New Year, New You?
No, I’m not going to write about the self-reinvention many people try every January 1. (This year I will lose weight/quit smoking/get more organised/start a new hobby/etc).
But I am interested in self-reinvention more broadly. In recent days there has been a lot of coverage of a newly-elected Congressman, who seems to have fabricated much of his background (including at one point lying about his mother dying on 9/11). Like other fabulists, the stories seem to be both the substantial kind that might help him get elected (where he graduated, his claims of working on Wall St), and also trivial and weird stuff that wouldn’t matter anyway.
Which got me thinking about another story from a couple of months ago, about a man who couldn’t stop lying. He clearly had talents and abilities that got him somewhere in his career, but it wasn’t enough. He made up awards. He told his wife he was climbing Everest. He invented things from whole cloth - not only whoppers like the Everest trip, but also things that wouldn’t matter. He lied about the month of his birthday.
His story is both fascinating and weird. Most of us can understand the temptation for a bit of resume burnishing. I’m not endorsing it, but at least there’s a logic to it. A comprehensible motive. For these compulsive types, there really isn’t.
This week another self-reinventor has also come to light, of a more common stripe. A white woman claiming to be indigenous.
Like other “Pretendians”, of course she didn’t just quietly go about her life. She inserted herself into leadership of indigenous groups and claimed scholarships intended for Indians. Every year a few more of these grifters get exposed.
The situation is perhaps inevitable. We have (in Peter Turchin’s phrase) the “overproduction of elites”, people with PhDs and MFAs trained for careers in universities and the arts, and not enough jobs for them to fill. And many of the few job ads that do exist say “we want to hire people of these ethnic groups”. You really think some of the same people who, years earlier, were adding extra curriculars to their resume while gunning for the Ivy League won’t take this as just another hurdle? They’ve beaten out dozens, hundreds of others to get to where they are already. An overachiever can figure out how to dye their hair.
That’s the point to remember about a lot of these identity entrepreneurs. They’re not hopeless, or incompetent. They’re often really good. But in today’s job market, really good doesn’t cut it. So they do whatever they can to get an edge - like the cases I wrote about here.
This is something that academia and the arts (and in some cases government grant agencies) need to grapple with. It’s not sustainable to create such a moral hazard, of offering financial and career incentives to claim a certain identity, with no verification required. Of course people are going to scam it. It really doesn’t help that there’s a significant overlap too with activist spaces that also implicitly encourage being anything but white. I can understand the temptation to join the I’m not an oppressor lane.
Institutionally, playing a naïve game of “everyone is who they say they are” doesn’t help the groups they claim to care about. Having fakers in your ethnic studies program (for example) not only undermines the work of legitimate scholars, but diminishes the credibility of the field. Academia isn’t supporting minority groups by allowing these con-artists to get through.
More broadly though, this exposes a major issue with any system established to redress, or assist, people from more disadvantaged or historically underrepresented groups. The people best positioned to game the system (whatever it is) are those who are already in positions of advantage (look at which neighborhoods have the most students getting extra time on the SAT, or how many white people suddenly discovered they were black when it became a ticket to medical school in Brazil). Tell people that a particular identity is a card to play, amazingly a bunch of ambitious upper-middle-class people are going to suddenly be finding that disadvantaged self.