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Ed Driscoll

The Dangers Of ‘A Dopey Nostalgia For A Nonexistent Past’

April 15th, 2010 - 1:41 pm

Two recent book reviews covers the left’s nostalgia for an imaginary Rousseauian primitive past (see also, Avatar, and all the earlier films it borrowed from).

First up, Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine, and his look at doomsday-spewing “environmentalist” Bill McKibben:

“Here’s all I’m trying to say: The planet on which our civilization evolved no longer exists,” asserts environmentalist Bill McKibben in his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. “The earth that we knew—the only earth we ever knew—is gone.” According to McKibben, we are about to find ourselves living on a much less friendly planet he calls “Eaarth.” Why? Because the climate is about to get really freaky due to man-made global warming and we’re also about to run out of oil—the apocalypse, courtesy of Peak Temperature and Peak Oil combined. McKibben is no stranger to environmentalist jeremiads, having declared The End of Nature back in 1989 due to global warming and the rise of biotechnology. Twenty years later he’s declaring the end of civilization, at least, as we know it.

Eaarth follows the time-honored structure of environmentalist tracts, opening with a quick rehearsal of the science that allegedly seals our terrible fate, followed by a much longer disquisition outlining the author’s elaborate plan for salvation. But to give McKibben some credit; unlike many prior doomsters, such as Paul Ehrlich or climatologist Stephen Schneider, McKibben doesn’t argue for top-down centralized salvation. Instead he thinks that the situation is so dire that centralized solutions will fail and that we’ll have to return to living in villages and farms—to become 21st century peasants.

In the meantime though, McKibben is happy to get his book published, distributed via a 21st century distribution network such as Amazon, and shipped via Fed Ex and UPS to your home, and sold in chain stores such as Borders and Barnes & Nobles. Not to mention having it promoted via a decentralized computer network originally created by the eeeevil military-industrial complex.

Before things return to the glories of an “authentic” past — which of course, never existed; life was remarkably nasty, brutish and short before modern advances in medicine, hygiene, living standards, etc. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Beston of City Journal magazine reviews Andrew Potter’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax:

For Andrew Potter, the ever-narrowing search for just the right kind of food has less to do with saving the environment or pursuing a healthy lifestyle than with achieving a certain self-image, one in which the tawdry, consumerist aspects of modern life are thrown over for the sake of a simpler, truer, more “authentic” self. Food is only one part of that broader self-definition. In “The Authenticity Hoax,” Mr. Potter notes that the search for authenticity often ends up as a status-seeking game.

Authenticity, Mr. Potter writes, is “a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it.” By competing against one another to see who is more authentic, he says, we just become bigger phonies than we were before. The local-food trend illustrates what Mr. Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity,” by which the well-heeled embark on a “perpetual coolhunt,” whether it is for authentic jeans, pristine vacation spots or mud flooring, part of the “natural building” movement. The overarching goal is less to possess the thing itself than to make a claim to refined taste and moral superiority.

But the authenticity fixation, according to Mr. Potter, goes deeper than consumer choices. It is the culprit, for instance, behind “a debased political culture dominated by negative advertising and character assassination.” Political candidates are always selling their own sincerity, so that any crack in the façade (never too hard to find) launches a hundred attack ads. Taken to its darkest extremes, obsessive authenticity can become deadly, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism or the hyper-nationalist authenticity of fascism. Less toxic, but more common, is the craving for authenticity among those in the West who see a market economy and consumer culture as sterile and false—inauthentic, in other words—and who defend the world’s most repressive cultures, looking past their brutality to admire their resistance to modernity.

It is the disillusionment with modernity, Mr. Potter maintains, that underlies the authenticity quest. When man was preoccupied with finding food and appeasing capricious gods, he didn’t have the time or inclination to ask whether he had “sold out” for an easy paycheck or failed to align himself with some abstract ideal of the “authentic” life. But then science made the formerly mystical cosmos explainable, and a spread of democratic ideas, in politics and markets alike, made food and freedom more broadly shared. The result was “a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person,” Mr. Potter writes, one more given to looking within for meaning and not liking what he found there. The individual’s own self-definition filled the gap left by faith and authority.

Mr. Potter anoints Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, as the godfather of the authenticity quest. His famous “state of nature” was a fantasy of authenticity, an idea of man’s existence before society. Mr. Potter argues that Rousseau used the state-of-nature concept as “a regulative ideal” by which to measure how far we had strayed from a lost harmony.

Rousseau’s “antimodern tunnel vision,” Mr. Potter says, can be found in various modern forms: in the views of the American Transcendentalists of the 19th century and the counterculture heroes of the 1960s, for instance; or in such gloomy social critics as Al Gore and Prince Charles and alarmists like James Howard Kunstler. These antimodern voices, and others, represent what Mr. Potter calls “the authenticity hoax in full throat: a dopey nostalgia for a non-existent past, a one-sided suspicion of the modern world, and stagnant and reactionary politics masquerading as something personally meaningful and socially progressive.”

Mr. Potter is here to tell us what should be obvious: that there is no paradise back there, that we moderns have never had it so good and that authenticity in the way we’ve defined it is a sham. Modern life has blessed us with health, wealth and freedom never imagined in the good old days. It is depressing that anyone should have to write a book defending modernity from such crude opponents, but Mr. Potter’s broad-ranging survey makes a good case that the authenticist fantasy is deeply embedded in the culture.

Read the whole thing.

Related: “Hold the Good News” the Rational Optimist writes: “Journalists rarely challenge pressure groups’ claims of urgency and deterioration, because those are the two things that get editors’ attention, too.”

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