ISN'T IT AUTHENTIC?
Ahhh—the more things change, the more everyone seems to want to them to stay the same. Though the obvious flaw in this fantasy is that there never was a time when things were standing still in the first place. But regardless, we all are drawn, time and time again, into that very fantasy, seduced by nostalgia, in search of the ever elusive simpler times. Alas, in the here and now, the best we can do is settle for things and act in ways that are subtle reminders, a kind of pastiche; things that appear to have come from the past and behaviors that were practiced back then, we think. You know, like in the good old days, but today. And to achieve this more timeless lifestyle we fall victim to the ultimate seductress and the emptiest of ideas: the myth of authenticity.
According to the American mythological narrative, there’s something rotten about the present, and something pure about the past. For some strange reason, the early to mid 20th century has been branded as America’s most authentic era, a time when, in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “the buck stopped, and you could buy something with it.” It’s painted as if all that people needed in America was for their baseball team to win and some Cracker Jacks with a prize inside every time. Everything was fine and dandy and there were apple pies on every kitchen table. Yet, it’s hard to see how segregation, wars to end all wars, the polio epidemic, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the arrival of mass media made life any more authentic back then than it is now.
As Adam De Gree argues in his new piece, “This doesn’t just happen in politics. Listen closely to Christmas carols (as if anyone has a choice) and it’s clear that they’re just a kitschy attempt to represent a simpler time. As Randall Munroe has pointed out, those songs playing non-stop from Thanksgiving to the New Year are one part of “a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods.” America has found its comforting narratives, and it’s doing its best to stick with them, no matter how cold it gets outside. Authenticity taps into the aesthetics of kitsch in part because it is built into our understanding of history. Billion dollar government agribusiness subsidies would be impossible to maintain if people didn’t still cherish the image of the poor yet noble farm town and its inhabitants.” Read more here.
This undying devotion to perceived authenticity affects how and what we eat, how we dress, how we design our homes, and especially how we vote. However, it has been nothing more than one big exercise in American branding. U.S.A. all the way. The irony is that authenticity, whether it’s farm to table, grass fed, or free range, is far from being an essential quality and is primarily an aesthetic, a way to produce a feeling. So while Native American culture has always been considered one of the most authentic parts of the American brand per se, they have rarely been treated as actual people, authentic or otherwise.
When Teddy Roosevelt founded the National Parks during his presidency, it was not to preserve nature, but to ensure the preservation of an ‘authentic’ American character out in the wilderness. While the stated mission of the Park Service has changed, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that those khaki-clad rangers are just tour guides in the Federal Government’s version of Disneyland. And while the parks do what they can to remove traces of human activity, they’re happy to leave Native American artifacts intact. Apparently, their stuff is authentic enough to be presented at one with nature, their aesthetic an integral part of America's mood board.
The same oversimplification drives current American thinking about the land itself. We might sing about spacious skies and amber waves of grain, and we might even long for a home where the buffalo roam, but the authentic version of nature doesn’t allow for humans to be hunting in our story, unless, of course, they happen to be Native Americans. Why is it that Americans find an image of a teepee or a wigwam to be more authentic than a brick house? Of course, the answer has as much to do with racism as it does with a certain kind of Western anxiety that gave rise to the idea of authenticity in the first place.
At the core of the myth of authenticity is the belief that before modern times, change was not a part of life. Instead, people lived in changeless simplicity and enjoyed the luxury of being able to trust that what they know today, will be true tomorrow. Change, with all of its uncontrollable, disconcerting aspects, was the seductive stranger to the Garden of Eden, where humanity once lived in harmony with nature. But then again, it was probably just a little boredom that lead Eve to hang with that snake in the first place. Just like few practitioners of the Paleo diet would be willing to give up electricity, and few raw vegans would care to go without indoor plumbing. When push comes to shove, authenticity is an image game – people simply want some way to hold on to the familiar as the world around them moves on. The alternative of finding the eternal in the everyday is just too much work.
Arguably one of the most famous commercials in American history is Keep America Beautiful, also and less politically correctly known as “The Crying Indian.” Created to honor Earth Day in 1971, its effectiveness is reflected in the fact that we’re talking about it almost 50 years later. In it, Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American actor (who because of his skin tone, often played Native Americans both on big and small screens) is peacefully paddling a canoe across a pristine stream, when abruptly the water becomes more and more polluted, causing him great distress.
In an act of despair and confusion, he pulls his canoe ashore and finds a bumper to bumper traffic-filled freeway. He surveys the smog and trash with total loss in his eyes, but then suddenly his stare is broken—because someone carelessly slings a plastic bag filled with garbage in his direction. A stern, Wizard of Oz like voice narrates: “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” Then we see it: a single tear.
For many Americans, The Crying Indian became the symbol of our environmental woes. And by using the aesthetics of indigenous Americans, the minds behind the commercial were doing something completely intentional: tapping into the counterculture’s obsession with Native American symbolism as the planet’s authentic natural identity. They totally played into the trope that the Native way of living is the right way of living with nature, despite the fact that in reality, colonizers killed and whitewashed indigenous people; forcing the Western way of life onto them. The commercial evokes nostalgia for a time that didn’t really exist.
The icing on the cake though, is that during the time this commercial aired, indigenous activists were protesting the government’s control over land around the San Francisco Bay Area, which is the same body of water where the Italian-American actor paddled his canoe. Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up!