Hillary & American Authenticity

8 01 2008

Five people huddled, in a huddling fashion previously employed for the Super Bowl or especially amorous nights, on a couch in my apartment on Saturday night. Dim light soaked the room and a TV shone on the far wall — which, in a New York flat, is not so far. On the TV, four well-dressed, varyingly well-aged people gesticulated, yelled, narrowed their eyes and fired snarkiness at each other in a New Hampshire college’s auditorium.

Between snaps of carrots and celery and other healthy snack foods mandated by my girlfriend and blood pressure, those in attendance assumed the roles of pundits.

Among a number of allegations — that Edwards doesn’t want to be Obama’s VP, he wants to be his boyfriend; that Richardson once ate 14 North Koreans with soy sauce during hostage negotiations; that Ron Paul is a living human being — one sticks out in my head. It was levied against Ms. Clinton by a generally articulate girl with jet-black hair that sort of levitates over her face: a Tufts graduate and creative writer.

“Everything she does seems so calculated,” she said of Hillary. “Her emotions, everything. She seems like everything’s planned.”

This charge has become one of the more formidable yet peculiar challenges against Hillary Clinton during her campaign. She seems in alternating parts cool, poised and Mothra, appearances amplified by media reiteration. And although she brings a record that stands clearly above the rest, her perceived lack of spontaneity could lose her the election.

Such power of personality is not a new thing. Rousing orators have always used their talents to command people, if not armies. But the requirement of authenticity strikes me as a very modern fold.

We seem to want our leaders to be jazz musicians. To be entirely improvisational, flowing like rivers, a human breeze. Politics is business, so stiffness plays a part. Just not too much.

My buddy Justin maintains that we should just give up the act and just elect actors. The last time we elected one, in Reagan, it ushered in a time that made Americans pretty happy, apparently (not that Reagan was all that competent or even well-meaning). When he died, flags flew at half-mast for months. I think they’re still that way in retirement centers.

Clearly, this clamoring for authenticity isn’t overly complicated. It’s basic: We want to be entertained. And most entertainment is all about watching someone/something that has refined a craft through tireless practice. So, to keep our attention, it’s incumbent on politicians, actors, athletes, comedians, dancers, artists, science teachers, salesmen and other performers to be almost sublimely flawless.

Indeed, attention has become the most precious commodity in America. A person’s worth is contingent on how well he or she can command attention. It’s thus direct relationship between the amount of respect and their ability to entertain — to entertain, not inform or aid in any immediate way.

Now, we get our mental rocks off through voyeurism. Reality TV feeds our lust for voyeurism by inverting personal lives into public ones. Family life (Hogan Knows Best, the Osbornes, the Wild Kardashians) and daily life (…everything)becomes just another sitcom or tragicomedy. This inversion has thus skewed the difference between public and private selves: we must always be on. Constant on-ness is then expected of our political figures.

We thus neglect the inherent dynamism in personalities. We all wear a series of masks contingent on our surroundings; we have the simultaneous potential to play the part of children, of leaders, of followers, of lovers and haters, of losers and victors. To expect a person to wear just one of those masks is a product of the modern media and the modern mentality, as full of contradictions as it is of catch phrases.

Here arises a contradiction: To want a politician to be truly authentic is to ask for a person to be no longer a person playing a politician — the private becomes public, vice versa, both parts interwoven entirely — but to be A Politician through and through. Not someone who plays a politician on TV.

But we also want our victors, as the case of Hillary exemplifies, to be people. When Nixon told the nation He Wasn’t a Crook, he had his dog, Checkers, present — making the address henceforth known as The Checkers Speech. One of the more poignant moments during the New Hampshire debates occurred when the mediator asked Hillary why she thinks she’s not likable and she answered ‘that hurts my feelings.’ By replying so, she made a political statement far more trenchant than any speech on her platform.

Let’s examine the authenticity thing for a bit.

Authenticity, in the existential sense defined by Heidegger and Sartre deals with the interaction of a conscious being with a world full of things (The Other) that are different from that conscious being. Or something like that. Outside of that basic definition, things get stickier, using terms like ‘negative space.’ Ugly stuff.

Authenticity seems to me to be at most a hopeless abstract. We see past generations as perhaps more authentic, more genuine than we are, assuming our grandparents and great-grandparents (et al) to be less self-aware. That could be correct: the collective forces of media, from TV to advertising to marketing have postulated perfect lives (if you buy this, you’ll have a good family, you won’t have stress, your job won’t suck, you’ll be able to look like you did when you were 20 [which wasn’t, after all, all that good]). By doing so, advertising makes us acutely aware of our own inadequacies. Our lives are but comparisons.  

To assume that authenticity can occur is to assume that we are stable, absolute beings. For authenticity to occur, we have to have immutable internal selves. This idea goes far beyond self-knowledge. To have self-knowledge (again, perhaps a hopeless abstract) is to have lived through a series of reactions to various stimuli, crafting a personality that is at the most generous, a line of best fit. We take a myriad of experiences, points on a graph, and draw a line through them that best approximates them into something coherent.

But the kind of authenticity Americans require of their politicians is twofold: 1 – They don’t want to be lied to; 2 – They expect a fluidity and confidence in disposition, meaning that they don’t mind being lied to if it’s done in an impressive way.

So it’s not authenticity, but the appearance of authenticity that really matters.

Rehearsal brings perfection. We don’t complain that our movies, our concerts or our sports are rehearsed. Rather, we take issue when they’re not practiced enough. In music, tight is preferable to loose.

So maybe it’s not that Hillary isn’t rehearsed. Maybe it’s that she’s not rehearsed enough, like a football player who just isn’t comfortable with the speed of the game.

And now, it looks like she’s stumbling, as Barack Obama glides down the sidelines.

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3 responses

8 01 2008
Justin

“Authenticity is the most disingenuous form of narcissism, wearing a cape is the most honest form of narcissism, and wearing a boutonniere is the most fragrant form of narcissism.” – Lord Whimsy

10 01 2008
James

I reckon the last time you used so many words to say so little was your last philosophy class.

10 01 2008
scheity

Man, put some damn clothes on.

(and you’re right)

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