Monday, June 11, 2007

The authenticity test

An organizer explains a problem. She's doing a good job, but more is required.

The other day I had a conversation with a woman who'd been hired to mobilize neighbors to campaign to save a community hospital from a big nasty health profiteer. In this instance, she was mobilizing me. I was, naturally, wary. Being organized into a campaign means adding more responsibilities to an already over-full life. She was new in town and running into resistance. Having carried on her end of the conversation more than once, I was sympathetic.

Pretty soon, I got to hear her side of the story: coming from smaller places, some in the old rust belt, she found San Francisco incomprehensible. "I just don't know what gets people moving here...." she mourned.

"Yeah," says I. "They'll come out for what they feel as limits on their ability to be themselves, like feeling disrespected, having dogs, or not being allowed to dance late at night -- but not about the bedrock stuff: jobs, housing, healthcare."

"You got it," she replied.

I thought about this conversation this morning when while reading Paul Krugman's latest column [sub. wall, sorry]. He reported:

A recent Associated Press analysis of the political scene asked: “Can you fake authenticity? Probably not, but it might be worth a try.”

Krugman is hammering away at the right wing scam that has made conventional wisdom of the silly notion that you can't work to alleviate poverty unless you are poor. Go, Paul -- the idea can't stand the slightest examination. And I'm coming to believe that John Edwards deserves better.

My conversation with the organizer, in its way, is about another facet of the same issue. In this city, the truly poor are burdened with housing costs that often suck up fifty percent of their income, as well as an extremely costly general environment. They are hard to organize because they are working, and caring for children, and working, and caring for children, and working....

There are folks who can be organized who are a rung or two up the economic ladder -- not well off at all, but urban dwellers by choice who make the city their home because it offers them a chance to be themselves. Most of them need the same stuff the truly poor need: a living wage, affordable housing, access to health care. But having spent their whole lives deconstructing marketing pitches, often rejecting some facets of conventional expectations, and finding a place in which to express their sense of themselves, they are allergic to appeals that don't validate their cherished individuality. And in this city, a great many of these folks are gay, and for them (us), all that goes double.

This makes people here as demanding of a promise of "authenticity," on their terms, as the folks Krugman points to who are being conned by lobbyist/actor Fred Thompson with his rented used pick-up truck and jeans. Or as New Yorkers who aren't going to support a Red Sox fan!

Krugman is right, as far as he goes, with this suggestion:

Why not evaluate candidates’ policy proposals, rather than their authenticity? And if there are reasons to doubt a candidate’s sincerity, spell them out.

No doubt about it, that would help. But campaigners usually recognize that for many, perhaps most of us, there's a step that comes first, before we'll even listen to the policy prescriptions.

That step: we all want to feel that this is a candidacy (or my organizer's case, this is a campaign) in which, if I get involved, I won't be dissed for who I am. For people of color, for gay folks, that's usually obvious -- even though lots of quite well meaning campaigns don't know how to send that signal. The phony "authenticity" Krugman is talking is the same phenomenon writ large.

Some thoughts:
  • The internets are speeding fragmentation of cultural markers. This began with cable TV; we don't all look to the same cultural sources. More and more niche expressions of personal identity become possible all the time. This is both opportunity for smart candidates who can recruit authentic messengers to reach into these geographically dispersed pockets of personal identity -- and something of a threat, since dispersed messengers may get "off message." Get used to it.
  • Smart campaigns listen to the folks they want to organize. Obvious of course, but how many of us feel listened to by politicians or campaigners? When we aren't listened to, we're on our guard -- and it become hard to pass the authenticity test.
  • Faking it has limits. Bill Clinton could get away with playing the sax on TV because he really is that kind of ham. Most pols just make fools of themselves.
Our wealthy culture more and more makes discerning the difference between identities for sale (identities that make the sale) and finding "our true selves" the bedrock skill for living a humane life. Politicians fake authenticity at their peril. Next thing they know, they'll get slammed with a cheap parody on YouTube. Fun times.


sfmike said...

Very interesting and well-written.

You do realize that what both of us are doing with this blogging stuff, over time, is creating an "authentic" San Francisco brand that people trust. Since the "Chronicle" and the "Examiner" and the "Bay Guardian" and "SF Weekly" and the local TV news outlets have been for the most part so awful for so many years, it makes our job both simpler and more difficult. Simpler because there's not all that much wonderful competition, and more difficult because we sort of have to invent both the format and instruct the readership because they are not used to thinking for themselves.

As you say, fun times.

S. Stahl said...

Class Matters, a not for profit out of MA, studies in depth the problems of trans-class communication and cross class organizing(middle class organizers in working class neighborhoods) Check out their web site

janinsanfran said...

Interesting website s. stahl: Here's a link.

The instance of culture clash along those lines the usually comes to my mind: If the event is organized out of the labor movement, the refreshments will be donuts. If the event is by a progressive non-profit, expect bagels. Churches might have either or both.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Jan, great minds and all that. I posted on Krugman's column today, also. I hate the NYT's wall. I want everyone to read him.

Fragmented ain't the word. It's something greater than that, and the internet makes it worse.

As for the political scene, it all about appearing authentic, not actually being authentic - whatever the word has come to mean.

The organizing lady should live where I live. The idea of the common good is gone, dead.

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