I find that after covering politics for 25 years what I really yearn for is not great leaders, smart reforms nor policies that I agree with. What I crave is authenticity.
I can witness and write about policies and people I totally disagree with, stupidity, bureaucracy, incompetence, greed, boundless ambition and power lust without any exaggerated feelings of frustration or despondency. What I can no longer stomach without pulling my hair out is phoniness on the scale that I observe it today.
Put another way, what I miss is the simple honesty, the genuine moment, the unscripted moment, the gaffe — anything that has not been run through the Cuisinart of marketing, focus groups and linguistic analysis. "The enemy isn't liberalism," the late columnist, Lars-Erik Nelson, said. "The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy is bullshit." I'll proudly swipe that as a motto.
I really don't know anyone who doesn't feel this way. "One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies," said J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, the greatest enemy of phonies of all. Now it seems like we're all at Elkton Hills. And it's crumby.
Politics happens to be my Petri dish. It is something I know a lot about it and where I first spot things I often notice in other parts of society. I want try to define what I mean by phony or inauthentic in this column and just stick to Potter Stewart's dictum on pornography: you know it when you see it.
But politics is probably only slightly less authentic than the other areas of American culture.
The other day, I called a company my insurance carrier sent to help dry out my flooded basement. "It's a great day at ServePro, this is Emily, how can I help you," said Emily. Now how could this possibly be a great day at ServePro? Monster rains flooded basements all over the city. Great day? No. Phony, synthetic corporate claptrap of the sort we're supposed to politely swallow every day. "Please hold, we care about your call." "At Amalgamated Carcinogens, we care about you." Spare me.
We shop at malls that are designed to look like "real" small town centers. We live in gated or planned "communities" with names like Pheasant Crossing and River Run selected by real estate developers. We read about Pastor Ted, the latest mega-evangelist nabbed in a sex and drugs scandal. We wait for Mark Foley to get out of rehab so he can go on Oprah and announce his book deal. We watch freak shows that are insultingly called reality television; there are no shows left about families with parents and children. We buy millions of self-help books a year promising new and certain paths to happiness. Even bodies are artificial; we have fake boobs, dyed hair, botoxed eyes and liposuctioned thighs.
We are surrounded by phonies. And phoniness.
Curiously, calling out phoniness is considered sophomoric. Sophisticates know everything is phony after all. It is naïve to think otherwise. Of course politics is fake, just like Hollywood and the news.
But everything isn't phony. And we pine, unconsciously and consciously, for the authentic, sincere, genuine and non-artificial — the un-phony. We crave authenticity.
Often what I am calling phony emerges after something older, something that felt authentic, has gone away. In politics, for example, there have been phonies, hypocrites and blowhards since the spoken word was invented. But American politics changed dramatically after modern political marketers, pollsters and ad makers transformed politics for the TV-generation and later for the Information Age. They invented a kind of artificial, ersatz politics: wedge issues, Astroturf lobbying, kabuki hearings, spin, "on message," photo-ops and negative television ads. Of course there have always been dirty tricks and showboating in politics. What has happened in the era of electronic media is categorically different.
A most important example of all this has been the decline of regular, old-fashioned communities — places where people live very near relatives of many generations, friends of many generations and where they spend most of their lives. The effects of our nomadic habits and of suburban sprawl — of people living among strangers and new acquaintances — have been vast and mostly painful. And it has been accompanied by the decline of traditional religion, which served to anchor many people in fast-changing circumstances.
One effect, I think, is that we all crave the non-artificial — we can't get enough of it. But in crazy busy lives, finding what feels authentic is time-consuming. So we become mavens in certain areas where we demand what feels authentic to us. Here's a silly example: I will only buy lunch from people I know. It is my token rebellion against chains, homogenization and the unpleasantness of doing business with people who have do vested interest in their work. It's goofy, but important, too.
Because it is affordable and a necessity, food is actually often a place where people seek authenticity — and a measure of control and aesthetic choice. Foodies will pay a high price in time and money for line caught salmon, Scottish smoked salmon and Eritrean coffee. Natural food fans will do the same for local, organic collard greens, free range chicken and real cheese — not fake cheese. Comical? Yes, but it is revealing, too.
In politics, I think the search for authenticity is often incorrectly described as polarization. Polarization of the red/blue, 50-50 America, Franken vs. O'Reilly is mostly myth and marketing. As this last election shows, most voters are moderate. Real extremists are just that — extreme minorities. Polls consistently show that Americans broadly share basic civic and social values.
But polls also show that people at the left and right edges of the spectrum are more extreme and angrier than they used to be. And the political elite is absolutely more rabid and recalcitrant. Politically engaged individuals are more likely to be very attached to a single issue or to an ideology. There is a decline in tolerance of other views. And an increase in people feeling that their values and lifestyles are genuinely threatened by those they disagree with, their political enemies. It's not polarization, but balkanization.
In other words, many of us are over-attached to our politics, to our own positions and perspectives. We cling to them. We're brittle in arguments. Why? Well, it's partly because the politics we see on television is so thin. But I also suggest that part of the answer is we are trying to replace something we have lost post-neighborhood, Information Age, corporate America and we are trying to compensate by holding for dear life to things that feel important, orienting and authentic.
Similarly, an important quality public people who garner our confidence seem to share is an ability to be genuine and b.s.-free. It's hard to come up with a long list, but a short list might include John McCain, pre-Bush Colin Powell, Don Imus, Jon Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.
The amount of phoniness in world history can't be measured empirically. But I think it is clear there is more now simply because of the explosion of communications technology alone. There are simply more paths of communication. And most of that communication today is mass- mediated — it comes through a medium, not through direct personal contact. Proximity is the enemy of phonies and fakes; it is simply easier to tell if someone is full of it in person than through e-mail or talk radio.
America is an invented place, artificial by some historical measures. But Americans were long viewed by the rest of the world as unusually earnest and genuine. Unshackled by class, social status and ancestry, Americans were free to be themselves — authentic. We have always prided ourselves on that. The American story is that we are self-made and thus uniquely able to be true to ourselves. It's a paradox though: invention vs. authenticity.
Still, the successful balance remains an American ideal. But it is harder to achieve in a modern world where invention increasingly creates the artificial. Like Holden at Elkton Hills, we really are surrounded by phonies.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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