Thomas Kinkade and the Ideology of Natural Taste

Thomas Kinkade, "Painter of Light", artist to the masses, has died. In the Wikipedia entry for Kinkade, it says that in "Joe Heath and Andrew Potter's book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't Be Jammed, Kinkade's work is described as 'so awful it must be seen to be believed.'"

Sort of. 

In our book The Rebel Sell, Joe and I used Kinkade's work to illustrate (and support) Bourdieu's critique of the ideology of natural taste, i.e., the view that aesthetic judgments are judgments of true properties of the artwork. Here's how we began:

Ever notice that the masses have incredibly bad taste? Admit it. Take a look at a painting by Thomas Kinkade ("Painter of Light"), the best-selling visual artist in the United States. His work is so awful it must be seen to be believed. Or go down to one of the discount furniture warehouses, the kind that are constantly advertising "no payment until 2037". Try to find a single piece that you would be willing to put in your living room. Or listen to an entire album by Kenny G, the best-selling intrumentalist in the world. Your typical urban sophisticate would find this experience not just unpleasant, but positively harrowing...

The popular view of aesthetic judgment is dominated by what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "the ideology of natural taste." According to this view, the difference between beautiful and ugly, tasteful and vulgar, stylish and tacky, resides in the object. Bad art really is bad, it's just that only people with a certain background and education are able to recognize it as such. Yet, as Bourdieu points out, this ability to detect bad art is distributed in an almost miraculously class-specific fashion. In fact, only a tiny percentage of the population has it. And as Bourdieu documents quite exhaustively, this capacity is almost entirely concentrated among the high-status members in society. The lower classes uniformly love bad art, while the middle classes have resolutely "middle-brow" taste.

Anyone with an even moderately critical turn of mind can see the obvious explanation for this pattern...

So, we don't quite say that his work is "so awful that it must be seen to be believed", but that for people of a certain class, it certainly seems so. Millions of people, obviously, think otherwise. 



"Let me remind Mr. Potter that Adolf Hitler was ever so affectionate to his pet dog"

A month or so ago I wrote a column about the metaphysics of meat-eating and wondering how we, as a society, might react to the prospect of lab-grown meat products. I received a letter from an unhappy reader today:


Iran's influence in Afghanistan

The NYT today fronts a story about how the US is beginning to detect signs of Iranian influence behind the unrest in Afghanistan, with special attention to the riots that arose "spontaneously" after the news of the burning of Koran's by American troops leaked out. Yet according to the Times, US officials are unsure of how much success the Iranians are having:

One United States government official described the Iranian Embassy in Kabul as having “a very active” program of anti-American provocation, but it is not clear whether Iran deliberately chose to limit its efforts after the Koran burning or was unable to carry out operations that would have caused more significant harm.

The issue of Khomeinist machinations in Afghanistan has received far too little notice, especially in contrast with the obsessive attention paid to Pakistan's double-game in the Pashtun regions. One person who has been paying attention is the Vancouver writer Terry Glavin, who is also a columnist for my newspaper. As Terry wrote in February about the post-Koran burning riots, the whole thing followed a familiar script -- the similarly staged riots after the idiot Pastor Jones burned a Koran in Florida. 

It was Jones who was supposed to have caused an April 1 protest rally at Mazar-e-Sharif's grand Blue Mosque that got out of hand. A UN compound was stormed, seven foreign staff were slaughtered and five Afghans were dead before the afternoon was over. A dozen more Afghans died in various rampages all the way down to Kandahar. Those excitable and inscrutable Afghans, everybody said.

But it was an event between Pastor Jones' disgusting March 20 sacrilege and the April 1 Mazar massacre that set the drama in train. On March 24, simultaneously incendiary alarms emanated from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, the Iranian government's propaganda bureau in Tehran and the Khomeinists' Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. In the next scene, Afghanistan's Tehran-allied Olama-e Shiia council marshalled the usual fist-shaking rioters to shout the usual slogans in Kabul. And then, Bob's your uncle.

Terry's point is that there is very little that happens in Afghanistan that is the raw expression of the Afghan "street". The Afghan people are being pulled this way and that by competing forces they can't hope to control. And the countervailing powers that could help them are unwilling to do so. Karzai denounces the Americans while accepting bags of cash from Khomeinist emissaries. President Obama cravenly capitulates on all fronts while maintaining the preposterous fiction that the ANA will take over security for the place in 2014. And "Green on Blue" attacks escalate, while Western intelligence agents speak off the record to the New York Times about Iran's "surprisingly low level of professionalism". 





France is a comedy theme park

There's a shortage of eggs in France. This happened because the European Union Welfare of Laying Hens Directive banned the use of battery cages on January 1. France is now suffering through a shortfall of 21 million eggs per week. This has angered the French Union for Crusty and Soft Breadmaking, among other interested parties. 

Yet somehow, there are enough eggs available for throwing at the President of the Republic. Nicolas Sarkozy was forced to take shelter in a bar in the Basque region after he was mobbed by socialists and separatists who yelled insults and threw eggs at him. 

Meanwhile, a call girl has apparently told police that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was "treated like the Messiah at orgies I went to."



Electoral Fraud and Canadian Law

We're in the middle of an electoral fraud scandal here in Canada -- full details can be found here and here. But I have yet to see a full explanation of what laws are involved, and what possible punishments might be in order for whoever is caught. 

I'm no lawyer, and if anyone has more insight on this please send me an email. But I've been poking around the Canada Elections Act and it looks like article 482.b of the elections act is the key clause:

482. Every person is guilty of an offence who

  • (a) by intimidation or duress, compels a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election; or

  • (b) by any pretence or contrivance, including by representing that the ballot or the manner of voting at an election is not secret, induces a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election


And if I read the punishments right under Section 500 (5) It looks like this is punishable by either summary conviction or indictable offence -- with the latter punishable up to $5k in fines and five years in prison:

(5) Every person who is guilty of an offence under any of subsections 480(1) and (2), sections 481 to 483, subsections 484(3), 485(2), 486(3), 487(2), 488(2) and 489(3), section 490, subsections 491(3) and 492(2), section 494, subsections 495(5), 496(2) and 497(3), section 498 and subsection 499(2) is liable

  • (b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine of not more than $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years, or to both.
But what's a bit more interesting is what happens if the person convicted is either a candidate or an agent of a candidate and they are convicted of an "illegal practice" under s. 482b. If I read Section 502 correctly, anyone so convictedcan't sit as an MP or hold any government appointments for five years:

Consequences of illegal, corrupt practices

(3) Any person who is convicted of having committed an offence that is an illegal practice or a corrupt practice under this Act shall, in addition to any other punishment for that offence prescribed by this Act, in the case of an illegal practice, during the next five years or, in the case of a corrupt practice, during the next seven years, after the date of their being so convicted, not be entitled to

  • (a) be elected to or sit in the House of Commons; or

  • (b) hold any office in the nomination of the Crown or of the Governor in Council.

Saving food from the refrigerator

Copyright jihyun ryou

Today most fridges are filled with stuff that would last just as long and probably would taste a lot better if it was never lost in the back of the fridge. They are expensive air conditioned parking lots for what Shay Salomon called "compost and condiments."

That's pretty much my fridge. Is there another way? In an article on TreeHugger that stops juuuust short of declaring war on refrigeration, Lloyd Alter promos the work of the Korean artist  Jihyun Ryou, who has some pretty cool, minimalist designs for devices aimed at replacing the role of the refrigerator. The key is to understand what food is, how it works, and the changes it undergoes as it ages. 

Yes, lines like ""we hand over the responsibility of taking care of food to the technology, the refrigerator" grate; what's wrong with handing responsibility for things we care about off to technology? And it's also a bit annoying that it is only at the end that we are reminded that these designs "are artworks, not consumer products." That's part of a long-standing pattern in authenticity-mongering, of rejecting not just the technological, but the mass-produced or commonplace of any sort. It is generally obnoxious that the opposite of a crude technology has to be some haute-artisanal objet d'art.

But still. It's pretty cool.

Thanks to Jeffrey Mackie for the link.  


Radical Chic Occupies the Catwalk

We are by now all familiar with the concept of rebel consumerism: the way the desire to stand out from the crowd, to not be one of the masses, drives the increasingly rapid turnover of trends in consumer culture, from music to fashion to sports to social causes. But as the various strains of the counterculture congealed into the jello-mould mass mainstream consumer culture from the late sixties through to the late 1990s, it became easy to treat almost all forms of consumer-based status-seeking as variations on that same theme -- shoehorning the subversive political posturing of the antiglobalists, the mumbled ironies of the hipsters, and the earnest authenticities of Portlandia into the same explanatory schema.  And it works, for the most part. But what gets lost along the way are the more wonderfully conceited variations on that general theme.  


One such example is the phenomenon of radical chic. We all think we know what it means: the guy at the Santana concert in the Che t-shirt, or the dude who wears the kaffiyeh in your International Development class. But as coined by Tom Wolfe, radical chic had a more pointed reference. It didn't refer to your standard-issue undergraduate-level political agitation, but rather to the distinctively frivolous form it takes amongst the upper classes. For Wolfe, the point was to lampoon the especially preposterous ways the rich engage in radical chic only insofar as it raises their social standing amongst other members of Society. Wolfe's classic example was Leonard Bernstein hosting a fundraising party for the Black Panthers. 


You don't get a lot of radical chic anymore -- the upper classes are too busy still trying to be cool. But every now and then something happens that reminds you that no one does absurd politics better than the rich. 

Take a look at the top of this post of the Girl in the Green Hat, who became the poster child for last fall's Occupy Wall Street Movement. There's a lot to love in this picture: for starters, there's the who-gives-a-fuck smirk on the girl, contrasted with the grim, no-funny-stuff look on the cop's face. But most of all it's the goofball outfit on the girl: the hoodie, the hair, and that awesome hat. Thanks in large part to this picture, those hats became part of the standard uniform of occupy protesters around the world. 

So you know where this is going. After all, it was Fashion Week in New York last week, where Rooney Mara and Emma Stone showed up in sleeveless shifts to watch models show off clothes designed by people who want to sell clothes to people who want to look like Rooney Mara and Emma Stone. But the best part was when a couple of Occupy Protesters showed to disrupt the Calvin Klein show. It didn't come to much, except that... well, I'll let Eric Wilson of the Times explain:

In other news, the reported plans of Occupy Wall Street protesters to disrupt the show turned out to be vastly overstated. It was never really clear why they would target Calvin Klein in the first place, given that the majority of the company’s business, like underwear and T-shirts, is solidly aimed at the 99 percent.

A crowd of two protesters who arrived before the show had swelled to four by the time it was over. And despite their antifashion stance, one of them was wearing a knit owl cap that looked almost identical to the ones that were in Anna Sui’s show last night.

Justin Trudeau and the myth of shared values

I feel a bit sorry for Justin Trudeau. He has spent the last two days being roasted for doing nothing more than make explicit the consequences of a set of beliefs that are held by many, perhaps even most, Canadians, including most of the people who are crapping on him. 


First things first, what did he say? Last Sunday, he said (in French) to a Radio-Canada host:
"I always say, if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country."


Lots of people -- including me -- went a bit nuts. Trudeau, after all, is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the arch anti-nationalist loved by (some) anglophone Canadians for putting separatists in their place. What Justin Trudeau appeared to be doing was outing himself as yet another conditional Quebecer, yet another adherent of "profitable federalism." Typical was Colby Cosh of Maclean's, who wrote that Justin Trudeau "is like most other Quebecers in regarding separation as a negotiating position, adopted or discarded according to circumstances." 


Oh please. Justin Trudeau has never given any indication that he's a Bourrassa-style federalist (or even Charest-style federalist, for that matter), and I doubt he has any dream of using federalism as nothing more than a device for extracting better terms for Quebec. I honestly don't think Justin Trudeau has any more sympathy for conditional federalism than I do, or Stephane Dion does, or Andrew Coyne does. If Justin Trudeau did have any such leanings, he'd be a hell of a lot more popular in his home province. 


What Trudeau was doing was expressing his understanding of the theory of shared values. According to this theory, what guarantees the social and political cohesion of a country like Canada -- what ensures that the country hangs together -- is that the population has shared values. What Canadians have in common, what makes Canadians Canadians, is that they share a set of strong values that underwrite the national identity. 


Shared values talk is everywhere in this country, and has been for decades. Jean Chretien never shut up about Canadian values. Ken Dryden never shuts up about Canadian values. Stephen Harper and his ministers never shut up about Canadian values. Roy Romanow's Future of Health Care report was entitled "Building on Values". Michael Adams' best-selling book Fire and Ice was one long argument that what makes Canadians distinct from Americans is that we have different values than they do. I doubt any of these people have the same values in mind when they invoke Canadian values. 


Shared values talk also permeates the discourse of not just Quebec separatism, but most forms of regional alienation. Stephen Harper's firewall letter is filled with shared-values language, in the negative: "They" don't share "our" values, therefore "we" need to take steps to protect ourselves from "them". 


So what was Justin Trudeau getting at? Basically he was saying: Look, there is a set of shared values, bestowed upon the country by the Liberal Party of Canada between 1965 and 2005, that collectively define what it means to be Canadian. And (thinks Trudeau), those values are not consistent or compatible with the social conservatism of Stephen Harper's Conservative Party. (Set aside the issue of whether this is an accurate picture of Tory policies; the issue is what Trudeau thinks). And so, thinks Justin, if the values expressed and represented by Harper's Conservatives are the new, genuine "shared values" of Canadians, then he draws the logical conclusion: The Canada that Justin Trudeau loves and feels allegiance to no longer exists. Justin Trudeau has no country. 


And so he says look, if that Canada is really and truly gone, then maybe he might find a reasonable replacement for it in the political collectivity that best expresses his preferred Canadian shared values, namely, those of Quebecers (again, accuracy is not the issue here).
To sum up then, what Justin Trudeau was getting at was something like: If Harper's Canada is the new genuine Canada, then the only place you might find a political community based on the old shared values of Trudeauvian Liberalism is in Quebec. That is, Quebec could become a country, in the name of defending and protecting the shared values of the Canada of Pierre Trudeau. In which case, Justin Trudeau's remarks make him less like René Lévesque, and more like Alec Baldwin.


But here's the thing: If you accept the theory of shared values, then there is nothing remotely crazy about this line of thinking. Just the opposite: Justin Trudeau's argument follows directly from the theory of shared values. 


The good news is the theory of shared values is a myth. Canadians don’t have shared values. We never have, and we never will. But that’s not a problem, because  the ongoing cohesion of Canadian society is not seriously threatened by deep pluralism. If it was, we would never have got past the sectarian, linguistic, and cultural divides of the 19th century.


But the bad news is that a lot of people don't realize the shared values theory is bogus.


Canada is a liberal democracy, and like similar societies, it is designed to allow us to get along despite widespread and non-negotiable disagreements over values — that is, over how people should live their lives. Our political institutions, underwritten by constitutional declarations such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, don’t assume that citizens have shared values. Instead, they provide the legal and institutional scaffolding for allowing us to get along despite the absence of shared values. 


This is where some shared-values theorists try to get clever. "Oh look," they say. "You have just argued that we have no shared values, by pointing to the constitution and the Charter. You've clearly contradicted yourself." But the Charter doesn't express values, in the sense of a thick, comprehensive account of the good life. The Charter provides a framework of principles that are neutral with respect to controversial questions of value, that allows us to live in the same political space while pursuing highly divergent, contradictory, and even antagonistic visions of the good. 


The liberal requirement of neutrality with respect to the good is why we have freedoms of expression, of religion, and of association. It is also what motivated a young Pierre Trudeau to declare that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, and which inevitably led to homosexuals winning the right to marry.


You can call these principles "values" if you like (though it has the effect of eliminating one of the most useful and relevant distinctions in political philosophy), but at the price of impaling yourself on one of two horns of a dilemma.


On the one hand, if you adopt "liberal principles" as your shared values, these values are so thin, and so general, that they don't distinguish Canadians from Americans or Europeans in any significant way. Going in the other direction, if you call liberal principles "values", it isn't clear why Quebec can't simply found its own state on these "values." 


But on the other hand, the more you thicken up these values, to make them express a comprehensive vision of the good, the fewer Canadians will actually share them. Tens of millions of Canadians share the "values" of the Charter. About thirteen million are Catholics. A few thousand share the values of Mennonites. The idea that there is a set of values thin enough to capture the hearts of all Canadians and bind the nation together, but thick enough to exclude all others, is forlorn.


So yes, Justin Trudeau was wrong, and what he said was dangerously misguided. But I think most of his critics have an equally misguided theory. if you're a shared values theorist, then you have a choice: Accept his conclusions, or abandon the theory. You can't believe that Canada is held together by shared values and keep crapping on Justin. 

Populism is not authenticity: The case of Larry O'Brien

As I argued below in my critique of Allan Gregg's call for more authenticity in politics, it is a mistake to confuse the low-rent populism of people like Toronto mayor Rob Ford with authenticity. In a column last week for the Ottawa Citizen, my colleague Kate Heartfield makes a similar point on the way to shredding Ottawa's former Mayor, Larry O'Brien.

O'Brien had caused a bit of controversy over a few tweets he wrote during the debate over the Florida primaries, including one that said "“the spics are getting way to much airtime." Citizen reporter David Reevely jumped on this remarkable case of a former mayor tweeting racist remarks, which promoted O'Brien to play the role of the non-conforming rebel, sticking it to the lamestream elites: He tweeted, “Thanks to the Citizens ‘David Reevely’ for raising my profile on Twitter. The OC is just so MAIN STREAM, and so irrelevant.”

Heartfield proceeds to Fisk the life out of O'Brien's self justification, and you should read the whole column. But here's the key graph

What exactly is elitist — or socialist, for that matter — about not calling people “spics” in a public forum? The implication is that using a racial slur, because it’s “politically incorrect,” makes O’Brien a regular guy, someone who tells it like it is. O’Brien told a Citizen reporter a couple of years ago that he likes being a multimillionaire because it “feels secure” and gave him “the freedom to be a mayor,” never mind live in a luxury condo and drive a Porsche. But in the Bizarro World of populist-speak, he’s a regular joe, because he’s openly racist.

But as she laments, this schtick works -- for Sarah Palin, for Rob Ford, for Newt Gingrich. Which serves as a double reminder: That populism is not authenticity, and to the extent to which we conflate the two, authenticity serves the forces of reaction, not progress.


*Wislawa Szymborska*

The Nobel prize-winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska has died. The New York Times obituary is here. Paul Wells has a blog entry about her here.  I was introduced to her work by John Geddes, who pulled her book off his shelf one night and read this poem aloud to me. I loved it immediately.  


From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion. 
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion. 
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles 
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels. 

Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear 
the deadlier for not really being there. 
Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low, 
each with one smoothly choreographed blow. 

He grunts while showing his poses and paces. 
His back alone has twenty different faces. 
The mammouth fist he raises as he wins 
is tribute to the force of vitamins



To create one thing: Rock and Roll, defined

From Keith Richards' autobiography, Life:

What you're looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you've got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. If you have it all separated, it's insipid. What you're looking for is power and force without volume -- an inner power. A way to bring together what everyone in that room is doing and make one sound. So it's not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it's one thing, not five. You're there to create one thing.  


Why authenticity is bad politics, and bad for politics

(This post is an expansion of a column I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen.  I wrote this post because the limitations of a column length didn't allow me to properly address the various arguments made by Allan Gregg in his recent lecture on authenticity, to which this is mostly a reply. I still don't think I've adequately answered all of Gregg's arguments, but hopefully at least suggests the direction a proper reply might take).

 1. The Desire for Dave

The 1993 movie Dave is about a loveable everyman who happens to bear a remarkable similarity to the president, named Bill Mitchell. Dave is hired to impersonate the president at a public event for what he's told are security reasons, but it's really to serve as a stand-in while the president carries on an extramarital affair. Except the president has a stroke during the liaison and goes into a deep coma, so there is nothing for it but for Dave to continue to act as the president under the control of the president's chief of staff and director of comms. 

The President wasn't super popular and his wife hates him, and Dave's innocent enthusiasm is a fresh change from the cynical operator that Mitchell was. Mitchell's popularity starts to climb as President Dave visits a homeless shelter, takes on other feel-good projects, and generally acts as the anti-Mitchell. There's not need to explain the rest of the plot, the key point is this: "Dave" is the embodiment of one of the deepest desires in our culture for a leader who looks just like the current president, except he is selfless instead of calculating, innocent instead of cynical, and honest instead of deceitful. Bonus: it is even implied that Dave has a bigger penis than the actual president. 

Our culture is completely captivated by the desire for Dave, and it goes by the term "authenticity". 

2. Authenticity lost

The desire for Dave, or what we can call the search for authenticity, has been around for as long as there's been politics, which means it has probably been around forever. But over the last half decade or so, it has been elevated from a legitimate regulative ideal that serves as a check on some of the nastier tendencies of our political culture. It is now held up as the defining virtue of the political leader and the cure for all that ails the body politic. Authenticity, goes the argument, is both good politics (that is, a winning electoral strategy) and good for politics (that is, a way of regaining the trust of the public and its faith in the power of government to work for the common good). 

The American writer Joe Klein signposted the trend in his 2006 book Politics Lost, an essay about the decline of authenticity in presidential politics. Klein took his inspiration from what he called Harry Truman's "Turnip Day" speech at the Democratic convention in 1948 that confirmed his nomination for president. Coming on stage after midnight, speaking plainly, simply, and without notes, Truman challenged the "do-nothing Congress" to act upon those views they claim to endorse, and get back to work. Klein thinks we need more Turnip Day moments, more politicians like Truman. He argued that politicians need to "figure out new ways to engage and inspire us - or maybe just some simple old ways, like saying what they think as plainly as possible."

By the time the 2008 election rolled around, the authenticity meme had completely taken hold. For the most part, that election was framed as a battle between competing authenticities: Barack Obama's post-partisan and post-racial authenticity against John McCain's Straight Talk Express. Paired on the VP tickets were Joe Biden's "authentic" tendency to speak first and think later, up against Sarah Palin's moose-hunting mavericky small-town heartland authenticity. 

Four years later, the question of the supposed authenticity of  the various  Republican candidates for the nomination is once again a big issue - and it's something the candidates themselves seem happy to embrace. Here's John Huntsman in a recent NYT profile:

“I think what’s going to drive this election, really, are two things — authenticity and the economy,” Huntsman told me. “I think people have become so disillusioned by the professional nature of politics — the organizations around politicians, the way that politicians approach problem-solving, the way in which they go about their daily business. There has been very little in the way of authenticity in politics in recent years.”

My argument is that Huntsman has it wrong. The problem with politics today is not that there is not enough authenticity in our politics, it is it that there is far too much of it. The push for more authenticity fundamentally misunderstands the nature of mass politics, and contributes to the very problems it is supposed to solve.

3. Politics Unplugged

Like most bad ideas that come North from the United States, the authenticity craze has reached Canada in a somewhat bleached form. It doesn't dominate our political discourse the way it does in the US, but in late November, Allan Gregg -- a man with one of the most interesting CVs in Canadian public life -- delivered a lecture to the Public Policy Forum called "On Authenticity: How the Truth can Restore Faith in Politics and Government." Gregg's claim is that there is a profound disconnect between what we want from our politicians, and what we are getting. Our leaders' most systematic failure, Gregg says, is that "they have not picked up on the electorate's craving for authenticity nor adjusted their behaviour to conform to this new reality."

Gregg even has his own Turnip Day homily to explain just what he's getting at. He tells a story about the night he went to see a folk-rock band in a club in Manhattan when the guitar player's electric pickup broke. Instead of stopping the show to fix the guitar, the band unplugged their instruments, moved closer to one another, and performed an intimate number, with the two singers at one point singing directly to one another in stunning harmony. Says Gregg: "As the last chord was struck, the room literally exploded with rapturous cheering, hooting."

Gregg thinks there's a lesson in this for our politicians. What they need to do, he suggests, is unplug from the way they've always done things and try to reconnect with the electorate. They must drop the prefab talking points designed to "conceal meaning." They need to stop claiming to be the only island of virtue in a sea of knaves. They should cancel all political advertising, and talk straight to the people, saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

How would the electorate respond to a politician who took this approach? Extremely well, Gregg believes. As evidence, he cites a poll showing that three quarters of Canadians would vote for a politician who promised to be truthful 100 per cent of the time, regardless of their party affiliation. "Speaking the truth," he concludes, "is not bad politics." Even better, such an approach would be good politics, and good for politics. "For government to have the  capacity and legitimacy to make the kind of decisions necessary to deal with situations that go seriously wrong, requires trust, " he says in his concluding remarks. And he thinks authenticity is the means to that end. 

4. Is authenticity good politics?

Allan Gregg gives two examples to support his thesis that the public will respond to authenticity: The election last year of the socially progressive Muslim Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary, and the election in fall 2010 of Rob Ford -- "a leather-lunged, no necked know-nothing" -- to a landslide victory as mayor of Toronto. Here's how Gregg parses these victories:

The evidence suggests that Ford and Nenshi’s very uniqueness -- and that they were not afraid to hide their uniqueness -- made them seem more authentic and believable – basically, the message these politicians sent the electorate was ... “what you see if what you get”. In Rob Ford’s instance, his very crudeness and unrefined nature made him seem “real” and signalled he was not trying to  hide anything from voters. The fact that their candidacies horrified traditional power brokers also  worked in their favour – basically, if the defenders of the status quo were afraid of them, Nenshi  and Ford must be “for the people”.  

One initial problem with this is that, in the case of Toronto at least, Gregg is ignoring the recent history of the city's politics. Rob Ford is far from the first crude, loudmouthed rightwinger to win a landslide victory as mayor -- Mel Lastman did it twice, in 1997 and 2000. So perhaps this has more to do with the city's post-amalgamation demographic than it does with any strong public craving for "authenticity". At any rate, Gregg's thesis has hardly been convincingly established. 

A more serious problem with Gregg's analysis is that he never actually defines what he means by authenticity. He opens his talk with Polonius' famous "to thine own self be true" line from Hamlet, but he does not seem to grasp the lesson of that passage. Throughout the talk, Gregg insists on treating "authenticity" as a synonym for "truth" or perhaps "honesty". But as Lionel Trilling explains in his book Sincerity and Authenticity, the significance of Polonius and the way we have internalised his message to Laertes is that authenticity has nothing to do with the truth. More precisely, it is about being true to your (idealised) sense of self, not to any external objective facts. 

It is hard to overstate the importance of this. The shift from objective facts to self-actualization marks the shift from reason to the emotions as the foundation of knowledge. The hero of a culture of authenticity is not Descartes, or Bacon, or even Hume, but Oprah Winfrey. 

It is this fundamental confusion over just what it is he's talking about that leads Gregg to confuse populism with authenticity. It's an extremely common mistake, but it's the sort of mistake that leads him to suggest that Rob Ford is a paragon of authenticity. Ford may in fact be acting "true to himself", in that he doesn't seem inclined to do the usual things we expect of politicians such as hide their antideluvian bigotry or show respect for their entire constituency.  But given that Ford is also one of the least honest, and least transparent politicians to appear on the Candian scene in decades, it isn't clear how his brand of authenticity-as-rube-populism is good for anyone, or anything. 

5. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder

You see what I did there, in that last passage? I took someone that some people might hail as refreshingly authentic, and turned his purported virtues into vices. That is, I just wrote an anti-Rob Ford attack ad. And the reason I could get so personal against Ford is thanks to the jargon of authenticity.

Whatever else it may be, a claim to be authentic is a claim about your character, and if you choose to rest your appeal entirely on who you are -- your sincerity, your honesty, your truthfulness -- then you open yourself up to personal attacks. And why should it be otherwise? When it comes to the politics of authenticity, character assassination becomes a legitimate -- if not completely obligatory -- gambit. That is why, despite what supporters of authentic politics like to argue, the focus on authenticity may end up exacerbating the deeply partisan and negative campaigning that voters claim to find so off-putting. 

It is important to keep in mind that no one goes into public life with the intention of speaking in sound bites, breaking their promises, and demonizing their opponents. So why do they do it? For the most part, it is because they are soon confronted with the challenge of trying to communicate to millions of people under the continuous and hostile gaze of a political opposition and media that will rip them apart at the slightest misstep.The result is, inevitably, a political culture that is almost completely devoid of spontaneity or intimacy.   

What this points to is perhaps the biggest problem with Gregg's thesis, which is the very concept of "politics unplugged." The metaphor of the political sphere as something like a small Manhattan club gets it exactly wrong. National politics is more like an outdoor rock festival with two or three stages, where radically different groups of fans are mixed together to see radically different bands. Pure volume is the only means of survival in such a scenario, and any group that tried to "connect" with the audience by going unplugged would get steamrolled.

But so what? The desire for something else -- for Dave, for Turnip Day, for Politics Unplugged -- is often held up as the stance of noble idealism. It is not. What the pining for authenticity amounts to is just the desire to take the politics out of politics. If this is idealism it is of a very immature sort - there's a reason why Dave is a whimsical Hollywood comedy, not a documentary.

It's an idealism that encourages voter apathy (because "they are all liars", or because "no one speaks to my interests") and obscures this essential truth: We live in an enormous country of 33 million people with any number of deeply incommensurable conceptions of the good.

Canada is not a quaint little village, and the fact that our politicians frequently feel the need to pander to the masses, to change their minds, to break promises, and generally to do what is politically expedient and not govern according to their own idiosyncratic notion of the truth -- this is not a flaw in our system. It is its best feature. 



Go Out and Explore

I spent the holidays reading books about the golden age of Antarctic exploration. At some point I'd like to try to write something substantial about it -- especially the psychology of exploration. I think it differs in noteworthy ways from the psychology of warfare (Apsley Cherry-Garrard makes an interesting comment at one point about how he'd much rather be surrounded by explorers than trench-men), and it strikes me that a great deal of the recent literature on happiness could benefit from a serious reading of Scott's and Shackleton's journals. 

But in the meantime, I just finished Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, and I want to let his closing sentences marinate for a while:

And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say "What is the use?" For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you will sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg. 


Art is what you can get away with*

An example of Michel Luc Bellemare's "supra impasto" technique. Photo courtesy Ottawa Citizen.


My colleague Zev Singer has a feature in this week's Observer about an Ottawa artist named Michel Luc Bellemare who has spent the past few years pulling off a fascinating artistic grift: He's fudged his resume, claiming have "his work in the National Gallery; acquisitions by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Civilization; a PhD from Carleton University; stories written about his groundbreaking work in the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and USA Today."

None of it is true, but that hasn't stopped Bellemare from using these purported credentials to get media attention and space in local galleries.

As Zev points out, this is an old trick, and Bellemare is hardly the first artist to use calculated misrepresentation as a way of not only advancing his career, but also making a meta-statement about the nature of art. But unlike, say, Warhol, whose deceptions were designed as comments on the superficiality of art and the shallowness of fame, Bellemare can't seem to decide whether he's making an artistic statement, or just trying to get people to pay attention to his paintings.

In the end, the question is whether Bellemare's work is any good. He uses what he calls a “supra impasto” technique to create a “highly textured surface, globs upon globs of colour.” And while Bellemare "considers it work of the highest level," curator Diana Nemiroff is not so sure:

“Yes, there is a slight possibility that we’re unable to see the genius in his work,” Nemiroff said. “Historically, there have been artists who’ve been overlooked. Today, when the art world is global and constantly searching for the next new thing, it seems less likely that a new van Gogh, for instance, would see his paintings go unsold.”

Here's a link to Zev's story, and a gallery of Bellemare's work.

* Thanks to Andrew Coyne for the title.



The McDonald's cheeseburger (story) that won't die 

In the olden days, parents would tell stories of cannibalistic witches or pedophilic wolves in order to frighten their children into behaving. In our food-obsessed times, we torment them with tales of frankenfoods, meals from the undead: Cola drinks that will dissolve molars overnight; Chewing gum that will sit undigested for decades in your stomach; Twinkies that will be around when the Sun goes supernova.


Then there's the McDonald's cheeseburger, which is the Friday the 13th of fast-food frighteners: It simply won't die. According to popular legend, McDonald's cheeseburgers don't rot, go mouldy, or otherwise modulate through the usual stages of organic decay. And the reason, it is said, is that the McDonald's cheeseburger is not Real Food. Instead, it is a cheeseburger-shaped agglomeration of salts, preservatives, and other additives which are not of this earth, and not suitable for human consumption. 


The story has been around for ages. Morgan Spurlock used the undead hamburger as a prop in his 2004 movie SuperSize Me. In 2008, Karen Hanrahan blogged about how she uses a 14-year-old hamburger as a device for frightening parents away from fast food, and Artist Sally Davies photographed one every day for six months or so. And now, a Windsor, Ontario  nutritionist named Melanie Hesketh is getting attention for -- surprise -- using a non-decomposing McDonald's cheeseburger as a fright wig with which to terrify her kids:


Mould, maggots, fungi, bacteria — all have avoided the tempting meal that sits in plain view.
“Obviously it makes me wonder why we choose to eat food like this when even bacteria won’t eat it,” said Ms. Hesketh.
The meat patty has shrunk a bit, but it still looks edible and, with a faint but lingering greasy, leathery odour, she said it “still smells slightly like a burger . . . it hasn’t changed much.”


The article, by Windsor Star reporter Doug Schmidt, goes on to speculate about the salt content of the burger being the source of its longevity, and quotes at some length a chiropractor named Michelle Prince -- because chiropractors are well-known for their scientific judgment. “I think most people who see this are swayed,” said Ms. Prince. 


Well that settles it then, doesn't it?


Not quite. Last year, J. Kenji López-Alt -- the editor of the food website Serious Eats -- decided to actually test the whole cheeseburgers-last-forever-because-they-aren't-real hypthothesis, by looking at how home-made burgers of similar dimensions fared under similar conditions:


Well, well, well. Turns out that not only did the regular McDonald's burgers not rot, but the home-ground burgers did not rot either. Samples one through five had shrunk a bit (especially the beef patties), but they showed no signs of decomposition. What does this mean? It means that there's nothing that strange about a McDonald's burger not rotting. Any burger of the same shape will act the same way. The real question is, why?


Indeed, why? To find out, I'll leave you, dear reader, to do what Spurlock, Hanrahan, Davies, Hesketh, Prince, and Doug Schmidt did not do, and that is to read to the end of the piece. The answer might surprise you. But I promise, it's nothing to be frightened of.  
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