Americans act like they love to get access to the real thing. Not the fake plastic manufactured version, but the real deal. Reality shows, gossip blogs that rip the lid off Hollywood, autobiographies of former drug addicts: we eat it up even though much of it is positioned, scripted and about as “real” as the special effects in your average blockbuster. Still, sometimes it seems the worst charge you can hurl at some famous people is that they’re a “phony.”
Why does this charge seem to stick some times and other times doesn’t even come up?
In part because we assume that the more “authentic” view is the better one. Rapper Vanilla Ice was unmasked as a mere wannabe gangsta, while 50 Cent survived getting shot nine times. Compare the lyrics of their respective hit singles “Ice Ice Baby” and “Candy Shop” and then try to figure out which is the more thoughtful lyric.
Of course, our focus on authenticity in our popular culture is flawed. Gangsta rap and punk are supposed to be authentic, but bubble gum pop and teeny boppers are fake. There are music fans that don’t care, listening to whatever strikes their fancy, and I suppose you could charge that they are lacking in artistic values. But you could just as easily charge certain discriminating hipsters and intellectuals as being snobs.
This quest for authenticity – which provides the framework for arguing that a novel about gang life is not as compelling as an autobiographical account of rising up from the street – leads to cases like James Frey and Margaret B. Jones (a.k.a. Margaret Seltzer), authors who mixed personal facts, accounts from others and a heavy dose of artistic license. The crime was being caught lying, but why did they feel that an autobiography was superior to an acknowledged work of fiction?
The world of politics isn’t immune from this tendency.
I’m thinking of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Once Gore got the “phony” tag slapped on him, and that label stuck, then everything he did and said got viewed through that prism. He was supposedly a congenital liar, who claimed he invented the Internet and was the inspiration for Love Story. He was a fake, who relied on consultants who relied on consultants to dress him and help him be an Alpha male. He was an opportunist, who manufactured a ridiculous crusade around unproven facts about the environment. It was the same for Kerry, far beyond the successful Swift Boat project that turned a war record against a military veteran. Kerry also had the windsurfing, Lambeau Field and Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak. Both fakes, phonies and opportunists.
You may recall that part of George W. Bush’s campaign strategy in 2000 was that he was authentic. Love him or hate him, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on airs. He doesn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. Or so the theory goes. But again, it’s much like raw gangsta versus bubbly boy bands: Is the “fake” artist worse than the “real” one? If so, why? I believe that the charges against Gore were false, sometimes manufactured and sometimes overblown. And Bush, of course, is the son of a wealthy family of New England WASPs who happened to have settled in Texas to do business – not as he’d have us believe a true Texan, through and through.
In this election cycle, you can see the “phony” charge bubbling under the surface. Were Hillary Clinton’s tears in New Hampshire real or fake? Is Barack Obama a visionary or an empty suit? Did John Edwards’ $400 haircut show he wasn’t sincere about fighting poverty? Mind you, John McCain gets to reverse course on most of his stands from eight years ago, but that’s okay, since he’s no phony. He’s the real deal, the captain of the Straight Talk Express, right? Or so the theory goes.
The “phony” charge can be incredibly insidious. Once you get stuck with it, everything proves you’re a phony. It reminds me of the work of Dr. John Gottman, whose studies of marital stability and divorce prediction was profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink. Gottman says in that book that people are typically in one of two states in a relationship. In “positive sentiment override,” positive emotion acts as a buffer. One spouse will do something potentially irritating and the other spouse will let it slide. In “negative sentiment override,” even a relatively neutral act is perceived as negative. In this state, Gottman says, “[if a] spouse does something positive, it’s a selfish person doing a positive thing.”
Perhaps this reminds you of some events in the current Democratic contest for the presidential nominee. It’s a contest that is partly for who can be more real and authentic. One side is convinced that their person is the genuine article, while the other candidate is a charlatan and a fraud. Every word out of their mouth proves it, whether it concerns the sermons of Dr. Jeremiah Wright or peacemaking trips to Bosnia.
As for me, I’m not so convinced that we can ever really know what goes on in a famous person’s head. “Authenticity” is low on my list of qualifications, partly because of the difficulty of judging this state and partly because I’m not sure how much it really matters. With politicians, I tend to judge them like songs. Does it have a good beat and can you dance to it?