Lowlife Authenticity

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Too many parents try to understand the ins and outs of popular culture by trying to study particular artifacts of that culture. But the real thing to get to is the driving engine. What makes it go? What are the foundational presuppositions? If you teach your children to identify those rightly, and to respond in the right direction after the identification is made, the results will be far more good and lasting.

One of the central, axiomatic assumptions of contemporary culture (in music, fiction, film, clothing, and several more times around the block) is that goodness is not real. Goodness is thought to be inherently artificial and contrived. That which is grimy is more authentic, or basic. Thus some poor sap of a sophomore watching films with subtitles and lots of French nudity at two in the morning is somehow thought to be more “real” than a loving dad reading Green Eggs and Ham to his four-year-old daughter, especially since the daughter is clutching a flop-eared bunny with big brown button eyes.

Theodore Dalrymple puts it this way. “He was under the influence of the idea that some aspects of reality are more real than others: that the seedy side of life is more genuine, more authentic, than the refined and cultured side — and certainly more glamorous than the bourgeois and respectable side. This idea could be said to be the fundamental premise of modern popular culture” (Theodore Dalrymple, Life At The Bottom, p. 119, emphasis mine).

The assumption surrounds us on every side, but thirty seconds thought reveals that the assumption is ludicrous. A thanksgiving dinner right out of Norman Rockwell is real. They happen. People take pictures of them, and have wonderful times at them. We could gather two or three witnesses after the fact to testify to the fact that they did in fact occur. We compare these events to some domestic tragedy (spousal abuse, say) that happened in another home across town on the same day, and we see that both things happened in space and time. So why do we think that one is authentic and real, representing what things are really like, and the other is trite, cliched, and boring? Who wants to read a short story about a happy family, and how the mashed potatoes and stuffing were perfect this year, just like last year?

The reason the charge so frequently sticks can be answered in one word — hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in “traditional” homes effectively slanders the reality of the good. Because so many have given their formal allegiance to the values of the traditional culture (against which pop culture has revolted), but who have not really lived those values in a way that makes them seem real, the end result is that children wind up walking away from the pretense they grew up in. Of course, because this is not the same thing as repentance, the children are simply walking into another form of pretense. But there is a vast conspiracy throughout our culture to insist that this pretense is not a pretense at all, but rather a profound Byronic authenticity. No one wants to recognize that Byron (and his ilk) was a bloated sham. And isn’t ilk a great word?

Parents should want to protect their children from having the slightest desire for this lowlife authenticity (by which I mean tattoos, ironmongery in strange places, greasy hair, pants that don’t cover the crevices they ought to, Halloween hair, cigarettes, midriffs where six inches of available space reveal eight inches of jiggly matter, skateboards the size of Rhode Island, along with all those co-dependent short stories, films, and novels that celebrate all the preceding). But in order to protect against all this, parents need to live, love, and care for their children in such an authentic way (no hypocrisy) that when the suggestion is made to one of the kids (surreptitiously or outright) that it is more authentic to stop combing your hair, it will be met by the snort it deserves.

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