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The Great American Identity Crisis

By Heather Wilhelm

Several years ago, it became trendy for American twenty-somethings to discuss and dissect the arrival of their very own "quarter-life crisis"--a brick wall of angst and stress brought on by the realities of the post-college world.

Now recognized by sympathetic scholars, psychologists, and sociologists across the country, the quarter-life crisis often besets high-achieving, Type-A young people who expect a dream job, a dream salary, and a non-leaky, non-rodent-infested New York apartment right out of school. Unfortunately for many, reality often translates into a low-paying, highly competitive job that fails to cover rent for a Manhattan shoebox with an in-house animal kingdom to rival the Bronx Zoo--and, sadly, here I speak from past experience.

Here's the good news: Quarter-life crises are usually short, and they're usually not even crises. People grow out of them, perspective is gained, and salaries go up as dues are paid. But identity crises in general, it turns out, may be as American as apple pie. In fact, we seem to be in the thick of one now -- just in time for the 2008 election.

Exhibit A in the national obsession with identity is Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor of disaster. A few weeks ago, Wright's linguistic fireballs introduced portions of America to an identity-based subculture many never knew existed (or, if they did, were in deep denial about).

Rev. Wright, however, is merely a drop in America's teeming, frothy bucket of identity conflicts. Gender identity also plagues us, or so we're told. This month, for instance, Conde Nast's Portfolio magazine broadcast the allegedly daunting problem of sexism in corporate America. The article's exquisitely ironic subtitle ("Weren't we supposed to be beyond this by now?") echoes what many Americans are likely thinking at this point. So thick is the air of identity, however, that the much-publicized study somehow misses the point of its own concluding paragraphs, in which two female business school professors suggest that, rather than facing discrimination, many women just might not be cutthroat enough--they're "equality builders," one says--to rise to the top. (Apparently, Hillary Clinton missed that particular memo.)

So, weren't we supposed to be beyond this by now? Perhaps. But a quick glance at the nations' college classrooms shows that we're busy training the next generation of leaders for a life full of identity-based grievances and sensitivities. In Harvard's sociology department alone, fifteen classes deal with divisions among race, gender, class, or ethnicity. Twelve classes focus on various levels of "inequality," with special attention of course on the American variety.

Some of these identity-based divisions are real, but some, just as clearly, are in our heads. Americans, it turns out, are no slouches when it comes to inventing problematic personal labels. As Northwestern University professor Christopher Lane recently pointed out, "America has reached a point where almost half its population is described as being in some way mentally ill." Among the more popular maladies is "social anxiety disorder," one of seven new anxiety disorders created in 1980. The symptoms include "fear of eating alone in restaurants" and "avoidance of public toilets." (So far, most people I know are scoring two for two).

"By the time a revised task force added dislike of public speaking in 1987," Lane adds, "the disorder seemed sufficiently elastic to include virtually everyone on the planet." Count me in!

Another popular American identity, particularly during election season, is that of the downtrodden, abused, and hopeless middle class. This identity, widely revered by politicians of a certain stripe, is also largely a construct. As columnist Robert Samuelson recently noted, economic realities in America are much sunnier than politicians or the chattering classes would have us believe. Populist rhetoric may be on the rise, and class warfare is ever popular on the Democratic stump, but, it turns out, the real middle class (as opposed to the invented one) isn't always buying it.

A significant number of people, however, appear to be buying it, and the implications for future policy and politics could be immense. "The election this fall will pose the starkest ideological choice since 1980," according to a recent issue of the American Prospect. If only that were so. While the ideological rift between left and right is certainly real, the referendum this fall will more likely center on identity, not ideology: The identity of the candidates (black, white, man, woman), the identity of voters (both real and imagined), and, on a superficial level, the identity of America.

Beyond the increasing honks and sighs about race, gender, class, and the fear of public toilets, there's a deeper, more daunting identity crisis bouncing around, touching on themes like the true meaning of equality, the value of freedom, and the role of the individual in America. At times we get close to discussing these themes, and then, just as quickly, they float away. Let's hope that these issues will break through the noise over the next few months. If not, get ready: The road to November will be a long one.

(c) 2008 RealClearPolitics. All Rights Reserved.

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