James Carroll

Who do you think you are?

By James Carroll
May 24, 2010

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LAST WEEK a pair of news stories about the invented self competed for attention. One concerned the attorney general of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, and the other a former Harvard student, Adam Wheeler.

Blumenthal, a Democrat running for Chris Dodd’s Senate seat, was regarded as a shoo-in before it was revealed that he had often falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam. Wheeler was shown to be a world-class impostor, having manufactured straight-A transcripts that qualified him as an academic genius. Blumenthal is scrambling to survive politically, while Wheeler is charged with larceny and identity fraud.

These instances are extreme. Blumenthal, in distorting his record of military service, touched a political third rail because troops survive the moral and psychological stresses of combat by accepting what might seem in other contexts an overemphasis on the question of honor. That Vietnam was a dishonorable war made the importance of individual honor paramount. That is why Vietnam veterans define their experience with special scrupulosity. They carefully parse the categories of service, with honors ranked according to a descending scale: from those who suffered as POWs, to those who saw actual combat, to those who were stationed “in country,’’ to those who served elsewhere in the military in the “Vietnam era.’’ Men who avoided service are simply not ranked — an exclusion that some take as itself dishonoring.

Those boundaries are so absolute that some make their violation a matter of life and death. Take the case of Admiral Jeremy Boorda, who in the mid-1990s served as the chief of naval operations, the only enlisted man ever to have risen to the Navy’s top job. Was that a crippling source of insecurity? During Vietnam, he had served on warships. On his breast, he wore ribbons of two highly prized Navy awards — each carrying an additional “valor device,’’ a small bronze “v’’ that meant Boorda had distinguished himself in combat. In 1996, questions were raised about his right to wear the “v.’’ There was some ambiguity — his wartime commander said the valor device was appropriate, while others suggested it was not — but for Boorda, radical dishonor plumed out of the very question. Before it was resolved he killed himself.

Boorda and Blumenthal occupy different places on the continuum of disgrace, and Wheeler is there, too. The university is not the military, yet it also operates on an honor system. The apparently conscienceless deceit involved in Wheeler’s elaborate counterfeiting and plagiarism is so extreme as to suggest psychosis, but it also raises the question of what is going on in the mind of anyone who deliberately falsifies large notes of personal history? Shortcut to achievement, whether political or academic, is one answer, but is something deeper at work?

Every person creates a life story, arranging past experience in narrative form with beginning, middle, and end. Such ordering of existential disorder is the work of memory, and is essential to self awareness; indeed, the narrative is the soul of selfhood. But memory is imprecise, and must be measured against other accounts. Falsifying matters of official record crosses a bright line — both of ethics and foolishness. The raw material of self invention must be “true.’’ This happened, and not that. To imagine otherwise is mental illness. To claim otherwise is dishonesty.

“Who do you think you are?’’ is the rebuke one draws for ignoring the difference between actuality and pretense. In adolescents, whose business is self-discovery, pretense may be forgivable. In adults, it is disqualifying. Ironically, the shaming of deceivers is an affirmation, upholding not only the importance of truthful self-knowledge and self-presentation, but their perennial possibility.

In America, elite culture is now defined less by social class than the resume, with great rewards going to academic super-achievers and, as always, military heroes. Celebrity and wealth have themselves become commodities, with the price tag often being inauthenticity. Yet most ordinary people aren’t buying. Honesty remains normal. People understand the difference between appearance and substance, and won’t sacrifice the latter for the former. There is coherence between who they are, who they think they are, and who they say they are. Such coherence also goes by the name integrity, and ordinary people take it for granted as the precondition of happiness.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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