I once wrote a column about how I aspired to be Norwegian. This had something to do with my having served several years earlier on Al Quie’s gubernatorial staff. But as a New York native who had moved to Minnesota in 1974, my interest in being Norwegian also had to do with preferring the stereotypical Scandinavian way Diane Keaton’s family in Wisconsin celebrated Thanksgiving in “Annie Hall” instead of how Woody Allen’s family did so, presumably in Brooklyn.
“Lovely ham this year, mother,” I recall someone in Keaton’s family saying nicely and politely, while Allen’s family just kept screaming and interrupting each other while trains thundered overhead, in Woody Allen’s breakthrough 1977 movie. Let’s just say that despite growing up in Queens, I’ve always been a Midwesterner at heart.
By writing what I did, had I really become Norwegian? Or was I likely scratching around at the last moment for a column idea with a few laughs? Let’s put it this way, I hadn’t become any more Norwegian than Rachel Dolezal transmuted to black.
Alluding to whom, and at the risk of making light, I have a biracial daughter who’s now in her 20s and has a daughter of her own. For a black woman she has a light complexion, and for a white guy I have a dark complexion. Meaning that occasionally when I had been in the sun a lot we would compare arms and I would tease that mine was darker than hers. This routinely drove her a little crazy, which frankly was my aim as her fun-loving father, who evidently hadn’t disgorged everything East Coast about himself.
But by spending extra time outdoors had I gained the right to declare myself “black”? Or even a “person of color,” as in “temporarily tan”? No and no, as to do so would be ridiculous. It also would be a lie. Or using a buzzword I don’t like very much, claiming a different race would have been “inauthentic.”
But what if, giving Washington state’s Rachel Dolezal a little Midwestern due, “authenticity” itself is overrated? What if “being yourself” is not always aligned with “good character”? What if we considered this excerpt about Dwight Eisenhower from David Brooks’ new and fascinating book, “The Road to Character”?
Eisenhower was never a flashy man, but two outstanding traits defined the mature Eisenhower, traits that flowed from his upbringing and that he cultivated over time. The first was his creation of a second self. Today, we tend to live within an ethos of authenticity. We tend to believe that the “true self” is whatever is most natural and untutored. That is, each of us has a certain sincere way of being in the world, and we should live our life being truthful to that authentic inner self, not succumbing to the pressures outside ourself. To live artificially, with a gap between your inner nature and our outer conduct, is to be deceptive, cunning and false.
Eisenhower hewed to a different philosophy. This code held that artifice is man’s nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.
Outside of the fact that I have zero interest in self-girdling, I find much to recommend in self-cultivation in the way Brooks saw Eisenhower pruning and molding. So what’s so wrong with Dolezal, until the other day the NAACP’s leader in Spokane, adding pigmentation to the amount bestowed by nature? Given the way Brooks frames matters, this actually might be a more difficult question than first assumed, but let me suggest four abbreviated thoughts.
Putting aside the possibility that Dolezal is seriously mentally ill — which would scale back criticism — I would argue that her brand of self-cultivation is grounded much more in self-deception than self-improvement.
For whatever racial solidarity she hopes to convey, what comes across instead is racial obsequiousness.
By re-coloring herself, images provoked of black-faced minstrels are inevitable and understandably seen as offensive, and not just by blacks.
At root, she has been living a life of lies, in spheres both public and personal, in which honesty is not just a best policy, but a moral command.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment. His most recent book is “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.”
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