In a review of Elena Gorokhova’s memoir of childhood in the Soviet Union, there’s a quote of her youthful realization about Communism:
“The rules are simple…They lie to us, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.”
Here in the gathering twilight of 21st Century America, the situation is hardly much different, with one exception: we seem to want the lies, we compete to outdo the power elite with our own tall tales, we luxuriate in the drowning filth of our fabulistic excesses.
Frank Rich made the case a few weeks ago that Tiger Woods was the emblematic man of our moment not because of his sexual escapades but because of the total disconnect between the popularity of the iconography of his squeaky-clean professionalism and his actual life.
Rich suggests that there is a growing consensus on both left and right that virtually no public figure’s iconography is trustworthy, and that basing your political and social choices on those narratives is a fool’s errand.
That, I have to admit, seems true enough. I can remember thinking that John Edwards seemed like a decent enough candidate in his first run for the Presidency, but I can’t even begin to remember why I thought that: some vague impression of his electability, a few catch-phrases here and there that mimicked positions I could charitably imagine having a resemblance to what I’d like to see happen, and yes, some sense that he seemed like a capable, decent leader. In retrospect, obvious bullshit, all of it. I can remember telling a few friends in 2000 that Bush seemed to have some interest in governing towards the middle, because of a few little rhetorical flourishes, and I thought that again when he gestured in that direction right after 9/11. Again, bullshit.
I gave money to Joe Sestak in his race for Congress here in my district, and while virtually anybody was an improvement over the previous incumbent, Sestak’s actual voting record wasn’t anything like what I’d heard him talking about doing when I went to a fund-raiser and his lack of interest in setting up a real constituent-relations operation was palpable. We were just a way station on the road to something else, just a little resume-builder.
I didn’t buy the same bill of goods in voting for Obama, so I’m not as intensely disappointed by him as those that did. That said, he doesn’t even seem to be governing up to my more modest expectations, settling for “not aggressively bad like the last guys”.
If I’m setting out to buy a dishwasher or a video game, I feel pretty good that crowdsourcing is going to help me find a decent product, that the flow of information online will give me a peek at the actual experiences of users. I feel like I’m pretty experienced at spotting obvious shills, in part because they typically describe products or services in phony language or improbably complimentary terms. I get burned now and again, but not very often.
Politicians and public life, not so much, none of it, because almost all of us are engaged in one way or another in adorning the lies and tale tales of the political elite, in pushing a line or selling a product.
Just about every blogger I read and respect, and I include myself, has a politics that is an a la carte assemblage of positions and favored projects strung together loosely by attitude and affect. Most of the people I like are too smart and wary to be active, aggressive shills for any particular candidate, but there’s still a lot of qualified nods for some leaders and lip-curling disdain for others, based largely on whether they’re telling the lies that we like or the lies that we hate, whether they match up at some moment with some random item on our personal checklists of things-we-like. As Rich suggests, even people that like to imagine themselves as tough-minded independents and skeptics tend to invest in politics the way that audiences invest in the narrative of a contestant on Top Chef or The Amazing Race.
And then beyond that conversation is a vast domain of other readers and writers busy spinning and confabulating in a far less guarded way, a heaving ocean of shillery.
We lie to us, we know we’re lying, we know we know we’re lying, but we keep on lying anyway, and we keep on pretending to believe ourselves.
And yet there are also these moments where real understanding seems possible, where online discourse breaks through to expose our mutual authenticities, where YouTube shows us moments of genuine political life, where a real person is suddenly there speaking about hard choices. Times where the bedrock on which beliefs and politics really rests upon is exposed. I don’t think all my political desires, all my personal checklist, is just a collection of advertising slogans, and I don’t even think that’s true of many of the people I most disdain. Some of what I believe is a product of my self-interest, as it is for all of us, and some of it is a product of what I honestly know about the world and about what makes for best practices at this moment in human history.
For our own velvet revolution, for at least a possibility of moving the ball forward past this stagnant, curdled moment in American life, I think what we’ll all have to do is take the risk of authenticity, to develop a grown-up taste for the rough edges and honest imperfections of lives as they are lived. In our politicians, in our public figures, in ourselves. To stop carrying water for liars or telling simplified fabulisms because we think that will serve some end that we deem necessary. To drop our deflector shields. Living and speaking within a world of acknowledged ambiguity, uncertainty, and imperfection is an end in and of itself.
Otherwise, 21st Century American life is going to amount to just us, the online comments threads, and those wonderful people out there in the dark…a long slow fading as we dreamily revisit over and over again our old glories, waiting endlessly for our close-up.