Results tagged “identity”

A Note About Panther Pride

April 16, 2012

Update: The students did it! The re-vote from the board yielded a unanimous vote in favor of forming the Coexist club. I'm sincerely thankful to the students, to their advisor Christina Baker, and to Superintendent Bruce Deveney for their leadership and for making the right choice to support every student.


A brief personal note: Though I usually write about tech geek stuff here, I'd been following a story from my high school alma mater that was of particular interest to me, and I wanted to take a moment to write a note to the members and supporters of Coexist, the Gay-Straight Alliance at East Pennsboro High School. East Pennsboro's mascot is the Panther, and most of the football games and pep rallies I went to tended to talk a lot about "Panther Pride".

First, to the students behind Coexist, thank you: I appreciate anyone who is trying to be a voice of love and tolerance in a place that, all too often, has forgotten to value those principles. I know it's not an easy conversation to have, and I appreciate your courage. I also wanted to give a little bit of perspective from someone who's fought those same struggles, though it was quite a few years ago.

Who the heck am I?

As background, I'm now living in New York City, where I've been very fortunate in my life and in my professional career to get to have opportunities I never could have imagined back when I was a student at East Penn. I was in the Computer Club back then (computers weren't very popular yet), and today I get to work with a lot of the people who make the websites and apps you use every day. I was in the Youth in Government program, and today the non-profit that I've been running gets to work with all levels of government from city government here in New York all the way up to the White House. And I was in the Newspaper Club, which helped me see myself as a writer and has led to me now having the ability to have my words published where millions of people can see them.

So, in short, I've been really lucky. But I also spent a lot of time in high school figuring out my identity and my place in the world, and I deeply wish there had been a place or a club that would have supported that effort. Though things are slightly more diverse in the school district now, at the time I was attending, there were almost no other students who were of the same background as me, or raised in the same religion, or who had the same skin color, or who ate the same things for dinner, or who spoke the same language around the house. That was a deeply isolating realization.

What's more, I knew I didn't conform to the traditional male gender roles as they'd been described to me in that community. While today I identify as a (boring, old) straight male who's been married for years and has a happy little baby boy, I never took for granted that I would settle on an identity that is so privileged in our culture. Instead, I identified very strongly with all my close friends who were lesbian, gay, questioning or queer, as I knew they had to actually reckon with their identities, just as I had.

When I first moved to New York City, I saw the Pride Parade here, and I had only known the word "pride" from hearing the phrase "Panther Pride" at pep rallies back at East Pennsboro. At first, I thought this must have been two different meanings for the same word. It seems clearer than ever to me now that, actually, they were very much two uses of the same word being used to represent one important concept.

What I Learned

When I say that I reckoned with my identity, I don't just mean that I was figuring out who I am. I also mean that I had to confront other people's biases and prejudices about every aspect of myself. Over my years going to East Pennsboro schools, I had my nose broken, my car vandalized, my parents prank-called, and had a teacher call me out during school hours for not being of her preferred religion. Worse, I struggled enough with being different that I questioned myself, thinking I must have been crazy or wrong or misguided, or that the things that made me unhappy must have been my fault. At my worst, I wasn't just miserable and self-destructive towards my own life, I was mean-spirited and unkind towards other students who were probably going through similar things.

But eventually, I figured it out. And the combination of my loving, compassionate, patient parents along with my incredibly understanding, tolerant, and supportive friends got me through. I knew, though, that there were adults in positions of power, whether they were teachers or administrators or just parents in the community, who thought struggles like mine were wrong or bad or selfish or just a cry for attention.

I know I just seem like some guy who's twice your age talking about stuff that he might not understand, but I really have been in your shoes. I got kicked out of class a few times for everything from wearing lipstick to wearing a dress to writing "love sees no gender" on my t-shirt. But I also remember sitting with Ms. Baker in Ms. Vasquez's English class, where everyone rightfully ignored those parts of how I expressed myself in order to focus on what I was actually writing. It made a huge difference in the course of my life.

The only distraction, then, was by those who chose to make an issue of how I expressed myself and my identity. And the only thing that helped me overcome those distractions was having a supportive community of friends who showed me that they accepted me for who I am.

Tonight, adults who've been chosen as leaders in your community are going to make another decision as to whether they think you deserve to exist as an official club to support your fellow students. They'll argue whether it's a distraction from learning, and whether the school district has enough money to support the minimal costs for the program.

Let me be clear: There is nothing more important we can learn as young people than to be kind, tolerant and accepting of others. The truth is, most of what I use on a day-to-day basis to do my job or to take care of my family, I taught myself in the years since I went to high school. But had I been left to fend for myself and taught that my differences made me a bad person, I can't imagine I would have had the motivation and drive to achieve the successes that I've had.

To those who want to make this a budget issue: I'll pay for it. Myself. Total up the most exorbitant, extravagant cost that you can imagine for the administration of the Coexist program or a Gay-Straight Alliance at East Pennsboro, and no matter what you think the price tag is, I'll make sure it gets covered. This justification is now officially removed.

Going Forward

Tonight, your school board will make a decision about your club, but also about the culture and mindset of the community going forward. Judging by the wisdom you've already shown, there's not much I can teach you about the world that you haven't already figured out in high school. But I will share one lesson that I think might not be obvious.

Ms. Alger, Ms. Gaughen, Mr. Helm and Mr. Tyson aren't your enemies. And they're not motivated by hate. They're just adults who've forgotten what it was like to have to struggle to discover who you are. Maybe they were fortunate enough that they didn't even have to go through that struggle. It's like someone who's always had perfect vision not knowing why some of us feel so vulnerable when we don't have our glasses or contact lenses around; They don't know what it's like to not be able to see the road ahead.

The thing I've learned in the years since I was at East Pennsboro is that sometimes adults need to learn from kids, and that sometimes educators and administrators have to learn lessons from students. So use the board meeting tonight, and the conversations going forward, to show the same compassion and forgiveness and understanding towards these adults as you would toward your peers.

I think the discipline and heart and passion you've shown for an important cause is going to make history tonight, and you're going to make a real change in your community and in the world. I am so proud of what you have already done, and so inspired by the effort you've put in, that I am not sure I even have the words to do it justice. I'm optimistic about tonight's school board decision, and even more optimistic about the incredibly bright futures you all have ahead of you.

The Facebook Reckoning

September 13, 2010

There's a lengthy, excellent profile of Mark Zuckerberg, and by proxy Facebook, in this week's issue of the New Yorker, written by Jose Antonio Vargas. In it, I'm quoted saying about Mark, "If you are twenty-six years old, you’ve been a golden child, you’ve been wealthy all your life, you’ve been privileged all your life, you’ve been successful your whole life, of course you don’t think anybody would ever have anything to hide". That's an accurate quote, but there's even more nuance to my feelings about Facebook than merely remarking on the privilege of its CEO.

First, the requisite disclaimers: I like and use Facebook; I have many friends, including some good friends, who work at the company at all levels of its hierarchy. I've met Mark Zuckerberg a few times, and while we aren't friends, our few interactions have been nothing but cordial. My business partner Michael Wolf famously tried to acquire Facebook during his time at MTV Networks and thinks highly of Mark. The tech projects that I influence, from Gourmet Live to ThinkUp deeply integrate Facebook into their core functions. So I'm not a knee-jerk anti-Facebook reactionary.

The truth is, I care deeply about the culture of the web, and am concerned that many of the decisions Facebook makes are detrimental to its culture, particularly when Facebook inadvertently imposes an extreme set of values on its users without adequately communicating the consequences of those choices.

I'm not the first to raise these issues, particularly in the context of Facebook's stance on privacy. The cover of Time magazine a few months back was about Facebook's privacy issues. Mark responded with a lengthy and somewhat vague response to the concerns, indicating that he realizes the seriousness of the challenge these issues pose for the company. At the time, a scrappy upstart efforts called Diaspora* captured the imagination of those who are frustrated by Facebook's repeated inability to address these issues and raised nearly $200,000 from thousands of donors who hoped to sponsor a significant challenge to Facebook's domination of large-scale social networking. And of course The Social Network, the massive movie based on Facebook's early founding, is only two weeks from release.

But actually, I don't care that much about privacy.

I started blogging when I was younger than Mark is today, and have shared a lot more information publicly about every aspect of my life than he ever has. It's been eight years since I wrote about privacy through identity control, and the key point there seems as relevant today as it did then:

We're all celebrities now, in a sense. Everything that we say or do is on the record. And everything that's on the record is recorded for posterity, and indexed far better than any file photo or PR bio ever was. It used to be that only those who chose career paths that resulted in notoriety or celebrity would face having to censor themselves or be forced to consciously control the image that they project.

What I do care about is this company advocating for a pretty radical social change to be inflicted on half a billion people without those people's engagement, and often, effectively, without their consent. As we saw with the rollout of Facebook's user names feature, the tech industry is very poorly equipped to talk about complex issues of identity and strongly prefers to talk about companies and features instead of communities and choice.

Because, let's be clear, Facebook is philosophically run by people who are extremists about information sharing. Though I choose to talk about my politics, or my identity, or my medical history or my personal relationships, I can do so primarily because I have the privilege to do so thanks to my social standing, wealth, and the arbitrary fact of being born in the United States. I also have an identity that isn't considered offensive or off-putting enough to face serious repercussions.

But what if I weren't my own boss? What if my family couldn't accept parts of my identity? What if I weren't technologically savvy enough to know how to engage with all of the choices about public sharing that Facebook forces me to understand? What if it were important to my own personal identity that public representations of me be colored purple instead of blue, as on Facebook? It's easy to say all of our choices and all the aspects of our identity can be shared if we don't face any serious social or personal consequences for doing so. But most of us are not that fortunate.

I'd say today's story obliquely covers that as well.

Colors don’t matter much to Zuckerberg; a few years ago, he took an online test and realized that he was red-green color-blind. Blue is Facebook’s dominant color, because, as he said, “blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.”

As it turns out, the way we can all express ourselves on Facebook today is literally constrained by the limits of what Mark Zuckerberg can see. I've been in environments that were constrained in similar ways; The first time I entered the Harvard Club here in New York City to visit with a friend, I felt very acutely the implicit judgments of an environment where the fact that I don't have a college education was considered a relevant way to judge my identity. And though I use Facebook, I don't ever forget that it was conceived as a private club for members of the Ivy League as well.

Perhaps by engaging more with its users in an honest way about its radical stance on public sharing, and by clearly articulating the social costs that can arise from that stance, Facebook can become as truly inclusive as it strives to be.

Exclusive: The Future of Facebook Usernames

June 10, 2009

The whole world A small number of super-geeky obsessives is abuzz over the upcoming launch of Facebook Usernames, an exciting new feature that will let you put some parts of your name into a web address.


Since its announcement yesterday, there's been a lot of excited discussion of the feature, but in a dashes.com exclusive I can exclusively report this exclusive look at the future of the feature. We'll also cover how the feature's rollout will be covered by the technology trade press and the mainstream press.

June 13, 12:01am: Facebook launches Facebook Usernames. The gold rush is on!

June 13, 12:01:45am: The first completely irrational, highly unlikely theory about how Google indexes Facebook Usernames is emitted from the ass-end of the SEO industry.

June 13, 12:02am: An enterprising and mischevious nerd who is definitely not me squats on the username of a notable tech trade reporter like Michael Arrington.

June 13, 12:06am: The Facebook username system starts getting overloaded with new registrations, but their tech team clears it up in 20 or 30 minutes, for a total period of slowness of about 35 minutes.

June 13, 12:15am: A first wave of "It's alive! Go get your name!" posts go up on various technology blogs, noting that the service is running a little bit slow. None of these posts mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Facebook.

June 13, 12:45am: TechCrunch discovers that one of its writers can't get his preferred spelling for his name, and notices that registrations in the system are running a bit slow. A Twitter search reveals four other people discussing the same problems, and one person that can't get to the feature at all. The phrase "The Facebook Username debacle" is first used, and becomes the preferred sobriquet for the feature forevermore. 70% of commenters mention that "Facebook Username" can be abbreviated "FU", and each thinks he is the first to think of it.

June 13, 1:00am: #FUFacebook becomes a Trending Topic on Twitter. People who are presently whining about how expensive it is to buy a new iPhone because they bought a new iPhone last year will have the chance to see how obnoxious and overprivileged they look, but will not take the opportunity.

June 13, 9:00am: The first mainstream coverage of the feature happens in the New York Times, which includes a one-line mention of the launch in a lengthy feature about Twitter's Verified Accounts. The story includes a colorful illustration of Kanye West, but omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Facebook.

June 13, 12:01pm: Twelve hours after launch, a passionate and vitriol-filled flame war erupts amongst web protocol nazis about exacly which 300-series HTTP header should be used to redirect from the old /profile.php?id=500012896 URLs to the new system. Mark Pilgrim writes an overwrought essay on the topic, and 300 Ubuntu users on netbooks use their free hand to Digg the post. For these nerds, "The Facebook Debacle" refers to the improper headers used on the redirects, instead of the few minutes of difficulty in registering names.

June 13, 12:01pm: Within twelve hours of launch, the OpenID community will quietly reach out to Facebook, asking about their plans to have Facebook Usernames become an OpenID provider. Facebook will decline to comment, Simon Willison will write a thoughtful and persuasive essay about the benefits to Facebook if they were to embrace such a thing, and Andy Baio will politely link to it on Waxy Links. Months later, Facebook will actually implement the feature. For this community, this cordial and fruitful exchange will be referred to "The Facebook Debacle".

June 13, 3:00pm: I tweet a link to my post about owning your identity online. The few folks who read it seven years ago nod in agreement, and everyone else considers reading the short bit.ly URL to be equivalent to reading the post.

June 13, 4:04pm: A white guy named David discovers every variation of his name on Facebook is already taken, and finally reconsiders the condescending contempt he's always had for black people who give their kids unique names. This tiny bit of racial reconsideration is the only unequivocally good news to come out of the Facebook Usernames launch.

June 15, 8:00am: A short and punchy Monday morning story about Facebook Usernames appears on USA Today's website, omitting any mention of the word "debacle", but dwelling heavily on the preponderance of URLs with "Hussein" in them. This vestige of the Presidential elections, which briefly convinced college kids that changing their middle name on a website was a form of political activism, is promptly interpreted as an Al Qaeda sleeper cell movement by most of the paper's print readers.

June 15, 9:00am: In its opening weekend, between four and five million people (or between two and three percent of Facebook's ostensible population) will have registered Usernames for themselves. Tech pundits will say "everyone has a Facebook Username now" and refer to that assertion as an article of faith in future posts about identity. It will not be until 2012 that Facebook supports the full range of diacritical marks and international characters that let the other 5.5 billion residents of Earth use their name as a username, but this fact will go unreported.

June 15, 11:00am: In response to the growing buzz on TechMeme about "The Facebook Debacle", Mark Zuckerberg posts on Facebook's blog with the news that the company has created the Facebook Username Dispute Resolution Community. This group is tasked with creating a policy for arbitrating who can get what names, how conflicts between different people's usernames are resolved, and how to report squatting of usernames. The post omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Facebook. Over the course of its 18-month existence, the FUDR Community will attract thousands of comments, 80% of which ask for The Old News Feed back, and 85% of which contain one or more typos or deviations from standard spellings of English words.

June 15, 1:00pm: LinkedIn posts a thinly-veiled but very smart update on their company blog that happens to mention in passing that they've had friendly usernames as an option for URLs for years, and that it's more likely you want to show your professional profile to the world as the first Google result for your name. The post omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on LinkedIn.

June 15, 1:30pm: The Google Profiles team will write a post that features a bad pun in the headline, ostensibly serving to announce some minor recent feature update, but in reality just trying to remind people that hey, you can get a Google URL. The post omits any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Google.

June 15, 2:00pm: An enterprising young web hacker will realize that there are 24 items in this list, which means that if you add in a free space, you can very easily turn this post into a 5×5 Facebook Username Bingo Card. Combined with the Creative Commons license on this blog, it makes for a fun idea and a Flickr Pool pops up for people to show the FU Bingo cards they've generated.

June 15, 4:00pm: The first web-savvy celebrity in Hollywood will hold a meeting with their marketing team about what it will take to get their preferred username. During this meeting, the smartest person in the room will try to explain the difference between a profile page and a fan page, why there are different processes for getting vanity URLs for each, and why a person or brand doesn't have control over all the fan pages that can be created about them. That person will be ignored by everyone else for the duration of the meeting. The issue will be ignored by Facebook for nearly a year.

June 16, 10:00pm: The Domai.nr guys release a service that lets you sign in with your Facebook Connect account and automatically find what variations of your name are available as real domain names. While the feature is cool and works well, the team struggles to get press coverage for the launch, since it's predicated on the idea that you can register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Facebook.

June 19, 9:00am: The Bureau of Labor Statistics will announce the unemployment numbers for May, showing a loss of 660,000 jobs, with 1/3 of them being white-collar jobs. Coincidentally, 220,000 unemployed professionals will realize to their horror that their Facebook profile now ranks above their LinkedIn profile if a prospective employer googles them, and that they have no idea how to use Facebook's privacy settings.

July 31, 2009: MySpace announces MyAddress, a feature for providing more control over the URL where your MySpace profile appears. Instead of constraining users to a few choices as Facebook does, MySpace gives users very broad control over what kind of address they can have. As a result, users pick web addresses that exactly match their obscure handles on the service, instead of using their real names.

February 15, 2010: Microsoft launches a similar URL service for usernames, providing friendly URLs for millions of people on Windows Live and XBox Live, and providing the feature to more people in one day than Facebook has succeeded in delivering usernames to in eight months. Because the announcement goes out on President's day, and because it's Microsoft, nobody really notices except for a two-line mention on Mashable, half of which is a joke about Bing. Both Microsoft's own announcement and the Mashable post omit any mention that you can also register a real domain name that you can own, instead of just having another URL on Live.com.

October 31, 2010: AOL has an internal meeting about providing friendly URLs to users of AIM and Bebo, and make a bold decision to put it on their 18-month roadmap.

I hope you find this overview of the future timeline of Facebook Usernames useful to understand where this exciting feature is going in the future, how our industry will adapt and respond to this sort of innovation, and how our tech trade press will hold the powerful company's feet to the fire as this sort of capability becomes mainstream in the years to come.

And oh hey, add me as a friend on Facebook! Or become a fan of mine! Or something.

I Find It Bonkers, By The Way

May 14, 2009

If you don't follow me on Twitter, you've been missing out. But fear not! I take care of my loyal blog readers as well, by offering you the highlights of the interesting links I've been sharing there:

HAHA LOL

This world wide web thing, i think it's going to work out. I think it's gonna be good for the both of us. As always, "HAHA LOL" is courtesy of Alaina Browne.

Well-Spoken Links

February 9, 2007

Okay, these are the links you should be reading on the Internet today.

Is The New

  • The New York Times reports on Justin Timberlake's new audience. "Unlike his former boy-band colleagues, Mr. Timberlake has even won over musicians who prefer lo-fi thrash to the slicker sounds of mainstream albums." These hipsters could have been five years ahead of the curve if they'd just have listened to me.
  • So it turns out there actually may be some Hunanese origins for General Tso's chicken. I've been using General Tso's chicken as the definitive example of how I became clueful about eating good food ("It's not even a real Chinese dish -- I'm a dummy!"), but I like this story of how it's a creation of cross-cultural entrepreneurism even better. I wonder if my family members in Taiwan have ever tried the "delectable concoction of lightly battered chicken in a chili-laced sweet-sour sauce".
  • I'm hoping danah won't be offended if I call her defense of walled gardens articulate. It's also thought-provoking, which is high praise indeed.
  • On the flip side of the walled garden conversation is PB's ongoing onfocus series about getting off the grid. The technology here is interesting, but I'm enjoying watching the thought process behind the coding that Paul has been doing.

privacy through identity control

December 17, 2002

Every time there's a resurgence in general-audience (non-techie) interest in Google, as after Newsweek's recent Google fawning, the issue of privacy in a presence of a pervasive and permanent record rears its ugly head. People who aren't technologically savvy don't realize that statements don't fade away or remain in confidence on the web; The things we say only get louder and more widely known, unless they're completely trivial.

We're all celebrities now, in a sense. Everything that we say or do is on the record. And everything that's on the record is recorded for posterity, and indexed far better than any file photo or PR bio ever was. It used to be that only those who chose career paths that resulted in notoriety or celebrity would face having to censor themselves or be forced to consciously control the image that they project. But this faded as celebrity culture grew and as individuals are increasingly marketed as brands, even products.

Naturally, this affects larger groups of people. First it was actors, then musicians, then entertainers of all stripes. We count politicians as celebrities now, too. I realized this when I ran into Rudy Giuliani this weekend. I took a moment to thank him for the work he did for this city, but I realized from the reaction of his body language that he was much more used to being approached as a celebrity than as a politician. I've met a few prominent examples of both over the years, both more and less well-known than Giuliani, and one of the constants that I've seen is that they're the only people who pay as much attention to the phrase "on the record" as do journalists.

Trent Lott comes to mind, when we consider the permanence of a celebrity/politician's statements, of course. Few of us who were alive in 1980 have to be concerned that any of our statements from that year will come back to haunt us, let alone some of our more obscure comments, aimed at audiences that we feel might be sympathetic. But that won't be the expectation of the generation of kids growing up today. Even their most casual instant messages will be "on the record". And it's not the sort of record that suffers the vagaries of our files today, where the audio to that reel might be lost, or the words on the original obscured by an errant coffee cup's ring.

So what to do? Well, first, of course, social expectations will change. The fear everyone has is that we'll all have to be nice all the time. And niceness sucks. It's the valid part of the backlash against "political correctness". Except that most of the people who object to political correctness do so because they resent that they've lost the chance to be coarse and offensive in public. They're resenting the loss of social control that they used to have, when calling a person or a group by an offensive name was acceptable because there wasn't any social or political cost to doing so.

But if we're not going to become nice while all our words are for the record, what will we do? Well, we'll adapt and become more reasonable in our expectations of people in the public. Instead of expecting that Britney Spears never acknowledge the loss of her virginity, that she might preserve a marketing message, we'll either accept that she tells the truth, or not require her to discuss it at all. One or two generations from now, the impossibility of scrubbing every private utterance for the demands of permanent public presentation will lead to a society much more accepting of occasional flubs, faults, and flaws. Behold, the triumph of context. Metadata about a person, and hyperlinks to their lifelong record, will inform the decisions made by a public used to an informal, non-governmental version of Total Information Awareness.

So do we have to, as Scott McNealy said, "get over" our desire for privacy. Do we have to permanently filter our thoughts and expressions, lest they be thrown back at us at some inopportune moment in the future? What do we do until people are used to seeking out context, until meta is intrinsic? Well, you have to own your name.

Go look me up. Googlism's use of Google searches to define a topic was so addictive that Google's WebQuotes was created as a virtual clone. And the phrases that pop out of those services aren't entirely inaccurate. But if you do a simple Google search on my name, what do you get? This site.

I own my name. I am the first, and definitive, source of information on me.

One of the biggest benefits of that reality is that I now have control. The information I choose to reveal on my site sets the biggest boundaries for my privacy on the web. Granted, I'll never have total control. But look at most people, especially novice Internet users, who are concerned with privacy. They're fighting a losing battle, trying to prevent their personal information from being available on the web at all. If you recognize that it's going to happen, your best bet is to choose how, when, and where it shows up.

That's the future. Own your name. Buy the domain name, get yourself linked to, and put up a page. Make it a blank page, if you want. Fill it with disinformation or gibberish. Plug in other random people's names into Googlism and paste their realities into your own. Or, just reveal the parts of your life that you feel represent you most effectively on the web. Publish things that advance your career or your love life or that document your travels around the world. But if you care about your privacy, and you care about your identity, take the steps to control it now.

In a few years, it won't be as critical. There will be a reasonably trustworthy system of identity and authorship verification. Finding a person's words and thoughts across different media and time periods will be relatively easy. Getting a "true" picture of that person might be possible, even simple. But that's years away. For now, recognize that you're a celebrity, treat your likeness and personal information with that gravity, and choose which statements and facts are going to represent your presence in the global media universe. Any adult in an industrialized society who hasn't taken these steps is forfeiting opportunity and security, out of either laziness or ignorance. Maintaining privacy in the face of corporations and governments that wish to violate it requires a bit of identity judo, neutralizing their desire for everything by freely giving away just a little bit.

So, who owns your identity right now?

On Being An American

September 11, 2002

I was born and raised outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago, an editor of The Patriot-News, the local paper, asked me for my thoughts regarding the anniversary of the attacks.

To put things in context, I was always very ambivalent about the culture of the area I grew up in. Though it's very geographically beautiful, it is a much more conservative place that I didn't really begin to appreciate until years after I had left. It is also a simpler place, in many ways, which is why the tone of my editorial is a little more straightforward and literal than my usual cynical and sarcastic self. Not, of course, that they wouldn't understand my piece, but that the usual tone of my writing wouldn't really do justice to the ideas I was trying to express.

Or, to put it a different way, I'm a lot more corny and maudlin in this essay, but it's mostly because one of the things I've tried not to do since the attacks is mask actual emotion with the usual ironic distance that I tend to apply to such matters. I'm an idealist at heart, and I'd rather have that show.

Also, the Harrisburg Senators are the AA minor league baseball team, which after a rocky history had shut down in the 1950s, only to be revived in 1987 as part of a revitalization of Harrisburg. The city has flourished since, and I can't help but think that part of the reason why is because it was so inspiring to watch that team achieve such a tremendous success their very first year out.

This essay appeared with slightly different edits in last Sunday's Patriot-News.


A month after last September's attacks, I left Manhattan for the first time. I had holed up a bit, clinging to my adopted city as a bit of a sanctuary, wanting to hold on tightly to a New York that suddenly seemed vulnerable, even fragile. But it was time to venture out, so I found myself en route to Harrisburg, and to the town I was born and raised in.

The thing that struck me, other than the usual contrast of Harrisburg, with its quiet and its slower pace, was the distinction between New York City and Central Pennsylvania's signs. The marquees in front of restaurants and car dealerships and churches had all sprouted similar reassurances of "United We Stand" or "God Bless America", in a singularity of message that I hadn't seen since my days as a teenager in the area, when the success of any local sports team would prompt all of the signs to show a similar unity.

That driving down the street would evoke memories of rooting for the home team when I was younger probably wasn't coincidence. As a self-described member of the New York liberal media, and a man who is the son of first-generation immigrants, I was never unaware on my visits to my hometown that there were some who felt I was somehow less American than they were. Add in that I probably physically look a little more like the hijackers of last September than most people's mental image of the boy next door, and suddenly what seemed uncomfortable or unusual might now be construed as downright Unamerican. But my identity as an American was forged by my experiences growing up in these small towns.

And in those first weeks, I thought a lot about what it is to be American. That a lot of people outside of New York City might not even recognize their own country if they came to visit. The America that was attacked a year ago was an America where people are as likely to have been born outside the borders of the U.S. as not. Where most of the residents speak another language in addition to English. Where the soundtrack is, yes, jazz and blues and rock and roll, but also hip hop and salsa and merengue. New York has always been where the first fine threads of new cultures work their way into the fabric of America, and the city the bore the brunt of those attacks last September reflected that ideal to its fullest.

It was no accident that the primary target, the location deemed most threatening and offensive to those who would resent American culture, is the place where we embrace the widest variety of people. Where what it is to be American is at its most inclusive, and it becomes clear that American is not something that one does, but rather something that one is. Among those lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers were citizens of at least 42 countries. To have lost people from so many countries around the world is part of what makes those events a particularly American tragedy.

I realized shortly after the attacks that, while flying, or when crossing one of the bridges or tunnels into Manhattan, or even just in going about the course of my daily life, I might have to show not just that I had no ill intent, but that I might need to prove my "American-ness". A photo ID or a knowledge of American customs wouldn't be enough, now that those murderers had tainted those formerly unblemished credentials.

What came to mind on the times when I wondered about proving myself as an American were the images of my youth spent in Central Pennsylvania. I started to carry around in my wallet some ticket stubs from one magical summer when I was in junior high school, when the then brand-new Harrisburg Senators went from being nonexistent to being Eastern League champs. The proof of my loyalty was my history in Harrisburg, not because I had gone to a few baseball games, but because being American is part of who I am. Anyone can come to our country and eat a hot dog and watch a ball game and stroll along the riverside, but that won't make him an American. Being able to grow up amongst fellow fans, despite not knowing of the history of the Senators who played in the 50's, being able to bridge small-town boy and big-city man, being able to live both as a personally conservative son of immigrants and a politically liberal citizen of the United States: these were the proud privileges and cherished rights that made me an American.

It's a lesson not easily learned. I've seen the eye-rolling as politicians and opportunists on both sides of the political spectrum try to use the World Trade Center attacks as justification for whatever plans or programs they've always been convinced should be foisted upon the public. I've seen the grimaces and groans as challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance were mounted. I've seen good people with unpopular views labelled as disloyal, untrustworthy, even treasonous. So it bears repeating that being an American isn't something that you do, it's something that you are.

The lesson I've learned is to extend the embrace to all the members of our American family. Get annoyed, get angry, be incensed as you are with your sister who always votes the opposite of you, as annoyed as you get with your father who never quite got where you were coming from politically. And come back, shaking your head but still smiling, and enjoy the chance to appreciate those Americans that your reflexes tell you to resent. Be thankful for the chance to have neighbors or fellow citizens who raise your ire or offend your sensibilities. Be thankful that we can sit in a quiet small town and roll our eyes at the inanities of a visitor from a big city. I'll be the first to admit that every time I return to New York City from a visit to Harrisburg, I look around at all my fellow New Yorkers and wonder for a moment if they're all just a little bit crazy. And, of course, they are. Or at least they're a little bit different.

It's a difference we're privileged to have.

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