January 8th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Subculture Engineering (part 2 of 3): Authenticity Police

Just as every successful volunteer organization or subculture has Dream Nazis (which I talked about yesterday) and Fun Mavens (which I'm going to talk about tomorrow, Lord willing and the crick don't rise), every successful volunteer organization seems to require Authenticity Police.

What is an Authenticity Cop? An authenticity cop is an amateur scholar. Once in a rare while, they're also a professional scholar, but you don't get the label of authenticity cop unless you drag it into your personal life and your relationships with others as well. No, far more often the authenticity cop is an amateur scholar, a well read dilettante (for variable definitions of "well read"). An authenticity cop gets drawn into a culture or a subculture most often because they, too, agree with the dream nazi that there was something better, or at least interesting, about some time in the distant past. They may even agree with the dream nazi that it might be interesting to bring some of that past into the future.

But what separates a dream nazi from an authenticity cop?
  • Values: To the dream nazi, a message or an artwork or a song or a costume or whatever is only valuable if it is inspiring. To an authenticity cop, these things are only valuable if they're correct.
  • Standards: To a dream nazi, a statement is "true" if it makes that bump on the back of their head that tells them when something is important tingle, that is to say if it "feels right," and if it furthers what the group is trying to do. To an authenticity cop, a statement is "true" if you can footnote it with authoritative sources.
  • Preferences: Dream nazis love emotional rhetoric. Authenticity police love detailed analysis.
  • Sources: To a dream nazi, the best sources are the ones that come from within the group, because you know that they're not working at cross-purposes to try to sabotage the dream. To an authenticity cop, the best sources are the ones that come from or are used by neutral academic scholars, because they're the ones that will hold up under scrutiny.
  • Hopes: A dream nazi wants the audience to be inspired, and to agree with everything they say. An authenticity cop wants the audience to be educated, and to make up their own minds ... and then agree with everything the authenticity cop says, because after all, the facts are on their side!
  • Fears: An authenticity cop is afraid of looking stupid. A dream nazi is afraid of looking boring.
What Happens to an Organization without Authenticity Police? An organization or movement that drives out its authenticity police can thrive for a while, but not for long. Sooner or later, without the authenticity police and their painstaking fact-checking (see apprenticeship, below), the dream nazis will go out in public and say something so stupid as to make the whole movement a mockery in the the public eye. A few such howlers and even the group's own fun mavens start to think that the dream nazis are jokes, and that the whole dream is a joke, and go looking for a form of fun that isn't so stupid looking. Within at most a generation after that, the organization or movement collapses into irrelevance; for all practical purposes it collapses back into the coffee houses and/or parents' basements that it crawled out of (see "only dream nazis," yesterday).

What Happens to an Organization of Only Authenticity Police? Organizations of authenticity police that relentlessly push out the dream nazis and the fun mavens have a much easier time getting real intellectual work done, they produce some fine scholarship ... that nobody will ever read and few people will ever hear of. Being amateurs and dilettantes, professional scholars won't even look at their work. And without dream nazis to make it seem relevant, and fun mavens to make it look fun, such a group may grow or shrink, but it will never have the slightest effect on either scholarship or on society.

The Apprenticeship of an Authenticity Cop: Take a young man or woman who spends too much time with their nose in books, even if they're the trashiest books. Rope them in with (fun maven) silly songs and (dream nazi) stirring songs. When they edge away because such things make them a little uncomfortable, have an established authenticity cop walk up beside them and comment knowledgeably about some historical or scientific fact that's unusually right (or even annoyingly wrong) about the last song, or with the singer's costume, or some other little nitpick. While they nibble on appetizers, feed their mind little appetizers of factual trivia that only members of this group care about. If they look interested, they may be potential authenticity police ... or they may just be pretending to be polite until they find out where the tap for the beer keg is, or until it's their turn to sing, or whatever.

But if they ask one of the magic questions .... Wait, you ask, what are the magic questions? "Who says so? Where did you hear that? How do you know? What makes you right and (some popular book) wrong?" If they ask the right questions, then they probably have real potential as an authenticity cop. So now it's time to take them to the next level. Drag them along to a good used bookstore, or better yet a good university research library, or best of all a good history museum with at least one actual historical artifact that's relevant to the group. And while they're looking bored (because they will be, probably, most people are when they don't realize what they're looking at), explain to them the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. If their eyes light up with a fiery need to voraciously pursue primary source material, and to only grudgingly accept skeptically peer reviewed secondary sources, then sign them up ... you've created an authenticity cop.

"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!"
---W.S.Gilbert, from the opera "Patience"
And if one of these days, after much perusal of primary source material and thoughtful interpretation of that material from the viewpoint of the group's vision, that young authenticity cop attends a scholarly public lecture or writes a scholarly book review on the Internet, and outside experts on the subject are suddenly brought up short and say things like, "That's a good question, I'll have to look into that more," or better yet, "That's a new interpretation, and you may have something there," or best of all, "That's a fascinating insight. What group are you with? I want to learn more about them" then everyone within the group will have to acknowledge what a masterful authenticity cop that young man or woman has become.

Where Should You Keep Your Authenticity Police? For the most part, you should keep them where they're the happiest: behind a keyboard. Stick them with newsletter chores. Make them responsible for many of the pages on the website. (But never, for the love of god and all that's holy, give them total responsibility for the front page, the opening page of the web site! That responsibility must be shared with at least one dream nazi!) But there's another good place for them. Expert authenticity police get used to working on their own, doing boring research grunt work and endlessly repetitive (but ultimately rewarding) precision work. By coincidence, any active group has several volunteer jobs that must be done alone, at home, by yourself, and many of those jobs require finicky attention to detail, boring repetition, and/or careful precision. Authenticity police don't want those jobs, unless it involves their precious research. But the magic word to get an authenticity cop to take such a volunteer job is, "But you're the only one I can trust to do it right." That word "right" is a Power Word for authenticity cops.

Raging Monster Authenticity Police: What is it that some authenticity cops do that sometimes makes the whole idea of having authenticity police seem like such a bad idea? Ah, that's a little more subtle than the last question, but not by much. A raging monster authenticity cop (sometimes also called an authenticity nazi) is someone who judges not just works, but people by the standards of academic scholarship. Since the fun mavens didn't spend endless hours in the library and online researching their group project and put an authenticity cop in charge of it, then the protection of the group requires that it be pedantically nitpicked endlessly to death, until everybody sees that (while nobody but an authenticity cop would notice) the project is really so stupid that nobody should want to work on it. Raging monster authenticity cops also sabotage the organization by criticizing the dream nazis openly, in front of everybody else, and if successful make the whole vision, the whole point of the group look stupid. In fact, that really does sum it all up: a raging monster authenticity cop destroys his own organization by making everybody except higher-ranking authenticity police feel stupid. And hardly anybody's idea of a productive or fun or important thing to do is to go feel stupid.

(Editorial Note: I went back and added a section to yesterday's post, one on "Raging Monster Dream Nazis." It came up in conversation over dinner tonight that it needed one. Also, while I think I'm going to be able to wrap this up after the next section, people keep raising interesting general objections and I reserve the right to decide that I need a "wrap up" section 4 to address them, in which case I'll come back and edit them "part n of 3" subject headings to "of 4."