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The Age of Authenticity – Part III: The Emergence of Authenticity

Let’s begin by considering this scary thought: what if it’s been the same baby boomers holding protest signs the whole time, these past fifty years? While I am sure this is not literally the case, I think we all might feel a little queasy if we conducted a series of personal micro-histories of the people who have homemade Obama as Hitler signs in Ohio. While the Lyndon Larouche movement has always been peripheral in America, in it, we can track the most clearly transformation of the slogans on protest signs from “End the Draft” to “Government Out of My Medicare.”

What is clear today, from poll after poll, is that the baby boom generation, which we associate with the Sexual Revolution and the Vietnam War resistance movement, Mitt Romney’s generation, is the backbone of the Tea Party. These baby boomers, as they have been since the Summer of Love, are the cutting edge of authenticity; the core doctrine of the movement, as distinct from the various struggles in which it has been involved, like the debt ceiling, is that their federal taxes have steadily risen since 2008, something easily disproved by the tax returns they file every year. But they know their taxes have gone up because they can feel it in their gut, not in the cold, positivistic realm of their bank account or tax return.

As I said in part two, in that Hegelian/Marxian way, authenticity was a key part of the Age of Reason; it just surfaced, over time, as the locus of contradiction or antithesis that the Enlightenment episteme inevitably conjured. In other words, just as beauty and empirical evidence cohabited in the aesthetically elegant models of Galileo and Copernicus, empirical evidence and authenticity initially seemed to get along just fine. Their mutual hostility to hypocrisy and lily-gilding helped to power critiques of the Age of Beauty like Candide.

It was in post-war America that authenticity and reason came to be pitted against each other. This was intimately tied to the innovations in personhood associated with the Baby Boom. Baby Boomers came of age in an America as deeply committed to the values of the Age of Reason as it has ever been. This was reflected in the massive expansion in postsecondary education, huge-scale investment in creating a single standard in elementary and secondary education, increasing governmental funding of science and an increasingly technocratic expertise-focused corporate culture in both the public and private sectors.

But they also came of age in the Summer of Love and the rhetoric of the late 60s which resurrected much of the rhetoric of the romanticism of Keats and others, with its interest in sexual liberation, personal experience, nature and the democratization of the arts through the resurgence of folk music. But whereas romanticism was explicitly nostalgic, and therefore easily domesticated within an episteme that prized “progress,” the Age of Aquarius proclaimed by the counterculture was forward-looking. It didn’t see the disenchantment of the world as a price we must wistfully pay for progress but instead as an error to be corrected.

This was, after all, the age of men like Robert McNamara, the great morally vacuous technocrats John Ralston Saul calls “Voltaire’s bastards.” Only a generation after the Holocaust, the moral vacuity of the priests of reason seemed totally unchastened as they poured defoliants onto Southeast Asia as part of a rational war. While conservatives like George Wallace remained significant political foes as the 1960s wore on, the counterculture, for a variety of good reasons, focused an increasing proportion of its activist energy against the likes of McNamara and Henry Kissinger.

From the simple perspective of the scale of suffering and injustice, the war in Vietnam and Cambodia simply outdistanced the white supremacist states of the American South. As immortalized by the Onion’s headline, “America’s Negroes March on Hanoi,” by the late 1960s, the US government was killing far more of its poor and black citizens in Vietnam than the Klan and its allies could hope to kill in the former Confederacy.

But there were also questions of proximity and resemblance. McNamara and Kissinger were both former Harvard professors and the white men in suits who presided over the unprecedented number of university students enrolled in the 1960s and 70s bore an essential resemblance to them: high-handed, technocratic, elitist and convinced that reason, itself, constituted a form of moral authority. The day-to-day interactions with professors, deans and other authority figures in the universities where the counterculture continued to be based until the end of the Vietnam draft seemed like miniature versions of the larger national struggle of the counterculture and anti-war movement.

Universities were the places where most of the confrontations that comprised these movements took place; most acts of resistance and witnessing were against authorities summoned at the behest of university administrators, not governors or mayors. Furthermore, because the main purpose of these administrators and professors was to inculcate the epistemology of the Age of Reason, the countercultural revolt increasingly saw itself in epistemic terms.

The inward turn of pop-psychology, mysticism and places like the Esalen Institute has been well-canvassed by scholars of the demobilization of left activists we associate with the 1970s. What is more often overlooked is the way that movements that did not become fully mobilized until the 1970s actually intensified the turn to Authenticity. The American Indian Movement played a small but important part of realigning the epistemology of the counterculture, in ways unparalleled in European countries where students were also occupying university administration buildings.

In the US and Canada, arguments about indigenous rights were inextricable from the brutal record of the re-education camps created by governments to extirpate indigenous cultures. They were also, thanks to English common law traditions, intimately tied to demonstrating long-term aristocratic title to key pieces of land and the continuity of that title with present-day indigenous groups. “This land is sacred and we have lived here since the world began,” an effective claim since the nineteenth century of appealing the European romanticism to defend indigenous land, gained a new prominence and authority with the rise of Red Power in the 1970s.

Red Power gave the counterculture and its descendants an additional impetus, absent in Europe, to question the Age of Reason. It just seemed so unfair, so racist, not to recognize some deep truth in the story of First Woman falling from the sky and giving birth to the human race, to view the story of Raven opening the clam shell to release the first people through the condescending eyes of the Victorian colonialists who dismissed this superstition and sent the elders’ children to be incarcerated and re-educated to cure them of such backwardness.

In the same decade as the Longest Walk and Wounded Knee II provided the counterculture’s remnants with new grounds for choosing Authenticity over Reason, France made its own contribution to the brewing American epistemic crisis through the postmodern critique. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others offered a profound challenge to the Enlightenment episteme that shook the French academic world to its foundations. But its impact on America was far more dramatic, thanks to the vagaries of translation and popularization.

It is not that postmodernism was not translated faithfully from a linguistic perspective; it is more that it could not be faithfully translated from a cultural perspective. The penchant for hyperbole, overstatement and linguistic grandiosity in the French corner of continental philosophy had no parallel or context for American readers. Instead of reading Foucault and Derrida in the context of the post-Enlightenment continental philosophy, the graduate students and junior professors seeking intellectual validation of their increasing sense of inauthenticity and discomfort with the Age of Reason read these texts with an earnest literalism. This reading, worse yet, was popularized by individuals steeped in New Age religion and other doctrines of self-improvement, producing a vulgarized American postmodernism that bore about as much resemblance to the thinking of Derrida as Social Darwinism did to Origin of Species.

For the French, then, poststructuralism has functioned as a means of correcting problems with the Age of Reason; for Americans, on the other hand, it has served to contest and undermine it. Recognizing that truth is socially constructed is not the same as conceding the absence or irrelevance of an underlying physical reality about which we can make real discoveries, socially mediated or not. Yet it is this kind of socialized solipsism that American intellectuals took from the postmodern critique.

Today, we do not see universities as hotbeds of Authenticity; we are more likely, despite the persistence of vulgarized American postmodernism, to see them as the last bastions of the Age of Reason. Authenticity succeeded because it spread beyond the shrinking, factionalized and increasingly unpopular counterculture, thanks, in some measure to the Jesus Freak movement and the larger, more mainstream movement it spawned, Born-Again Christianity.

Today, the Born-Again movement has been such a success that we have trouble imagining other kinds of Christianity as anything other than marginal and vaguely heretical. Yet, the emphasis on personal experience of God over any congregational, traditional, textual or ecclesiastical authority constituted as radical a departure from American churches as rural communes were from suburban life.

The old-fashioned Yankee congregational Christianity the Pilgrim Fathers brought to America was essentially Calvinist in character, emphasizing daily demonstrations of continence, fidelity and moral rectitude as the centre of religious experience. Like Voltaire, these Christians were deeply disturbed by “enthusiasm,” ecstatic, uncontrolled religious experience they associated with ignorance, a lack of self-control and other attributes that disqualified people from bourgeois culture. The Calvinist critique of enthusiasm was not just about keeping people from speaking in tongues; it marginalized the uneducated, the divorced, those born out of wedlock and a host of others whose lives did not demonstrate the self-discipline necessary to demonstrate faith.

This understanding of Christianity had been challenged by many evangelical revitalization movements in the past, since the advent of Methodism in the eighteenth century, arguing for a renewed emphasis on personal, subjective experiences of God and attacking formal denominational structures and a trained clergy. By the 1970s, these waves of enthusiasm had created an American Christianity already receptive to ideas of Authenticity but lacking crucial equipment the new episteme provided.

Even the original publication, The Fundamentals on which America’s Christian Fundamentalist movement was based accused those who spoke of a faith versus reason debate as insulting and caricaturing Christianity. This was a pejorative casting of the debate by those aligned with the Age of Reason; ideas like Creationism arose not from a rejection of empiricism but from an attempt to cloak magical ideas in the discourse of science. New science, responsibly-practiced science, truly unbiased science would ultimately validate Biblical teachings, the fundamentalist story went.

Authenticity cleared the decks for Christian conservatives struggling to express their deep disquiet with the Age of Reason. Personal truth, authentic truth, the truth that lives in feelings no longer provided hope for future proof of Biblical teachings; it was that proof. One’s personal relationship with Christ did not inspire one to continue looking for remnants of Noah’s Ark; it was that evidence, itself. There was nothing new about the idea of trusting one’s feelings to guide one to the truth; what was novel about Authenticity was that it collapsed feelings and truth into one another.

Authenticity is not about the importance of personal experience in knowing truth; it is about the sufficiency of personal experience in knowing truth.

As Cat Stevens wrote, “Because the answer lies within / So why not take a good look now? / Kick out the Devil’s sin / Pick up the good book now,” a beautiful inversion of the Protestant belief in sola scriptura; the truth doesn’t move from the Bible into our souls; the truth emanates from our souls and reaches out to find the Bible.

And it turned up in just the nick of time. America in the 1970s was in desperate need of Authenticity to respond to a host of crises gripping the nation.

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