Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Gotta Be Me

I'm always struck by how often politicians--particularly those with no new ideas--lay claim to "authenticity" and "plain speaking." And how attractive this particular rhetorical strategy seems to be. In today's political discourse, the worst thing that can be said about a public figure is that he's a "smooth talker"--this charge was laid on Bill Clinton ("Slick Willie"), way before Monicagate, and more recently on Obama, who, unlike his immediate predecessor, actually knows how to craft and deliver a speech. George Bush's mangling of the language was proof, to his supporters, that he just wasn't good at political theatrics--that he was, his pedigree notwithstanding, just a regular guy. Sarah Palin often claims to be "telling it like it is," when in fact she inevitably sounds like she's ingested some kind of syntax-shredding hallucinogen. Just this week, a congressman from South Carolina interrupted a presidential address by screaming "you lie!," then excused himself by admitting he had gotten "too emotional." In other words, he was just being authentic, and honest about his feelings. The "authenticity excuse" is by no means limited to politicians. A few days ago a well-known music celebrity embarrassed a young woman on the awards podium by interrupting her speech and declaring his preference for one of the other nominees. His initial excuse was that he was being "just real," i.e., authentic and honest.

These "honest" moments remind us that we Americans have a particular aversion to anything that smacks of "theatricality," or performance. Which, of course, doesn't mean that we don't perform. On the contrary, both the congressman and the singer reaped quite a bit of media attention for their "impromptu" interruptions; both, in other words, were creating the kind of theater we love most--the theater of the "real," and "authentic." Historically, this is nothing new. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the Elizabethan stage was often the subject of Puritan tirades about the moral dangers of theatricality. And lest we forget, America was founded by just this sort of person--our political culture is, in a sense, still defined by Puritan moral paradoxes.

Politically, the celebration of "plain speaking" and condemnation of eloquence is an incredibly effective strategy. Even the most mendacious vitriol gains credibility if it's presented as fearless honesty. This is, in fact, a very theatrical move--more powerful in that it masquerades as genuine self-expression. Richard understands this well--ironically, it's when he's pretending to be "authentic" that he's the most theatrical. Although he's been slandering his brother's wife, Queen Elizabeth, whenever possible, he answers her charge by asserting his lack of "court polish":

They do me wrong, and I will not endure it.
Who are they that complain unto the King
That I forsooth am stern and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
With silken, sly, insinuating jacks?

Because I can't smile and joke and suck up to people, and I'm no good at bowing and scraping and cheating--because I'm not a politician, in other words--no one trusts me. Can't a simple, honest man such as myself be left alone? Why must my simple, plain truth be slandered by slick lowlife nobodies (like Elizabeth and her relatives)?

It's a lament that has been repeated throughout history by politicians of all stripes. If you're old enough, you might remember Nixon's "Checkers" speech, in which he shows off his populist credentials by talking about his dog and his wife's "Republican cloth coat." I'm just a regular guy, he claimed. I would never lie or cheat--it's my enemies who are twisting the truth in order to ruin me. I've got a cute dog and a frumpy wife. I couldn't possibly be a swindler.

Thanks to Watergate, he lost all claim to authenticity, however, and is now immortalized as "tricky Dick."

This Dick is pretty tricky, too. After claiming to be a "plain man," incapable of political smears and slanders, he goes on to blame Elizabeth for Clarence's imprisonment, and repeats his charge that she and her relatives are social-climbing upstarts:

Our brother is imprisoned by your means,
Myself disgraced, and the nobility
Held in contempt, while great promotions
Are daily given to ennoble those
That scarce some two days since were worth a noble.

My brother (Clarence) is in jail thanks to you, I'm in disgrace with the King, and all high-ranking people are held in contempt, while low-born scum like you are given titles they don't deserve.

He's implying that people like Elizabeth, who aren't as blue-blooded as he, are degrading the entire aristocracy and the culture it sustains. In other words, Elizabeth and her kind are bringing about the end of civilization. This was, in Will's day, a classic conservative complaint. Today, in our democratic political culture, conservatives assert the opposite--that liberal "elites" are denying the common man his voice and trashing his values. In both cases, however, the "enemy"--upstarts and elites, respectively--are accused of being deceitful and "slick" in their use of language--of being theatrical, deceitful, and inauthentic.

Next: A little black comedy in the Tower.

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