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On the use and misuse of the term “authentic”

“An anti-brand is still a brand, as the proto-Corbynite “No logo” movement of the late 1990s discovered. The new politics doesn’t imply the death of spin: it is merely its next, logical step. Voters want a different, more distinct product to which they can better relate. It’s like the appeal of micro-breweries: the successful ones are smart, professional, well-managed businesses. People would never buy foul-tasting, dirty products from a disorganised, useless firm. Being authentic in the beer business is no guarantee of success, and neither is it in politics. The despicable BNP was authentic – but thankfully it has all but vanished.”

Allister Heath, writing about the supposedly “authentic” appeal of the new Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

It is an interesting read. When I see people claim they want politicians to be honest, “real” and “authentic”, I sometimes doubt it. An “authentic” Marxist, Fascist, Islamist fanatic or general thug is no better for the “authentic” bit. And in fact one detects that this word has become present-day cant expression, in much the same way that one sees the use of the word “natural” as a term of approbation or “artificial” as somehow bad. Or think how terms such as “organic farming”, “natural remedy” can disarm criticism and analysis. Much of human civilisation is about artifice – the paraodox being that it is human nature to create artificial things (property rights contracts, keyhole surgery and the complete works of Ludwig von Mises, etc).

As for honesty, one of the most honest politicians of recent times was the late Sir Keith Joseph, who, in the early 1970s, said out loud that he thought his previously-held mixed-economy, paternal Tory views were mistaken, and played a central part in advising Mrs Thatcher on moving in a different direction. He once, for example, said that Britain needed more millionaires. When he made comments that used the expression “national stock” he was lambasted and, given his strong character, said openly that he did not feel suited to lead the Tories, and stood aside. Such candour and general moral decency are unusual. For his efforts he was dubbed the “Mad Monk”.

18 comments to On the use and misuse of the term “authentic”

  • Watchman

    I have to admit to being confused about everyone who claims Jeremy Corbyn is authentic. As you can only be an authentic ‘something’ – it is an adjective after all – the implication is that Jeremy Corbyn is an authentic Jeremy Corbyn, which I cannot disagree with – as the only one of whose existence I know, he is clearly the original. But Tony Blair was also authentic – because the authentic Tony Blair was the sort of person who would use spin and imagery and discount ideologies he previously espoused. I cannot see what is inauthentic about that – now Tony Blair may not have been an authentic Marxist or even an authentic Socialist (although I am not sure about that), but that would require either inserting missing nouns into a lot of bad diatribes or assuming authenticity relates only to certain ideologies. Considering those involved in promoting ‘authenticity’ and ‘inauthenticity’, I suspect the latter option applies, and that concern with authenticity is another one of these left-wing self-delusions that if they are only ideologically pure they will be awarded with power. Authenticity is in fact simply piety in another guise…

  • JohnW

    The “thinking” Left always secretly admired Keith Joseph even as the “unthinking” Left were spitting at him and trying to beat him up. Like all Conservatives and a few Labour MP’s he was also a target of the IRA so I always admired him for his courage – unlike that dirty coward Corbyn who was busy sucking up to the IRA and offering them his unswerving moral support.
    No, Mr. Corbyn – we have not forgotten your treachery when many people in this country were being terrorised and murdered in cold-blood.

  • PeterT

    I think what is meant is ‘integrity’. Corbyn’s voting record, political views, public statements and even the scruffy suits and beard all gel nicely. By contrast, Blair and co are champagne socialists, which as the term implies means that there is incongruity between what they say, do, and how they appear. I don’t think the use of ‘authentic’ is at all similar to the insidious use made of terms such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’. These, like the dreaded ‘social’, are ‘weasel words’ which are only very loosely used to describe what the dictionary says that they mean, if that.

  • decnine

    I doubt if being terrorised and murdered passionately is any more agreeable.

  • From Wiktionary:

    Authentic (adj): 2. Conforming to reality and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief.

    A good and meaningful word, though undoubtedly a bit suspect when applied to any politician; likewise “honest”, despite the good Sir Keith. Maybe it is all relative; eg Corbyn versus Blair.

    How about: genuine, accurate, authoritative, dependable, factual, on-the-level, trustworthy, valid (from my Collins English Thesaurus).

    Well, to be blunt, it’s not straightforward.

    And it’s never going to be – for this is politics.

    Best regards

  • An “authentic” Marxist, Fascist, Islamist fanatic or general thug is no better for the “authentic” bit.

    Yes he is – I do prefer my thugs honest. But yes, I see your general point.

  • I prefer my thugs dishonest. It moderates their thuggery, and shows that they have a glimpse of self-knowledge. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld said, “Hypocrisy is the homage which vice pays to virtue”

  • Watchman

    If authenticity has to indicate conforming to reality, I think we can safely rule all humans out of being so describable.

  • Laird

    I agree with PeterT’s comment. Natalie, you may prefer your thugs to be dishonest, but I would first like to know that they are indeed thugs. Hence, “authentic”. We can worry about their honesty later.

    In the US, Bernie Sauders is an “authentic” socialist. He knows just what he is and is not afraid to say it. I disagree with him on many (most?) things, but I respect his honesty (his “authenticity).

  • Midwesterner

    Regarding the relative merits of honest or dishonest thugs, I lean towards Natalie’s opinion. C.S. Lewis also appears to share the preference for dishonest thugs.

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    — C.S. Lewis

  • TDK

    Authenticity is a quality much admired by the intellectual elite but I doubt very much if ordinary people give it a second’s thought. Rightly or wrongly I associate the phrase with art (particularly rock) criticism. The “truly authentic” artist who has had more critical than commercial success is said to be be better than the manufactured or (allegedly) derivative popular artist. We must prefer the Beach Boys to the Monkees because the latter did not write nor play on their own songs. Authentic artists frequently “sell out”.

    In the main I think this is a way for intellectuals to rationalize sneering at the oiks.

    I don’t believe the populace worries about authenticity in politicians. I think they detect an narrow group of self serving individuals including the media, who exclude anyone who challenges the orthodoxy too much. They like that. In that respect I think the newspapers currently going overboard to ridicule Corbyn may prove to be self defeating.

  • mike

    “People would never buy foul-tasting, dirty products from a disorganised, useless firm.”

    Perhaps Mr Heath’s experience of people is more limited than he might imagine it is. The recent use of rancid oil in bakery products in Taiwan would have gone unnoticed were it not for an accidental discovery.

  • Runcie Balspune

    I saw Corbyn being interviewed by Jon Snow, he’s the same weaselly lifetime career politician as the rest of them, evading the difficult questions. He’s already given the main jobs to all his old mates and done a few u-turns on the way.

    Revelations of his distant fling with Abbott told of biking through communist East Germany, I wonder if he still thinks it was such a wonderful place with a marvelous government now we know of the amassed secret files and tons of gold squirreled away. There are too many ghosts in Corbyn’s long career, and his continued reluctance to engage with the media about it will soon cause his downfall, my betting is he’ll just retreat into his little bunker and sit it out whilst he earns 30 times average salary until the next election … like lots of other politicians would.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    September 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    I think what is meant is ‘integrity’.

    Fair enough. But ‘integrity’ shares a root with ‘integer’ and means to be ‘one thing’. The next question, logically, is what that ‘one thing’ is: Stalin, for instance, was pretty completely Stalin, and nobody else.

  • pete

    Those people who say that food at UK Indian and Chinese takeaways is not authentic annoy me.

    I tell I buy the stuff because I like it, and what people in India or China really do eat is of little interest to me.

  • Paul Marks


  • Nicholas (Rule Yourselves!) Gray

    Julia Gillard, one-time Australian Prime Minister, declared, in the middle of the 2010 campaign, that spin-doctors were ruining her campaign, and that now voters would get the ‘real’ Julia. So everyone went looking for the ‘real’ Julia. It was a great way to met girls- just tap them on the shoulder, and then say, “Sorry, I thought you were the real Julia!”
    So you can add ‘real’ to your list of over-used political phrases. And didn’t the last Labour Prime minister talk about ‘having spine, not spin’?

  • Surellin

    Mr. Corbyn was clean-shaven and well-dressed in the most recent picture I have seen of him. Has he sold out to The Man?