When I was a teenager, I had an experience that most of you haven't. I realized over the course of a few years that everybody who loved me was wrong about pretty much everything.
I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was taught the tenets of that religion, along with its view of history and science, along with abstinence from politics, along with a distrustful view of humanity, by people who cared about me deeply. Those people weren't deliberately filling me with b.s. They thought they were telling me the truth. When Witnesses come knocking on your door, thereby annoying you in the middle of a college football game, they think they're potentially saving your life. I know because I thought so. I didn't want to "go in service." I felt I had to...for you. And no matter how passionate an argument I could muster at the time from my encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, I was wrong. So was Mom. So was Dad. So were most of my authority figures.
So think about that. Put yourself in my shoes. Imagine learning everything you believe, everything you stand for, is a fraud. Perpetrated by whom, you ask? I don't know. I've often wondered about that. I suspect even the Witnesses' Governing Body in Brooklyn thinks it's telling its flock the whole truth. Maybe the fraud is in our own minds. We believe what sounds good to us, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary. Are your beliefs so different?
The thing is, that experience changed me. It made me skeptical of concepts that sound too good to be true. Now I can't watch a single TV commercial without picking away at its promises.
Most of you have never dealt with this moment, at least not to the degree that I have. So for you, identity is everything, and by that I mean the identity you were given by Mommy and Daddy and the community in which you were raised. If your father was a Baptist, you're probably a Baptist. If your uncles were Democrats, you're probably a Democrat. If you're a Star Wars or Seahawks fan, your kids will probably wear those T-shirts before they learn half a dozen words. You've changed, sure, but only in superficial ways. And that's okay, generally speaking. It's good to be part of a community. It's good to know where you came from, to start your life armed with a preinstalled template.
Except here's the thing: sometimes the people who love us make mistakes. And sometimes, and this happens more often than we realize, the truth moves away from what it used to be. As a culture, we learn things. People my age can look back and see a time when racism and homophobia were ubiquitous on a level that makes most millennials queasy. It's not that we were awful people. It's that we just didn't know any better. I myself am a reformed homophobe, and I'm so glad I saw the light before most Oklahomans. But we didn't own magical Palantiri to help us see into the future--nor do you. The day may come, for example, when group or short-contract marriages are the norm, and our progeny will look back and wonder why we Generation X-ers were so keen to marry for life. They'll wonder how you could ever have bought tickets to SeaWorld or eaten the flesh of a mammal. Who knows? We aren't prophets, you and I, and always in motion is the future.
My grandmother was a staunch Democrat till the day she died. Y'know what, though? The Democratic Party she signed on for wasn't the Democratic Party of the 21st century. The Democratic brand in the mid-'60s included racist doctrines you and I now consider appalling. But my grandma, who, let's face it, came from a deeply racist Oklahoma tradition, never switched her party allegiance. She considered her party membership a key element of her identity as a person--regardless of what it meant from year to year.
So why am I writing about this now?
Each of us has a feeling of identity, a core group of ideas and values we consider our "self." Once we have it, we don't think about it often. An identity thief steals our Social Security and credit card information, but he never actually steals our identity. That stays with us like childhood inoculation scars. I'll give you a personal example. Right around the time I left the Witnesses, theatre became a huge part of my life. Three decades later, it's an aspect of who I am in my own mind. If you ask me, I'm a writer who acts and directs and loves his wife and Star Wars and a core group of family and friends. That's not all I am, obviously, but it covers about 80%. You could banish me to a faraway prison and if I escaped in five years, I would still be all those things. Did the uninspiring Star Wars prequels dent my fandom? Not one bit. Does my wife's snoring make me love her any less? Don't be silly. If I go two years without having a great time on stage, does it keep me from auditioning? Well, I've been through spells like that, and apparently not.
Should it? Therein lies the rub. I don't know the answer to that question. Some years I ask myself that question very pointedly. When I do, my mind yells back at me: Carv, if you aren't a theatre person, then what the hell are you? Who are you? Why are you even important? And that's a debilitating thought. It can sweep away reason. It can make us do and say things other people may look at and rightly evaluate as foolish and/or insane.
I'll give you another example. For most Americans, the Bible is a book of peace and the Koran is a book of bloodshed. That's just something we, you'll pardon the expression, take on faith. Now, I freely admit I don't know jack about the Koran, but I do know the Bible. And if you can look at the books of Deuteronomy (2:34, 3:6, 7:2, I could go on) or Joshua (6:21, 10:40...) and not see that Yahweh is a god who favors genocide as a method of acquiring preferable real estate, then you own one liberal translation. Read Hosea 13:16 and tell me Yahweh is a god of love, forgiveness and compassion. Tell me he's a god who loves life. Read Exodus chapters 21 and 22 and tell me he's a god who loves women. Because I can promise you this: if you had never read the Bible or had any emotional attachment to it prior to adulthood, and I asked you to sit down and read the Bible cover to cover, you'd be outraged that anyone could revere it an ethical guide. I mean, sure, there are great verses, too. I bet you know some of them by heart. But they don't paint a representative picture of the so-called Good Book as a whole. This is a book in which Yahweh told us ten moral rules were so important we could treat them as the sum of all moral behavior. And did "slavery is wrong" make the list? How 'bout "races who look unlike you are still people?" Or "stop beating your kids?" Nope. "Sex slavery is wrong?" Huh-uh. Know what did make the list? "No more sculpture." This is also a moral guide that frequently reminds you to throw rocks at your gay friends until they fall over dead. It's a book that claims Yahweh decided to kill us all, first one at a time, then with a global flood, then concocted a plan to make it stop--which, for some reason, required him to kill his own son. Oh, and by the way, death hasn't stopped. It's been two thousand years and counting, and earthquakes are still dumping church roofs on babies. But what a wonderful plan!
Now, I tell you all this knowing most of you will find ways to rationalize it away. And you'll do that, not because it makes any sense, frankly, but because Christianity is a part of who you are. It's a part of your identity. And very likely, it will be for the rest of your life. You might change churches or stop going altogether, you might accept the scientific fact of evolution, you might campaign for gay rights, but you'll go to your grave thinking this world would be a better place if more people just followed the Bible. Not read it cover to cover with a clear mind, of course--don't be silly. Simply followed it, meaning the verses we already know and like. We're about identity here, not homework!
I've never been shy about talking about religion, sex and politics--the socially awkward trinity we've been told to avoid in conversation. Screw that. I know what the weather looks like. I'm not here to belabor the obvious. That stuff bores me. But when I talked about these things, for years I went about it all wrong. I presented my arguments rationally, like we were in court and I was trying to send your most cherished ideas to logic jail. I'll be honest, I still try that sometimes. I can't help myself. If it annoys you, I apologize. If this essay has already gotten on your nerves, mea culpa. But I do try to learn from my mistakes, and I've realized in recent months that a lot of what you believe, you believe because it's part of who you are. It's part of your identity. If I tell you the Bible is a collection of short books written over hundreds of years by people who had no concept of physical or sociological reality and knew less about God or morality than any of us, I'm also telling you that your parents lied to you. I'm telling you that when you played cowboys and Indians when you were a kid, the Indians should actually have been the good guys. I'm telling you Jesus isn't coming to save you from the big D. I'm telling you neither "real men" nor "real women" have a divinely approved set of characteristics, which means you're not necessarily a "real" man or woman. I'm telling you Grandpa was a dummy about how nonwhites and women should be treated. I'm telling you Granny taught you methods of cooking guaranteed to make you fat. I'm telling you all those things, those vital contributing factors to your identity, those people who loved you and took care of you when you were sick and brought you nice things on Christmas, were all chock full of crap. And since that's clearly an awful thing to tell any human being, I must be wrong so all of them can be right--and so you can be right. It's vitally important that you and your loved ones be right about everything. Right? Because if someone else is right--especially a mean son of cultists like me--then what the hell is left for you to be?
My point is, I have to be careful when framing my arguments about these topics that I don't disrespect your identity and background. Because the truth is I value those things. I appreciate the countless hours my own mother spent teaching me how to be a better Witness. I thank my father for the snarky sense of humor he bequeathed upon me, though it often gets both of us in trouble--including with each other. I'm thankful to every teacher who taught me "all right" is a word and "alright" isn't, despite the fact that both are now okay in most dictionaries. I love the elder who changed my life by responding to one of my myriad pesky questions with the sincere claim, "Sometimes it's best not to speculate"--because that's the moment I realized it was absolutely necessary for human beings to speculate. Those moments built me. They're my own identity. And no matter how far I roam from McAlester and Crowder, Oklahoma, they'll be down there in my cellular nuclei, defining how I approach the world and my responsibilities to it.
We have come to a time in American history when the Republican Party, an organization that ostensibly represents a full half of our electorate, is in catastrophic disarray. That's a fact. I say it, not to gloat, but to find a way forward. And it's not just the Trump thing. We're also reaching the end of a period in which several Republican governors had the opportunity to follow the Republican platform to the letter in their states. Thus, we've been able to see, once and for all, whether those ideas pan out--and they don't. Those states are now bankrupt. Their educational systems are falling apart. As one of my Republican friends said of Oklahoma's political debacle, "We are basically in budget cut Hell out here," adding, "Thanks for my $30 per year tax cut and my kids' tears."
I'm not saying Democrats are better people. In no way am I saying we progressives have all the answers and ha ha ha, in your face. I'm saying good people had idealistic notions of how to run a government, but those turned out to be wrong. It'd be easy for us to go down in flames with those ideas because we can't admit our identities were flawed. It'd be easy to think, "I can see things are collapsing around my ears, and my kids don't have classroom supplies and the rest of the country is rolling its eyes at us, but I intend to stay loyal to Republican ideas and legislators because those are Republican ideas and I'm a Republican like my daddy before me and if I'm not a Republican, then who the hell am I?"--at which point there's a smell of fried circuitry in our brains and our vision gets blurry and we have to lie down for a while.
As we speak, the sole Republican candidate for president is a reality TV clown, a living parody of billionaire boobism. Working people feel shafted by the system, as well they should; but they've responded by rallying behind a vulgar tycoon whose tag line is, literally, "You're fired." They long for a return to Christian fundamentalism, yet they've voted for a non-churchgoer who said "Two Corinthians" at a Bible college. Donald Trump has never held political office, never served in the military, never learned how to compromise in a divided system, and never did anything for anyone but himself. He claims to be a uniter but called Megyn Kelly a "bimbo." I know the vast majority of Republicans see through his fools' gold facade. I know they do. But many will still vote for him--because there's an R by his name, and R's vote for R's, and that's just how these things are, because identity. I mean, what are they supposed to do, vote for a D? Stay home on R Day? Are you kidding?
My friends, identity can be a wonderful thing, but it is currently making us very, very stupid.
We fight tooth and nail against reasonable restrictions against guns, because we're gun people and you not-gun people shouldn't be attacking our identity as gun people. I mean, sure, some kids die in a school shooting each week, but I don't see myself as a bad person so somehow my complicity in that doesn't matter.
We refuse to admit gay people are people because we're straight people and it's part of our identity as straight people to look down on gay people. I mean, we say we love the sinner and hate the sin, but actually we refuse to acknowledge that being gay shouldn't be a sin because we're Bible people and we Bible people think gay people are sinners and if we're wrong about that, well, let's just not even go there.
We deny evolution because science people are nerd people and they're mean to us, I mean they act so superior, just because they studied anthropology and we didn't. And quit reminding us we were half-awake in science class, nerds! We're Bible people and who asked all you knowing-stuff people anyway!
We take an all-or-nothing stance on abortion because the way we feel about abortion was fed to us by people who love us, and this is babies and femininity and motherhood we're talking about so you know we can't be swayed by emotion or paranoia.
Folks, we have to take a good hard look at our issues of identity. It's long past time. Just because you were told some things in childhood by people who love you doesn't mean those good people were right about every single thing. And even if they had been, the world changes. We learn things. There's no good way now, for example, to argue climate change is a hoax. There's no world in which it's okay for Donald Trump to call Mexicans rapists and then claim he loves Mexicans because he ordered a taco salad. There's no way he wasn't screwing with us when he referred to 9/11 as "7-Eleven" in New York. That is not a mistake people make, especially adults who speak English and live and work in Manhattan. Trump is playing us for fools, and he's winning. There's no way the Republican Party can be said to represent everyday working people. You want to talk about Democrats? Fine, let's do that. I also think we picked the wrong candidate. And y'know why we did that? Because we couldn't expand our identity to include democratic socialism fast enough to take Sanders seriously. We went with the establishment candidate, because that candidate looked more like a D and we're D people and that's just what D people do.
Well, I for one am through feeling chained to my identity. I can grow. I can learn. And so can you. In fact it seems to me that cutting loose from what Mommy and Daddy told us with loving smiles on their faces is the only way any of us can move forward. The key to making America great isn't making it what it was. That country was only great to a select few. We make America great by making it inclusive and receptive and progressive and reasonable and above all, optimistic--not fearful. Let's be better than we have been. Let's be better than our parents and grandparents were. Let's build new and richer identities together. Can we do that? Can we please just try harder to do that?