Identity as Choice

But this devotion to a Party that has become so mean-spirited and violent does not fit the profile of those Republicans I know and love. These were — still are — generous, law-abiding, community-minded citizens.

But this devotion to a Party that has become so mean-spirited and violent does not fit the profile of those Republicans I know and love. These were — still are — generous, law-abiding, community-minded citizens.

Where would I begin were I to attempt an examination of my own identity? Would I start at my beginnings in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin? Or would a recent date be more illustrative, for example, 2013, when I stood in front of the American Consul in Vancouver and swore an oath renouncing my American citizenship? These are definitive landmarks but they are woefully inadequate for charting a lifetime. In searching for useful ways to consider “identity” more generally, I find help from the Indian economist/philosopher, Amartya Sen. In The Argumentative Indian (London, Allen Lane, 2005) he agues that a consideration of identity, whether national or individual, needs to emphasize two key points: 1) the multiplicitous nature of identity; 2) the importance of choice in the creation of identity. Neither a nation nor an individual life consists of a single identity and every one of us makes or refuses to make—another kind of choice—life-altering decisions. Sen’s two criteria offer a heuristic way of considering a life if we set it into its historical contexts. I use these tools to explore the question of identity and, in the process, to raise an important question about the troubling political moment we now inhabit and where my own life fits into it.

To be sure, choosing an identity is no simple matter. Many contingencies over which one has no control create constraining forces. For starters, one could consider class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, educational opportunities, religious background, the historical moment of one’s life. But here I would like to centre another identity too often overlooked: the effect of one’s geographic location considered in all its detailed granularity. This takes me back to Fond du Lac.

This small midwestern American city was my place of birth and my home till age 18. The name said everything to me: we were at the bottom of the lake and I wanted nothing more than to swim up and fly away. Given this reality in my life, I focus particularly on Sen’s second point: what choice has meant in my life given its multiple possibilities and its limiting contingencies. My own life is not so unusual; in fact, many of its aspects are commonplace. But I consider these choices as a way of understanding a bigger question that plagues me a great deal. How is it that so many of my people, my early tribe, have become if not precisely Trumpites, at least willing participants in the political world he has inflamed?

Infographic: Record Numbers Renouncing Their U.S. Citizenship | Statista
You will find more infographics at Statista

Let me begin again near the end. When I renounced my American citizenship. I was giving up my former status as a dual citizen, becoming solely a Canadian, a choice of citizenship I had first happily made on May 5, 1982. This renunciation was fringed with dire warnings from the US State Department about what this would cost me (and yes, the Americans do charge ex-pats a hefty fee for this service) in loss of protection and opportunity. One of the unexpected consequences was that my name would enter a Federal Register of renouncers, a public record of us near traitors, explicitly created to cause “shame and embarrassment”, according to one tax lawyer. We numbered 3415 that year. Over this past decade only 30,000 Americans have chosen to renounce their citizenship. Of course there could be many reasons for choosing to maintain US citizenship but I confess to being surprised that so few people have renounced after President Obama’s government required a somewhat terrifying annual reporting of income and assets to the Internal Revenue Service of the USA. Terrifying because the penalties for failing to report could result in huge penalties, $10,000 a year, for failing to report something many of us ex-pats had never heard of, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). I did not finally renounce to avoid paying taxes as I was not wealthy enough for that to be a problem. I have no idea how many of the 3415 renouncers in my year were also Canadians. But given that dual USA / Canadian ex-pats in Canada are estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, most of the dual citizens were not choosing to abandon the USA. I personally know many people who are not making that choice. True, fealty to our brand of patriotism is a piety learned from our earliest years as we pledged allegiance daily, hands on heart, to our exceptional Nation, “under God” and “indivisible”. Perhaps the non-renouncers feel that they have a duty to persevere, or perhaps they have hopes of returning. But one thing I have observed in discussing this with acquaintances is how fearful they are about the punishments the USA might choose to mete out. Barred from crossing the border? We all have family and friends on the other side of that border.

To be sure I have had a much deeper grounding in Canada than many of my ex-pat compatriots. For one thing I, alone among my six siblings, found the idea of our father’s French Canadian heritage compelling and made a point of studying the French language at Laval University. We had been St-Pierres in Quebec from the 17th century, after all, and yet my father was so pleased to be American, recalling the difficulties his merchant French-Canadian grandparents had securing the necessary loans from the Anglo-controlled banks of Canada. To them, and to my father, America was the land of opportunity, and Canada a repressive, discriminatory society for our kind of people.

But my position in Canada goes far beyond family history. At age 18 I chose—with the help of my parents—to go to the University of Toronto at a time (1961) when this was still an unusual, seemingly quixotic, choice. I stayed for five years, then returned to the USA in 1966 for six years, with the last four of those, 1968-72, in Boston, a centre of resistance to the Vietnam War. By then the move of Americans to Canada was a growing political phenomenon.

For my generation of Americans the immorality of the Vietnam War made for deeply uncomfortable choices and my own American family was riven into warring factions over our different stances. While we managed to remain a loving group at a distance, we spread out across the continent with only one of seven siblings remaining in Fond du Lac. I was the third in that line, something that I believe gave me a kind of traction in refusing the family pieties. My parents were busy; as long as I more or less behaved according to the family values, they left me alone. These values looked something like this: conservative Catholicism, conservative Republicanism, acceptance of the family gender roles, a robust intellectualism, devotion to the Green Bay Packers (male gladiators, I decided as a surly adolescent, an opinion they all ignored!), and a passion for the game of golf. The last of these, along with my father’s exasperated admonition one day to bookish me as we were driving through the countryside: “Think, Christine! Pay attention to what is around you!” were my entree at age 16 into my first serious study of power structures in my world: class analysis.

… by the time I had discarded my religious identity, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement had begun.

My sense of the distinctive class inequities in my town and the larger world was enough to make me swear off the game which in my world was played at a private country club, modest as that club was. Gender analysis came much later, perhaps because it felt so deeply natural to live and thrive in a loving, middle class, white family with an educated, very bright and competent, homemaker mother and a lawyer father. I had, after all, been sent to conservative Catholic schools all through my childhood from the age of six into my university years at St. Michael’s (Catholic) College in the University of Toronto. Although the 1970s was also a time of revolution—quickly suppressed—in the Church, I had by then received what I understood to be a thoroughgoing initiation into a religious cult which resulted in eternal hellfire if one sinned against its strictures. My first marriage, in which I supported a husband through his graduate studies while I taught school, ended in a divorce made possible because I had, dogma by dogma, realized how little, and then nothing, I believed of the obligatory Nicene Creed of the Catholic Church. I no longer cared about the threat of excommunication if one divorced and remarried, another choice I made. I chose to raise my two children without any sort of religious affiliation. Motherhood, wifehood, and now grandmotherhood, have been primary identities in the second half of my life.

But here I return to the idea of how historical moments make new identities possible: by the time I had discarded my religious identity, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement had begun. I welcomed the opportunity these offered to look more deeply into the power inequities of gender and race as well as class. As I said earlier, my story is not uncommon.

For so many women of my generation these movements caused our lives to explode. The long observed but poorly understood realities shaping our lives demanded attention. In my own case it offered me, among other gifts, the chance to rethink the production of knowledge, and my own rather conventional doctorate in English literature paled in the light of emerging feminist scholarship. I had the opportunity during my Ph.D. studies in Toronto, undertaken in my thirties, to teach in the first Women’s Studies program in Canada. It was intellectually and politically thrilling to be part of shaping a new discipline. When I was offered the chance to develop Women’s Studies at the University of Victoria I seized it and my luck continued: some of the most progressive senior administrators on the continent firmly supported us, allowing me to earn the first tenure-track professorship in the field of Women’s Studies in Canada.

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But here I return to the importance of geographic location in my family history, not only as a factor in my life but also as a way to pose some difficult political questions. To be a middle-class, white family in Fond du Lac—and Fond du Lac was all white when I lived there—was more or less definitively to be Republican. That district has a perfect record of sending Republicans to the House of Representatives and my parents remained staunch Republicans through the election and tenure of Communist-hunting Joseph McCarthy, our Republican State Senator, and through the Watergate scandal. My father was not without a sense of irony; when the glass elephant he was sent in thanks for generous contributions to the Party arrived with a broken trunk, he pointedly displayed the injured beast on the mantlepiece—but continued to vote for the Party. In time my four brothers all followed in his footsteps. I have not asked how they voted in the last two presidential elections; I might be disappointed. But then there are my two sisters, stalwart, activist Democrats. How do these differences, these choices, develop in a family?

But this devotion to a Party that has become so mean-spirited and violent does not fit the profile of those Republicans I know and love. These were—still are—generous, law-abiding, community-minded citizens. When my Canadian friends ask—in utter disbelief—how it is possible that decent people could vote for Trump I have no satisfactory explanation for the contradictions. Fond du Lac County was the birthplace of the Republican Party in 1854, established as an anti-slavery party, a perennial boasting point for the County. And yet, when I consider my hometown with its successful postwar manufacturing I wonder why it was all white when Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just down the road was 40% African-American, and why this did not trouble me as a girl. Did the unions refuse to hire non-whites? And what about the treatment of the Indigenous people, all but invisible in our town, despite the many surrounding reservations? Because I have not lived in the city for many decades I cannot assume an understanding of people’s thinking, but the most recent Census and other published data tell us that it is still nearly all-white, that unemployment, even now is still at only 5%, that “Money Magazine” has regularly placed Fond du Lac among the best places to live in the USA—and that the County voted 60% for Trump in 2020.

Canadians, even we new immigrant Canadians, tend to be pretty smug about our own pieties. But the focus in Canada on Human Rights instead of the American emphasis on Civil Liberties gives this country a clearer path to social justice. The choices I made over a lifetime have been good ones for me, and I am grateful that these have been possible, even rewarded, in my chosen country. But I would be deluded if I thought I was anything more than lucky to be in a particular place at the right time. I did not stick around to help dredge the bottom of our lake. But then, no one was asking.