Jeff Glor talks to R. Jay Magill about, "Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and The Curious Notion That We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull)"
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
R. Jay Magill: It was partly out of the frustration of watching how both political parties continually demand sincerity from the other, though both engage in political trickery, and every voter knows it. Sarah Palin, for one, has been particularly vocal in saying how regular people were "sincere and awesome" but that political strategists were sneaky sharks because they didn't say what they really meant; they engaged in deception and pretense and hid their motives. They were insincere. This is all true. Then there were those on the other side of the political aisle who thought that Palin was the most insincere VP candidate ever. I was interested in why sincerity had become such a compelling moral benchmark despite widespread knowledge to the contrary. There is something curiously disingenuous about it all.
This is not at all to say that sincerity is not important in private life, for forging and keeping close relationships. It certainly is. But all political performance is by definition insincere because it involves an awareness of how one presents oneself -- "impression management," as they call it -- and is motivated by some kind of ulterior outcome. This is all fine. Strategy and cunning are necessary to get votes to win, and they have from time immemorial been a part of political culture. This is the point of democratic politics. True, it may not be the most morally pretty thing, as it involves dirty compromise and political one-upmanship, but it is far preferable to the contrary, which is an authoritarian, non-compromising politics whereby one group thinks they have the truth and may legitimately force it upon everyone. I think that many of us have forgotten that living in a democracy, as John Dewey once said, also means cultivating an open, democratic (with a small "d") personality.
My own concern for this book stemmed not from the presence of political insincerity, but from the childish demand that it always be made apparent in public life. In other words, the demand for sincerity is often itself insincere, and, moreover, the presence of sincerity in public figures is in no way indicative of that person's grasp on reality. The great American sociologist David Riesman thought that concern for sincerity in politicians had in the 1950s become "a vice." This was so, in part, because a politician can be utterly sincere and be completely wrong. Nevertheless, Americans in particular are obsessed with detecting the trait, and I wanted to know why.
What I found was that our concern for personal sincerity stems from the influence of religion, a realm which many figures -- including our Founders -- argued should be kept separate from politics. In America, at least, the influence of religious values on public life has a long history, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In the case of sincerity, at root a very Protestant value, it has meandered out of the religious realm and into the secular culture over the past 300 years (seen in cultural movements such as Romanticism), and we live in the shadow of that influence.
Ultimately, a compelling conclusion: the political demand for sincerity attempts to compensate for otherwise weak social bonds, which social scientists and observers since Tocqueville have lamented is the case in America. We don't need more shows of sincerity; we need a more cohesive society so that insincerity does not bother us so much. As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote in 1951, "Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people."
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
RM: The first book I wrote, Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007), was a revised doctoral dissertation -- and it reads as such. What was most surprising making this book over the past few years was how challenging it was to create a narrative that was not straightforward but that still kept a logic. You can have an abstract argument that you and your editors understand in just a few pages, but then you have to figure out how to illustrate it and make it concrete over several hundred. It gave me a whole new appreciation for talented fiction writers -- an incredibly difficult undertaking, as I see it. I thank both my editors for their brilliant guidance.
Also a surprise: how much a new baby can make your life utterly insane.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
RM: Like many of my writing peers, likely statistical thermodynamics with a focus on equipartition theorem and Maxwell's ideal gas law.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
RM: A few things, in fits and starts:
Tom Bissell, "The Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation"
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, "A Sense of Direction"
Re-visiting some parts of Nietzsche and Richard Sennett's "Fall of Public Man"
JG: What's next for you?
RM: "Thermodynamics 101."
For more on "Sincerity" visit the WW Norton website.