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 gmail.com

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.



Authenticity Watch: useful idiot edition

From a fascinating-throughout piece in the NYT about Tanja Nijmeijer, a 32-year old Dutch woman who became a student radical, and went to Colombia to put her ideals into action by joining FARC. According to her diaries, she appears suitably concerned about whether they were keepin' it real:

Throughout her writings, she touched repeatedly on a theme that seemed to vex the rebels themselves: whether they stood for anything anymore, having evolved from their idealistic origins into a force that comfortably financed itself from the drug trade and survived by kidnappings, extortion and the forced recruitment of children as combatants.

“How will it be when we take power?” Ms. Nijmeijer asked in one entry. “The wives of the commanders in Ferrari Testa Rossas with breast implants eating caviar?” 

Thanks to the handcaper for the link


Hard truths for a plundered planet

The third hour of yesterday’s Sunday Edition on the CBC featured an interview with Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion and, his new book, The Plundered Planet. The main thrust of the interview (conducted by Helen Mann) deals with the alliance between anti-poverty activists and environmentalists, and their too-often antagonism to economics and instruments that might actually work.

As Collier puts it, he’s trying to build “common ground” between environmentalists and economists. But he has a firm view of who is worth trying to woo, and who is a lost cause. He distinguishes between what he calls the ”humane” environmentalists (whom we can do business with) and the “fundamentalist” environmentalists, who are caught up in a romantic deep-ecology ideology that sees environment as something more than serving humanity. Their goal, he argues, is to focused on preserving or “curating” nature as a set of artifacts, instead of harnessing it for enhancing prosperity.

One of the most depressing aspects he highlights is the way the romantic environmentalists have become an “unguided missile” – chasing one authenticity hoax after another, leaving inadvertent destruction in their wake. As Collier explains, the romantics have become the unwitting allies of big agriculture, who leverage the political power of the romantics for their own nefarious purposes. In North America, it has led to the colossal idiocy of biofuels. In Europe, it’s the brainless opposition to genetically modified foods.

His denunciation of the “the romantic retreat into the organic holistic peasantry” is hard-hitting stuff, and not everyone will like it. Unfortunately, the ones who most need to hear it are the ones who aren’t listening.

Listen to it here.
It’s Hour Three, and starts at the 20 minute mark.


l'authenticité, ce mirage

That's the headline on the interview I did with Paul Journet in last weekend's La Presse. If only my French were actually this good.


Death of the Author 2.0

The principal consequence of what I (and many others) have called "Culture 2.0" is that it made the old sharp distinctions between producers and consumers of culture more or less obsolete. The fight over the fundamental question -- who does the culture belong too, anyway? -- is what has motivated what has broadly been called the "copyright wars," but which we would rightly have called "the culture wars", if that excellent term hadn't been used to describe a much stupider conflict.

The fight has taken place on many levels, from the strictly legal to the moral to the outright metaphysical. And while I've been fairly sympathetic over the years to the copyleft/creative commons side of the argument, many of its more strident advocates have gone too far, and committed serious category mistakes.

First, they have gone too far by often arguing that copyright law is itself illegitimate. But as Lawrence Lessig liked to remind people, the whole creative commons idea was underwritten by strong copyright protections for creators (i.e. you can only permit the expansive use of something you already own). Second, the blurring of the old distinctions has been used to justify a great deal of straight cultural theft, on the grounds that "no one ever really creates anything anyway". Call it Death of the Author 2.0.

In an essay on the Barnes and Noble website, Andrew Keen (author of a hilariously written corrective to the prevailing net populism, The Cult of the Amateur) takes on a pair of  plagiarists, one of whom -- in classic Squid and the Whale style -- justifies her theft on the grounds that it's all about authenticity. The culprit this time is Helene Hegemann, who responded by saying: "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,"

This is bullshit on stilts, as philosophers used to say. Keen takes the reasoning apart, noting that the sort of "authenticity" these authors champion has the effect of driving  "us deeper into ourselves, thereby isolating us from one another. Rather than a radical subversion of tradition, the doubt they champion is not a hunger for reality, but a hunger for their own reflection in every window looking out upon the world."




Apocalyptic Urbanism

My old colleague Dan Gardner passes along a great story from Fast Company, reporting on a meeting of New Urbanists in Atlanta. They're all still pining for a return to the 1850s, though a certain amount of realism seems to have set in -- amongst some of them, anyway. The movement's leading guru, Andres Duany, was there and had this to say about the prospects of everyone returning to farming:

Duany conceded growing food is hard work, which is why his agrarian communities would still end up hiring Hispanic laborers to do the dirty work. But "you don't pretend they don't exist," he said in a particular utopian moment.

For some, the apocalypse will clearly be less apocalyptic than for others.