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.


Some useful links

1. The BBC can barely bring itself to concede that industrial agriculture is good for the planet.  

2. A good sentence from Ezra Klein:

"One of the really difficult things about getting people to eat better is convincing them that it's not just a way for others to impose class-based lifestyle preferences on one another." (via @EdwardBellamy)

3. @BPGlobalPR took his act live this week, and it didn't go over so well (via @Josh_Greenberg)"

Personally, I find his act far more powerful when it focuses on clever, pointed mockery of BP PR, so I asked for his thoughts on how this illusion of authenticity has helped create such a powerful message.

I even requested that he break character for a moment, to give an honest answer.

"Break character?" he scoffed. "Sir, give me your Twitter handle because you are at the top of my pickledick list!"

4. The Authenticity Hoax has been named-checked by New York celebrity chef Eddie Huang:

"I've been gettin crunk on the weekends with the goon squad, watching the NBA Finals, Boondocks, and reading this book 'The Authenticity Hoax' by: Andrew Potter."



More on M.I.A.

I have published a new and improved version of my piece about the MIA vs Lynn Hirschberg kerfuffle from last week. Also, Rob Horning at Popmatters has a really good survey article about the backlash against the backlash. Fun stuff. 


Gangsta Journalism

What do Gawker and the New Yorker have in common with rap music? According to The Assimilated Negro, they are both selling you "ego and authority", or what he calls "FiftyCentism". This is a mode of capitalism that he argues "cultivates an 'intelligence' predicated on protecting and manipulating what you know. for your own gain. this runs in contrast to a more buddhist or zen approach to 'smarts' which stresses empathy."

He doesn't much like the dominance of Get-Rich-Or-Die-Trying capitalism, but thinks we're stuck with it.

blogging as a medium might allow for an evolution out of this. the direct one-to-one effect of blogging means any given individual can buck/change the system. and readers are getting more options. but it doesn't change the fact that we are suckers for Authority. we want someone, whether it's 50 Cent, Jay-Z or The New Yorker, to tell us what to do.

That may be true, but I think T.A.N. is downplaying the way a more empathic capitalism -- call it the selling of authenticity -- has become increasingly profitable. From the venerable Body Shop to the body-consciousness of Lululemon, from Seventh Generation's planet-friendly suds to the farmer-friendly practices of the countless urban farmer's markets that have sprung up, there's a whole empire of capitalism that is all about empathy of some sort or another.

Whether that is something that belongs in journalism or rap music is another question.


Win a copy of The Authenticity Hoax

Time for a contest, I think. Inspired by Authentic Dining Week -- and especially by the use of the prefix "pre" as the definitive marker of the authentic -- I'm asking readers to send me authenticity-items that best exemplify or reflect the themes in the book. It can be from any realm of the culture -- art, music, politics, teh Internets -- and it can be on any of the main aspects of the authenticity hoax, viz: conspicuous authenticity, dopey nostalgia, reactionary politics, you name it. Send pictures, links, quotations, stories, anecdotes or whatever to me: jandrewpotter at

I'll post the best entries here and give out a few books to the best ones.



Everything is Authentic

Andrew MacLeod of Ottawa sends me a link to an investment management company called Horizon One and wonders if authenticity has jumped the shark. As he points out, the list of adjectives describing the company include "focused", "responsible", and -- you got it -- "authentic". Excuse me, are those profits authentic?

Meanwhile, in New York this week we're missing the Gourmet Latino Authentic Dining Week. The most promising is the restaurant Centrico, which is offering a "Pre-hispanic menu". I love the idea of "pre" as an authenticity-modifier. Things certainly were more authentic, pre-indoor plumbing.





Bad Idea Chicken

One of the dopiest aspects of the current locavore movement is the craze for urban farming. Eons ago, our cities were full of livestock. Even when I was a kid, I remember going to the Byward Market in Ottawa and seeing live animals such as chickens and rabbits. But gradually we all smartened up and realised that urban livestock is a bad idea. It was hard on the animals,  completely disgusting,  and a public health hazard.

But the authenticity hoax relies on a great deal of misguided nostalgia for times that were actually rather bad, and so it is no surprise that an Ottawa City Councillor, Alex Cullen, is bringing forward a motion to allow residents to raise chickens in their backyard. When ignorant people are losing their heads, it helps to talk to others who actually know what they are talking about. And so kudos to Ottawa's morning CBC radio show, which talked to the head of the Ottawa Humane Society, Bruce Roney. 

Roney was unquicoval: This is a bad idea. It's clearly a fad, and Roney points out that people are going to quickly realize that raising chickens is a lot of work, very expensive, and not terribly aesthetic or hygenic. And the inevitable result is that when people find that they are spending $5 for an egg, they are doing to get out of the domestic chicken biz. And who will deal with the problem? The Humane Society. And as Roney says over and over again, "we don't need more work."

What he suggests you do, if you have a hankering for a local chicken egg, is this: Drive to the country and buy one. You'll save money, and save the Humane Society a huge headache.

You can stream the story here, scroll down to "Urban Chickens".


Authenticity Hoax reviewed in National Post

This past weekend, longtime Toronto author and book critic (and biographer of Marshall McLuhan) Philip Marchand reviewed The Authenticity Hoax in the National Post. From Geoff Pevere (The Star) to Susan Pinker (The Globe) to Marchand, I've had the privilege of being reviewed by thoughtful and experienced critics in the three biggest papers in the country. It's an honour.


In Defense of M.I.A.

To recap the events so far: Rapper M.I.A (nee Maya Arulpragasam) submitted to a lengthy profile for the New York Times Magazine, written by Lynn Hirschberg. Maya didn’t like the way she was portrayed and subsequently tweeted Hirschberg’s personal phone number. She (Maya) also complained that she’d been quoted out of context (which the Times admitted) and put online some clandestine tapes she’d made herself of the interviews with Hirschberg that showed that the Times reporter had been less than scrupulous in her description of events.

But even if Hirschberg hadn’t torqued things, her whole agenda is so ridiculous that Maya has plenty of reason to be annoyed.  While most of the profile is interesting and pretty straightforward, Hirschberg gets in enough digs to make it clear that she doesn’t think much of Maya’s limousine-terrorist schtick. Hirschberg makes much of Maya’s relationship with Ben Bronfman, son of Seagram’s heir Edgar Bronfman Jr., and her tone when describing their house in “very white, very wealthy Brentwood” is almost gloating. But it’s passages like this where Hirschberg makes her agenda plain:

Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread.

Or this:

Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.

Okay, we get it. Maya’s a hypocrite. Here she is, trying to play up her family’s Tamil gangsta cred while drinking white wine and eating yuppie fries in a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles. And in this age of authenticity, where an artist is only entitled to those forms of personal, artistic, and political expression that are properly underwritten by their background. If you don’t live it, you can’t say it, and a hypocrite is the absolute worst thing you can be.

Hirschberg summarizes the dilemma thusly: “What Maya wants is nearly impossible to achieve: she wants to balance outrageous political statements with a luxe lifestyle; to be supersuccessful yet remain controversial; for style to merge with substance.”

It makes one wonder what planet Lynn Hirschberg is living on. There is absolutely no tension between balancing radical politics with high living, no difficulty in making style into a political statement. Just the opposite: the selling and marketing of non-conformity – what’s been called radical chic, or the rebel sell, has been the very essence of our culture for decades. The point has been made over and over again, by everyone from Tom Wolfe to Thomas Frank, but for some reason Lynn Hirschberg seems to have missed the memo. What Maya is doing isn’t impossible to achieve; it’s frigging dead simple.

At one point, Hirschberg calls Maya’s new video, “Born Free”,  “politically naïve,” but it is pretty obvious that it’s all-too-savvy. Want to know just how clued out Hirschberg is? After Maya talks to some designers about riffing off the uniforms worn by Blackwater operatives for her upcoming tour, Hirschberg seems perplexed. “The oddity of using a garment linked to mercenaries to convey a very different message seemed to elude Maya,” she writes.

At risk of beating the point to death: there is nothing remotely odd about a political radical adopting the uniforms of the oppressor and co-opting their meanings. Bohemians have been doing that for literally centuries, most notably though during the Vietnam war.

In short, the Times profile of M.I.A. is a travesty. Lynn Hirschberg is desperate to portray her subject as a sell-out, but Hirschberg is the one who’s fallen for the authenticity hoax.



Foodie Cosmopolitanism

Slate has a big honking interview with Anthony Bourdain about the notion of being "wrong", which detours into a very pleasing discussion of authenticity and food. My bold:

There's enormous respect and a romanticized reverence for what's considered the "right" way, meaning, the classic wayand I think most chefs feel powerfully that one should know that before moving on. Like, "I've researched this, this is the way they were making it in 1700, goddamn it, and that's the way it should be made." Or: "This is the way they make laksa in Kuching and Borneo; that stuff I just had on Ninth Avenue is definitely not the same; ergo it's wrong." But, you know, what does "real" or "authentic" mean? The history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation.

This is via Worldhum


A rescue gone wrong

In the introduction to The Authenticity Hoax, I set thet able for the argument by telling the story of Florent and Chloe Lemacon, the French couple who, along with their son Colin, were kidnapped by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. In the subsequent standoff, Francois was accidentally shot and killed by a French commando.

The Irish Times has a very good followup to the story, setting the record straight on a few points. The most important is Chloe's claim that, media reports to the contrary, they hadn't sailed recklessly into the Gulf of Aden, they were in fact 900 km from the coast:

Each day they had telephoned their co-ordinates to their parents, who passed them on to the French navy’s command centre in the region. They were probably just unlucky. The pirates who came across the Tanit had unsuccessfully chased a cargo ship far out to sea earlier that day and now found themselves in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no food or water. The Tanit would be their lifeline. Within 24 hours, news of the yacht’s capture had spread across the world. The French naval command centre in Djibouti immediately dispatched three warships and a team of special forces commandos to the scene.