Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Catfish, Cheesy Grits, and the Argument for Authenticity

Catfish, Cheesy Grits, and the Argument for Authenticity

In the past few days, Willard Mitt Romney moseyed through Dixie, trying to steal Mississippi and Alabama delegates from his competitors.  In so doing, he attempted to speak Suhthun.  As in (to paraphrase):  this is the second time I’ve eaten catfish, and they’re very good.  As in:  I’ve tried cheesy grits.  As in:  good morning, you all.

--Catfish is a staple food down here, Willard -- not a particularly good-tasting fish, but cheap and relatively easy to cook.  (And because catfish can be farmed, they’re also a renewable food resource, but I guess you wouldn’t be interested in radical environmentalist ichthyculture).

--It’s CHEESE GRITS, Mr. Romney.  Not cheesy grits.  Just as toasted cheese sandwiches are not toasted cheesy sandwiches.

--When we address more than one person, we say ‘yawl.’  A single syllable.  Think of expensive boats.  Then think, if you can, of less expensive ones.

It may be piling on to take notice of Romney’s signature clunky-isms, but it’s fun.  As The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart noted yesterday, Romney sounds as if he’s ‘on safari in his own country.’  What interests me here is how people – average voters, the professional commentariat – interpret Romneyisms.

They’re marshaled as evidence of the candidate’s inauthenticity: the robotic rich boy trying to morph into a varmint-hunting buddy of whatever voter base he’s appealing to at the moment. While such an observation is undeniably true, I wonder about its deep structure.

Why is it important to be authentic, and what does that mean?  In academia, the argument for authenticity is potent and fraught, most particularly in the humanities (and I’m relying on my knowledge/experience base, which is a zillion years in a major university’s English Department).  Even the most reductive cases – a common one in the United States being: should African American Literature be taught exclusively by African American professors? – combine theoretical/ethical concerns with real-world consequences.  Hiring and course allocations hinge on how the institution values authenticity, usually defined loosely as ‘belonging to the group/culture/tradition’ that one will be slated to teach and/or teach to.

On the one hand, this is a specious argument.  Can only white men who’ve been dead for half a millennium teach Shakespeare?  Can only equally dead Japanese women teach Lady Murasaki?  Can only gay people teach Oscar Wilde or Gertrude Stein?  Shouldn’t the standard be expertise in the field, which is not circumscribed by personal, biological, or historical virtual kinship with the author/subject/culture being taught or the audience for that teaching?

On the other hand, there are practical benefits to ‘authenticity.’  I know this from experience:  a white woman teaching African Literature is initially a hard sell to students.  What I could never offer was an immediately accessible role/authority model based on identity, so I was often viewed initially with suspicion. In this sense, students resemble a political electorate.  Authenticity (read – I’m one of you) is an easy – and not altogether bogus – first step to getting your point across (and, in the case of teaching, contributing to an atmosphere conducive to intellectual receptivity and inquiry). 

Students can spot a phony as quickly as they can access Wikipedia on their Samsung Galaxies.  I had to build authenticity on something other than identity politics or its ridiculous twin, faked and forced identity politics.  The most honest way for me was demonstrating expert knowledge of the subject, respect for its cultural embeddedness, respect for my students, and a genuine desire to facilitate their explorations of an exciting subject.

This is where, I believe, Governor Romney’s inauthenticity hurts him the most.  If he could offer something valuable to teach/think about/work toward/aspire to, his lame attempts to connect to his (in the present case, Southern) audience might be seen as inept but well-meaning, maybe even cute. They could be a first step in building a meaningful dialogue. But without a coherent message (other than everything President Obama did, does, or will do is very, very bad), his random stabs at a sham authenticity read only as cheesy grits and oil-soaked catfish. 

He’d do better being his authentically androidal self.  After all, what’s wrong with grana padano polenta and honey-balsamic glazed salmon?


  1. Great work, Deb! I wonder why Romney has been subjected to this onslaught--not entirely without merit, I agree--when George W. Bush was accepted as authentic without question. People wanted to have a beer with him (?). His class and regional profile (Texas, yes, but Yale and Harvard) made him a lot more like Mitt than his supporters might like. Was it that he had a Texas accent and, as president, repeatedly carried branches around his "ranch" vacation home? Did that take care of this issue for him? You are thought provoking as always.

    1. Hi Maria --

      You're back! Hooray! I don't know how these sorts of blog comments should work (like, should this be a normal email?). Anyway, thanks for the supportive feedback and, yes, I think that W's Texas-ness counted for a lot among the Republican Bouboisie. By the way, I'm intrigued by your recent blog about yoga and charismaticism. I'd love to talk about it further. I have no idea if these blog comments get transmitted in any regularly-seen-by-people-who-aren't-always-monitoring-these-things way. So if you get this, please give me a nudge via regular email (or Facebook, which I'm back on). I'd love to get together soon.