Some recent reviews of the Authenticity Hoax

1. From UofT magazine, The Lost Left.

2. From the Edmonton Journal: Being true to our tastes, if not to ourselves

3. From the Vancouver Sun, The drive to be authentic in the modern age

4. An interview with the lovely Megan Hustad, which was supposed to run in a Daily publication that didn't end up running it, the Beasts. 



Keen on Keen on the Brain

Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur is a useful corrective to a lot of the more breathlessly populist accounts of culture in the internet age. It's also hilarious. So the smart people over at TechCrunch gave given Keen a tv show. In the first episode, he has Nicholas Carr talking about his obscenely successful book The Internet Rots Your Mind along with Technorati big shot Kevin Marks. Smartness and english accents abound. 

More on Carr's book from me, once I read it. Read Keen's book if you haven't. 



Toronto violence: Fighting for their right to party

My city got trashed this weekend, almost entirely thanks to people who had no actual interest in seeing the G8 and G20 meetings succeeed. You can find any number of columnists and other pundit sorts blaming the protesters for what happened, but why listen to The Man when you can get it straight from the criminals themselves? As this communique on a "guerilla action" website explains the agenda: "cause some shit" and then have a party:

Get off the Fence! -- On Saturday, June 26th, we will form an anti-colonial, anti-capitalist presence to walk in solidarity with the big People First march, before continuing on towards the fence to confront the police state and Toronto's corporate culture. This action will be militant and confrontational, seeking to humiliate the security apparatus and make Toronto's elites regret letting the dang G20 in here. Meet by 1pm at the Northeast corner of College and university.

Saturday Night Fever Later, from late on the 26th ‘till dawn on the 27th, come join us for a roaming street party! We will dance through the streets of Toronto to the music of guerilla DJ's and renegade bands, taking back space from the corporate spectacle that this city has become.

This isn't to let the cops off the hook. There is plenty of blame to go around for what happened in Toronto this weekend, and lots of evidence that the police frequently acted in a way that escalated the tension instead of reducing it. Furthermore, I am extremely unhappy about the "special arrest" powers that were  given to the police in secret. But only one group came to Toronto with the express aim of causing mayhem. Naomi Klein, of course, blames the governments.



On "acting white"

John McWhorter has an interesting review of what looks to be an important new book on the pernicious conception of black authenticity, and how it feeds into the rejection of scholarly achievment as "acting white":

It was the demise of segregation, of all things, that helped pave the way for the “acting white” charge. With the closing of black schools after desegregation orders, black students began going to school with white students in larger numbers than ever before. White students were often openly hostile, and white teachers only somewhat less so. Black teachers and administrators from the old black schools often lost their jobs. Unsurprisingly, black students started modeling themselves against white ones as a form of self-protection.



Soccer styles and national identity

As side-reading for the World Cup, I’ve been reading Inverting the Pyramid, by the UK journalist Jonathan Wilson. It is simply the best book on the evolution of strategy in sport that I’ve ever read. It is a tremendous corrective to one of the biggest failings of sports journalism, which is that lack of strategic insight into what is happening on the field. (Hockey journalism in Canada is the absolute worst at this – see my friend Wayne’s post at his sports blog for the grim details of what is wrong).

What Wilson does is tell the history of soccer through the changes in the strategic deployment of players, or what he calls “shape”. It’s the tale of the transition from the 2-3-5 system we were all taught as children, to the fully inverted 4-4-2 (and its many variations).

What I’ve found fascinating is the way both shape and the “style” a team adopts within a given shape was from the start caught up in political questions and anxieties of national identity. More interesting still is that the early styles adopted at the international level by different countries are the same stereotypical traits that we attribute to their teams today. The British are suspicious of technique, preferring a more direct boot-and-run game. The Germans are clinical, the Italians defensive, the Brazilians obsessed with individual flair. That’s how they are, and how they’ve always been.

It is easy to see why distinct national styles would have emerged a hundred years ago, when countries were isolated and the games evolved according to local conditions. But today’s game is thoroughly global, the players cross-pollinating the top national leagues throughout Europe. Why, when they go back to play for their national side, do they fall into decades-old manners of play? I can think of a few explanations:

1. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the idea of national styles or characteristics is something that is subject to huge confirmation bias. We project onto the Brazilians more flair than they are actually showing, or when we watch the Germans we automatically start looking for evidence of cold-hearted, clinical play.

I think there is something to this. The variations of play have certainly converged over the decades, there is far less variation between countries than there was even a few decades ago. If you think of the comparison with political ideologies: Once upon a time there was a great deal of variation and “live” options. But just as the West reached something like the end of history ideologically, we’ve reached something similar with soccer. The differences between countries are on the margins, reflected less in overall strategy than in slight differences in style and – perhaps most noticeably – in attitudes toward sportsmanship.

2. National playing styles endure because of some version of what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect”: agents often find themselves internalizing and acting out the traits and characteristics of the social “kind” or category in which they find themselves slotted. Hacking has explored how this works in various psychological pathologies, but you can see how it would work in soccer: the fans, the media, even the coaches have a sense of what it means to be, say, an “Italian” soccer player, and the players themselves take pride in that, and start to play according to that stereotype. This loops back on itself and becomes remarkably self-preserving.

3. In a moment of crazy serendipity, as I was thinking about this yesterday, via the excellent The Browser I came across a blog post from the economist Rajiv Sethi, in which he asks virtually the same question, but he comes at it from the angle of asking why diving remains so prevalent in soccer. Borrowing some ideas from a paper on organizational behaviour by Jean Tirole, he argues that once an organization has an established “collective” identity, it becomes rational for new entrants to adopt and sustain that identity. With respect to diving, he writes:

Groups consist of overlapping cohorts, with older members mixed in with newer ones. Those older members who have behaved "badly" in the past and thus ruined their reputations have no incentive to behave "well" currently. But suspicion also falls on the newer members, who cannot be perfectly distinguished from the older ones. This suspicion alters incentives in such a manner as to make it self-fulfilling. Even if the entire group would benefit from a change in reputation, this may be impossible to accomplish.



nationalism as brand loyalty

One subject that I really wanted to write more about in The Authenticity Hoax was nationalism. The idea was to come at it from the angle of nationalism as a form of brand loyalty: Benedict Anderson famously described nations as “imagined communities”, which strikes me as in many ways analogous to the way Harley Davidson riders or Doc Martens wearers or Apple computer users form a virtual tribe based on their consumption of certain brand identities.

Then a few years ago the “nation branding” meme took off, and I thought I was on to something, and I wanted to drill down and expose many of the post-Herderian myths about nationalism as part of the authenticity hoax. I wrote a bunch of stuff on it that didn’t end up making it into the book (some of the remainders are in chapter 7), but it’s a subject I’m still really interested in. Maybe it’s because I’m a Canadian, and the question of our national identity (or brand, it amounts to the same thing) is something we’re still trying to figure out.

And so, a the soccer-mad world cocks half an eye at the goings-on in Hunstville and Toronto, Toronto’s online magazine The Mark presents a timely look at just what sort of image, or brand, Canada should be presenting on the global stage. It’s a fun series of short essays, with a mostly impressive list of contributors: Two former prime ministers, a bunch of academics and policy wonks, and, well, me.

What is Canada’s most exportable trait? Kim Campbell suggests it is our approach to federalism, while Eddie Greenspon proposes “Open foreign policy”. My own view is that an effective nation brand can’t be too narrow (which is why I think Paul Martin’s “banking genius” won’t work), and it shouldn’t be tied to a moral trait, which is why I’m not keen on Judith Shamian’s “Clever compassion”.

I suggest “responsible government” as our nation brand, although I intend it in a much broader sense than it is taught in civics 101. Of the other suggestions, I think Tom Axworthy’s “Charter government” is probably the one with the best chance of success.

More on nation branding: An interview I did with nation branding guru Nicolas Papadopoulos, and  what I think is the second ever column I wrote for Maclean’s, on the prospects and perils of nation brands. And not unrelated: My latest column on soccer and partisanship.



Some authenticity links

1. An Algerian soccer players slaps a female reporter -- she smacks him back.

2. We're all gonna die.

3. The Evolution of the Hipster.

4. Diesel's Be Stupid campaign wins a prize at Cannes.

4.5 Art exhibit on the branding of heroin.

5. The Bixi anthem:


The Organic Shuffle

Why is organic so important? Ask its adherents, and you'll get anyone of half a dozen or so answers: Organic farming is more sustainable. It is smaller scale. The produce is more nutritious. It has a smaller carbon footprint. It tastes better.

Having a scattershot of moral justifications for what amounts to yuppie salad is helpful, because it means that when one argument fails, you can always point to one of the other ones as the one you really care about. And so when it came out last year that organic produce had no significant nutritional benefits over conventional, the response was, "well, it's more sustainable, that's what matters."

But is it? The evidence for the superior sustainablity of organic farming has never been strong, and it got even weaker today with the release of a study from researchers at Guelph University who found that organic pesticides are frequently worse than their convention equivalents because they require higher doses, and aren't as effective because they are less selective in their targetting of pests.

Guelph prof Rebecca Hallet nails it with this remark: “There is a general assumption among the public that if a compound is natural it’s going to be safer than something that’s synthetic,” Prof. Hallett said. “This research shows that’s not necessarily the case.”

Of course, the organic fetishists aren't fazed. After all, organic farming was never about carbon emissions, or farming techniques, or nutrition. Nope, it's about culture:

The culture and approach of organic farming is what distinguishes it from conventional farming, organic farmer David Cohlmeyer said. He runs Cookstown Greens, which supplies organic produce to restaurants and hotels in Ontario. Organic pesticides are “irrelevant” to his business, he said.

“When you’re doing it right, you don’t have pest problems,” Mr. Cohlmeyer said. “We don’t use any pesticides because we don’t need to.”

Related: Rob Horning's post on Freegan Identity



Bodega chic: the case of Urban Outfitters (UPDATED)

UPDATE: Anton Troianovski at the WSJ has pictures of the proposed storefront. Yeah, it looks goofy, but I still don't see what the fuss is about. The first comment on Anton's blog seems right to me. 


Urban Outfitters is opening a store at Broadway and 100th that won't be like the usual UO store. Instead, it will be an exercise in "bodega chic", where the storefront will be split into four distinct false fronts: a hat store, a hardware store, a neighborhood bar and a bodega. According to the store's designer, "The whole idea was to do this kind of ironic statement of lining the building with storefronts that would be reminiscent of independent businesses."

Avi over at the Westside Independent is ticked. He sees it as the real-life version of "derelicte", the homeless-chic clothing line parodied in Zoolander. "Welcome to our fake community," he writes.

Except it's hard to see how this is anything more than the application of the urban outfitters product line to the store itself. After all, UO's entire success was built on selling fake or kistschy versions of retro, bohemian, and vintage styles. And sure, the "ironic" aspect of it all is a bit annoying, but as I argue in my book, there's actually something refreshingly honest about the "fake authentic". What we really need to be on our guard against are the subtler ways of exploiting the authentic, something that New Yorkers are more familiar with than just about anyone on Earth. What's more pernicious - Urban Outfitters' for-the-masses fake authentic, or the all-too earnest authenticity mongering where ecxlusivity is obtained through price discrimination, or -- worse -- social connections?

(via @davidreevely)


How suburban values saved New York

That's pretty much the gist of my article in yesterday's New York Post. I like the lede graph:

Aside from the perennial concerns over real estate prices and where to find the latest novelty food, nothing causes New Yorkers more anxiety than the safety of their city. But while for ages the worry was that New York was too violent, the growing sense is that it is now far too safe. For more than a decade now, people have worried that Manhattan has turned into “Manhattanland,” an urban theme park suitable only for tourists. Worse, the relentless steamroller of gentrification seems to be steadily transforming all of the five boroughs into one giant homogeneous suburb.



Dandy in the Afterworld

Post-Wildean British artist/writer/dandy Sebastian Horsley has died of an apparent heroin overdose. The good people at Q have reposted an interview Jian did with Horsley two years ago. It’s an amazing bit of performance art, from the very start, and almost everything out of Horsley’s mouth is quotable. I especially like the exchange that starts just after the six minute mark, when Jian asks why Horsley didn’t just put his memoir online for all to read. Horsley responds that ‘The internet is loser central, and it is basically replacing masturbation as a leisure activity.” Then comes this:


    Q: You once said, “It’s better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not.” What do you mean by that?
    SH: Do you like me?
    Q: I think I kind of like you.
    SH: Well then I’ll tell you what I mean, my dear.


What follows is a gorgeous defence of live lived as an open book. Turn off the soccer for a few minutes and give it a listen.

Authenticity is for tourists: China edition

I've been reading Country Driving, the third of New Yorker writer Peter Hessler's books about the cultural and economic transformation of China at the turn of the millennium. It chronicles his road trips and experiences hanging out in a village outside Beijing, and I'm loving it so far. The writing is great, and the stories from his road trip along the Great Wall are priceless. But I was struck by a passage where he describes how the little village where he'd rented a getaway house gradually opened up as newly rich Chinese tourists started coming in search of the rural life that was rapidly disappearing. His landlords have opened up a little cafe/restaurant that has found itself a lucrative niche:

The new restaurant in the lower village didn't affect them much, because there were always nostalgic city customers who preferred a traditional rural meal, served in a real peasant home. At least that's what they said -- they probably would have felt differently if they were served a bowl of elm-bark noodles. In fact they usually ate rainbow trout that originally came from Swiss stock. In recent years the foreign breed was introduced to the big fish farms down in the valley, and it became the standard meal for weekend visitors: practically every rural family that opened a restaurant had a sign that said "Rainbow Trout".



Obama's authenticity trap

One of the more pointless aspects of the whole BP spill fiasco is the ongoing debate about whether Obama’s reaction to the whole thing has been appropriate. Has he shown enough anger? Too much anger? Has he been too cerebral? Too dispassionate?Too uncaring?

Please.  The assumption that what is required, more than anything else, is authenticity is one of the most pernicious aspects of our political discourse. Of course Obama had it coming, to some extent, since his whole brand is “authenticity”. But now he, and the public, are facing the double-edged nature of authenticity as the litmus of leadership: we think we want authenticity only until we see it:

An article by Julia Kirby in the HBR does a good job of highlighting just what is wrong with this whole approach to leadership. Here’s the problem:

In the current criticism of Obama, we’re seeing another form of double bind, at least as difficult to navigate. Today Show’s Matt Lauer found him frustratingly cerebral, but how would the general public have felt if he’d been visibly enraged? As one writer, William Jelani Cobb, told CNN: “It would have fed deeply into a pre-existing set of narratives about the angry black man.”

Of course, to see the trap in action, you don’t even have to play the race card:


Contest Winner!

So I had a contest inviting people to submit pictures, links, stories, anecdotes or anything else that reeks of the authenticity hoax. I got lots of great submissions and it was hard deciding on the winner. But here goes:

Third place: Roger Collier  sent me a link to a story in the New York Times (where else?).  "The piece," Roger writes,  "is about reality TV contestants and how some, like American Idol singers, can be open about their ambitions (to be famous) while others, like Bachelor competitors, must surpress their ambitions (to be famous) and pretend to be looking for "love."":

Unlike contestants on Fox's American Idol, who openly express a desire to be pop stars, people who advance on “The Bachelor” have to dissemble their ambitions. They must pull off an acting trick, akin to one required of contestants on the old find-the-liar game show “To Tell the Truth.” They’re not on this reality show to promote themselves, which they must agree (or risk banishment) is despicable; they’re on the show to “find love,” which they must earnestly profess (or risk banishment) is noble. This demand on the players brings to mind Abigail Cheever’s fascinating new book, “Real Phonies,” about the American drama of personal authenticity.

Second place: Sean Stockholm sent this great video for Fender "Road Worn" guitars. Why play and tour for forty years to get your guitar looking and feeling distressed and broken in? Fender will add "authentic aging to the hardware" to make it look like all you weekend rockers out there look like you've been kicking out the jams since the sixties.

First place: Ultimately, no one could beat Edward Behr's argument in Salon about the need for something to replace "organic" as a way of defining quality in agriculture, in a way that can't be co-opted by corporations. He suggests -- get this -- the label, "authentic". How do you guarantee authenticity? "To have an "authentic" label, food would have to be sold directly by the person or family who grew it -- no middleman."

Where to begin? You could write a whole book about how brainless this is. A free copy of The Authenticity Hoax goes to Peter Snyder, who sent me the link. Thanks to everyone who sent me stuff, sorry if I haven't had a chance to properly reply yet.


Knowing yourself is courage itself


Mexican toreador Christian Hernandez lost his nerve during a bullfight the other day and fled from the ring, too hoots of derision from the crowd and, inevitably, from the entire Twitterverse. While it shouldn’t need pointing out that Hernandez was badly gored in the leg two months ago, and that the vast majority of the people laughing at him will do nothing more dangerous this year than jaywalk, that’s not quite why I have a great deal of sympathy for him. The key point, I think, is this one that Hernandez himself makes:

“There are some things you must be aware of about yourself,” he said. “I didn’t have the ability, I didn’t have the balls, this is not my thing.”

One of the dominant fetishes in our culture is the search for self-discovery and self-awareness as a form of self help. But the quest is almost always framed as the discovery of hidden or previously unknown powers or capacities: to achieve your goals, all you have to do is believe in yourself. The most blatant example of this is in the Matrix, where Neo has to come to believe that he is The One, but that was just ripping off countless hero-with-a-thousand-faces narratives, from Star Wars to any episode of Oprah.

But one of the most underrated aspects of self-discovery is the way it forces us to come to grips with our limitations. We are biological and psychological beings, and part of growing up is coming to grips with the limits of our capacities, and yes, our weaknesses. Part of courage is knowing yourself.