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On the Uselessness of "Authenticity"

[ 0 ] May 1, 2006 |

As many people have pointed out, Tom Frank’s review of Joe Klein is in fact pure gold from beginning to end. I think this is the key to understanding his worldview, and the core of Millionaire Pundit Values more generally:

Eventually, though, a discernible order emerges. But it’s less a coherent thesis about consultancy than a handful of prejudices that, for Mr. Klein and certain other writers still enthralled by the creaking swingerisms of the 60’s, stand solid amid the swirling oceans of history. The first of these is authenticity, or, I should say, the transcendent aesthetic and philosophical value of authenticity. This is something of a theme in Mr. Klein’s oeuvre: Years ago, he wrote a biography of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl songwriter who came to personify proletarian trueness for the 60’s, so surely Mr. Klein knows the authentic when he sees it. And he claims that people used to see it often enough in the political realm.

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This aesthetic quality, then, is what politics is all about. It’s authenticity that separates winners from losers, good politics from bad, and he-man leader types from consultant-directed puppet boys. Real politicians say honest and heartfelt and down-home things like “Turnip Day”; candidates who listen to consultants mouth shameful clichés and “banana-peel words.” (Of course, if authenticity is what’s required to win, and if what consultants do is strip away authenticity, then one wonders why anyone hires consultants in the first place, a mystery that the book never really resolves.)

The first problem here, of course, is that Klein’s concept of “authenticity” is just a feeble tautology; as even the sympathetic Times review points out it’s always retrospective. Winning candidates somehow always have “authenticity” and those that lose don’t. A few more hundred votes in Florida and Klein would be saying that Gore finally let his true self shine at the convention, and who is a scion of the East Coast elite like Bush trying to fool with his fake-cowboyisms and Potemkin ranch? And when a candidate is sometimes authentic but loses, then suddenly it’s no longer a good thing; then it’s a case of “Negative Turnip Days” or something.

But leaving that aside, there’s a bigger problem, which is that trying to discern “authenticity” is an utterly idiotic way of evaluating candidates. In this, DLCers like Klein are very much like Naderites like Michael Totten, who whined about mean Democrats who didn’t like it when you tell them “that Al Gore is a blowhard and a phony.” But the answer to this, of course, is that even if it’s true, who cares? Whether he’s a phony or a blowhard or was once mean to a girl in the fourth grade, what’s rather more important is that he wouldn’t pass massive upper-class tax cuts or pack the federal courts with neoconfederate cranks or launch disastrous wars etc. etc. etc. (And, of course, there’s the additional humor involved in someone voting for Ralph Nader because his opponent is a “blowhard.” Had Totten been alive in 1912, he would have voted for Taft because his opponents were too portly.) Klein and Totten circa 2000, for all their differences, believe in evaluating candidates with standards that might be appropriate–or at least harmless–for an elementary school student council election. To make Presidential politics about trying to replicate the moment in which Bobby Kennedy made you all starry-eyed is, in a fundamental sense, to not be interested in politics at all. And, of course, making politics about these silly personality issues, like passing notes about the pretty girl in the front row, is a luxury most obviously available to affluent white guys largely isolated from the consequences of bad government policies.

And for that matter, it should be noted that “authenticity” is completely meaningless in all contexts. There is a taco chain in Seattle with horrendously bland food; when we were arguing about going there, a friend of ours argued that “but real Baja food is supposed to be bland.” Well, fine, but again who cares? Bad food is bad food whether it’s made according to traditional recipes or not. Authenticity is only good if it involves faithful replication of good recipes–and even then, what matters is that it’s good, not that it’s authentic. Faithful replication of bad traditions is no virtue. Authenticity is always beside the point.

Laura has more.

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