The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves

\"\"The Authenticity Hoax is the most infuriating of all reads. The reader suspects that author Andrew Potter is either fundamentally cranky and unhappy, a boorish contrarian or clever at coming up with a manuscript that will be published by Rupert Murdock (Harper) and reviewed by him as well (Wall Street Journal).

This book is the latest diatribe from the conservative right, attacking anyone who doesn’t want to shop in the sterilized world of malls, vacation at Disneyland or, as specifically obsessed about in this book, eat tasteless, industrial junk food manufactured by chemical companies. Like the small band of readers in Fahrenheit 451, Potter thinks these “status seekers and phonies” need to be herded back on to the corporate industrial reservation.

Here’s where Potter is correct: we do romanticize and fantasize the past. We spend too much time in front of the idiot box instead of reading Spengler and Gibbon, we do not understand the hardships and miseries of our ancestors. As someone who loves history, I know that today is as good as it gets in terms of prosperity, health and social fluidity. Although Mr. Potter seems nostalgic for a time of “faith and authority,” few of us would trade the modern world for “faith” in the 14 century Borgia church or the “authority” of Hernando Cortez. According to Mr. Potter we have left behind the proscribed path and have ventured onto our own personal highway of authenticity.

Along the reading way, there are swipes at repressive countries and the authenticity seekers who support them as long as they are pre-modern. I guess he is taking on Cuba and Nicaragua. I would agree, but how many of us are trying to get to the latter for some homemade kimche?

The Authenticity Hoax takes off its gloves when it comes to Al Gore, Prince Charles, and James Howard Kunstler. Here, lock step with the Murdock goon squad on Fox News, Mr. Potter accuses them of “a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world…” I don’t think so.

In an Orwellian turn, Mr. Potter takes these people who want us to live better, fuller lives in nicer surroundings and makes that anti-progressive. He implies the great leap forward in material progress was probably the 50’s. Levittown and CBS, Robert Moses and the bomb. Yet I can’t think of a more culturally sterile time. Racial, sexual and intellectual repression was at an all time high. As Maslow posited and the author points out, humans want safety and security while living in a technologically progressive world. But, once these needs are met, people also seek a parallel transformation of their spirit.

Mr. Potter thinks the search for organic, local, and artisnal food is equivalent to participation in a high school clique, comprised of an elite group who continually sends out messages designed to exclude others who can’t afford to catch on. He characterizes the historical search for flavor, taste and quality as “conspicuous authenticity.” What would he have thought of Europe’s centuries-long quest for spices? Would that desire for better flavor and taste be an elitist hoax? You get the idea. Mr. Potter hates raw-milk cheeses, grass-fed beef and heirloom squash. These are all signs of the cult of Jean-Jacques Rousseau fanatics who, by denying modernity, are deviant.

Mr. Potter, this is progress. This is building on the blessings of science and taking it one step more into the world of the senses, of quality, of essence. The real phony in this drama is the fake food flavors of the commodity food world. What you seem to think is progress is actually the opposite. Your standardized, genetically distorted, pesticide ridden, hormone infused, flavorless, factory-processed food manufactured by agri-business monopolists may be “NEW!” but it’s not progress. These ‘evildoers’ are but a distraction on the path to authenticity.

Stalinists too believed in progress and their architecture reflected that. Lionizing a farmer or butcher or cheese monger is not being party to “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising” but part of an ennobling process our Jeffersonian ancestors would have understood.

Yes, there may be food snobs who don’t want to see Wal-Mart go organic, but they remain a tiny minority. The rest of us would like to build on science to create a food supply that rewards those who bring us flavorful, ethically made, healthy food and drink.

Sounds to me like the opposite of a hoax.

THE AUTHENTICITY HOAX: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves
By Andrew Potter
(Harper, 296 pages, $25.99)


2 responses to “The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves”

  1. Peter Highes Avatar
    Peter Highes

    Hi Jonathan,

    I was just checking the web to see if the tide of criticism for Potter’s puerile effort had come in yet. Yours was the first I encountered and spot on. Potter bases his critique of so-called authenticity on a theory, Veblen’s, that is more than one hundred years old. Surely this is an act of pure nostalgia! The worst thing about the book for me was that I thought that there might have been some genuine, insightful, criticism of the world of organic, local etc. I support these things whole heartedly but, like you, I realise that there is quite a bit of romanticism and confusion around these things and a real need for constructive critical debate. I certainly wasted my money expecting that from Mr grumpy/Potter.


    Peter (Australia)

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    I actually had quite a positive reading of the Authenticity Hoax. It’s not often that the dichotomy of nature and technology, or authenticity and the modern world is worked through optimistically, and I found Potter’s reading very refreshing. The chapter on The Creative Self was particularly interesting for me, giving another view on the disappointing high levels of cynicism in the art world right now. (However I did find his conclusion in the chapter kind of contradicted his idea of;

    “the market economy, along with many other aspects of the modern world, are not evils… but are instead a rich and vibrant source of value that we would not want to abandon, even if it were possible.”

    however I think it was a simple oversight on his part, as the conclusion was quite simplistic and minor). On the top of his take on organic food etc (“conspicuous authenticity”) I half agree that he was overly critical on the efforts of anti-GM groups and the like. However, particularly in Europe, a development in the acceptance of such technologies really needs to be embraced more positively in my opinion.

    Thanks! Harry

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