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How America’s Obsession with Authenticity Led to the Capitol Riot


In Greek mythology, Athena springs from Zeus's head. There's nothing weird about this. In the world of myth, perfectly healthy things can erupt out of the oddest places. That's not so in real life where America's beloved freedom of expression has given birth to a belief that the best thing to be is authentic. According to this myth, if you're authentic -- meaning, you speak and act in a way that is aligned with your most essential self, or as Shakespeare's Polonius advised in Hamlet "To thine own self be true" -- you will be a success. And in this context, success absolutely implies happiness, as well as other outward indicators, like accolades, a pay raise, publications, your name on other people's lips, memes made in your likeness, and that sort of thing.

But the idea that a dogged commitment to authenticity will lead to certain success is as unlikely as a grown woman popping out of her father's frontal lobe. I'm not saying it's impossible -- just potentially messy, and would call for quite the specialization in both midwifery as well as neurosurgery -- and unlikely.

However, the always-be-authentic myth rings a bit more true for some than for others. For example, it's more true if you're a white man than a woman, or a racial minority, or a lesbian, gay, transgender, immigrant, or fall somewhere on the spectrum. In other words, “to thine self be true” unless thine self is not a mainstream white guy. In that case, it's time to augment thine self. But don't tell anyone. Self-augmentation is like plastic surgery, it's appreciated more if the people seeing it think it's the real deal.

I love Shakespeare and all the American pop culturalists who adopted the Bard's appreciation for authenticity and nurtured it like it was their own. Emerson, for example, famously said, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." And Henry David Thoreau, Emerson's friend and fellow Transcendentalist wrote, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." And more recently, somebody somewhere said, "Boo, you do you" cause "haters gonna hate."

As much as I love this myth of authenticity, I wonder how well it has served Americans. It's led to an infatuation with public figures believed to be authentic, as if “authentic” naturally implies honesty and trustworthiness. Trump supporters, for instance, have always responded to his tell-it-like-it-is approach, the directness of his language. He is the opposite of the opposition (liberal democrats), as well as most other politicians.

Though he presents himself as authentic, only a few would call him honest or trustworthy. And some of those can be seen in photographs of the riot at the Capitol Building on January 6th. Trump supporters scaled the building's ledges, and dangled from fingertips like fitness enthusiasts at an REI rock wall. Another opted for a more spa-like approach, leaning back in Nancy Pelosi's chair, one leg propped up on her desk, the universal repose of poolside-vacationers and TV-watchers everywhere. He also left a note that read "We will not back down." Probably the worst thank-you note ever.

In the camp of those who do not trust Trump are world leaders. Most of whom quickly took to Twitter to express their sadness at what they saw as an assault on democracy. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more direct and blamed Trump explicitly. The BBC reported that, in a meeting with members of her Conservative party, Chancellor Merkel said, "I regret very much that President Trump has still not admitted defeat, but has kept raising doubts about the elections."

There's value in acquiescing for the common good. In politics, this is called compromise. In activism, it's nonviolent protest. In everyday life, it's called being a good friend, or a team player at work. Acquiescing is what happens when you notice the desires and predilections of someone close to you, the pet-peeves, the tone of her voice when she's just too tired, or the subtle energetic shifts that occur when the conversation drifts to a topic she finds endlessly fascinating. And after noticing, you adjust yourself in order to crank up her happiness volume. After all, if you notice a friend is stepping to the beat of her own drum, as Thoreau put it, isn't it natural to step in time with her pace?

I wish we could simply rewrite the American edict of "be authentic" to "be acquiescent." But, as any adult knows, the best approach is neither black nor white; it's a nuanced, flexible approach that can be adapted to the complexity of real life. Black and white slogans, however, are bit like booze: they make life seem not only easy but also fun, for a while at least. If slogans are revamped to be more realistic, they lose something. What if "follow your bliss" were rewritten as "follow the pursuits you think you could stand to do for a decade or two." Or if "Zero fucks given" were revised into "One or two fucks given depending on the situation." "Live each day as if it were your last" could be "Live each day as if you'll die around 75 because that's what's most likely to happen." Or if the encouraging "Rome wasn't built in a day" was "Rome was built primarily by slaves over hundreds of years. Though the city is spectacular, many died in the process, so only do what you feel you can handle. Give up if you want. No one will judge you."

The pithy slogans sound better but they leave no room for real life. Slogans are a kind of myth for people with short attention spans. They are the moral of the story, minus the story. For example, the story behind Athena's birth: Zeus had a lover, Metis. It was your classic God-of-the-world-meets-babe-with-brains story, for Metis was a goddess renowned for her wisdom. She got pregnant, and he was scared. If she gave birth to a son, he worried, that son would eventually overthrow him. His solution to the problem: toss Metis in his mouth and gobbler her down. Metis died, but her child did not. Out of her father's cracked coconut, Athena emerged a fully-armored goddess skilled in practical knowledge and the art of war.

Beneath the bizarrity of main course lovers and cranial births, there's a moral here: don’t be rash; reflect and respond with wisdom. Zeus's fear led to emotional eating (never a good idea), which of course failed to solve the problem. Wisdom persists, transforms, and breaks through the womb of thought itself: the head. It's a messy moral, not something that can be distilled into a slogan or bumper sticker.

Good advice is a kind of vaccine against regret and riots, but it's as boring as a bag of kale. Unless there's a revolution in what the world finds interesting, there's no chance that good advice (like "litigation to unite a broken nation" or "Use your critical thinking skills before you march on Capitol Hill") is going to replace what we now deem as almost a right to march to beat of our own drum...and leave bad thank-you notes in our wake.

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