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Choose Voice

This acceptance of the reality of our mutual stupidity, as liberating as it is, opens up the terrifying problem of how to know who then to be. What voice should we choose? Our ancestors who left the Old World behind did not want to return, as Scripture says, like a dog to its vomit and carry on the old voices. They came to the wilderness of the New World hoping to be transformed and to be made into new men and women. And in time, they might. But what to do and who to be while waiting? Like any writer facing a blank white page, they found themselves having to fake it.

When Bob Dylan eulogized Allen Ginsberg as "a con-man extraordinaire," he was praising the late, great poet, one American to another acknowledging that which makes us American. Neither the serfs and slaves that we once were, nor the gods we would someday like to become, we find ourselves in the wilderness, Egypt behind us and the Promised Land still far ahead, having to make do as best we can. Not being who we should, we have to construct a persona, put on a mask, and play our parts to the hilt. The lovable con-man, both a con-fidence man and a con-structed man, is one of the great stock figures of American lore. Even after all the king and the duke did to him, when he saw them tarred and feathered, Huck Finn said, "I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals." Why is that we Americans make such celebrities of actors who play one part after another and seem to have no true personalities themselves? Because, in all too many ways, they are us. Why does Jay Leno get away with telling ethnic jokes? Because, he says, he "degrades everyone equally," and we love it.

Benjamin Franklin is the archetype of the all-American conman. When he arrived in Paris as our first ambassador during the Revolution, he realized that the French court expected a country bumpkin, so he put on a coonskin cap and conned them all. Then, in his old age, he wrote an autobiography that is one of the great con-jobs of American literature, a model, so Franklin says, for all young people who want to rise in the world. Failing at his effort to construct a perfect persona for himself, he admits, "I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it."

The day after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Bill Clinton gave a press conference in which he weaved and danced and lied his lies. Finally, one reporter rose and simply asked, "Mr. President, if Monica Lewinsky were here today, what would you say to her?" Caught in midstep, unprepared for the question, Clinton turned, smiled at the reporter, and said, "Oh, that's good. That's real good." A ripple of laughter spread through the room as the reporters all bent forward to see how the con-man extraordinaire would pull it off this time. They knew he knew they knew the game. The entire scandal may have been a shame, but it was also an impressive and successful sham, a truly masterful performance. In the end, the American public sided with Clinton , not because we believed him innocent, but because we identified with the con-man sinner more than we did with the self-righteous, morally perfect, Republican witch-hunters. As Edwards said, a sense of our mutual sinful condition tends to promote mutual compassion. If Clinton could get away with it, so can you.

So choose a voice, put on your mask, march onto the stage of that blank white piece of paper, and construct a story that will wow the crowd.

 
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