Afghanistan and Authenticity

Driving home this morning after doing some light shopping I overheard “enlightened” public radio analysis and speculation regarding U.S. foreign policy toward Afghanistan as President Barack Obama currently ponders whether to  follow the advice of military leaders and send in more U.S. troops to fight the Taliban.

(So now we’re into nation-building, liberating Afghanis from authoritarian religious overlords, safeguarding against a mideastern domino theory, or just making sure the military-industrial complex can continue to exercise its war-making skills and justify its existence…?  hmmm…  What’s next?)

Listening to the description of Afghanistan as a corrupt, “narco” regime/state, I began to think about what I said in my last update about “authenticity” and how I might address some of my thoughts on the matter.

You might ask, “what does Afghanistan have to do with the “authentic?”  Indeed, what does it have to do with anything that many might consider modern nationalism, the conceptual expression of what most folks consider to be “civilized” culture?

And how could Randy Rodriguez even begin to evaluate notions of what is real, true, organic, and fundamental by introducing a phantom such as “Afghanistan?”

When I originally said I was going to write about authenticity I was thinking about making multiple connections, drawing various parallels among what I see in the media—the recent Keene family balloon boy hoax, the emotional content of reality competitions like “Dancing with the Stars”, a local TV news story about the upcoming (now past) Halloween celebration with images of costumed and masked holiday participants, and listening to a college football postgame show and thinking about how the losing team basically described their defeat as a direct result of their failure to properly deceive the opposing team—that in different ways challenge and reinforce our everyday notions of reality and transparency.

Of course, it’s a bit facile of me to imagine I can offer anything new on the topic of “authenticity” and some of its higher profile cultural opposites like cheating, lying and manipulation.  Indeed, some may well argue and have over the millennia that the “real” is pure imaginary figment.  Plato asserted what we engage most of the time as true and authentic is merely shadow play.  We never see the object of our perception accurately, directly.  In fact, we can’t/wouldn’t want to see things as they are as cultural beings.  Someone more enlightened must do it for us, must lead us out of the cave (slavery/culture/deception) and into the light (freedom/awareness/truth).

Indeed, many luminaries studied in great books courses have challenged notions of direct access to truth about anything.  Even religious thinkers and prophets have affirmed the relative inability of humankind to access God’s knowledge or scientific truth without some kind of secondary or tertiary assistance (a rational method, a spiritual diviner or intermediary), something more reliable than our biologically inherited senses.

So what is it about “authenticity” that bugs and concerns me?  And why, in particular, did my hearing of the journalist pontificators, those sacred simplistic, reinforcers of the mythology of the modern “nation-state” motivate me to finally write something about one of my ongoing scholarly and personal questions?

I suppose because of the self-righteous tone that constructs the “other”—in this case, ”Afghanistan” (Lest you misunderstand my putting that nation-state identifier inside quotes, it is because to many, it is merely a metaphor, an imaginary construction that embodies danger, darkness, savagery, etc.)—in voices of so many of the “enlightened” political and social commentators on the left and right, i.e. believers in the sanctity of the modern nation, specifically the United States, as embodiment of a progressive, modern collective ideal.

This is the same self-righteous tone that I addressed in the earlier posting on Ken Burns and his series on the national parks: the colonial and imperialist notions of cultural superiority that are elevated and constructed into national/rational notions that construct artificial boundaries and needs for “security.”

These notions of scientific, technological, cultural, and political progress are the same ones that rationalize and justify imperial expansion.  They define the “other” as corrupt, irrational, savage, alien, undomesticated (wild), exotic, even “authentic” (subjectively, emotionally constructed) as they simultaneously try to understand, occupy, eat and become the “other” in all its grotesque, primitive, wild, and “exotic” beauty.

This is the deep irony and illusory quality about the history of (authenticity and the endless search for it in) “America.”  Richard Hofstadter examines this troubling contradiction in his enlightened book, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) where he critically examines how the simple and pure America spirit is embodied and imagined in the heroic figures of the deerslayer, woodchopper, hunter, and Indian fighter.

But, he concludes, the illusion of these heroes’ independence (and America implicitly) in “time and consequence” is evidenced in “…their piled trophies in motion through space and time….” (p. 565)

“…a more familiar landscape emerges—the whale, the buffalo, and bear hunted to the verge of extinction for pleasure in killing   and “scalped” for fame and the profit in hides by men like Buffalo Bill; the buffalo meat left to rot, till acres of prairie were covered with heaps of whitening bones, and the bones then ground for fertilizer; the Indian debased, impoverished, and killed in return for his gifts; the land and its people, its “dark” people especially, economically exploited and wasted; the warfare between man and nature, between race and race, exalted as a kind of heroic ideal; the piles of wrecked and rusted cars, heaped like Tartar pyramids of death-cracked, weather-browned, rain-rotted skulls, to signify our passage through the land.” (p. 565)

Yes.  I guess that’s what’s bugging me about “authenticity” right now.

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