Are you for real?: America’s Quest for Authenticity in Uncertain Times

Malik Neal, Columnist

This simple expression has gradually crept into mainstream conversation in everything from television sitcoms to novels and newspaper articles. Subsumed within the expression of “Are You For Real” is the notion of truth, verification and, ultimately, authenticity. If something is authentic, it is certainly real in the simplest and most irreducible sense.

Etymologically, the word “authentic” originates from the Greek word “authentikos,” meaning something that had the authority of its original creator. Apparently, the original meaning of the word in English was “authoritative,” and the modern sense of “genuine” did not evolve until 18th century. Thus, an authentic person or thing is something which directly relates back to its creator, therefore, giving it the strong pull of truth and originality.

The yearning for the “authentic” has been a constant undercurrent in modern society for sometime and has accelerated significantly over the past decade. It is, of course, ever present in our popular culture, and numerous examples from the trivial to the profound appear constantly in everyday life. When one deems something or someone authentic, they believe that person or object has a ring of irreducible truth and dependability about them or it.  In a way, an authentic experience confirms one’s best beliefs about how the world really works and consciously or subconsciously incrementally adds a bit to one’s self worth. The long evolution of the concept of the term “cool” in American popular culture is closely linked with the notion of authenticity, albeit a pseudo-authenticity. To be “cool” is to be different, uniquely interesting, fashionably out of the mainstream, but most of all, to be accepted for being so.

A cool idea, person or object is not only unique in a pleasing way, but also supposedly authentic. If being cool is different, and different is unique, then uniqueness readily translates into individual self worth. The advertising industry capitalizes and feeds on this concept to an enormous degree. Everything from Ralph Lauren Polo English retro country style clothing to leather seating in one’s “classic” car is offered to make the individual owning such things feel cool, authentic and unique.

The rejection of a person, or rather a person’s behavior, or even of an idea, as not authentic, is, of course, a peculiarly human trait. This rejection is based upon emotion and the feeling that something is askew perceptually, cognitively and, ultimately, intellectually. The need for authentication is, in essence, a correlative of the quest for truth–a truth that genuinely enhances, confirms and expands one’s concept of self.

One of the unfortunate residuals of modern technological culture is a constant diversion of oneself from one’s own self. Whether due to information overload, boredom or the constant standardization and mechanization of society, this cultural fatigue finds expression in some peculiar ways. The mindless overuse of the Internet, text messaging, video games, or obsession with pornography and violence is strong witness to an existential alienation that is part and parcel of a commercially dominated and materialistically saturated society whose citizens have been reduced to consumer units in a state of what might be called terminal ennui. With self-actualization being the rare exception, and with economic stress fueling the fires of discontent, self-absorption and the need for instant gratification yield their destructive harvest rapidly. Attention spans are minimal, and tolerance and patience are virtues of a long ago and distant past. Historical amnesia and cultural voids are the rule. Never was the old Roman proverb that “A person who refuses to learn about his past is forever condemned to live as a child” more pertinent than today.

The false gods of a promised, but ultimately undeliverable, materialistic paradise have seduced our American society. We have forsaken our identity in the vain search for authenticity, which can only be found by the hard work of examining one’s present predicament through the lens of past experiences of others similarly situated. Rejection of past cultural achievements may be temporarily exhilarating, but is ultimately directionless and exhausting. This society has elevated self absorption to a national identity, but in so doing has failed to perform the ultimate act of self-awareness—simply looking at the surrounding world and contemplating the true marvel of its existence.

Self-awareness is the first step on the long road to discovering the authentic self and its intimate interconnection to the world around it.


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A Young Conservative Woman’s View: Ashley Sewell’s “Smart Girl” Politics

Stephanie Rushford, Associate Editor

The 2008 Presidential Election marked the resurgence of conservative women back into the spotlight, with John McCain’s running mate, Vice President candidate Sarah Palin, leading the charge. In the two years since the election, many more “Mama Grizzlies” have run for public office, prompting talking heads and magazine articles to explore the dichotomy of being a women and a conservative.

Yet, while most of the media’s attention has been focused on the baby boomer’s generation of conservative women, young conservative women have been making strides in political circles and on college campuses. One conservative political group that caters to all conservative women of all generations is Smart Girl Politics. Smart Girl Politics, or abbreviated as SGP, has an annual Smart Girl Summit that showcases powerful women in the conservative movement. Some of the notable guest speakers at this year’s Smart Girl Summit were Michele Bachmann, Tammy Bruce and Liz Cheney.

Smart Girl Politics Director of Activist Training Ashley Sewell had the distinct honor of introducing Liz Cheney at the Smart Girl Summit, which she describes as “CPAC for women.” In addition, Sewell describes the sense of community that reverberates from the Summit:

It’s the chance for us to get together and talk about the things that really matter to us…It’s definitely a chance for women to meet and connect with the women they respect and look up to all year round.

Ashley Sewell

However, this young conservative activist was not always politically involved. It wasn’t until after her first job, when she saw the amount of money Uncle Sam was taking from her paycheck, that she became engaged in the political sphere. “When I was 25, I filed my tax return, I had Uncle Sam tell me that I owed another four digits, that to me was outrageous. I couldn’t believe it I got so upset.” With her feelings of anger, Ms. Sewell went to her first Tea Party, which led to a serendipitous encounter with Smart Girl Politics: “I was asked if someone could take a picture of my sign, and I said sure why not. They said they wanted to put it on their website. The next day I went to the website to make sure I was being portrayed in a way that I felt was appropriate, and it turned out to be Smart Girl Politics.”

Additionally Ms. Sewell has nothing but glowing praise for the organization, which has enabled her to have solidarity with other like-minded conservative women, “from that moment on I knew SGP is where I belonged. It was where I could get the resources that I needed to be involved.”

Yet, while Ms. Sewell is a conservative activist associated with a primarily women-led organization, like many other conservative women she does not like to be labeled as a feminist:

“Historically feminism means standing up and fighting for women. And it started out as something so great, equal pay for equal work, and that is the feminist that I identify with. But when you have the [social movement] of 1960s and 70s and everything kind of hinges on abortion; to me that a complete disservice to the word because there is far more to being a women than your reproductive organs. Until we can get a little bit of tweaking on the word itself because it has such a stigma, until we can rebrand it, I prefer to call myself a peopleist.”

Many conservative women have empathized with Sarah Palin’s ideological outlook, and Sewell understands the attraction to Sarah Palin’s brash delivery of the ‘founding fathers” ideals:

“Something that has really been a challenge for us as conservative women is for the last 30 years, and longer than that–since the ERA–women who have been involved in politics have been feminists, and feminists are traditionally liberal. When you have Sarah Palin come along and say ‘Mama Grizzlies,’ that really resonated with people [thinking to themselves], I can be an activist and a women at the same time without feeling like I am harming my gender. Because for a long time that is how feminists saw conservative women.”

One of the many characteristics of Generation Y is its ability to put partisan disagreements aside and work together for the greater good, and Ms. Sewell is no exception. Even though Sewell does not support Roe. Vs. Wade, she would work with pro-choice feminists to eradicate the many inequalities that women still face today.

“I think there are so many places women, regardless of political affliction, can work together. Let’s talk about women getting equal pay for equal work–that is still an issue today. Let’s talk about giving women the opportunity to have employment in the ‘man’s’ world, and let’s make women [understand] that they don’t have to exploit their bodies to do it. A perfect example of this is in sportscasting, [with] Pam Oliver. Why can’t we start elevating women to take those roles? Let’s start talking about education, how we can provide girls with more opportunities in math and science. Why can’t we come together as women, and say, putting abortion aside, and let’s talk about the things that we struggle with.”

Ashley Sewell provides more than just lip service in helping advance other women’s lives; recently, as Smart Girl Politics’ Director of Activist Training, Sewell met with women from Smith College for a training session–led by Sewell–on social media and politics. Sewell spoke highly of the Smith College students: “Those women at Smith College are tremendous. For them to, on such a liberal campus, be so steadfast in their beliefs. And I would say the same think about a very conservative campus… if they were a bunch of liberals. But to have that kind of courage, at that age, is phenomenal. And it was very inspiring to me.”  The experience not only left Sewell in awe of these young undergraduates; she expressed regret in not being “more politically involved” when she was in college.

This upcoming January, Ms. Sewell will be training more individuals as a part of Smart Girl Politics’ SGP 101 initiative. With SGP 101, Smart Girl Politics’ goal is to get more women to run for office at the local, state and federal level.  In 2012, Smart Girl Politics will work to get these female candidates elected. This program will offer two-track training sessions with online classes and one-track training sessions for activists and other for prospective candidates. Sewell will be in charge of implementing and overseeing the curriculum of the SPG 101’s activist track. She describes a holistic approach in creating the rubric for this program:

“We have different levels that you can be involved in, depending on where you are in the process. Everything from ‘I’m angry and I don’t really know why,’ all the way to ‘I want to learn how to be a fundraiser for my candidate’s campaign.’ Taking those big questions of how can I get involved and turning them into an interactive lesson that women can then take and implement and see success. That’s what I do as Director of Activist Training.”

In addition, SGP 101’s activist track will focus on how activists effectively can  support and give time to their candidates and how to organize successfully and get out the vote and voter registration campaigns.

Furthermore, Sewell stressed the underlying message of SGP 101 was not one of partisan politics but of empowering women to become active in the political process:

“This is about really educating and empowering women to take a very active role in what was traditionally a man’s role of political campaigning.  It is done in a non-partisan way, we are not advocating for Republicans, we are not advocating against Democrats. We are taking the whole idea that women, politically, have something very valuable to offer and we are putting them in a position to take advantage of that.”

Ms. Sewell’s does not only have confidence in  the SPG 101’s female candidates for 2012, she believes that Generation Y holds the keys to a political and prosperous future. Ms. Sewell states that “one of the reasons that generation that is poised to take the reins, as an activist politically, is that they are on the very front of technology. Generation Y has the tools and the education, we are more educated than any other generation before us. We are coming out of school ready to change the world.”

Ashley Sewell undoubtedly will inspire many young conservative women to come forward, as she did, and fight for their conservative viewpoints to be heard on Capitol Hill. As much as the media makes the conservative movement (and conservative women) to be a monolith with Sarah Palin leading the charge, there is a full spectrum of what it means to be a  conservative woman in this country. Ms. Palin may have had a great impact on the past elections, and on cable news, but for Generation Y the influence will come closer to home. In Ms. Sewell words,  “It is very inspiring for someone to see a younger person take charge in a positive way. That gets more people involved as well.”

UK’s Rebellion and Resurgence of Youth Activism

Matt McDermott, Columnist

With a new government often comes sharp changes in policy, and at present Britain is realizing full well these consequences. In the coalition government’s 2010 budget, the country is witnessing an austerity package the scale of which hasn’t been seen in nearly 30 years. And voters across all spectrums haven’t taken well to the proposed massive spending cuts, especially students. 

Anger amongst students lies in the coalition’s proposal to dramatically increase tuition fees over the next few years as the government transfers the cost of courses from the state to students. Universities in England will be allowed to charge students tuition up to 6,000 pounds a year, with a top tier of 9,000 pounds in the university to ensure access to low-income students. These policies would amount to a nearly 300 percent increase in fees, up from the current 3,290 pounds per year. Effectively, the rise would help minimize the massive 2.9 billion pound cut in higher education that will go into effect with the 2010 budget. By replacing state aid with tuition fees, many courses will rely almost entirely on student fees for support.

Labor, for their part, have referred to the fee hike as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people,” while the National Union of Students (NUS) has called the increase an “outrage.”  But in recent weeks this war of words has taken to the street with a much more active voice.  

Since early October, there have been three nationwide students protests against the tuition fees. The first demonstration, sponsored by the NUS, was expected to draw 10,000-20,000 students to London to voice their frustrations. Instead, over 50,000 marched past Parliament and through the streets of the city. While overall a peaceful protest, a select group of activists broke from the demonstration to storm Conservative Headquarters in central London and create the spectacle that was carried on international news. At the time the NUS expressed their consternation and vowed to keep the protests civil. But since the first protest, two subsequent nationwide action days have been held. At each, thousands of students in cities across the UK took to the streets. In all, over 200 students have thus far been arrested, with widespread criticism of what many see as an overbearing police presence at each event. 

The sentiment at each of these rallies has been unified. With their chants of “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts,” students have argued that education is a fundamental right that should exist as an equal opportunity for all. One protester remarked to me, “I come from a family where if fees go up I’d have to drop out of university. My family would be unable to cope with the over 18,000 pounds in additional costs.” I heard the same from many alongside her. Unlike the United States, UK educational institutions currently provide little in need-based financial aid, a reason why course fees are currently so comparably low. And while these new fee increases require some improvements in financial assistance for lower class students, it’s reasonable to question the equitable nature of the rise.

Perhaps most surprising—considering Tories ran on the very foundation of eliminating the deficit—has been the collapse of support for the coalition government. For the first time in over three years, Labour has been regaining a notable lead in public polling, garnering 40 percent (a four point lead over Conservatives) in the latest ComRes poll this weekend. The startling turnaround for the Labour Party comes at the rapid downfall of the LibDems, who have fallen to their lowest point in over four years. 

Their collapse stems from their appeared snubbing of university students, who were their key base of support in the past election. While LibDems vowed to oppose a tuition fee increase during the election, their position changed dramatically once they joined the coalition government. It’s now expected that Nick Clegg will lead the LibDems in voting for the tuition fee increase, or at best abstaining altogether from the vote—in either case reneging their core campaign promise. In fact, most of the vocal protests over the last month have been an attack of Clegg and his failure to live up to campaign promises.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in protests and the national mood. In an poll released this week by YouGov, university students now strong support Labour, 42 percent versus 26 percent for Conservatives and 15 percent for Liberal Democrats. These numbers are shocking; in advance of the election, the same poll showed students backing LibDems by 45 percent, followed by Labour at only 24 percent. In essence LibDems have lost 30 points in the last few months amongst students, their core constituency. 85 percent of students are “sympathetic to the protests against the tuition fees,” and a rather high 27 percent are in favor of using violent action (akin to the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters in the first student protest).  If an election were to be called today, the UK Polling Report and other independent agencies predict Labour would regain an outright majority in Parliament.

For students though, their fight may come to an abrupt close. A vote in the House of Commons is expected this Thursday, and it seems Conservatives have more than enough votes for passage. The true fight may simmer until the next election is called.

Toilets, Youth Leagues and Politics: When the Private Becomes Hideously Public

Nyeleti Honwana, Columnist

“There was widespread controversy earlier this year when it emerged that 50 households in the low-income settlement of Khayelitsha, Cape Town had been provided with unenclosed toilets, leaving residents deprived of their rights to health, safety and dignity” The Social Justice Coalition

Women standing next to open air toilet, in plain sight of all passers-by, Khayelitsha; Cape Town

Khayelitsha, one of the largest and most derelict townships in South Africa:

Located in the Cape Flats, just outside the bustling city of Cape Town, Khayelitsha is home to over 400,000 people (as of 2005), the vast majority of which live below the poverty line. While in Cape Town, I came across a story that made me think rather differently about youth and politics. Just a few years ago, in the zone of Makhaza, answering “nature’s call” was a humiliating and sometimes dangerous ritual for hundreds of families who did not have toilets at home. Begging to use a neighbor’s toilet, using a makeshift plastic bucket or waiting in line for hours to use one of the four available public restrooms in another zone, were the options available to Makhaza dwellers.

However in 2007, the Democratic Alliance (DA), – Cape Town governing party – provided fifty homes with open-air toilets in Makhaza. This sparked outrage in the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) who immediately approached the Human Rights Commission expressing their disgust with the open air toilets and calling them a violation of human rights. The ANCYL went so far as to declare war on the Cape Town municipality and demanded that they provide covers for the toilets. When interviewed, the Mayor of Cape Town, Dan Plato, said that “we were never approached by the residents…asking for assistance to cover the toilets.” In fact he says that the toilets were installed on the grounds that the residents themselves would find the materials to cover them; a statement that is denied by the residents of Makhaza to this day.

Dismantling the Zinc Toilet Covers

Soon after the ANCYL’s involvement and the onslaught of press coverage, the Cape Town authorities provided the residents with zinc covers for the toilets, which to their horror further enraged the ANCYL. Groups of young people went from house to house destroying the covers on the grounds that the zinc used was of the lowest available quality. Seeing this as a ploy by the ANCYL to gain support in the area, the DA ‘”emporarily” removed the 65 toilets whose covers had been destroyed.  This led to mass outrage and culminated in a number of protests led by the ANCYL. Residents burned tires in the streets of Makhaza and, together with the ANCYL, took the city of Cape Town to court. The trial began on November 24th, the day I left Cape Town.

While the involvement of young people in local politics in Khayelitsha cannot be denied; one might ask, in what way is this zeal affecting the wider community? In the DA run city of Cape Town, some have argued that the ANCYL seems to be nothing more than a political party vying for support, while trying to tarnish the name of its opponent–a ploy that will go far in the coming local elections of 2011. However, what started as a somewhat noble quest to get proper sanitation facilities for people in desperate need of them has become a political battleground for supremacy, leaving the poor people of Khayelitsha in as dire straits as when the “toilet crisis” began. In an interview with non-profit organization Intern Africa, resident of Khayelitsha, Andiswa Ngabi, expressed her discontent with the current situation, saying that “We are not happy…we are complaining about toilets without covers. Now, instead of doing what we want, they [the DA] just take off the toilets. We’re feeling that [the] government destroyed us.”

The crux of the matter is that residents of Makhaza continue to live without toilets, covered or otherwise, a problem that is not exclusive to Cape Town. The Khayelitsha toilet scandal should be used as a plateau on which differing parties can come together to discuss the eradication of this social ill but, unfortunately,both parties are more interested in playing the blame game than in finding an adequate solution. It seems to me that the city of Cape Town needs to acknowledge the wrong doing on its part. Mayor Dan Plato’s stance that they have done “nothing wrong” is evidently ludicrous upon seeing the pictures of the toilets in Makhaza. Whatever their intentions were, there are glaring problems with sanitation conditions in much of Cape Town, and the local government must take the lead in the rectification of this. Ultimately, whether the ANCYL was correct in tearing down the covers of the toilets or not, it is important that the municipality have the trust of its constituents and provide safe and hygienic facilities for them to use. Today there are almost 4,000 bucket toilets still in use around Cape Town.

Lastly, as young people involved in politics, it is our job to ensure that our influence works only for the betterment of our community. In this instance the ANC Youth League used their popularity in Makhaza destructively. I would agree with those who advise ANCYL leaders to put party politics aside and use their power to negotiate better terms for sanitation facilities in Khayelitsha.

Can the New Republicans Live up to the Hype?

James Di Palma-Grisi, Columnist

The Sharron Angles and Christine O’Donnells of the Tea Party are dogmatic and simplistic candidates parroting the same talking points that, by even the admission of Alan Greenspan, will not work in our current economic climate.

So what will happen once these people (or, perhaps except in the cases of Angle and O’Donnell) are elected? We see what happened to Scott Brown — he compromised his conservative principles to do something popular with liberal Massachusetts voters, and his support dropped sharply.

Seeing this example (and being from areas far less liberal than Massachusetts, in most cases), the other Tea Party candidates probably will not take this route. Instead, they either will stick to their conservative principles (and become regular Republicans) or will take a free-wheeling, anti-lobbyist approach and find themselves without funding or backing at all.

That is to say, while they are conservative, they may or may not represent the elite interests that funded their campaigns and organizations. If they don’t, they will be marginalized candidates in the next election cycle, and if they do, they will lose the credibility they had with their constituency. Crucially, the latter only will happen if the voters find out where the money is coming from—something that will be quite clear once the votes on key provisions in bills, or the attachment of earmarks, are made public.

In Congress, in other words, there can be no hiding behind opaque organizations—the Tea Party will be on record, and their ideological purity will be brought into question the same way Scott Brown’s integrity was called into question when he voted liberal on the financial reform bill.

But, stopping Obama’s agenda may be the real purpose behind the Tea Party, and it can almost certainly accomplish that feat.

Now the question for us: what will we do about it? Does Generation Y have a stake in the President’s agenda, or does it have more of an interest in hearing that it’s capable of doing great things?

Gen Y certainly has lost interest, for the most part, in the elections by having turned out in disappointingly low numbers in the 2010 Midterm Election. It has, instead, turned back to pop music and all the other things youthful. Suffice to say it is no longer as politically active as it once was, and is by several metrics horribly narcissistic.

So there is a danger here. This generation could be manipulated rightward by the same promises of power and purity that Candidate Obama offered them in 2008. All that is needed is a potent and communicative leader. Being the Right, there is not much there for young people, and finding a youthful leader would be as easy as finding a natural head of hair at the Republican National Convention–it is the party of the elderly and the established, those who think the world is just fine as it is.

Whether this danger is benign or not remains to be seen. That is to say, whether Gen Y is pulled rightward in large numbers, numbers large enough to impact an election or as an afterthought (which seems likely if they continue to only turnout as much as they did in 2010) has not been determined yet. But surely this is not the only point of entry for Gen Y–there must be strings to pull other than narcissism. Such is the task of political analysts and campaign managers.