If you are lucky enough to visit the Appian Way in Rome this summer, you will no doubt come upon gravesites and monuments with epitaphs extolling the virtues of the middle class. You’ll probably see graves for bakers (pistores), engravers (lapidarii), public building supervisors (aediles), merchants (mercatores), and even, yes, gladiators (gladiatores).
Many of these ancient Romans were eager to leave the rural life to reinvent themselves in the big city (the “Big Fig”?). They wanted to escape not just the farm but the social and economic class into which they were born. If you were anything but the first-born son from a relatively well-off family, your life was already determined, a fait accompli with little chance of hitching your wagon to anything but the southern end of an ox.
Rome with its one million inhabitants changed all that. It gave people an opportunity to rise above the particularities of birthplace, family, name, and even birth order. They were free (more or less) to hitch their wagon to a star. It required hard work and commitment (per aspera ad astra), but possibly for the first time in history, individuals had a say in who and what they were to became.
The idea of “becoming,” as opposed to “being,” may even have gotten its social impetus here. You were a new man or woman (homo novo), a shaper of your own destiny (faber fortunae suae), a self-made Roman (homo a se ortus).
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. We inherited this tradition and have been trying to work through it ever since it landed in the New World with the Pilgrims, who, of course, were looking for the same thing. It was reinforced by Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, lauded by Walt Whitman, exhorted by Aimee Semple McPherson, and enshrined in American icons like the rebel, cowboy, renegade, and maverick; to wit, James Dean, the Marlboro Man, Clint Eastwood, and Paul Walker.
With Caitlin Jenner, we have entered a new era. Instead of changing what we do to define us, we are now changing what we are. In fact, we could be doing the same things before and after our transformation. Caitlin’s daily routine probably does not look much different from Bruce’s. She didn’t need to change her lifestyle, job, or appointment calendar. She changed her gender.
Today, this is no longer a rare occurrence. We can now change our gender, ethnicity, class, and identity without fear of social stigma. Rachel Dolezal (“I identify with blacks”) is an exception to this, if only for the absurdity of her situation. Michael Jackson, who became progressively white, isn’t. Gone are the days of Renee Richards.
The question I am left wondering concerns “gender reassignment surgery.” Is it yet another example of Western decline, where the truth has been replaced by many truths or perhaps no truth at all? Or is it a reflection of a new American myth that eventually will take its place next to the others? I don’t know. What I am sure of is that having the technology to do something and actually doing it are two different things. The former does not justify the latter. I also find the speed with which such surgery has been embraced by the public and medical community troubling. T
here doesn’t seem to be critical reflection about what the trend means other than to note that it is “trending” and we should follow it on Twitter.
The fact that I have not decided one way or the other does not make me a “hater,” the term the Left likes to lob at people like a molotov cocktail. It has about as much intelligence and grace as referring to an enemy as “the bad guys.” Neither am I a “sheeple,” which is what the Right uses to describe anyone with an iPhone. When I say I don’t know, I mean just that: I don’t know.
In Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet, Hamlet says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I’m sure there is an entire room at the Library of Congress filled with doctoral dissertations about whether Hamlet was a nihilist. He could have been, even if the term hadn’t been invented yet. But then, if you think he was, he was.
I wonder what the Romans would say.
Feature image from The Guardian. Middle image Flickr.com Creative Commons (HuTDoG83). Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance.
I feel more and more like an immigrant, but I don’t know where from. Perhaps this is just a product of aging as I turn 65 this year. Much of what I remember and what I thought was my culture has been torn down, criticized, deconstructed – with satisfied postmortems all around. I don’t harbor any judgement; on the contrary, I am fascinated by the growing diversity and secular pluralism that is changing our culture. I hope my awe represents humility in the presence of such huge paradigm shifts. I’d like to share some of that awestruck humility; and, in fact, I believe most hard-working Americans stand in awe of many, many mysteries with me. I am anxious, though, about the unbalanced power of Hollywood and the NYC reality show industry pushing the envelope and pushing our faces into every new variation. And, yes, there is a strong profit motive to sensationalizing every nuance of our humanity. Where will it all lead? This bullet train seems to be the non-stop express and though thrilled in some ways by the ride I am also feeling breathless and a little motion sick. Whew! God be with us!
There is a lot, too, that I do not recognize. When I think back on my childhood (I was seven but can remember Dallas distinctly), I feel as if I am an alien from another world. What disturbs me the most is that today-now-the present seems to have no interest whatsoever in the past and the drama that went before. I look upon younger people as desensitized and overstimulated. Is that even possible? I suppose the latter leads to the former. I also find myself shaking my head and looking around for someone to commiserate with, like a Shakespearean aside, and then I say, “Didn’t we go through this already?” “Wasn’t this battle fought and won?” “Are you kidding, your goal in life is to get a yellow Ferrari?” That last one actually happened to me. A student in class named Dallas proclaimed that that was his goal in life. He wasn’t kidding. I was thrown off for a minute and then replied, “Yellow?!?” Maybe that’s what humor is for, Mike: to help us deal with things like No Pants Day on the subway. Peace.
One of the things I could have emphasized but didn’t is the driving force behind all of these supposed cultural changes–crass consumerism and commercial profit. I hadn’t thought of Conde Nast, but they were right on it, weren’t they? I guess a greenback will always be green…
I have plenty of things to clean up on my own side of the street, and I try hard not to be judgmental.
I’m sure the people you mentioned here are struggling honestly with identity, and I guess we all have issues that affect our understanding of who we are, or want to be. But in the case of Bruce/Caitlin, all I smell is a shameless money grab — for Bruce/Caitlin, for photographer Annie Leibowitz, and for Conde Nast Publications. I also am troubled by how easily all of this seems to be received by the American public. A coming reality show? Please make it stop.
When the history is written about the Decline and Fall of American Civilization, this particular Vanity Fair cover may well be a seminal moment.