The most important thing

A favorite joke of mine, set in the middle of the last century, I imagine around the time Brando was making his debut: A young Method actor is having lunch at Sardi’s with an old ham of an actor and asking for advice about the craft.

Young Method Actor: I’m working on a scene right now where I have to be overcome with sadness, but I’m having trouble getting in touch with my sorrow.

Old Ham: You say you want to do sorrow? For sorrow, I just let my mouth gape open, lower my head and shoulders, and maybe pretend to wipe a tear from my eye. Maybe shake my head slowly from side to side. That’s sorrow.

YMA: Well I don’t know about that, but tell me about anger. Sometimes it’s a challenge for me as an actor — I’m not really an angry person.

OH: Anger? If you gotta do anger, you just make fists with your hands, clench your jaw muscles so your face turns red, and deliver your lines in a really loud whisper. That’ll give ’em anger.

YMA (taken aback): But you’re just talking about faking sorrow or anger. What about sincerity?

OH: Ah, sincerity! Sincerity’s the most important thing. If you can do sincerity, you’ve got it made.*

(1) Authenticity is not what you think it is
Sadly ignorant of Lionel Trilling, I’ll attempt to differentiate sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity is being honest about what’s inside you, about the thoughts and feelings that you have access to. If you feel sad, you let it show. If you love someone, you tell them you love them. You avoid praising someone you think is a hack.

Authenticity is something else, something that wasn’t possible as a concept until Freud and his fellow hermeneuticists of suspicion came along and convinced us that we don’t have access to all of our own inner life. The processes of human development and acculturation to modern society necessarily involve hiding parts of our psyches from our conscious minds. Authenticity is speaking and acting not according to the inner self that you have access to — since that part of your inner self might be distorted by cultural encrustations — but according to some true inner self, the part that’s free of the lies and distortions necessitated by modern life.

Sincerity is an old-fashioned virtue, then. I think I love you, I say I love you: I’m sincere. Authenticity is sincerity updated, complicated. I think I love you, I say I love you, but it turns out I am merely yearning for an absent parental figure, and when I realize that I leave you, take a lot of drugs, have an epiphany in a sweat lodge, write a memoir, and go on Oprah: I’m authentic.

It is possible to be sincere about complicated inner states, but authenticity is always in the direction of simplifying. In fact, what counts as authenticity depends very much on how the “hidden inner” is constructed. The “known inner” (in Freudian terms the superego and the Id) is civilized and artificial in the way one must be to function socially; it is bound by social class, geography, and history. The hidden inner, on the other hand, is envisioned as something more primitive. It is natural rather than artificial; free rather than determined; universal rather than particular.

Of course, the categories associated with authenticity — natural, free, and universal comprise a partial list — are themselves culturally bound. And that cultural specificity is a way to start unraveling the construction of authenticity. Sort some things quickly into categories of authentic and inauthentic, without worrying about why you’re sorting them that way: blue jeans vs. tailored tuxedo trousers; the Stones vs. Lawrence Welk; a hike in the mountains vs. a drive around town.

Now reflect on that sorting. Does it really make any sense at all? What we have is an aesthetic of authenticity. The authentic, the hidden inner, is characterized by a set of qualities that we valorize, by a particular fiction about human nature. (I suspect this fiction arose from the Romantic project and was processed through bourgeois dissatisfaction with capitalism’s concurrent boringness and uncertainty, but I don’t have a full account to offer here.)

While it often makes sense to talk about a “hidden inner,” the characterization of this part of the self as untouched by artifice is complete bunk. It makes no sense to say, “Well, this is what I would think or feel or do if only I hadn’t been born when I was, into a particular family, nation, religious community, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and so on.” Those “accidents” of birth and of life are what make you who you are — both the known and the hidden parts of you. The myth of authenticity requires that there be something untouched by the given, but there is not.

(This isn’t to claim that there isn’t some sort of biological component of human nature. I for one think there almost certainly is such a thing. But we don’t know nearly enough about humanity to characterize the biological component of our natures except in very trivial, boring ways — like our daily caloric requirements, that sort of thing. We certainly can’t say anything robust enough about our biological nature to flesh out any notion of authenticity.)

In the comment thread to Lisa’s post last week, there was some discussion about whether Obama was actually authentic or merely seemed authentic. My contention is that all there is to actually being authentic is seeming authentic. There is nothing to authenticity beyond the tropes of authenticity.

(2) You wouldn’t know real authenticity anyway
But I suspect many people in the audience will not buy my hastily sketched argument in the previous section. Fair enough. If you won’t agree with me that there is no such thing as authenticity other than the illusion of authenticity, I would like to convince you that you wouldn’t be able to recognize this authenticity in politicians even if it existed. In fact, you can’t even recognize sincerity in politicians. So you should stop trying.

I offer an anecdote told by Arthur Miller in a lecture he gave in 2001 about acting and politics. Its form is remarkably like the joke I told above, although the punchline makes an epistemological point rather than a metaphysical one.

I recall again a story once told me by my old friend, the late Robert Lewis, director of a number of beautiful Broadway productions, including the original “Finian’s Rainbow.” Starting out as an actor in the late Thirties, Bobby had been the assistant and dresser of Jacob Ben Ami, a star in Europe and in New York as well. Ben Ami, an extraordinary actor, was playing in a Yiddish play but despite the language and the location of the theatre far from Times Square on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of its scenes had turned it into a substantial hit with English-speaking audiences. Experiencing that scene had become the in-thing to do in New York. People who had never dreamed of seeing a Yiddish play travelled downtown to watch this one scene, and then left. In it Ben Ami stood at the edge of the stage staring into space, and with tremendous tension, brought a revolver to his head. Seconds passed, whole minutes, some in the audience shut their eyes or turned away certain the shot was coming at any instant. Ben Ami clenched his jaws, sweat broke out on his face, his eyes seemed about to pop out of his head, his hands trembled as he strove to will himself to suicide; more moments passed, people in the audience were gasping for breath and making strange asphyxiated noises; finally, standing on his toes now as though to leap into the unknown, Ben Ami dropped the gun and cried out, “Ich kann es nicht!” I can’t do it! Night after night he brought the house down; Ben Ami had somehow literally compelled the audience to suspend its disbelief and to imagine his brains splattered all over the stage.

Lewis, aspiring young actor that he was, begged Ben Ami to tell him the secret of how he had created this emotional reality, but the actor kept putting him off, saying he would only tell him after the final performance. “It’s better for people not to know,” he said, “or it’ll spoil the show.”

Then at last the final performance came and at its end Ben Ami sat in his dressing room with the young Lewis.

“You promised to tell me,” Lewis said.

“All right, I’ll tell you. My problem with this scene,” Ben Ami explained, “was that I personally could never blow my brains out, I am just not suicidal, and I can’t imagine ending my life. So I could never really know how that man was feeling and I could never play such a person authentically. For weeks I went around trying to think of some parallel in my own life that I could draw on. What situation could I be in where first of all I am standing up, I am alone, I am looking straight ahead, and something I feel I must do is making me absolutely terrified, and finally that whatever it is I can’t do it?”

“Yes,” Lewis said, hungry for this great actor’s cue to greatness. “And what is that?”

“Well,” Ben Ami said, “I finally realized that the one thing I hate worse than anything is washing in cold water. So what I’m really doing with that gun to my head is, I’m trying to get myself to step into an ice cold shower.”

Miller goes on to apply the story to politics. Most politicians seem fake most of the time. But take the very best politicians, the ones who seem real, sincere, authentic. It may be that they’re just old hams, faking sincerity and authenticity with a specific set of vocal and facial mannerisms. But it may be that they’re as good as Ben Ami and employing some kind of Method or Stanislavski skills. Maybe they really are passionate when they deliver their stump speeches. But it’s impossible for us to tell what they are passionate about. The manifestation of an emotion does not necessarily reveal the true content of that emotion.

I honestly don’t see how you can get past this problem to claim that you know a particular politician is really authentic or even sincere. Consider that these men and women are masters of performance. They have consultants who rehearse with them every gesture, every line, before a major speech or debate. Or, if they don’t have such consultants, it is because they themselves are natural stars. (Consultants did not tell Cary Grant how to be Cary Grant; he figured the role out for himself.)

Consider how well presidential candidates have adapted whatever pre-political, everyday personas they might have had to the media in which they work as candidates: speeches in front of crowds; speeches, debates, and interviews in front of television cameras. Arthur Miller again:

The lense magnifies everything; the slight lift of an eyelid and you look like you’re glaring. If there is a single most basic requirement for success on television it is minimalization; to be convincing before the camera is that whatever you are doing do it less and emit cool. In other words — act. In contrast, speakers facing hundreds of people without a microphone and in the open air, must inevitably have been broader in gesture and even more emphatic in speech than in life.

If you watch video of Obama or Clinton or McCain giving a stump speech at a rally, you’ll notice how different their delivery is from when they give a televised speech or an interview with Tim Russert. These people are aware of the media in which they work. And if you think you are good enough to see past their training and skills into the “real” candidate, you’re fooling yourself.

You might object that I am talking here about candidates who at least seem genuine, that we can at least rule out candidates who seem fake as actually fake (authentic in their fakery). But I don’t think we can even do that. Seeming real in front of a huge crowd or in front of a camera is not a skill that many people have, and really connecting with an audience under such circumstances is a rare skill indeed. If you’ve ever watched a video of yourself or someone you know personally, you know what I mean. Regular people seem stiff, uncomfortable, even fake on camera. I would suspect that some number of the more sincere (not to say authentic) politicians also come across badly on camera; those of us who see them only on television then conclude they are insincere and fake.

(3) It’s disappointing, but you shouldn’t fret about it
It’s fun to read about movie stars and imagine we know them and could be part of their lives. But we have a word for people who think they actually know the stars they merely read about in US Weekly: delusional. It’s the same with politicians. They come to us as actors, and many people make the same kind of decisions about voting as they do when picking their favorite stars. Never forget that our country (semi-)elected George W. Bush and also gave Patrick Dempsey a People’s Choice Award.

Now, plenty of movie stars are perfectly nice people. I once hung out for a couple of hours at the apartment of a quite famous and talented actor, and he was a gracious host and a normal guy in conversation. But I would have no way of knowing that if I hadn’t been hanging out with his stepsister that evening. And more importantly, whether he acted like a regular guy when he had a few people over to his apartment has pretty much nothing to do with his job, at which he is excellent.

Politicians have two jobs to do. One is to communicate. In doing this job, they are actors, pure and simple. They must make people feel a connection, but the connection is the same kind of connection you have with someone performing in a play or a movie. Reagan is a great example; Clinton was very good. But they all do it. The second job of a politician is the actual governing: having meetings with subordinates, gathering information, setting priorities, making decisions — working the levers of government.

I would much rather have a politician who did they second job well (i.e., according to my policy preferences) than the first. Actually, what I’d really like is a politician who was very good at the first task in the service of the second task. Reagan and FDR are great examples. Obama, hopefully, will be another. I really don’t take seriously his stuff about transcending politics and unifying the country. You can’t transcend politics within the political system (the transcending of politics is called revolution), and the country is deeply polarized in a way that no single politician can fix. But I’m perfectly willing to put up with Obama’s endless soundbites on these themes, because I think he’s telling people what they want to hear and getting himself into a position to effect some positive policy changes.

How do you know what a politician is going to do once in office, if you can’t be convinced of her sincerity? Well, you look at past performance, you look at the her platform, and you look at the coalition of interest groups that is getting her elected and what those groups are likely to demand. These factors are quite predictive. (Paul Krugman has been writing a bit in his column about how if you actually bothered to look at Bush’s published position statements in 2000, as he did, you wouldn’t have been surprised when “compassionate conservatism” turned out to be pie in the sky that was replaced by a hard-right, pro-business, crony capitalist agenda.) If you want to have any influence on a politician, you get together with a big group of people who have enough money or other type of power that the politician will owe you when you’ve helped get her elected. In politics, power is the most important thing.

*The punch line is also a quote that gets attributed to various people including Sam Goldwyn. In the quote version, as I’ve seen it, a single word is changed: “Sincerity’s the most important thing. If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” In the acting practice of the old ham, there’s no difference between faking and doing; the Method, which posits a drastic divide between inner and outer that it then seeks to train the actor to overcome, disparages the category of dramatic fakery.

39 responses to “The most important thing”

  1. bw says:

    although the comparison of politicians to actors is pretty commonplace, something about the way you put it here really resonates with me. i dislike some politicians for the same reason i dislike tom hanks: he just makes me want to hurl. it’s hardly rational. he’s just not my style.

    i think it’s useful to compare politicians to advertisers, though, too — politics and advertising share a lot of game plans. think of all the shitty food that’s been remarketed as healthy simply because people seem to want that reassurance, when in reality you have to read labels for ten minutes before you can find a loaf of “all natural whole grain” bread that doesn’t have high fructose corn syrup in it.

    do you think there’s a category of politician you haven’t accounted for here: the (perhaps self-delusional) one who thinks he or she really is the one to bring about a new order that will transcend partisanship and corruption? could those people come across as more genuine because they actually believe most of what they’re saying (sort of like the method actor)?

  2. rm says:

    bryan, from everything i’ve read and remember about reagan he sounds the most like the kind of guy you just described. more self aware about some of his b.s. perhaps but his diary entries are straight out of chance gardener.

    as for his acting, his hollywood career i guess i should specify, i haven’t seen enough of his films to offer any kind of judgment to how he fits into the discussion dave outlined above.

  3. LT says:

    So Obama is sincere because he’s black?

    No, no. I’m just poking fun. I have more drivel to add but have to go to work. Would my post have been different if I had changed the semantics? From ‘authentic’ to ‘sincere’? I do agree it’s more accurate, but am sure you would have argued that I (and others) am misled.

    Regular people seem stiff, uncomfortable, even fake on camera. I would suspect that some number of the more sincere (not to say authentic) politicians also come across badly on camera; those of us who see them only on television then conclude they are insincere and fake.. My post was really about how Hillary isn’t performing very well as a politician– imho. This line of yours made me rethink Hillary for a second. I am a horrible actress and have wondered if that has something to do with my weak abilities at pretending to be something I’m not.

    More later, I hope. You do know that it’s really difficult to engage in discussion about politics (ntm philosophy or religion) in this space, though, no? You dudes are extremely smart.

  4. Godfree says:

    Why is it that we can observe other animals and be completely comfortable making assumptions about their (authentic) natures? For example, one might say that fire ants are aggressive, and sugar ants (the small black you may see in your kitchen) are not? But when faced with similar questions regarding humans we balk?

    Is it because we have knowledge about structural devices like Gramscian hegemony? If this is the case, do we say that authenticity in humans is not possible because we are directed by linguistic or communicative structures?

    If this is true, couldn’t we say that if a human was removed from all social structures – if he or she were left to do nothing but pursue his or her biological needs – would you say that this would be a potentially authentic human life?

    I very much enjoyed this post, by the way.

  5. ruben: reagan’s an interesting case. his skills as an actor were so ingrained that they were second nature. he knew how to deliver lines, the bastard, and how to play the genial but stern grandfather, too. but we also have to remember that he was losing his mind. he really thought some things were true because he was conflating them with roles he had played 40 years earlier. i showed a clip to my class from a PBS doc on Reagan (a mostly sympathetic portrait) that has an amazing sequence in which you see how his plans for ‘star wars’/SDI were straight out of an old movie, also called _star wars_, he had starred in decades earlier.

    the dangerous thing about reagan is that while he limped around the house in his bathrobe reading Revelations and the latest from Nancy’s star charts, people like george shultz were calling serious shots. neocons rode into town in the belly of the moral majority’s trojan horse. and we’re still suffering as a result.

  6. or that’s the sort of narrative that comforts this layman, anyway.

  7. Dave says:

    1: Running a political campaign or managing a political career is definitely nearly the same thing as promoting a product or managing a brand. The actor/politician comparison just gets at the personal connection we feel with politicians. The whole game is definitely better analyzed in terms of the sophisticated manipulation of public opinion that the advertising industry has become so good at.

    2 and 5: I don’t know enough about Reagan to say how much was self-conscious acting and how much he believed his own schtick. Some of both, I guess. But I agree with what I think Bryan is saying, that for a lot of people at that level there’s no real difference. They give themselves over to the role. Really, though, on the account of authenticity I’m arguing for, we all do the same thing. We find ourselves playing various roles with more or less awareness of the playing as playing; we become good at some roles rather than others; we tell ourselves that one particular role is “really me” while the others are just fronts we put up for various purposes.

  8. Dave says:

    3: I resisted putting this in the post, but given the way authenticity is constructed, blackness becomes a prime locus of authenticity from the (white) majority culture’s point of view. This is basically what’s behind the trope of the Magical Negro: a black person who by virtue of being black is more in touch with the primal, the natural, the free — and can thus serve a dramatic plot by helping the white hero get in touch with his own authenticity. (Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, etc.) (No, I haven’t actually seen that movie.)

    FWIW, I don’t think Obama’s attractiveness as a politician is primarily due to his playing the Magical Negro role, although I am sure he does play this role to some extent for many of his white supporters. I think Obama has tremendous skill as a political actor, along with an extremely smart grasp of the political and policy landscape that has helped him run a very strategic campaign and would serve him well if he is elected.

    4: I don’t know what Gramscian hegemony is, you ivory-tower egghead. Go sip your chardonnay, why don’t you.

  9. Godfree says:

    Let’s just call it false consciousness. Sauvignon blanc preferably, thank you.

  10. brooke says:

    Just a couple of observations now, and hopefully a more substantive comment later in the day.

    1. I agree with LT in principle that this is a semantic distinction – are we talking about sincerity or authenticity? Perhaps the discussion would be different, and certainly the argument against seeing sincerity/authenticity in one’s politicians would be different if we flipped up the terms. Perhaps a better word is earnest.

    2. The definition of authenticity offered here is rather tortured, with respect. And the suggestion that we can never really know what is authentic and what isn’t is in direct opposition to the common definitions of authenticity. To wit: “having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence; authenticated; verified: an authentic document of the Middle Ages; an authentic work of the old master.” (from Not to suggest Obama comes with a certificate of authenticity.

    The question of whether or not we can know what is in another person’s mind or heart is a different one, although relevant. I can’t say with certainty that Obama believes what he says or intends to carry out (or attempt to carry out) his agenda. I can’t see into his mind or heart. But, I do believe him to be earnest most of the time and does believe he can change the dynamic in Washington. So far on the campaign trail, he hasn’t wavered from taking the high road when confronted with difficult issues. He doesn’t always behave like a politician, in other words, and that’s part of why I support him.

    3. To the observation that people, particularly public people, behave differently in different contexts. This is entirely normal, and we all do it. It doesn’t make one any less sincere or genuine. The sociologist Ervin Goffman wrote a wonderful book on this topic in 1959 called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Lives“. His essential point is that one of our characteristics as humans is to manage our interactions with people based on context and social cues. Does it make me any less authentic if I wear a blazer when I go into the office and my drawers when I’m working at home? I hope not.

    With all of this said, you make some really great points here Dave. It’s true that people (myself included) place way too much emphasis on how these politicians present themselves to us. Maybe that’s a basic human instinct, to evaluate people at face value before going any deeper.

    It takes a discussion like this to dig a bit deeper into this disposition and think carefully about what the implications are of voting like we are voting for a best actress Oscar. It’s certainly not panned out so great in recent history.

  11. Dave says:

    9: Okay, false consciousness I know. I don’t think false consciousness is really the problem with authenticity, but it’s definitely one of the many factors that help create the self.

    10.2: I actually wrote a draft of this post that included a discussion of the term “authenticity” applied straightforwardly to objects — an authentic Louis Vuitton bag or Warhol painting. I think our use of “authenticity” about people is quite different. Obviously there’s a connection between the two uses. But we don’t mean, when we call someone authentic, that they are really a human as opposed to a Cylon or a Terminator or something. We’re comparing how they seem with something that really is. What is that “real” thing that we’re comparing the seeming with to determine authenticity? I think our ideas about that real thing are incoherent and wrong.

  12. bw says:

    It relieves me to know that this post had multiple drafts. You write like a thunderstorm, Dave. I can’t tell you how much I envied the crispness of your sentences.

  13. Dave says:

    Aw, thanks.

  14. LT says:

    Dave, I love reading how you think. I learn so much from and through your “thunderstorm” insight and direct style, but I think what frustrates me in general about your approach to explaining/debunking “authenticity” is that because it is grounded in the primitive (or perhaps the spiritual) it is therefore not valid, since (you say) we cannot “know” the primitive. In your discussion here, the primitive points to what is beyond our understanding, and perhaps to what emotionally or instinctually drives us, like animals—as Scotty mentions in comment 2. Something like Hegel’s notion of spirit or Lacan’s Real comes to mind—do you recognize these elements in your reasoning? Are they beyond “the structure”? Or would you say that such identifications are simply a product of our acculturation? You say we have no access to the primitive, and you ground your reasoning in Freud and Heidegger [the authentic is merely a contingent (accidental) modification of the inauthentic.].

    I’m no expert on Freud or Heidegger, but I can’t help but be bothered at the cultural power that such theories wield (Hegel’s and Lacan’s too). Such analyses contribute to the structures that continue to form our consciousness (or at least how we explain it) since they are still so prevalent and powerful, especially Freud. But these (white, dead) scholars who claimed to be objective and detached were just as vulnerable to subjectivity as the rest of us—born of their own values and biological imperatives. They had the privilege of setting the terms of intellectual and/or philosophic discourse. And we have ideologized (I made that one up) and internalized these terms such that the epistemology here guarantees that forms seemingly not “detached” or “objective” are considered illogical.

    This is a paradigm of rationality, really—and it might amount to a type of intellectual elitism, no? What I’m getting at, finally—and what I didn’t intend to imply in my post from last week, but it seems to connect in terms of approach—is that (I think) it’s okay to recognize the personal and emotional in reasoning—and that the personal and emotional can be relevant and reliable in terms of identifications, for example, of sincerity. Some of the more recent dialectical work going on in crit and philosophy explores the idea of the sensory by blending genre in writings, by discussing intuition and myth and emotion…and seems to exclusively come from women or people of color (like Fanon, Anzaldua, Spivak, hooks, West…) who had not previously been validated in intellectual discourse. Are such theorizations just another product of an evolving structure of consciousness?

    [btw, I’m grateful to you for pushing my thinking. This response was not something I anticipated writing, but since we’ve continued talking about this, it helps me articulate what I didn’t say before and is, in effect, why I thought my post was lazy last week.]

  15. Marleyfan says:

    I’ve thought about this post throughout the day, and even drafted a response, which I am not going to include because it sounds argumentative (which was not my purpose). I’ll summarize by saying that it may boil down to one’s outlook on human nature and, remembering that some people purposefully are deceptive. I would suspect that a politician’s level of comfort or nervousness when speaking publicly plays a part of how they are perceived.

  16. autumn says:

    All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  17. a couple odd thoughts on the general topic —

    1. if feeling is the standard for determining authenticity, you run into the problem that many people will find your candidate as fake and repugnant as you find theirs. otherwise we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in right now. think of all the things that help produce your own feelings for one candidate or another: party affiliation, policy preference, etc. are just the beginning. reagan made many people feel warm and fuzzy. clinton always made me feel like he knew me personally. many of us want that. but the reality is, reagan turned other people’s stomachs and clinton was perceived by many as slick willy. so how far can you trust your feelings in a situation like this?

    2. it strikes me that the jeremiah wright debacle is wrapped up in these issues. he seems to be wanting to play the role of an essentialist black conscience, holding obama to an identity-driven standard of “authentic” black political outrage. to some, i imagine obama’s distancing himself from wright will come off not so much as insincere but as inauthentic — rather than offer (again) a nuanced statement that allows wright to do his thing and allows obama to speak to the broadest audience possible, he’s now forced to divorce himself from wright entirely out of political expediency, even though a lot of people, white and black, agree with portions of wright’s statements.

  18. brooke says:

    But we don’t mean, when we call someone authentic, that they are really a human as opposed to a Cylon or a Terminator or something.

    Nor do we mean, when we call a Rolex watch authentic that it really is a watch. We are evaluating, based on the evidence, whether the watch is actually a Rolex or a fake. Again I would return to the dictionary for guidance: “3. entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy:

    It’s true that we don’t have a ‘real’ Obama with whom we can compare the Obama we see on television and read about in the paper and in his books. And we can’t say unequivocally that he is not being deceptive. Nobody is going to inspect Obama under a microscope and declare him authentic. But we can, and do, evaluate “the known facts and experiences” to determine if the man is genuine in his presentation of himself. And to LT’s point, I think this is a valid part of making decisions in many situations — particularly in situations where we don’t have an objective, indisputable measure of truth or authenticity.

  19. Reverend Wright says:

    I agree with Dave:

    “If Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected,” Wright said. “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls.”

    Reverend Wright

  20. I agree with you when you say that politicians are actors, and what really matters is how they do the negotiating, the making of decisions. But how in the world am I supposed to judge whether they’re good at doing that? You suggest looking at the groups that they’re influenced by, but that just tells me where their priorities will lie, not how good they are at “the important stuff”.

    I guess that’s why I try to find their sincerity. Besides whether their priorities match my ideas, that’s the only thing I’ve got to go by.

  21. trixie says:

    i keep thinking about how “wooden” al gore seemed to people when he was running for president, especially compared to monkey boy GWB.
    i have to make dinner. perhaps i will write more about this later.
    i just feel lucky that there is a candidate who is able to play the game and appeal to people’s minds and hearts the way that obama does whose politics also align with mine (at least this is what i am led to believe).
    great post dave. loved reading the discussion that followed, too!
    sorry i am a harebrained mom tonight

  22. apologies to autumn who had a couple comments tied up in the spam filter. i can’t figure out why — they didn’t even have links.

  23. The other missing comment now appears back on Lisa’s post from last week, but it seems relevant to this thread too. sorry again, autumn!

  24. Dave says:

    There’s an image up right now on the WFMU homepage (reproduced here) with the text “I WAKE UP SAMPLING.” That’s the argument against authenticity. All of us, our very selves, are constituted in terms of other people, social structures that predate our individual arrivals in this world. That’s not all we are — I don’t think we can’t make choices — but it’s enough of who we are that it’s pointless to look for something pure or untouched by the myriad relationships we’re born and grow into. We wake up sampling and we don’t stop.

    (That’s the import of Heidegger’s “always already” and, specifically in this context, das Gerede. I apologize for the Heidegger. Ignore it and you don’t lose anything.)

    You’re right, LT, that I combine this argument with an argument against being guided by emotions in picking candidates. This may have something to do with my phallogocentrism or what have you. I agree with you that emotions are often a better guide to action than what we call reason. In fact, my own politics are based on some gut feelings I have about injustice, oppression, power, and the like. I don’t feel the need to go beyond these feelings in justifying or explaining my politics.

    But the political realm is especially prone to attempts at emotional manipulation, and I think the results of that manipulation have been disastrous for our tenuous democracy. Contemporary political propaganda depends on a cheap, surface-level manipulation of fleeting emotions. It’s essentially a misdirection of the audience’s attention toward a bunch of stage business that’s fun to watch and away from the ways the audience is getting screwed by leaders in both parties.

    Anyway, I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a long time about authenticity, even apart from the political context, and then you mix in the political stuff, and I figured I had to write a post. And it led to some really interesting discussion, so thanks for bringing it up!

  25. Dave says:

    Brooke: It’s interesting we disagree about the very use of “authenticity.” Here’s m-w online:

    1obsolete : authoritative.
    2 a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact (paints an authentic picture of our society) b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features (an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse) c: made or done the same way as an original (authentic Mexican fare)
    3: not false or imitation : real, actual (based on authentic documents) (an authentic cockney accent
    4 a: of a church mode : ranging upward from the keynote — compare plagal 1 b: of a cadence : progressing from the dominant chord to the tonic — compare plagal 2
    5: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

    When we talk about things being authentically what they are, we’re either talking about them being faithful copies of some original, or we’re talking about some similar causal process of “authorization” (2c in this definition gets this, I think). (That strikes me as the connection between the modern usage and the archaic, in fact. A Louis Vuitton bag is made authoritatively — under the control of Louis Vuitton, not by a counterfeiter in Shanghai.)

    But haven’t you heard people using the sense in 5? I heat it all the time. People try to find their true, authentic selves, away from the bullshit of this modern world.

    What would a “real” me be, as opposed to a fake one?

  26. Dave says:

    I meant to add, speaking of basing politics on emotion, that a basic empathy for other people is also a key part of my own motivations, or at least I try to keep it present to mind.

  27. brooke says:


    I agree with you 100% in 24. I think we’re operating on different levels here. Your points are well taken (although the heady philosophical references mostly allude me), but I’m talking about something more straightforward.

    You asked what would a “real” you would be, as opposed to a fake one. I’d answer that I couldn’t possibly know what the real you is, since as you point out, you might not even know who the real you is. But I can deduce from your behavior and my interaction with you that the viewpoint and beliefs that you espouse in this forum are in fact the views you hold.

    I believe you have been genuine in your thoughts in this forum. I believe your presentation here is, in my use of the term, authentic. By no means does it encompass your entire personality, but it is a part of it. It isn’t a farce or a ploy.

    Likewise when evaluating others (politicians included), authenticity as I define it is a question of whether or not the person is perpetuating a farce. Do they mean what they say? Are they attempting to speak to issues they feel matter, or are they just throwing up a rhetorical light show to distract us while they gain and consolidate their power, or work at cross purposes to please people whose interests are in direct conflict with the policies articulated in the first place? How one makes that determination is a different story, and you’re right that we all to often fall for the predictable tricks and fail to really seek out more useful measures of sincerity.

    At any rate, that’s what I mean by authenticity. It’s a straightforward definition. Probably, as LT mentioned before, we should have chosen a different word to begin with. In fact, I’ll go ahead and blame this entirely on LT.

  28. lane says:

    and just what’s so wrong with patrick dempsey?

  29. LT says:

    brooke, i thought you were on my (authentic) side. i blame patrick dempsey.

  30. lane says:

    I wanted to read this yesterday and never got the chance. So I started it last night and woke up thinking about it.

    This the sort of thing that we all seem to love Dave for, REALLY teasing out the specifics of a line of thought. As, always, interesting, thought provoking and yes a little intimidating.

    As it applies to politicians, for me, I can’t go there, Getting elected is such a piece of theater,

    I found the discussion more interesting and maybe scarier in relationship to ourselves.

    I have this handed down notion of the personality as it’s constructed in “the east” (Japan . . . Turkmenistan, what have you) that there is a comfort with the idea that there is no real self. Only a series of shadow selves. And that true conciseness comes from knowing our various disguises. So then “the oriental cultures” (as opposed to the occidental ones) hold, or construct personality, to be a series of fakeries. I wake up sampling.

    So that’s one thought, but this is another. This semester I’ve talked to my students about “noticing what you like” as a means of developing some artistic habit. I was thinking about, if you like what you like, then you’ll make what you like. And if your work doesn’t look like something you’d like, Then why not? And how can you make it more to your liking.

    Perhaps that puts the flame of desire into the discussion. Why do we like what we like? How far down does this or that taste go? Why is it that everyone in my family really likes Vanilla/caramel/butterscotch as opposed to Chocolate?

    “Bad taste is real taste, Good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.”

    I think on the whole I agree with Dave. Modernity puts too much emphasis on “the real” “the true” “the authentic”

    “All the worlds a stage and we are merely players”

  31. ssw says:

    I just wanted to add several points to this discussion. First, I think we do have authentic selves that can be found and shared–I think we’re born with something special that makes us who we are! It’s sad to me that many people choose just to ‘live with’ a great deal of internal conflict that complicates many areas of their life, but if they ever found the bridge to invest more energy in listening to what they need/want/feel, they’d probably see some very positive shifts in their well-being and may even be able to share this with the external world in ways they never imagined possible. Many of us can and do tap into “who we really are” and the likelihood of finding it rises exponentially with safety–when a person finds a source of real safety (if they can) I think sincerity, earnestness, authenticity, etc surface.

    For the record, I don’t think the political arena is very safe for anyone! And Hilary has more experience with this than Barack, ultimately. She’s a veteran of public life, for better or worse. Barack seems to be doing really well at navigating the political landscape, although I don’t know how he’d be at actually running the place–he’d learn on the job, which many have done. His youth, optimism and character point to having a good chance at it.

    For what it’s worth though, I really admire Hilary for being such a fighter and continuing to hold her head high and to give this job a go. She does get called insincere, but that may just be her personality–she’s not a warm/fuzzy type like Bill, she’s a smart cookie–and I think many people are intimidated by her intellect. You can argue her politics aren’t as progressive as some democrats would like, but I think she’d make a good president. I also just have such an emotional level to the whole thing. The idea of a woman conquering going from being a president’s wife, to becoming president just rocks my world! To me, that’s so feminist and feisty. It is a true revolution if my daughters could see that happen–out of decorating the white house role model, to running it. Cool beans!!

    I don’t think we can’t lose either way (Barack would make a great president too–and to see a black man become president, despite our ridiculous nit-picking over his ethnicity, well that’s a pretty big deal! How cool that he’s educated, rich, brilliant and good with people–let young people all over the planet see him as a role model for their future!)

    In specific regards to this discussion, which is horribly difficult for me to follow, I have long believed that integrity is when your beliefs and actions are in alignment, and although idealistic, it inspires me. As a citizen, I have a lot more freedom to pick and choose about how I’m doing with that quest, whereas public officials are scrutinized to a degree I can’t even imagine and as a result of putting themselves under all of our eyes constantly, no wonder they come up short and seem to contradict themselves, etc.

  32. Godfree says:

    SSW: I sometimes find ability to hold onto a positive outlook to be humbling.


  33. bw says:

    can anyone tell that marleyfan and ssw are siblings? i would think it was congenital optimism if i didn’t know the third sibling. and even he is getting rosier in his disposition over time!

  34. bw says:

    and if you couldn’t tell, i admire both of them for their optimism too. and for their, well, authenticity.

  35. lane says:

    “It’s sad to me that many people choose just to ‘live with’ a great deal of internal conflict that complicates many areas of their life, but if they ever found the bridge to invest more energy in listening to what they need/want/feel, they’d probably see some very positive shifts in their well-being and may even be able to share this with the external world in ways they never imagined possible.”

    I think this is a lovely idea ssw, unfortunately, we all have wants/needs and feelings that conflict. everyone does. finding that inner self, and facing it, requires looking at what those things bring and the choices we make. But I think this is where Dave’s post gets at the dangerous part of everyone’s psyche, with awareness come the awareness of performance.

    “Many of us can and do tap into “who we really are” and the likelihood of finding it rises exponentially with safety–when a person finds a source of real safety (if they can) I think sincerity, earnestness, authenticity, etc surface.”

    this is completely true, not everyone finds this source, i’ll always be grateful for it.

  36. brooke says:

    Sorry LT, that wasn’t the authentic me talking. I think we can all squarely place blame on PD. SSW, I agree with your sentiments overall, particularly in the final paragraph.

    The reference to sampling touches on authenticity from another angle, one that’s germane not only to politics, but to art and music and, really, living in the modern world, I gather that’s Dave’s take from the start, but I’m occasionally slow on the up take.

    Maybe this gets to the heart of my perspective – I don’t think sampling or borrowing from other sources necessarily detracts from authenticity. Take a track from Public Enemy’s seminal “It Takes a Nation of Millions” album. The song Night of the Living Baseheads has no fewer than 17 samples (an interesting aside that this song would be financially unfeasible today due to licensing rules), and I don’t think anyone could argue that’s not an original contribution to the genre. Likewise, the album Rainy Dayz, by Amp Live, is a (seriously badass) remix of Radiohead’s In Rainbows . Again, authentic even though it’s thoroughly derivative.

    Anyway, I’m done kicking this dead horse. But I really enjoyed the post and the discussion that followed! Great food for thought.

  37. lane says:

    well and let me put this out there.

    Public Enemy.

    “If white people knew what was going on in most black people’s heads it would scare the shit out of them” – miles davis

    talk about performers

  38. Hilarious, thanks for linking it.