Fifty Years of Authenticity and All We Got Was the QAnon Shaman
When did the anthems of self-acceptance become the soundtracks of insurrection?
It was a disturbing moment. There I was, all ready to sweat it out on my pandemic Peloton, and to take a break from the political crisis of the moment—the storming of the Capitol by protestors seeking to keep the election from being certified. The music I chose to ride along to on this particular day was the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman. Corny, you might say. But hey, that’s me. I have a huge soft spot for musicals and that’s a damn good one. And the beats of that soundtrack make a great rhythm for spinning. So there I am, pushing my output to record highs, turning that red knob like one of the instructors was standing behind me shouting encouragement, pedaling furiously, and singing along with Keala Settle as she belted out the powerful words to the song “This Is Me”:
Another round of bullets hits my skin
Well, fire away ’cause today, I won’t let the shame sink in
We are bursting through the barricades and
Reaching for the sun (we are warriors)
Yeah, that’s what we’ve become (yeah, that’s what we’ve become)
I love the song. And I understand that those lyrics were written as an anthem for the outsider, the underappreciated, the unseen, the divergent, those who don’t fit so easily into the strictures and accepted structures of society. In fact, the whole movie is a celebration of self-acceptance and self-expression. And yet, somehow, as I heard those lyrics dance rhythmically through my head, all I could think of were those protestors bursting through the barricades of the nation’s Capitol, taking selfies as they went. The QAnon Shaman, living his best life, flexing his pecs up on the dais of the Speaker of the House, complete with his Davy-Crockett-backwoodsman-meets-indigenous-warrior getup. Why does he wear that outfit? Who knows? He’s just doing him. Following his bliss. Expressing his truth. You know, bursting through those barricades, reaching for the sun. This is his authentic self, baby. Deal with it.
So how did we get here? When did the anthems of self-acceptance become the soundtracks of insurrection? How did we go from “I’m OK, You’re OK” to “It’s my right to believe anything I want”? In a culture that once valued “do the right thing” we seem to have ended up at the null point of “do your own thing”.
It’s a story, I believe, of how culture has changed in my lifetime. I was among the first generation to grow up with the messages “be yourself” and “don’t follow the crowd” being drilled into my head on a daily basis. As an early GenXer, I came of age in the eighties. Most of my friends were children of early Boomers. It was an era in which culture was shifting and changing, even in my conservative hometown. The influence of the social movements of the sixties and seventies was everywhere, as America went through a transformation from a more traditional, conformist culture into one increasingly shaped by the personal liberation message of cultural heroes like John Lennon (“I just believe in me”) and Joseph Campbell (“Follow your bliss”). It was the era of Culture Club and The Breakfast Club, and the message was not subtle: don’t be what your parents or authorities want you to be. They don’t know better. You do you. Be yourself. Think different. Be authentic.
GenX (and later generations as well) were raised in that cultural milieu in a way that many Boomers, raised only a decade or two before my generation, would struggle to understand. As a child, I loved listening to the seventies children’s album “Free to Be You and Me” with its message of self-acceptance, gender equality, vulnerability, and tolerance. I remember being pulled out of my normal class in seventh grade for a G&T (Gifted and Talented) class in which we learned about “divergent” thinking. I didn’t exactly know what that was, but it felt like were doing something slightly subversive. And I suppose we were. I attended state conferences for young leaders where speakers would tell us ten different ways to march to the beat of our own drummer, not follow the crowd, and make our own way in the world. In one generation, America had gone from subtly encoding conformity, duty, and sacrifice for the common good to explicitly encouraging personal rebellion and radical self-determination. It’s as if we all lived in the town from Footloose and Kevin Bacon was our life coach.
None of this was bad—quite the opposite. For the most part, it was positive and life-affirming, and probably had all kinds of beneficial impacts on that generation of kids. I certainly took them to heart. In my own life, I took unconventional paths and found a drumbeat that fit the cadence of my heart, and I’m glad I did. Not all of the decisions I made were wise, but such is life, and I took responsibility for them and made my own way in the world.
But I think we have forgotten something important along the way. These new values were meant to be correctives, not end states in and of themselves. The rallying cries of freedom, authenticity, self-expression, and self-determination earned their moral power in the culture precisely because they were a healthy reaction to and rebalancing of the prevailing social norms of the post-war culture. But, newsflash—that prevailing culture is mostly gone with the wind.
Radical autonomy and personal self-acceptance can be profound and liberating, but they are not free-standing. They are healthiest when they’re balanced with other values, like accountability, responsibility, respect for expertise and authority, and a concern for the larger communities we live in. My own feelings must balance out with the common good. My own truth must balance out with common sense. Without that balance, what I would call deep authenticity devolves into a type of anarchic authenticity—an assertion of will that thrives primarily on being against the “other”—any authority who would tell me my truth is not accepted. We become in thrall to the developmental logic of the rebellious teenager (and Twisted Sister)— “we’re not going to take it.” We fight authority because we think that authority always wins. Resistance and rebellion become an a priori good. And sooner or later, this logic will lead us inexorably to designate some group of people as those evil elite insiders whose authority must be resisted at any cost.
I worry about the way in which our culture has spent years conferring unquestioned moral legitimacy to the protestor, the underdog, the resistance—as if there is an inherent ethical fragrance to being “against.” But anyone, with any harebrained mission, can walk in those shoes. And even more important, when everyone is struggling to be an outsider, who is left to be an insider? When everyone is fighting against the “The Man,” who is left to play the foil? Who is in power when the best and brightest just want to speak truth to power? What happens to the actual institutions of society when everyone wants to righteously storm the barricades rather than be inside them? I tell you what happens. The falter. They break down. Eventually, they fail.
Authenticity can be beautiful, powerful, and even transformative, but that doesn’t mean every part of ourselves needs to be free, fully expressed, and uninhibited. Not every “truth” should see the light of day. Sometimes we don’t know better. Sometimes experts are right. The planet really is round. Vaccines aren’t a nefarious tool of the global elite.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my freedom. I love the opportunity to define my own life on my own terms. I appreciate that our culture has changed to make room for more of us to be like less of us—to acknowledge and make room for different lifestyles, divergent identities, and diversity of all kinds. People suffered and struggled to achieve those gains, and for that we should all be grateful. But I also know that those values which I was steeped in from a young age must be integrated into a larger national tapestry. They must find a place in the constellation of values that define a collective and a community, not compete with and ultimately displace every other one. Otherwise, we bury our cultural gains under a mountain of unintended consequences.
The historian Will Durant once wrote, referring to the transition from the age of Caesar to the age of Christ, “Once more, in the great systole and diastole of history, an age of freedom ended and an age of discipline began.” If the pattern he was observing is true, an age of discipline should be right around the corner. And the signs are there. But I hope not. For once, rather than lurching from one extreme to the other, let’s find a way to encompass and appreciate both. Surely, if there is such a thing as a Golden Age, it will be a time when individual autonomy and deep authenticity finds a balance with the collective needs, norms, rules, and rhythms of our larger national and international community.
We’ll never achieve that, however, as long as we’re blindly fighting the eternal battle against a Leave it to Beaver culture (Millennials, you can look it up)—a battle that in fact was won a long time ago. An armistice must be found in the endless war between countercultural attitudes and a normative “mainstream” that looms in the imagination like it was 1972. Let’s admit it—it’s hard to know who is a “normie” now. Anarchic authenticity will lead us to follow what we think is our bliss right over a cliff we can’t see. And the counter-reaction will consume us. When that day comes, we will all find out the hard way—just as the Q’Anon shaman did—that there is no organic food in jail.