Back in the seventies it was playing in the pit band for a local production of that gloriously silly musical Bye-Bye Birdie – roughly, Elvis gets drafted and American teenage girls go all woozy and their parents don’t understand them, but the parents are all silly people too. It’s a loving and oddly gentle send-up of American pop culture and shallow American values, where no one’s all that bad, just sublimely unreflective – and the score so easy it practically plays itself. That means you can glance up and watch the action on stage, or drift off and think about other things. It’s not exactly deep. But the title character, Conrad Birdie, the Elvis figure, does sing an amusing song, Honestly Sincere – see this movie clip or review the lyrics – the least sincere song about sincerity ever written. You see, he’s a big star because he’s so damned sincere, as he assures us of that in repetitive drivel, in his gold lamé suit, as he swivels his hips. It’s delicious.
Of course all the young girls are taken in, probably because that sort of thing had been going around since the Gidget and Beach Blanket movies, where the young lass in question, perhaps Annette Funicello, would turn to the young lad in question, perhaps Frankie Avalon, and bat her eyes and quietly ask him if he didn’t agree, really, that what a guy should be, above all else, is sincere. So he’d try to be – the arch of the story – or maybe he had been all along and the young lass hadn’t realized it. Sincerity was a big thing in the fifties, and perhaps beyond. You could be ugly or dumb as dirt or wrong about everything, but if you were sincere that was all that really mattered – you got the girl, at least in the movie.
Real life is a different matter. Back in the seventies, during the day, it was teaching high school English, with the eleventh-graders slogging through Hamlet. There the problem was Polonius, the old fool of an advisor to the king and queen. No one paid any attention to whatever he said. It was always either tediously obvious or meandering nonsense. He told the queen that her son, Hamlet, was mad, but she knew that, and a bit more. And the new king suspected there was more to the kid’s madness – he unsuccessfully arranged to have him bumped off. And Hamlet himself said, to his one true friend, Horatio, there was method to his madness, that he was only mad north by northwest and all that. Then, at one point, Polonius gives advice to his son, Laertes, as the kid is off to Paris – yes, neither a borrower nor a lender be, and “this, above all else, to thine own self be true” – whatever that means. The kids would protest. Isn’t that good advice? It was hard to get them to see that it wasn’t – that in the real world absolute sincerity could get you killed. In the real world everyone is always playing everyone else. It took Hamlet five acts to straighten it all out, and he didn’t do that by blurting out, in all honesty, the first thing that came to mind.
Oh well – many a speaker at this or that graduation still offers the Polonius-to-Laertes speech, verbatim, to the rows of fresh-faced kids in their caps and gowns. Luckily no one listens to those speeches, and those days, the seventies, are long gone – no more pit bands or teaching. Now it’s a quiet evening here in Hollywood, where someone once said, and many have since repeated, that there’s one simple secret here – if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made. The best variation of that comes from Fred Allen – “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.” That’s’ clever, but that’s the lesson in Hamlet – to survive in this world it’s best to fake sincerity. The real thing is dangerous, or at best useless. And fake-sincerity can make you rich and famous and adored – see Conrad Birdie, above.
We just don’t call it sincerity any longer – we call it authenticity. We crave it. We prefer reality shows – Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives of Wherever – to scripted series with professional actors and logical plotting and character development and significant content that explores real issues. And we prefer often embarrassing amateur competitions – Dancing with the Stars and American Idol and its many clones – to polished and moving performance. And there are a lot more shaky hand-held shots, without the Steady-Cam rig, in movies these days – to make it all seem more real. We’d rather have authentic than good – we prefer ugly untalented people and blurred vision. It’s more authentic. And there are our celebrities – Tom Cruise, a hype-aggressive mean and nasty little man with odd beliefs given to mocking others quite cruelly – but he is authentically just who he is and has his fans, probably for that very reason. As Polonius would say, he is true to himself. And there’s Charlie Sheen – angry as hell and arrogant beyond the pale, fired now and then by studios for being a destructive jerk, but authentic. He’s still big. And he’s sincere too. He just isn’t very pleasant, not that we care. He’s authentic. That’s what matters.
This extends to politics. There was Sarah Palin four years ago. She took the nation by storm, at least a part of it, not because she was fit for office – she proudly didn’t know much about anything going on in the world, was tripped up by basic facts and sometimes simple geography, and she didn’t really understand any of the issues – but she was authentic. Enough people liked that and she almost saved John McCain’s ass. After her debate with Joe Biden, the National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote this:
I’m sure I’m not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, “Hey, I think she just winked at me.” And her smile! By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling, it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America. This is a quality that can’t be learned; it’s either something you have or you don’t, and man, she’s got it.
Lowry was their senior editor and that’s when American politics became a reality show. Unlike other politicians, Sarah Palin was sincere and overwhelmingly authentic, and of course incompetent. Others would say she seemed “real” – unlike all the other professional politicians. Others would say yes, she doesn’t know much and often gets confused, but she spoke for them. They too didn’t know much, and really didn’t know what they thought, but that was reality, wasn’t it? She became their voice. It might have been like watching a really bad singer on American idol, off-key and flustered, and cheering them on. After all, that was authentic and that very well could be you. There was comfort there.
These are the same people who now loathe Mitt Romney – yes, their candidate, but obviously inauthentic. He’ll say anything, depending on the decade, or the current audience. Yes, he’s smart and successful, but he’s no Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum – each troubling in his or her own way, but the real deal. Those three, in particular, rode the authenticity train as far as it would take them. Sarah Palin laid down the tracks – they just got outspent by a rich and aggressive inauthentic man. He wasn’t even very good at faking sincerity. He just buried them in negative ads.
Now things are getting interesting, as Obama is who he is. You may not like his policies, or his personal history, but what you see is what you get, without apologies. Romney repeatedly apologizes for his highly successful Massachusetts health plan, with its individual mandate, and for his previous pro-life positions, and he’s still deciding which part of his work at Bain Capital, when, he’ll apologize for. That’s deadly, and that probably explains why Obama’s personal-likability ratings always run ten or twenty points ahead of Romney’s. People still think Obama is a “nice guy” – because he is, and because he’s simply authentic. That goes a long way. That may decide the election.
This is nothing new, as Sincerity and Authenticity was a book by Lionel Trilling, based on a series of lectures he delivered in 1970 as Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard:
“Now and then,” writes Lionel Trilling “it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself.” In this new book he is concerned with such a mutation: the process by which the arduous enterprise of sincerity, of being true to one’s self, came to occupy a place of supreme importance in the moral life – and the further shift which finds that place now usurped by the darker and still more strenuous modern ideal of authenticity. Instances range over the whole of Western literature and thought, from Shakespeare to Hegel to Sartre, from Robespierre to R.D. Laing, suggesting the contradictions and ironies to which the ideals of sincerity and authenticity give rise, most especially in contemporary life. Lucid, and brilliantly framed, its view of cultural history will give Sincerity and Authenticity an important place among the works of this distinguished critic.
That’s the product description and the book isn’t an easy read. Somehow we’ve moved from admiring sincerity to admiring authenticity, and those aren’t he same thing, but they’re related, and they’re nothing but trouble. Trilling does talk about staying “true to oneself” being a problem. That’s the modern ideal of authenticity – not the older ideal of being a morally sincere person. Morality got lost somewhere along the way, and in 2006, Orlando Patterson had a few things to say about this:
Authenticity now dominates our way of viewing ourselves and our relationships, with baleful consequences. Within sensitive individuals it breeds doubt; between people it promotes distrust; within groups it enhances group-think in the endless quest to be one with the group’s true soul; and between groups it is the inner source of identity politics.
It also undermines good government… emotivist arguments trump reasoned discourse in Congressional hearings and criminal justice; and in public education, self-esteem vies with basic literacy in evaluating students. The cult of authenticity partly accounts for our poor choice of leaders. We prefer leaders who feel our pain, or born-again frat boys who claim that they can stare into the empty eyes of an ex-KGB agent and see inside his soul.
You might remember those days, and Patterson says he’s just taking Trilling a step further:
I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?
And he invokes the big guy:
Shakespeare’s “self” is inescapably public, fashioned in interaction with others and by the roles we play – what sociologists, building on his insight, call the looking-glass self. This allows for change. Sincerity rests in reconciling our performance of tolerance with the people we become. And what it means for us today is that the best way of living in our diverse and contentiously free society is neither to obsess about the hidden depths of our prejudices nor to deny them, but to behave as if we had none.
So sincerity is nice and all, and quite necessary, but authenticity is a crock – behavior matters. A jerk, no matter how impressively authentic, is still a jerk.
We just get suckered by authenticity these days, as R. Jay Magill Jr. explains in his new book, Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born 500 Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion That We ALL Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull) – not the most elegant of titles, but billed as “a cultural and intellectual history of sincerity, from its emergence during the Protestant Reformation to its present incarnations and adversaries.”
He doesn’t cover Bye-Bye Birdie:
People have long been duped by “straight-talking” politicians, confessional talk-show hosts, and fake-earnest advertisers. As sincerity has become suspect, the upright and honest have taken refuge in irony. Yet our struggle for authenticity in back-to-the-woods movements, folksy songwriting, and a craving for plainspoken presidential candidates betrays our longing for the holy grail of sincerity.
You see, he adds something new to the mix – irony. The only way to be authentic these days is to do a sly goof on what others take so seriously, and at salon.com David Daley interviews Magill and gets Magill to offer up this:
America was founded on the church, and I don’t mean that in any political sort of way – they were these wacky Puritans who wanted to create an absolutely transparent society. They believed there should be no secrets, personality should be transparent, we should reveal all motives at all times to all members of the community – because that’s what God wants. And that led to a miserably crushing and horrible society where everyone was afraid. They were afraid not only of being spied on, but also that they were not of the elect. And I think that’s a hard thing to shake.
One of the reasons that sincerity sticks with us as a virtue is not only because you kind of need it on some level for relationships to function, but more broadly there are echoes of that Christian path that infiltrate the present. And I think it’s different from honesty. Sincerity has an inward directiveness where you have to reveal what your motives are – it’s subjective, in a sense, and the demand for sincerity when people mean honesty leads to demanding sincerity in the wrong places.
The mess we’re in thus historical. We’re confused. Honesty and sincerity and authenticity get all mixed up in a jumble, so those who want something from you can bamboozle you:
The weird thing is, especially in the contemporary political world, since Nixon, really, everyone knows that sincerity is more often than not feigned, not real, and really good for getting suckers to believe.
Everyone knows that, but certain people demand sincerity from politicians when really it’s not been the case that politicians have ever really been sincere. A quick look at sort of the history of realist political thought will reveal that no empire worth its salt has ever advised being sincere. It’s always about strategy; it’s always about cunning. That’s politics, and it’s childish to demand to know elected officials’ inner lives and to really demand that they’re sincere in what they say. There’s this echo, this sort of persistent moral demand from religion and the history of romanticism that insists we have to get beyond the political mask or the social mask to get to the real person, and that may be great in private life, but in public life it seems really misplaced and leads to a lot of icky situations.
It’s always about strategy and cunning – like in Hamlet. Polonius is the fool, and in an odd way this shows it:
DALEY: So is there any way to live a sincere life when corporations know how to market it to you – and even dissent is able to be turned around and sold back to you as Pabst Blue Ribbon or a trucker hat?
MAGILL: I think the search is the wrong search, and it’s a search for sort of perfect sincere person.
There’s no such thing and we’ve been kidding ourselves:
There’s a mistake that I think is often made in our present American culture, less so in Europe, actually, but in America in a big way. The mistake is that what is true for politics and public life is also true for private life. And the sincerity thing as a value, as a moral ideal, started as a private thing. You should be sincere; in the beginning it was that you should be sincere with God. You should be sincere with your neighbors. It was this very personal sort of thing, and the mistake is to carry that over into public life, which was, like I said earlier, advised by people like the Puritans; it was advised by people like Rousseau. We’ve inherited all of that.
In modern American culture we’ve definitely been the inheritors of this enormous logic that’s going on, but it blends together two things that don’t really belong together. Public life has a public mask; political life has a political mask, and you don’t have to get underneath it for things to be valuable. Sincerity is great for private life, but public life involves deception and involves public faces, and that’s okay. And that’s I think the very kernel of the moral issue… that we don’t think that’s okay, and that moral itch – that’s this whole history washing up, and I think we need to say no to it.
Magill prefers irony:
It depends on the cultural situation, but our culture it’s filled with spin. It’s filled with jargon. It’s filled with a lot of cunning and deceptiveness by political leaders that we know about. We know that this is going on. Irony has been in America for a long time, but especially since 9/11, it’s been the No. 1 method for being sincere. It’s very odd. But lots of people watch Jon Stewart and Colbert and read The Onion and watch “South Park” – there’s this ironic mindset, this sort of distance that we’ve been practicing for the last 20 years if not longer, at least for everyone sort of under 50. That connection we make with fellow ironists is maybe the most sincere thing we have. …
I think that if you’re trying to relate sincere things in public, irony is the way to do it because the direct stuff doesn’t work anymore…. Direct moralizing is very, very difficult for an educated person to swallow. The wink gives a sort of autonomy, I think, to everybody and it says we know what’s going on, and there is a sincere connection in that irony.
Well, Sarah Palin winked at Rich Lowry, or he thought she did, or hoped she did. It was a connection – we all know something else is going on here – wink, wink. It was a signal of authenticity, or an imitation of it. But that was the problem – there was nothing behind it, no real something else is going on here. But that’s okay. We’re all used to imitations of authenticity, and love them. For a time, America was enthralled with The Real Housewives of Wasilla – or at least one of them.
That passed. We now look for authenticity elsewhere. We still think it’s the only thing that matters. And that may be our undoing – wink, wink.