, ever suckling.

    • If the growing amount of suckling men with quickly identifiable traces of arrested development — mostly younger, it seems, but I don’t make it a point to meet a lot of new people these days — isn’t entirely due to the increasing encouragement of “white knighting” based on the popular myth that women themselves are eternally fragile children who can’t do anything wrong, feel “offended” easily and must be taken care of; the nearly creepy devaluing of the male in the very civilization he built and maintains, leading to the baseless self-loathing of boys and young men; the rise in single-mother parenting, as she evidently always wins in divorce court (leading to a scarcity of father figures to look up to and emulate); and the mockery of masculinity that toxic entities such as modern feminism have fostered, then at least those reasons represent solid springboards for debate. The never-to-grow-up male might also originate in boys’ half-conscious resistance to the permeating social assumption that men are disposable. We’ve always been. We’re utilities and sacrificial lambs. It goes all the way back to “Women and children first.”

      That was a longer paragraph than what originally formed in my head. The combination of Johnny writing and April writing gets the synapses firing!

      I enjoyed living in NYC — briefly. It’s an extremely interesting place, but it’s also essentially a city of compartments. That’s not to mention that I didn’t enjoy being herded from corner to corner while walking, among those who increasingly grew to resemble livestock. I’m telling you, the last American haven is the Southwest. There’s a great balance between actual big-city stuff and outdoor places away from crowds. The sky’s huge in New Mexico, leaving plenty of room for new dreams to grow.

      • Yeah, I thought NY was a great place to visit…but having just been to Nashville and Memphis, I’ve been reminded of why I never wanted to live in a big city. Seemed like it took an hour to go anywhere! (And they ain’t near as big as New York.)

        To your larger point, there are no doubt a thousand reasons for the massive changes in what’s expected of grownups in general and men in particular over the last two generations or so…There’s a conservative writer named James Bowman who writes extensively about the loss–in the last fifty years–of the three thousand year old honor culture that underpins western civilization. He’s even written a book about it (haven’t read the book but his columns have certainly informed my opinions on the subject.) From that, all else flows. We’re a house made of matchsticks, waiting for the wind to blow.

        Wish I could be more cheerful on the subject!

        But I’m glad to know there’s something good left under those western skies. I haven’t seen them in too long!

        Maybe next year…

        • You need to go West, young man!

          New York has a lot of the obvious going for it that you can now find replicated in every major city, but I appreciate it better at a distance and I know I go on too much about it. But so does everyone who lives here long enough. It’s a right of passage to become an official “complainer”. You’re not a real New Yorker till you’ve made it to at least 50 complaints a day.

          I’m going to look up that author simply because I didn’t think anyone missed the word honor let alone the concept, enough to write on it!

          I was just a kid when I became aware that one of the most startling contrasts between what I read and watched was the idea of personal honor, particularly among men, was suffused in the former and totally absent in the real world.

          I mean when the word drops from even obscure, academic reference or even, gasp!, romance novels, it is dead. Words are so powerful, and so fragile.

          • Believe me, if time and money were no objects, I’d be taking long driving trips everywhere. One gift my dad gave me growing up for which I didn’t get around to thanking him enough was a love of the open road and what all might be waiting there!

            Yes, by all means read Mr. Bowman. His columns can be found here

            https://jamesbowman.net/

            He is the only national columnist who writes like a Victorian novelist so you and he should get along famously. He’s more partisan than me (we have about the same opinion of Libs, but he’s much kinder to Cons). But honor is his thing, like cultural collapse is mine. These things are not, of course, unrelated.

          • Personal honor is very important to me, precious even, and stubbornly maintaining it in this day and age, from the still-fiery vantage point of a big-hearted Dago in his forties, is tantamount to carrying a torch. This isn’t to mention that women so often mistake kindness for weakness. But I’m an asshole about not being an asshole, even if honor is largely obsolete, and outright unattractive to most.

            My impetus above isn’t conceit. It’s the long version of: I hear ya.

            By contrast, one of the most (accidentally) funny things I’ve heard lately is the regurgitated lament, “Where have all the good men gone?” Attagirls! Spend thirty years deriding Ward Cleaver and John Wayne, and then wonder why nobody wants to be Ward Cleaver or John Wayne anymore.

      • Hi Chris! Loved your reply.

        My heart aches.

        I believe the best we can do for boys is to show them they are not only loved they are NEEDED, by women, by their families and communities. It does no one any good if a single son grows up thinking otherwise.

        Maybe I feel it acutely because I adored my father and he left us when I needed him most. My mother needed either him or a decent replacement more than she’ll ever admit, too. Life is too short to go it alone.

        I adored what I saw of Arizona and New Mexico when I drove through from Texas to Cali. The clarity of the skies and the baked beauty of the landscape was unforgettable. Don’t laugh, but I also devoured Zane Grey novels as a teen, relishing the power of his descriptions of the desert. His stories are potboilers but he’s like another writer entirely when he starts describing the raw beauty of the west and it’s almost mystical power over humans.

        Several SW towns are definitely on my go-to list. Frankly, you’ve inspired me to look more closely into whether I could make that move, and for that I thank you!

        P.S. I think where I grew up in Texas must have been the boringest part in terms of landscape. My mother took a trip down to Big Bend country and came back rhapsodic. Since I didn’t go, I’m afraid I left the lone star state convinced it was as as flat and monotonous as…oh, I wish I could think of a witty simile!

        • As flat and monotonous as a burrito made in Buffalo? (I went with alliteration, mainly to draw attention away from the simile that I’ve vainly tried to complete for you in a hardly witty way, while tying in the Authentic New Mexican Food theme. Ten points for effort?)

          Re: Boys, etc. — I wish everyone thought like you. I’ll leave it at that. I’m terribly sorry to hear that your dad departed at a crucial time. Such an event is bound to leave some kind of effect that others simply won’t understand even with the best of intentions, try as they might to empathize. I hope you’ve healed. (Texas won’t help.)

          I would never knock Zane Grey. The man could paint a picture, and at his best, he could get you happily lost inside a page.

          • Rest assured no bad word about Zane Grey, Max Brand, Ernest Haycox, Louis L’Amour or Luke Short will be published around these parts! Not only were they the kings of my childhood reading, I’ve revisited some of their work in recent years and found a lot of fine writing. The Library of America should do some compilations as they’ve done for crime fiction!

  2. I was born in OK, raised in TX and have lived in NYC for a very too long time. I’ve always teased “Yankees” and New Yorkers, but it’s been a while since I was really active socially. I think I would provoke more than amuse, today. Men get a deer-in-headlights look when I joke, lately, and I don’t know for sure if they have changed, or I! Or they simply aren’t used to relaxing their guard around a woman anymore. Sure takes the fun out of parties.

      • That too is a good reason to move! Why stay in NY (rotten weather, ghastly cost of living and even ghastlier commuting) now that everywhere else is the same–but better weather!

        Have you ever seen The Sun Shines Bright?

  3. I have. It’s not one I’ve seen dozens of times (merely three or four) but that’s only because I came to it late. I go back and forth on whether it’s better than Judge Priest. Let’s just say I’m happy both exist.

  4. I asked about The Sun Shines Bright because Ford loved Civil War history, and boasted he had Irish relatives that fought on both sides. He even married a southerner, from a prominent family. It influenced his depiction of them specifically and in context. Nobody today can reconcile anything about his “southern” films, which is too bad. They are rich in character. It helped that he spiritually identified with life’s “losers”, a trait that seems to have died with the 20th century. I expect you could argue it was an identity that informed more popular music than any notion except falling in love, and that a Southern man knew more about both than most. 😉

    • Nothing has driven me crazier than critics who insist Ford was a Confederate sympathizer (or some other code for Racist) simply because he often portrayed Southerners as something other than demons. I think reconciliation was one of his major themes (especially the fragility of such reconciliation, whether personal or cultural or national) and the aftermath of the Civil War made a perfect backdrop for such stories. Westerns, yes, but not JUST westerns. It’s one of the several ways Ford was more like a high-ranking Victorian Novelist than a filmmaker–that attention to character and the ability to illuminate it in even the smallest details.

      Now you’ve got me feeling I need to start writing about him again! Time, time, time (another of his great themes, of course.)

      • And so what if he was a “sympathizer”! Compassion for the vanquished is the moral obligation of the victor (Lincoln tried that on for size and, well, we know what happened).

        We’ve now covered at least four more words/concepts tossed on the ash-heap of history!

        Have you seen The Horse Soldiers? I love the contrasts and juxtapositions of ideas and attitudes he sets up at every turn. Every writer I’ve encountered on the film has been lukewarm at best and focused on the off screen tragedy or didn’t look deeply enough. I find it startling and wonderfully jarring, depicting so many uncomfortable stigmas, reeling from the comic to the tragic. And what else is war or life itself but people taking themselves far too seriously until they live together closely enough and long enough to see we’re not so different after all. The best of The Horse Soldiers hides in plain sight, Ford’s “signature”, if he can be said to have one.

        As a former devourer of Victorian literature I get the correlation to which you allude. No wonder I like his movies so much. He’s not a stranger…

        • I have seen The Horse Soldiers, again several times. It’s one that’s grown for me with each viewing, mainly because (as with Sergeant Rutledge) I’ve warmed to Constance Towers–which really means I’ve just gotten over the fact that she isn’t Vera Miles.

          As far as I’m concerned Vera should have been Ford’s leading lady in practically every movie after The Searchers (I make exceptions for The Wings of Eagles and 7 Women…I doubt Maureen O’Hara or Anne Bancroft could have been bettered). All the others were good actresses and most gave fine performances. But I don’t think it’s an accident the two consensus masterpieces of Ford’s last decade had her in the female lead.

          Note to self: Time to watch The Horse Soldiers again! Maybe followed by The Sun Shines Bright.

          • >>>As far as I’m concerned Vera should have been Ford’s leading lady in practically every movie after The Searchers<<<

            It was Ford who warmed me to Vera and made me revisit her other work, including of course Hitchcock who curiously reunited her with Searchers co-star Jeffrey Hunter in an episode of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour".

            I appreciate the ambiguity Vera brings to her roles. Hallie Jorgenson, for instance, in that moment when she's gazing at the men going at fisticuffs over her. The look on her face is priceless. Ford beautifully contrasted her energetic reactions with her ability to go quiet every time Wayne's Doniphon parted from her, in Liberty Valance.

            She is, I believe, the only living leading lady of both Ford and Hitchcock that survives (unless I've missed her passing!).

  5. RE: the Honor question. When I started the blog I had a few tag lines that I tended to repeat at the end of any post where I had been forced to delineate some modern absurdity or other. The two most common were “Goodbye us.” and “We will win no more wars.” They were party tongue-in-cheek, of course, but only partly. One never really knows how much the sinews of a culture have atrophied until they are put to the test. The test will come. Perhaps we’ll pass, perhaps not. But I hope I don’t live to see it as the signs are NOT good.

    • J: remember the Bette Davis/Leslie Howard movie “The Petrified Forest” (Bogie’s breakout role was the gangster). I’m familiar with Sherwood’s play and the film and I like how it explores two very different “types” of male as having become obsolete. This was 1935.

      No, NOT good at all.

  6. abqchris: Bravo for sticking to your guns. I never miss an opportunity to remind my female friends of the facts of life, particularly those who rely on fathers, brothers, beaus and husbands for more support than they will ever admit–and that consequently, the predominant feeling they exhibit toward men should be positive and loving! I also remind them that every man they hate was born of woman.

    I’m sensitive to those that have personal reasons for grudges, it’s the “princesses” that annoy me. It never ceases to astound me how many women who never experienced anything of real abuse or neglect from a male should adopt antagonistic attitudes toward the entire male gender. Also worth noting is how much of it is hubris. Anti-male sarcasm erupts like a knew-jerk pile-on when we gather in groups. I suspect their declarations bear little resemblance to how many genuinely feel on the subject. I’ve caught them reversing themselves when speaking one-on-one, much too often.

    Needless to say, the number of friends that are my own sex is few. 🙂

  7. How lovely to encounter people who appreciate Zane Grey! My mother learned English (she’s German) in part due to his novels. She had the entire hardbound set with the red and blue spine that is now a collector’s item. It spurred her love of all things desert and western. As a teen I tore through them, literally devoured one a day along with other reading obsessions. I found them so romantic!

  8. Thanks to the link you shared, John, to James Bowman’s site, I’ve tumbled down a rabbit hole and even ordered his book!

    It also prompted to want to re-read my favorite book on art, Arthur Danto’s “What Art Is”. I remember it made marvelous good sense and entertained me hugely. If you’ve not read it I recommend it. I learned about it long ago via Ayn Rand, if you can believe it.

    • I know what you mean about going down a rabbit hole. I had the same experience when I first encountered him. My only problem after I caught up was he doesn’t write enough…which is probably why his quality is so high.

      I will look for the Danto book (I need to read Bowman’s, too, so feel free to give me a mini-review when you finsish!)

      BTW: Vera is alive and pushing ninety. She’s never given an interview since she retired many years ago and rarely gave lengthy ones anyway. If I ever write about her at length I already have my tittle: The Woman Who Kept the Secrets….What she knows about Ford and Hitchcock (and Walt DIsney and John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, et al) could probably fill several books. I have to assume she has a touch of that Honor thing.

  9. Speaking of identities in crisis, has anyone here seen the documentary, “Monrovia, Indiana”? I’m clueless about the film maker (Frederick Wiseman) but he apparently has a rep. The synopsis and reviews found at Film Forum (which is currently showing it) have me intrigued to go if only for this:

    >>>”It is in fact a hallmark of Wiseman’s open-text films that multiple readings apply”<<<
    Here is the site: https://filmforum.org/film/monrovia-indiana

    Is it really possible there is a nuanced documentary on small town USA?

    If I go I'll make sure it's on a day and time they are concurrently showing one of Ida Lupino's films, where I can escape to if the going gets rough.

    • I not only haven’t seen it, I haven’t heard of it…I hope it’s all it’s cracked up to be. There was a similar type doc by Errol Morris (of Thin Blue Line fame, among others) about Vernon, FL, a panhandle town I’m somewhat familiar with (played baseball there as a teenager and our high school used to play them in football and basketball). I found it pretty condescending–didn’t think Morris had an eye or feel for the place at all. But it was similarly praised.

      Really hope your experience is better…and I envy you your proximity to the Ida Lupino celebration! Been hearing a lot of good things about that, at least!

      • I don’t mind the conceit of small-town vs big city (it runs all through classic Hollywood) so much as when a film depicts living communities like a trip to the zoo. Reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode, where Roddy McDowell finds himself trapped in a suburban cage with wall-to-wall carpet and a glass wall (to protect the animal, not the viewers?).

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