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Daum: When being authentic requires work

Politicians have better things to worry about than remembering to roll up their sleeves to appear trustworthy.

August 11, 2011|Meghan Daum

Want to be authentic? Good luck! These days it takes deliberate effort, focus, even a long-term commitment to change. This might sound surprising to those of you who associate authenticity with just being yourself, but misconceptions about authenticity abound, not least among them the idea that it comes naturally to everyone.

Then again, I'm referring not to the traditional definition of authenticity, but its expanded contemporary definition. Call it "aw, shucks authenticity." Instead of "true to one's own personality, spirit or character" (Webster's words), it's more like " successfully evoking a culturally agreed-upon idea of ordinariness." That is, rolling one's sleeves up to one's elbows or convincingly wearing plaid shirts, being "plain-spoken," or displaying small-town roots as proof of trustworthiness.

I exaggerate, but only slightly. Somehow authenticity has gone from a broad term about candor and genuineness to a code word for chimerical perceptions of simple American values and a simple, even rural middle-American life. Never mind that there's nothing simple about life in rural America and never mind that concerns about authenticity are a hallmark of existentialist philosophy, which doesn't necessarily jibe with the Wal-Mart meme. It's still managed to become a staple of advertising and self-help discourse (eat authentic tapas! achieve authentic happiness!) and, especially in its aw-shucks form, a major factor in the 2012 political races.

These days the word is thrown around so profligately you'd think that all other traits once considered political assets — experience, intelligence, leadership — pale in comparison to conveying the impression of being an ordinary Joe. In 2008, the Palin campaign made the aw-shucks ethos its calling card, but it was there even before she joined the fray (remember Hillary Rodham Clinton drinking shots in an Indiana bar or Obama's sad attempt at bowling?).

Now, we're swimming in "authentic" candidates. Just yesterday, Michele Bachmann told a crowd in Iowa, "I'm a real person, not a politician." Last week a Politico article about Sen. Rand Paul's support for his father's campaign described the need for "an anti-establishment, authentic candidate." The Atlantic Wire wrote that the candidates were fighting to prove which "is the most authentic Christian conservative."

If only political writers had access to one of those X-ray machines that art authenticators use to distinguish forgeries from the real thing. But alas, judgments about who's faking it are left primarily to what we might call (for the imposed lack of a more familiar but less printable term) the bogosity detectors of the American people. And, based on some of the people we elect, it seems our radar for the bogus is easily scrambled.

Once we were drawn to glamorous public figures we could put on a pedestal; today we prefer to idolize those we can see as just like us. To describe someone as "down to earth" is high praise. But to run for president (or to even consider it), requires more hubris, energy and ambition than people "just like us" could ever muster. Sure, some politicians come by some their aw-shucks qualities honestly. Some legitimately prefer pulled pork to poached salmon (that would be you, Bill Clinton). But most are, for better or worse, "extraordinary" each in his or her own way. No matter how humble they try to appear, running for president is an intrinsically unhumble pursuit.

And that's just part of the problem with this new definition of authenticity. Not only is it artifice, and hence a contradiction, it's downright exclusionary. It forgets that mean people can be authentically mean, shallow people can be authentically shallow and snobby people can be authentically snobby. John F. Kennedy, for instance, a real American hero president, was authentic all right — authentically rich, Harvard-educated and privileged — but he definitely wasn't a plaid-shirt guy. Putting aside his politics, can you imagine him winning an election today? Can you imagine him (or, say, George H.W. Bush for that matter) pandering to "tea party" sensibilities by employing folksy aphorisms, bowling or entering a mud wrestling match for most authentic Christian?

I can't. But even if you can, surely we can all admit that authenticity these days is less an innate state than a high-maintenance hairstyle. All that time in front of the mirror, when the nation has bigger things to worry about.

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