America's tragic search for authenticity
Americans have long been obsessed with authentic identity. This isn’t something that started in the 2010’s or was triggered by the Trump presidency.
American national identity and Americans’ views on others’ identities are things I have been intimately acquainted with my entire life. I was born in Dublin to an American mother and a father who was Irish (actually, Northern Irish — itself a contested identity). We came and went from New York, moving to Italy, then Northern Ireland, then at 18 I went to live in Dublin before returning to New York after university.
In the course of this lifelong open relationship with my American-ness, I found that having a partly non-American identity almost always increased my social status among full Americans. Starting, quite literally, when I was born.
My American grandfather wrote me a letter shortly after my birth. He, a member of the Greatest Generation, devout Catholic and the patriarch of a large family, took the time to type out his feelings about how proud he was to have a grandchild born in Ireland. My grandfather was of German and English extraction, born on the far west side of Manhattan, and grew up an orphan in Brooklyn. He wasn’t an off-the-boat Paddy who longed to return to his four green fields and his Irish mammy. Yet somehow, my claim to Irishness enhanced my American grandfather’s life. (Contrast that with my Belfast Catholic grandfather, who, if he was pleased to have a grandchild born in the Irish Free State, never - to my knowledge- mentioned it to anyone.)
Throughout my childhood, my father wrote for an Irish American newspaper, and adults I encountered through that circle regularly celebrated my Irishness. They complimented my freckles, my eye and hair colour, they compared me to Caroline Kennedy. It was gratifying, and it made me prize my Irish identity. It imbued that identity with physical characteristics: pale skin, blue eyes, reddish brown hair. In a sense, this was a precursor to current our current cultural moment celebrating black skin tone and hair, especially in black girls. As the 2020 Beyonce film “Black is King” showed, Americans can celebrate their ancestral homeland to a point of fetish; and fall back on cliches that can alienate that homeland’s current inhabitants, who have long since moved on from the old ways. This was definitely a common complaint of Irish people, my father among them, talking about Irish Americans and their notions of Irishness. Notions that leaned heavily on tropes like the colleen, the leprechaun and the heroic IRA man.
This awkward celebration of ones’ origins is really just people trying to claim an authenticity that so many Americans feel American culture lacks.
I always had the impression that for many Americans, being American just doesn’t seem to be ‘enough.’
James Lindsay on the crisis of authenticity
I had been meaning to write about this idiosyncratic thirst for an authentic identity for a while now. Then I came across a podcast by James Lindsay — Authenticity and the Woke Crisis of the Real, that very much hit the nail on the head.
In it, Lindsay points out the connection between woke identity politics and a “profound crisis of the authentic” — a crisis that is exacerbated by the post-modernism influenced, academic mill most social justice warriors go through.
He paints a picture of the typical lifestyle of young, professional, college educated Americans. Living in cities, “it’s very difficult to connect to the real.” He says: “It’s easy to be drawn in to ideas that make you feel alienated from the real, and philosophies like post-modernism that speak to that alienation and lead to discontentment, and this almost hipster-style detachment from reality.”
Lindsay is right. The malaise he points to has come to dominate large swaths of Americans from Gen X down to school-aged children, but it’s not exclusive to Americans. It can be found among the university educated — specifically humanities graduates — in every English-speaking country I have been to. You can absolutely follow the thread from Foucault and Derrida to the deep discomfort that the urbane, privileged, professional classes throughout the English speaking world have with their identity.
The problem of authenticity
Americans, though, are unique in their deep longing, almost lust, for authenticity of identity. But tragically, it is that very longing that prevents authenticity of identity from developing.
I have never truly lived in a national identity. I don’t fit into either of my two nationalities, because as so often happens with “third culture kids”, I can claim neither to their full extent. My experience of being an American kid just isn’t the same as American kids who spent their entire life in America. And the same goes for my Irish-ness. My nationality is more of an administrative issue than a cultural one. But because this has been my experience since I was a young child, I’m used to it. I’m not from a “place.” Therefore I never expected the sense of belonging that comes from a communal identity. I learned to live and even to flourish without it, and I learned young.
I was also always the outsider. For years when I was young, my family lived in a small Italian village, and, unlike most ex-pats who live in the cities where they send their kids to private British or American schools, and visit the quaint village on weekends, we lived the village life full time and I went to the local elementary and middle schools. This was an ancient, agricultural community with zero foreigners my age. For years, I was the only one. As a result, I continually had to steel myself against the unwanted attentions of my peers who were constantly sizing me up, challenging me, confronting me on my outsider status. I grew accustomed to defending myself every day. As I got older, having undergone this bootcamp experience made me confident and socially at ease.
The backdrop to this interpersonal drama was Italy's extremely strong, cohesive culture, where family and place and tradition were not just important, but were also things of sensual beauty and enjoyment. I played with the other children in the narrow, cobblestoned streets, watched over by powerful old ladies who only spoke dialect and thought nothing of beating the very children they also lavished affection on. These streets and these characters were little had changed since…who knows when.
Fast forward a decade and twenty-something me found this quirky upbringing equalled great social capital among the professionals and wannabe intellectuals I hung around with in Brooklyn bars. After a decade of living in places where being a foreigner was a complication, if not a hindrance, the difference was highly noticeable. Just a mention of the fact that I had gone to college in Dublin instantly made me cool. The Belfast connection through my father gave me edge. The Italian element, an added exotic, romantic twist. I remember at the time being struck by American men I knew who seemed rudderless, empty; despite having no obvious dislocation or trauma in their young lives, were without ties to family or place. They threw off the distinct vibe of not liking where they were from, almost to the point of shame — just some nameless suburb and boring family they couldn’t wait to leave and never wanted to go back to. That — it seemed to me — was the sad outcome of what looked in the 1950’s and 1960’s to be the American dream.
In his podcast, James Lindsay asks: “What is authenticity?”
“You’re not afraid if people don’t like you. You don’t feel like you have to participate in some status-winning game. Authenticity is being who you are, when you aren’t trying to be anyone.”
When I look at contemporary American society, I see people who are trying very, very hard to prove themselves as being someone worthy. In many cases, it’s as allies or anti-racists. Lindsay says you can learn to be authentic through a “very long process” where you identify when you are not being authentic and then stop.
That sounds reasonable, but for millions and millions of people throughout history — myself included — authenticity was simply a default setting, not something we had to learn. It came from growing up *not* in a hothouse, competitive, over-parented, bourgeois environment — which is how well-off Americans have raised at least two generations of kids now. Benign neglect — a highly underrated concept among the professional classes — allows kids to *just be.*
And *just being* is authentic.
And authenticity, as Lindsay rightly says:
“is woke kryptonite..the woke don’t really have any power over people who are authentic.”
So everything, in this moment of social conflict, hinges on authenticity. But authenticity cannot be bottled and sold, it cannot be Tweeted or influenced. It’s either there or it’s not.
Lindsay says he was so preoccupied with the idea of authenticity and its importance that he “wanted for years to launch some kind of authenticity project and it seemed so presumptuous to try to do it.”
I wouldn’t call it presumptuous, I would call it preposterous. And therein lies a big part of the problem. Trying to propagate authenticity automatically decreases a person’s authenticity. Its replication is its death.
The class issue
But there’s another side to this. It’s not just the liberal-arts graduates and the Wokerati who invest big emotional energy into the identity question. There is also working-class, or lower-middle class, version of this — a blue collar version. There, too, we see America’a strange obsession with ethnicity and lineage. Irish-Americans. Italian-Americans. Polish-Americans. African-Americans. Native/Indigenous Americans. We have been dividing ourselves into groups since forever.
At least in the latter half the 20th century, however, these groups were based around a concept of celebrating the non-American identity as it melded with the American one. Americans always claimed their immigrant heritage, but it was in a spirit of enthusiasm both for the country of origin, and also the better life that America had given them.
It’s almost as if, coming to this new foreign land produced in the millions and millions of immigrants and their descendants a psychic break which would leave them forever searching for their genuine identity.
The working class flag-waving, July 4th-loving patriotism is all the more poignant in today’s atmosphere of reflexive anti-Americanism among the urbane bourgeoisie. Ironically, that urbane hostility towards national heritage has created an even more sterile identity than the most embarrassingly basic suburbanite ever could.
It is blue-collar, ethnicity-loving American culture that powered the American industrial behemoth, landed at Normandy and Anzio and parachuted into the jungles of Vietnam. That American culture produced the firefighter sons who climbed the staircases of the World Trade Centre on 9/11, looking for people to pull out of the wreckage.
White-collar, university educated American culture produced the anti-Vietnam war protests, feminism, and, eventually, through its control of media and entertainment, it mainstreamed the 1960’s counterculture.
That counterculture has let the door in — metaphorically speaking — for a much more sinister attachment to a nihilistic ideology now threatening the very fabric of Western culture. The kind of ideology that tells a child his or her innocence is overrated. The kind of ideology that allows white liberals to overlook murdered black children while at the same time posturing as advocates for social justice. The kind of ideology that encourages little girls to wear fake penises in their underwear.
The American crisis of authenticity has taken an extremely dark turn.