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Age of Authenticity

American politics and culture is divided but describing that divide is tricky. Is it a cultural divide, an ideological divide. Here, I argue it’s an epistemological divide. People are fighting about how to decide what is and is not true.

The Age of Authenticity – Part IV: Authenticity as National Reconciliation

Here is the final part of my four-parter on the Age of Authenticity. It’s going to be the last of my blog’s Am-con for some time. With this series essentially done, I want to offer thanks and acknowledgement to those who helped me produce this theory, most notably Jeanine Gostenhofer and Robert Miller for modeling this epistemology for me and Geoff Berner for workshopping the theory over a series of lunches, especially his reminding me of the importance of Watergate.

Next, here’s a recap:

In Part One, I introduced the idea that what many of us see as an ideological or demographic split in America is actually an epistemological split. In other words, what Americans are really at each other’s throats over is how society should decide what is and is not true. Unlike other industrial democracies, America has a substantial minority within its population who do not just reject the epistemology that became mainstream in the nineteenth century as a result of the Enlightenment but who practice new methods of deciding what the truth is. I suggested some distinctive aspects of early US history that may help to explain why Americans are rejecting the Age of Reason in favour of a new Age of Authenticity.

In Part Two, I explained how Authenticity works as an alternative to Reason when it comes to day-to-day epistemology. Those of us rooted in the Age of Reason check the truth of a statement for two things: external evidence and internal consistency. Authentic thinkers, on the other hand, check statements against their gut feelings. Instead of comparing claims to the world outside, they compare claims against their feelings, trusting that if something feels like a lie, it probably is.

In Part Three, I turned to recent history and demonstrated how Authenticity was not originally a conservative approach but instead one that came out of the New Left and Counterculture.

While religious conservatives had grown deeply suspicious of reason and science, they lacked an alternative epistemology with which to challenge dominant views. But all that would change in the mid-1970s.Watergate did not just trigger a national nervous breakdown because of the naked, petty criminality of a president; it universally dramatized what the counterculture had been claiming for years: the authoritative white men in the suits are lying, lying about Vietnam, about the election, the whole deal. The Republican Party would survive; Voltaire’s bastards would not. Nixon, the last liberal president, Kissinger, the last foreign policy realist – they were the kind of men rendered obsolete by Watergate.

America was also fatigued, disillusioned and, most importantly, divided in other ways. The renewed sectional conflict between North and South with the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act left a nation divided, as did the culture wars over sexual morality and a host of other questions. The Born-Again movement constituted a genuine fusion of conservative fundamentalism and the counterculture. And as a genuine synthesis, the Born-Again movement provided a path equally open to hippies and squares, Klansmen and Freedom Riders, liberals and conservatives.

In any state that had gone through traumatic disestablishment in the nineteenth century, a religious movement would have lacked the institutional capacity to effect the cultural transformation it did in America. But in the US, there existed the institutional infrastructure needed to universalize countercultural ideas that most Americans would have rejected out of hand, had they come via any other social formation. Just as Authenticity saved an embattled conservative Christianity besieged on all sides by urbanization, sexual liberation and a host of ills; it also saved and popularized an equally embattled countercultural ethic of trusting one’s feelings as a more legitimate source of truth than the man in the suit with the fancy degree.

Popular, well-attended, self-sufficient churches were not the only piece of uniquely American social infrastructure needed to confer a critical mass on the episteme of Authenticity. There was also the American party system formed in the Age of Jackson. Whether because, in the case of Germany and Italy, mass membership in political parties recalled an ugly past or, in the case of Australia and Canada, civic culture had never involved true mass parties, or, more generally, turning political parties into socially comprehensive, capacious institutions evoked the one-party states of Eastern Europe, nowhere in the West, save America, had a party system that entailed political parties having millions of active members. The creation of the primary system in the Progressive Era, making political party membership free and using the apparatus of government to recruit and track party members set American democracy on a different course than the rest of the world.

America, in other words, possessed a public square in a way that the rest of the industrialized world did not; and as states increasingly adopted mass primaries and open caucuses from the 1960s onward, this square grew and not just by virtue of scale. Authenticity served to magnify its participatory and leveling features. For those in the Age of Reason, participation in politics was typically justified either as arising from trust in a particular individual, typically a candidate for office, based on putative ideological accord or as arising from one’s own civic literacy. In the Age of Authenticity, civic literacy vanishes as a concept because to react is to know; all people are civically literate. To admit civic literacy as a category is, for Authentic Americans, an elitist position.

And Americans uncomfortable with this idea typically act to entrench it. Opposing authenticity is the idea that experts are trustworthy and that good decisions come from the application of expertise to data. Bill Clinton’s Democratic convention speech in 2012 had such a profound effect on the election because offered a middle way between the epistemic polarities that have arisen in the present day. Hewing to the original spirit of the Age of Reason, he invited Americans to reason together, by saying things like “I’ve recently noticed something. And you probably have too.” Instead of a choice between the democratic ethos of Authenticity on one hand and the elitist ethos of technocracy on the other, he offered Americans the Enlightenment thinking of Thomas Paine, arguing that all that is required for civic literacy is to apply reason to data, the birthright of all Americans, irrespective of expertise. But the extraordinary character of his speech serves only to indicate just how far America’s epistemic split has gone.

Another factor in Authenticity achieving its critical mass was consciousness of decline. Consciousness of decline is distinct from actual decline, often with minimal correlation. The combined effects of defeat in Vietnam, stagflation, the Oil Crisis, epidemic violent crime, the Russian oil boom and the decline in relative white male status compared to other groups helped to render belief in America’s decline mainstream and prevalent. Belief that Rome was destroyed from within by “decadence” and sloth rather than Christian anti-intellectualism certainly helped to fuel the 1970s decline consciousness of the US, yielding a nationalistic reason to retreat in the face of data and seek metrics other than GDP for the greatness of America.

The priests of reason had few ideas for the US to overcome its malaise whereas Authenticity pointed a clear way forward: the purification of the private and national self through moral uprightness and honesty. Born Again Christians, whether former Jesus Freaks in Haight-Ashbury or former Klansmen in Selma flocked in droves to support the presidential bid of one of their own, Jimmy Carter through the Democratic primaries. But Carter let them down; the malaise, pessimism and respect for expertise only intensified in his presidency, resulting in the constituency’s shift to the Republicans by 1980.

But the legacy of the founding generations of the American republic goes beyond mobilization processes and structures. The consciousness of which the Authentic partake is also shaped by the nation’s founding documents. As I suggested in the first part of this essay, America’s canon, the Declaration, Constitution and Federalist Papers are not so much a reflection of a new individualistic political ethos as textual evidence of the process by which that consciousness was haltingly thought into being. Freedom of religion applied to states, towns, congregations and/or persons; the right to bear arms applied to states, towns, militias and/or persons.

As Cat Stevens’ answer within directed Authentic Americans to turn away from data-based texts grounded in the present-day physical and social sciences and back to documents whose symbolic value was so powerful as to transcend their contents, and as major religious debates moved out of denominations and into parties and political action committees, a historically decontextualized reading of the nation’s founding documents further reinforced the Authentic episteme. The deep uncertainty on the part of the nation’s founders about where the self stops and the world begins allowed Authenticity to develop a political program beyond electing the honest and virtuous to office. The ambivalence of freedom of religion settled by the courts in the century from the 1860s to the 1960s was back. Freedom of religion could well mean imposing religious uniformity on one’s community because Authenticity is also about destabilizing the place the Age of Reason fixed the self-world boundary.

One’s “rights,” an Enlightenment concept appropriated by Authenticity, unmoored from a stable standard for bounding the self, allows one to reach within to generate a vision not simply of how the individual should live in order to feel authentic but of how society must be restructured and remade in order to enact these rights. And Authenticity provides a clear, if completely flexible standard for checking on whether one’s rights are being impinged upon; it is simply, “do you feel good now?” If not, the political program necessary to align the interior self with the outside world must expand in both its ambition and its coercive power.

Until recently, debates about the state regulation of human sexuality have typically been underpinned by arguments about public order. Junk sociology was offered to explain how gay marriage, having children out of wedlock, etc. caused social decay, crime and chaos. But today, these debates have taken on a new simplicity. Just as the rise of Authenticity has made it easier for gay people seeking equal rights to argue that their subjective experience of love constituted a sufficient justification for legal marriage, there has been a corollary. The fact that gay people getting married causes some people emotional upset and makes them feel like their marriage is less special and important has, likewise, become sufficient reason to oppose equality. Arguing sociology is passé.

Just as importantly, a closer reading of the American Constitution indicates a chaotic consciousness on the part of the nation’s founders about whether the exercise of one’s personal religious freedom could entail the state-driven coercion of others, to the extent that the consciousness is even organized enough to perceive these things as clearly distinct. And religion is not the only area where this is true; the indistinctly bounded self of the founders’ consciousness renders Authenticity fundamentally social. Being authentic may even entail shooting other people based on the bad feelings we have about them.

If Authenticity functions by comparing the world against the interior self, solipsism is socialized, re-forming religious and political communities based on predictable, shared experiences of emotional grievance. Such communities are far more durable because they unite people based on emotional constitution rather than specific actions or goals.

Despite heavily pandering to the most authentic in American society, Mitt Romney was unable to win the US presidential election not because he ran one of the most dishonest presidential campaigns of the past century but because he ran one of the most inauthentic. The incongruence between Romney’s statements and objective evidence was an asset when it came to campaigning. Authentic Americans were unable to fully engage with his campaign not because he asserted that the president has ended work requirements for welfare funding and raised everyone’s personal income taxes but because it appears that there was a discrepancy between his assertions and his feelings.

Authentic people are not stupid. They are just as intelligent as Reasonable people; they just use that intelligence to detect lying instead of using it to detect falsehood. And it was clear to them that Romney was a liar because he did not believe what he said when he was saying it. The problem was not the discrepancy between Romney’s claims and empirical evidence but the discrepancy between his interior narrative and the one he presented to the country.

In 2012, the palpable racism and misogyny of many Republicans and the ambition of one very rich man saved Americans from a fully authentic federal government. It may be a long time before a coalition organizing around Authenticity can seize national political power. But regardless, America’s epistemic realignment will continue: facts and feelings will draw closer together; selves will become larger and more permeable; hypocrisy will continue its ascent to becoming the most loathsome and repugnant of all sins; and the sun will continue to set on the Age of Reason.

This will continue, at least, until we recognize that Authenticity is something bigger, scarier and more powerful than simple ignorance, stupidity or over-sensitivity. It might feed on those character flaws but it is something far more: it is a universally available alternative way of making sense of the world. And we can only hope to challenge it once we recognize its power and magnitude.

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.

The Age of Authenticity – Part II: How Authenticity Works (Just Like The Force)

Before rejoining the story of the rise of authenticity in the late 1960s, I need to talk about how authenticity works and, to do that, I need to go a little further back in time. Before the Enlightenment, the peoples of the Americas and Western Europe were part of an age called the Baroque Era, an age epitomized in John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, a nostalgic look at a past that seemed to have cared more deeply about aesthetics than the coal-fired age against which the Romantic Movement rebelled. When it said, “‘beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” Keats’ poem spoke specifically to the ancient and classical past when theories that truth and beauty were one in the same were first articulated; but it also spoke to the tattered remnants of the baroque world.

At the core of any episteme is a general principle for testing the truth of something; and in the Baroque, that test was fundamentally the test of beauty, one linked to a European aesthetic that emphasized sumptuousness and symmetry. Copernicus could contest Ptolemy because his heliocentric system was as or more beautiful than the geocentric. Claims both of authority and veracity in the pre-Enlightenment world appealed to beauty as the ultimate truth test. Shifts in the meaning of “counterfeit” across the epistemic divide speak to this. Today, we understand counterfeits to be forgeries of art or money that fool people by being essentially indistinguishable from the thing they replicate. But before the Enlightenment, counterfeits referred to evidently deformed objects and creatures. In a world where truth revealed itself through beauty, what we would describe as a counterfeit would be viewed as simply another occurrence of the true and real – and so it was that relics and icons could proliferate, each one of a thousand reliquaries’ or painted virgins’ authenticity revealed in its beauty. A counterfeit that did not reveal itself aesthetically could not be a counterfeit.

The legitimacy of the Hapsburg crown, the authority of St. Peter’s throne, the saving power of the Eucharist, the ordered, beautiful and harmonious movement of the heavens – the truth of the great certainties of the age was revealed through self-evident beauty. That is not to say that reason did not exist in the Age of Beauty, any more than to suggest that authenticity did not exist in the Age of Reason; rather, I suggest that beauty, not reason was the master test for the big questions in life.

At the ground level, a person from the Age of Beauty could quickly and easily test the truth of claims people made by asking: do I find this claim beautiful? When faced with more complex questions requiring specialized analysis or secondhand knowledge, it was best to seek the aid of the most grandiosely or exquisitely beautiful things: cathedrals, men in glorious vestments, sumptuous paintings of the Virgin.

This should also give you a sense of the incommensurability of the two sides in the debate in which Voltaire was engaged, on the fault line between the Age of Beauty and the Age of Reason. In a confrontation between a beautiful claim that could not be empirically verified and an ugly truth supported by logic and evidence, both sides would see themselves as clearly victorious. One could not use reason and evidence to disprove beautiful claims any more than one could use beauty to disprove claims grounded in objective evidence and reason.

So let us take Stephen Colbert deadly seriously when he defines “truthiness” as “truth that comes from your gut,” not from evidence; “you don’t look up truthiness in a book; you look it up in your gut.” In order to take this idea seriously, we must first acknowledge that we all partake of this idea of truth. For instance, the gay liberation movement’s linchpin is the visceral authenticity of same-sex attraction and the way in which feelings of love have an objective existence as real as our warming climate. We all believe that our gut feelings are an important source of fundamental truth. We are a long way from the rakes (successful men who liked penetrating other men) of the Age of Beauty who did not derive the same sense of contradiction and pain from presenting the public image of a wealthy, married patriarch with an array of gorgeous, beautifully-attired children. The beautiful image one presented to the world partook of a truth that had no need to align with one’s internal feelings for authentication.

We all value feelings and hate hypocrisy because, until recently, authenticity was a partner in the Age of Reason. The emotional sensitivity Enlightenment thinkers prized helped to do away with slavery and torture; The Princess and the Pea is as good a fairy tale for the Age of Reason as any because it unites authenticity and sensitivity with empirical evidence. One could use the story to illustrate the Age of Authenticity too, if one lost interest in the ontology of the pea.

Authenticity is, first and foremost, about personal honesty. When we say things we do not think are true, we get a certain feeling in our gut, signaling a gap between what we claim and what we feel to be true. Authentic people, those of us fully resident in the Age of Authenticity, hate those experiences and have sought, through a program of self-reflection, to eliminate those experiences from their lives, sometimes with the assistance of a church but, just as often, a guru or motivational speaker. An authentic person knows they are speaking the truth because, when they speak it, they don’t get that queasy, lying feeling in their gut; they instead feel that, just through the act of speaking, that they are bringing the world into alignment with the truth they authentically feel.

Although most of today’s churches, both liberal and conservative, preach authenticity, it would be unfair to see the Age of Authenticity as a new Age of Faith. Authenticity is not about resort to ministers, priests or scriptures; it is about the world outside you aligning with the world inside you. For an authentic Christian, the feeling that Osama bin Laden should be killed self-evidently trumps any of the Bible’s interdictions against murder or repaying evil with evil. Besides, psychiatrists preach it; business leaders preach it; everyone agrees: your feelings should be honestly expressed because they are a trustworthy guide to what is true.

When Donald Trump tells you that Barack Obama is not an American, he doesn’t get that nervous butterfly feeling in his gut, the feeling a dissembling liar from the Age of Reason, like Mitt Romney, might get. Instead, saying that Obama is not an American is what makes that feeling go away. When Trump looks at the president on TV, he feels a dissonance deep in his gut – this man can’t be president, just look at him. Obama appears to be president but Trump knows in his gut that he is not. Every day he lives in a country governed by this uppity negro, he feels inauthentic, as though he is living a lie, his feelings never matching reality. To live authentically, Trump must believe not only that Obama was not elected president in 2008; he must believe that it is definitionally impossible for him to be president. Authenticity demands that Obama be the foreign interloper Trump’s gut tells him he is.

All Trump is doing is taking Obi-Wan Kenobi’s advice from Star Wars. “I suggest you try it again, Luke… This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct… Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them… Stretch out with your feelings… You see, you can do it.” Maybe Trump can even hear Alec Guinness’s voice as he reaches beyond some parochial religious faith and uses The Force to discern the truth, closing his eyes and using it to see the tiny exhaust vent he will use to blow up the Death Star. When he opens his eyes, there is nothing but a mound of evidence confirming Obama’s birth in the US but when he closes his eyes like Luke Skywalker, he can see the conspiracy stretching back to a meeting in a smoky room in Nairobi, years before the president was even born.

And as an authentic person, it is that truth that he proclaims.

The Age of Authenticity – Part I: Historical Origins of Authenticity

It’s kind of a first in-first out thing. The United States of America was the first political product of the Age of Reason. In the 1780s, for the first time in human history, not just a state but a whole imperial system was constructed by human beings based on liberal Enlightenment rationalism.

I’m a big fan of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who helped to give us the intellectual equipment to understand the earth-shaking nature of that event. Today, it is remembered as the birth of modern democracy and of the most powerful nation the world it has ever known; but it was so much more. It was an epistemic revolution. Foucault uses the term “episteme” to refer to something beyond mere epistemology or politics, to the “knowledge-power regime” by which a civilization is organized. The American Revolution didn’t just help to usher a new kind of person in to being, in the sense of creating an enfranchised citizenry; it was the first society to start mass-producing people like us, people who had a different way of knowing the world and, hence, related to one another differently.

Of course, the seeds of this new knowledge-power regime had been sowed and tilled for a long time, even before Galileo proclaimed that the church should stick to pronouncing on how to go to heaven and not “how the heavens go,” before the Lateran Council of 1215 made confession a sacrament. But for a way of knowing to truly succeed, to shape a whole consciousness, it must achieve a critical social mass; different kinds of consciousness about truth or about power do not cohabit well in a society. While people might seriously disagree on whom should be hit, dynamically stable societies generally agree on who has the right to do the hitting; similarly, while people might seriously disagree about what the facts are, there is generally pretty broad agreement about how to test what is and is not true. And it was in the United States and France at the end of the eighteenth century that this consciousness achieved an unprecedented critical mass, from which could be built a new epistemic hegemony.

Today, despite instability caused by a global rightward political drift, the persistence of pseudoscientific racism as a legitimate political movement and occasional setbacks in confederating Europe, there is no sign of France, America’s partner in the late eighteenth-century epistemic shift, abandoning the Age of Reason. But across the Atlantic, there is every sign that the American people have grown restless and decided to blaze fresh epistemic trails. Americans are quitting the Enlightenment episteme in record numbers every year and joining what I term “the Age of Authenticity.”

There are other names for it. Stephen Colbert calls it “truthiness;” David Frum calls it the “conservative… alternative knowledge system.” Colbert came first and closest to describing it not as falsehood but as “truth that comes from your gut.” This is not about people being stupid or people being liars; it is something far more profound and serious than that. A growing minority, likely soon to be a majority, of Americans are developing a different consciousness about how to determine what is and is not true and society, from the family to national political institutions, is changing to adapt to this new reality.

To understand the Age of Authenticity, I think it is necessary to understand why it is dawning in America and not in France. America’s Age of Authenticity arises from specific past events and peculiar characteristics of US society.

As the first Age of Reason state, the United States was not just a place where many Enlightenment ideas were tested but where they were sorted-out, as the consciousness of the nation’s founders attempted to come to grips with the radical individualism that the Age entailed. Many suffered from a failure of imagination in conceiving of how truly atomized their future citizenry would be. A one-person militia? A one-person church congregation? These ideas were unimaginable to the men who drafted the nation’s constitution and its early amendments. And so it is that the canonical documents on which Americans base their understandings of rights still have one foot in the previous episteme. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues constantly confused small, consensual groups (like church congregations), sub-jurisdictions (likes states and counties) and individuals as they tried to puzzle out what kinds of governance structures would work for the new kind of person they were in the process of becoming. This wasn’t because these men were an iota less brilliant or radical as they are remembered as being; it was because the episteme in which they had grown up located the boundary between self and other, consent and coercion, church and state, in radically different places or did not even consistently comprehend, never mind admit, such distinctions.

As a result, reading America’s canonical documents and the debates surrounding them gives one a sense of the uncanny, of touching something inextricable from the Age of Reason yet not fully of it. America’s insistence on canonizing not just the documents but the discourse has produced a people never fully seated in the episteme they inaugurated, a people with a propensity to misunderstand how the self is bounded in the modern world. The first amendment conflates states and persons; the second, groups and persons. Foundational to any episteme is the constitution of the self and Americans, the more they focus on their canonical documents, remain unsure where they stop and others start.

The persistence of America’s founding documents is, itself, a problem. Why do the French not have a similar backward-looking ambivalence to their founding documents? Because they tear up their constitution and rewrite it every few generations. What is sacred in France is not the constitution but the Cartesian tabula rasa on which the latest iteration is placed. Americans, on the other hand, have made their constitution sacred for very good historical reasons.

The Early Republic, as Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America is termed, was a society that performed an unprecedented demographic feat. It managed to increase its population and literacy rate while its population density fell, something that almost never happens. The power of smallpox and other European diseases was such that the vast Great Lakes and Mississippi basins the US inherited from France functioned as a kind of vacuum, sucking American society west faster than its fragile institutions could handle. Abandoned farms and fields, not just of Native Americans but other religious and linguistic minorities, emptied by war, disease and fear of violent Anglo-American colonists pulled people West at an incredible rate.

Yet at the same time, Americans taught themselves to read, thanks to a small range of publications delivered at great danger and expense by a valiant, volunteer army or armies. As a people who had been inspired to rise up by texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, it was not enough for Americans to trust others to read to them. The Age of Reason demanded an informed, literate citizenry; all it needed was something to read. And this is where the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, Andrew Jackson’s Democrats and hundreds of travelling Methodist preachers came in. These men distributed pamphlets, tracts and sometimes whole Bibles to incipient village after village struggling to build a schoolhouse and put a dozen kids in it. Outside funding determined what people read in the early generations of the American Midwest.

Often it was hard to tell publications apart; they usually featured, with only intermittent attribution, key clauses and phrases proof-texted from the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bible. It is not so much that this approach instilled in American Christians a profound respect for the Bible; it instilled in Americans a belief the importance of canonical texts and a sense that the nation was founded upon three main canonical documents, of which the Bible was only one. Furthermore, Americans were taught to read based on the common sense theories of language of their producers: that all reasonable people will interpret an important document identically once presented with it because language has clear, obvious and unambiguous meanings. This, I would suggest, helps to account for Americans’ continued resort to their nation’s canonical documents, not just as legal documents but as the country’s most important works of moral and political philosophy.

It also helps to explain the ongoing institutional power of churches and political parties in the United States in shaping people’s core thoughts. Churches were instrumental in creating literate, civil societies in most of Europe and the Western Hemisphere but, outside of the US, literacy and social infrastructure were created by established churches, inextricable from the state. In most countries, the reach of churches into the everyday life of citizens declined sharply with disestablishment. The “church” that was encountered in Western Europe and Latin America, following the expulsion of the Jesuits, was essentially an arm of the state. And when governments began choosing the deliver education unmediated by an established church, churches, themselves, receded from people’s lives.

Not so in the United States. The churches that filled homes with pamphlets and tracts were not financed by the government but by congregations half a continent away. The Democratic Party, similarly, financed its booze-ups, picnics, parades and pamphlets with the donations of its members and with the government kickbacks that the “spoils system” delivered. Civil society and literacy were not just created but sustained by churches and political parties based on mass mobilization.

Of course, these things have been features of American culture for nearly two hundred years, during most of which time, the US was a model society of the Age of Reason. But due to more recent events, these peculiar American attributes have attained a new relevance and helped to create the unique environment necessary for the Age of Authenticity to arise.