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To describe something as “authentic” today is usually thought to give it high praise. But I sometimes question how much of a good authenticity really is.

What makes a thing authentic? Central to authenticity, it seems to me, is the absence of choice. To decide to be authentic is a contradiction.

If people built a house out of stone in 1850 because it was the only material available, we call it an authentic stone house; we do not say this when, of the many materials available to build your house out of today, you choose stone. A Jamaican raised in a Kingston shanty, exposed to reggae all his life, makes authentic reggae himself – in a way that someone who comes in from outside to make reggae music does not. If I were to open an Indian restaurant, people might consider it authentic since I am ethnically part Indian, something I didn’t choose; whereas if I were to open a Thai restaurant, nobody would consider it authentic, even though I can cook much better Thai food than I can Indian.

So why is this something we value? Why do we praise the thing people didn’t choose over the thing they chose? I think it has to do with the inescapable presence of modernity and capitalism, living in the age Marx described so well in the Communist Manifesto, where the “bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.” What is chosen can be bought and sold easily. One can certainly buy and sell authenticity; but one cannot create authenticity. In the prosperous modern world, the unchosen is scarce, and that makes it valuable.