Politics and the American culture of authenticity

Authenticity is all the current appeal. It’s been that way for a while, but it’s still current. I remember speaking at a conference a few years ago when I argued that excellence was something you should value when it comes to doing what you do. If you do something, do it with excellence, not mediocrity, and people will be attracted to whatever it is you’re doing.

That’s a generalization, of course, but at the conference I was speaking about Christian liturgy. Someone in the audience during Q&A time said that authenticity was more what people were interested in these days rather than excellence. My response was basically that words can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to mean.

The person who made the point about authenticity was actually trying to narrow the church’s use of liturgy to exclude more contemporary expressions of the church’s conversation with God. In this case it was a matter of manipulating words. The word that preceded this use of authenticity in relation to liturgy was “orthodoxy” (and it was used with almost ruthless exclusivity). Words and their applications change. Human manipulations of words are essentially constant.

Authenticity is one of those words that doesn’t make sense as its own referent. What I mean is, something (or someone) must be authentic with reference to something else. For example, you can’t just say someone is authentic and expect everyone to know what you mean. You may have a vague sense of what you mean in your own mind, but authenticity is one of those words that requires a more explicit referent. “He’s an authentic baseball player” means he’s good at what he does—hitting, fielding, throwing, running, etc., etc.

Donald Trump is being touted as “authentic,” because as a GOP 2016 presidential primary candidate he is, for now, enjoying a certain level of popularity in the polls. His authenticity, the pundits say, is the reason for his popularity. Well, Trump is authentic with reference to what? Does he enjoy popularity in the polls, does he draw such large crowds just because he is … authentic? What is it that draws people to Trump’s “authenticity”?

Trump speaks his mind. Everyone knows this. But so do the other candidates. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, they all speak their minds. So what is it that sets Trump apart as being “authentic”? What is Trump’s edge over the other candidates? According to the popular view of Donald Trump, he is authentic because of the way he speaks, not because of what he speaks. He is considered authentic because he has no filter.

That has become the crass, popular, now edgy definition of authenticity. You can be a misogynist, a narcissist, a liar, a cheat, and a megalomaniac. You can be authentically all of those, but what has come to matter most to the crass mass (as Horace once referred to the low-information populace of Rome) is the authenticity of your vulgarity. We laugh. We boo. We cheer. So what. You’re just like us. No political double-speak. No filter. Just from the gut. That we understand. And that’s all that matters. It’s all in the way you say it, and not at all in what you say.

The one candidate that seems the most “authentic” to me is Bernie Sanders. Like Donald Trump he speaks his mind and doesn’t care what the consequences are, whether those consequences come from the media that chooses to mischaracterize who he is, or whether the consequences come from the big corporate campaign donors Senator Sanders so naturally criticizes. But Sanders’ authenticity isn’t defined by the way he talks. It is all about what he says. And he has a lot to say. I hope we’re listening.

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One thought on “Politics and the American culture of authenticity

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on “Authenticity.” I’ll leave my political leanings out. Well done. Peace, Stephen

    Like

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