What’s in a name, or go ahead — steal my identity

A Southern Methodist University faculty meeting

A Southern Methodist University faculty meeting

These days our university department self-identifies as the D&D faculty, that is, “Discovery and Discourse,” not “Dungeons and Dragons.” I seem to be one of few in the department who finds it comical that we identify ourselves by the name of a game that mesmerizes millions of people. Books have been written about it. The latest is Of Dice and Men (2013) by David Ewalt, senior editor of Forbes magazine.

When I point out the self-aspersion of referring to what we do as a game, my colleagues look at me (just over my shoulder as they usually do) with blank stares. Self-examination is not our strong suit as a group. By self-examination I do not mean the ridiculous time-consuming, academic-freedom-stultifying “assessment” the university, the accrediting body, and the federal government have invented to insure conformity in education. I mean the ability to look at ourselves—at our departmental identity—and see what makes us tick.

I’d guess I’m one of the few members of our faculty who ever came near being a Dead Head (most are too young to know what that is). I’m not a Dead Head, but I remember when, in the ‘80s, the college-student son of my friend Don Hunt gave me a Dead Head T-shirt after I had sneaked with him away from a party at his parents’ home and listened to the album “From the Mars Hotel.” He had the extra T-shirt from one of the Grateful Dead concerts he had attended half-way across the country. He played D&D.

Grateful Dead, D&D–relics of another time. So it is understandable that few of the Discernment and Discourse faculty see the humor in identifying ourselves by the name of the longest-lasting and most intense game in the United States, invented in 1974 and still played by, Mr. Ewalt claims, 30 million people.

I’m no more a D&D nerd than I am a Dead Head—or smart enough for either. But I do know members of the wider faculty at Southern Methodist University who play D&D somewhat fanatically. And many more people not related to SMU who do. You’d be surprised.

At a meeting of our D&D faculty a couple of days ago, I heard (at least half a dozen times) certain of our students referred to as “football players.” I suppose if we’re playing a game, we might well identify students by their games. Why are some of our students “football players” rather than “members of the football team?” Consciously or unconsciously we have decided they have already reached their potential. We know their identity. Football player. That’s who and what they are. We are trapped in a game, so we suppose they are.

Which part is me?

Which part is me?

We are glib about that because we have such low esteem for our own identities, both as a department and (can this be true? and who am I to judge?) individually. If you have ever said the words “identity theft” as in worrying that you might be a victim of it, you have no sense of your own identity.

The NSA probably watches my email (I know, that’s grandiosity, but I do have as a Facebook friend the niece of the leader of Hamas). If you’re reading this, you are identified as a part of that web of suspicion. And my debit (not credit) card number is floating around in the Ethernet so profusely that anyone who wants the $1.32 in my checking account could probably get it. My silly opinions are available to anyone desperate enough for entertainment to read them. There’s a picture I posted of my brother’s butt readily available—it comes up if you do the right Google Image search (don’t worry, he’s wearing jeans).

Don’t get all huffy on me. I understand issues of privacy. I want my privacy even though I’ve given up on having any. Everyone in the world—literally—can, if they are interested, identify me as gay and by the number of partners I’ve had, and by where I’ve lived, and by my socialist leanings (if I have any political beliefs at all), and . . .

But wait! Do you think Alexander Solzhenitsyn worried about identity theft? Or Dmitri Shostakovich? Or Olivier Messiaen? Even when they were prisoners of tyranny?

[I am not, by the way—and you know better than to assume I am—discounting such realities as the Holocaust or the Palestinian Nakba or the Rwandan genocide. Some horrors of the negation of personal identity are too unimaginable to think about.]

But if I think my identity is available for thievery, then I most likely don’t have one. I am not a full-time lecturer in Discovery and Discourse (or Dungeons and Dragons). I am not a Dead Head. I am not an organist. I am not a gay man. I am not a credit card account. I am not a Social Security number. I am not Sumnonrabidus or Me, Senescent. I am not my email address.

MarsHotelAlbumCover BLOGI’m not even all of those thing combined. I am not what I do or have. I am who I am. I’m a conscious individual of the species Homo sapiens evolved to the point than I’m terrified at the thought that, at some moment I cannot predict, I will cease to be. To be anything. A nerd, a Dead Head, a debit (not credit) card holder, a professor. I can’t create, invent myself with any more self-assurance than a university department can name itself without irony.

Neither you nor anyone else can “steal” my identity. The NSA can’t take away my privacy. Neither the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools nor Dean Moore can assess what happens in my classes. The bank can’t judge whether or not I’m a worthy loan risk.

The NSA can read all of my emails. The university can fire me. A thief can pillage my accounts at the bank. None of them will have touched me.

I’m what goes on in the total and absolute privacy of my thinking and of my feelings. The only way you can steal that is to kill me. Then you have nothing because I no longer exist.

Which will happen without your help soon enough.

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