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‘The search for authenticity is a dead end’: Three key insights from Tara Isabella Burton’s Hub Dialogue

News

The idea of “self-making” has long been part of the culture—particularly in North America, but has it changed in the internet age? Are we socialized to see ourselves as works of arts to be painted according to whomever or whatever we want to be? And where does this instinct come from? Is “self-making” a sign of the religious impulse manifesting itself in the secular world?

The Hub spoke with Tara Isabella Burton about her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, in which she outlines the idea of self-making, including its causes, consequences, and what it might tell us about contemporary culture.

1. Self-making involves treating ourselves as “a work of art”

“Self-making obviously has many facets. But I think the thing that unites all of the self-makers in my book is this idea that one’s own life, one’s identity, is something that the human being has not just the right, but maybe even the obligation, to shape like a work of art. That both our public persona and our destiny exist for us to choose and to shape. I argue in the book that this is a quintessentially modern idea. We see it, particularly from the Renaissance onwards, as the genesis of this sense that there are some people, special people, who have the right or the authority to choose their own destiny. We have since seen this idea transform over the centuries into what I argue is the kind of ideology today. This is just how we are all in the miasma of culture in 2023 in which we are trained to think about our own lives.”

2. The religious impulse doesn’t disappear—it just redefines the “sacred”

“I want to push back against the language of secularism because I think that perhaps a more precise way of framing the argument I want to make is that the sense of religion has moved from orthodox  (lowercase “o”), traditionally understood, organized religion, to something a little bit more diffuse and self-directed. I don’t think we’re living in necessarily a secular age…I think the major change is this sort of divinization of elements of human desire, in particular, the human will, human wanting, as constitutive of who we really are. So from the Renaissance onwards, we see these sorts of cultural shifts.

We see these sorts of outcroppings culturally with the idea that the self is a self-maker, the self, who controls his destiny—and it is usually him, at least until the 20th century—that this is a kind of spiritual, magical power. Often the language of magic is really front and centre…so the idea is less that sort of secularism. The very simple version, or perhaps too simplistic version, is in the absence of the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchies, people create their own destinies. I think the slightly more complicated version of that argument is that the act of creation—the act of human beings wanting something and going for it—is increasingly understood as the most sacred part of ourselves, one might say, the thing that makes us us. So it’s a relocation of the divine and divine authority from something out there to within the human creative spirit.”

3. The search for authenticity is a dead end

“I think all forms of kind of public presentation of ourselves tell the story of ourselves over and over, whether it’s through the clothing that we choose, whether it’s through the words we choose, are the accents we cultivate. I think that the idea that there is some kind of true, untrammeled, authentic self that can be expressed through these potentially artificial or willed means, that the act of choosing how we present ourselves publicly is somehow a conduit to the true expression within—that itself is the modern ideal. The idea that there’s this internal emotional ‘us,’ and then there’s this outside persona. And yet the persona is something that we can choose. I don’t think any of us can get out of that cultural assumption. So I think the search for authenticity is a dead end.”

Listen to Tara Isabelle Burton’s full interview with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer on the audio player below or on your favourite podcast app. 

If you enjoy Hub Dialogues, be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page:

Five tweets that show the media is struggling to get the facts straight on the war

News

TORONTO — The news media’s coverage of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and the ensuing conflict between Israel and the designated terrorist organization has generated significant public debate. Critics of the news coverage of some organizations have singled out a tendency by reporters to draw false equivalencies, engage in unfair and disproportionate criticism of Israel, and not subject information garnered from Hamas (a designated terrorist group in most western countries) to additional verification.

Independent criticism of the mainstream media began in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 terrorist attacks in Southern Israel when many outlets (including the BBC and CBC) chose to describe Hamas as “militants” rather than “terrorists”.

It has taken on greater intensity this past week in response to the media’s reporting on the explosion at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City which major news outlets such as the New York Times, Toronto Star, and Al Jazeera initially reported that Israel was responsible for. Subsequent disclosures indicated this reporting was based on the “unverified claims” of Hamas and preliminary investigations by U.S. intelligence have confirmed initial claims by the IDF that Israel was not responsible for the bombing. The New York Times this past week went so far as to publicly acknowledge that its initial coverage blaming Israel for the attack was an error.

Much of the push back to mainstream media’s coverage of the conflict has come from a diverse group of former politicians, independent journalists, scholars and Jewish activists. Here are five tweets that highlight the issues raised in the criticism so far.

Matti Friedman, a journalist based in Jerusalem, rejected the news media’s claims that attributing the hospital explosion to Israel was merely an “honest error.” Many longstanding journalists have questioned why the New York Times, as a global paper of record, was prepared to run with the story based solely on information from Hamas controlled sources.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had a testy television interview with the BBC last week in which he accused the host (and the entire network) of a double standard in its reporting. He followed up with a long-form tweet in which he accused the public broadcaster of “moral weakness.” This exchange and news reports and commentary in Israel indicate that frustration is growing among the Israeli public about the western media’s continuing coverage of the terrorist attacks and civilian deaths in Gaza.

Jay Rosen, a well-known media critic and professor of journalism at New York University, has zeroed in on the New York Times’ admission that it “relied too heavily” on unverified from Hamas to in its reporting on the hospital explosion. Others have gone as far as to argue that relying on Hamas news sources for journalistic reporting is the equivalent of covering the immediate aftermath of 9/11 based on the claims Al Qaeda or the Charlottesville riots by citing unverified facts from white supremacists.

Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADF), acknowledged the Times’ eventual correction but called on the media to be responsible—including no longer using Hamas as a source of facts and information.

Thinker and writer Yascha Mounk warns that these media failures in the early days of the Israel-Hamas War can have what he describes as “real-world consequences,” including (but not limited to) the further erosion of public trust in the news media.

The events of the last two weeks show that the news media continues to struggle with disinformation and misinformation, and newspapers and news outlets of all types are likely to continue come under pressure for their war coverage.

If you enjoy Hub Podcasts (including bi-weekly episodes with David Frum and Amanda Lang), be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page: