Sunday, February 12, 2006

Thank Goodness for The Inauthentic

In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel argues that the term “authentic” is often just meaningless snobbery, a word used by people who oppose the dynamism of an open society. Music or artistic styles are often called “inauthentic” precisely when they are innovative or when they incorporate different styles together to make something new, or when they’re just user-friendly, accessible versions of something that the snobbery class would prefer to keep obscure.

This came to mind yesterday as I attended the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco. This parade was anything but an “authentic” Chinese New Year parade. There were dragons and firecrackers and beautiful girls in gorgeous silk dresses, of course, but there were also western-style military marching bands—even a gay marching band—and teenagers doing 50s-style dancing to Elvis Presley’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” (since it’s the Year of the Dog). One float featured stars of the San Francisco Chinese Opera, and another was done up to look like a Hummer with something painted on it—don’t know what. The children’s bands were made up of the whole spectrum of ethnic groups, all in Chinese costumes, and banners displayed the names of many of the parade’s sponsors—Ford, Wells Fargo, and several Northern California casinos.

Now, that was not an “authentic” Chinese parade. But it sure as hell was an authentic San Francisco parade. It embodied all that made and still makes San Francisco so great: the astonishing variety and intermixture of cultures, all given life by capitalism. It was very firmly rooted in the tradition of Gold Rush San Francisco, with its diversity, its exuberance, and its proud display of gaudy finery. These are the values of the dynamic society; the parade spoke of freedom in a way that was very, very authentic. Yet that is just the sort of authenticity that escapes the intellectuals’ notice.