Phoniness: it’s inevitable

The Anchoress linked this afternoon to a piece by CBS’s Dick Meyer, discussing the problem of phoniness in our society. It’s way too big a problem to discuss in a short blog, but it’s more of a plague in politics than in any other area. I’ve been pondering ever since the midterm election about politics in our society, and I have come to some conclusions that mesh somewhat with what the Anchoress and Mr. Meyer discuss.

Why is it that our society is saturated with insincerity in politics? Meyer writes:

The amount of phoniness in world history can’t be measured empirically. But I think it is clear there is more now simply because of the explosion of communications technology alone. There are simply more paths of communication. And most of that communication today is mass- mediated — it comes through a medium, not through direct personal contact. Proximity is the enemy of phonies and fakes; it is simply easier to tell if someone is full of it in person than through e-mail or talk radio.

He suggests that the explosion of instantaneous communication has created the exponential growth in fakery. I am not so sure. It is easier to tell if someone is full of bull in person; but, it’s pretty easy to tell so on talk radio and even in written communication as well. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: one, we increasingly seek out only what we want to hear; and second and more importantly, we’ve for the most part lost the moral foundation to condemn those who fill the airwaves, and our lives, with spin. Technology amplifies and perpetuates this, but the root of the issue is cultural and moral.

Spend any time in the political “blogosphere,” and one of the first things you’ll notice is polarization. Right-wing folks talk to like-minded conservatives, reinforcing and radicalizing their views; the same goes for liberals. We let our guard down when people tell us what we want to hear, and we guard against those who disagree with us. It’s easy to be phony when preaching to the choir, or preaching to another choir from which you want support. But, speak a message that goes against the prevailing wisdom of a group, and they’ll find phoniness even if you’re being completely authentic. Witness “Bush derangement syndrome” as a prime example. As Meyer puts it:

…many of us are over-attached to our politics, to our own positions and perspectives. We cling to them. We’re brittle in arguments.

He suggests that we’ve withdrawn into these polarized camps at least partly because of phoniness, but I suspect that the chain of causality is the other way around. Something has led to the “thinness” of our politics, the brittleness of our positions, the need to find a position, however radical, and stick with it. This tendency feeds right into political phoniness, where candidates know that trumpeting their NRA or NARAL badge of approval means more than substantive, authentic discourse. But, what led to our fragmented and fragile political landscape in the first place?

We are so polarized because we’re all looking for solid ground on which to stand. We’re desperately searching for that solid ground because we know, deep down, that modern society has a foundation of shifting sand. Instead of appealing to natural law and traditional morality, politicians today pander to certain interest groups but, I suspect, are actually only interested in maintaining their own power. Instead of allowing our religious leaders to speak truth to power, as in days of old when, for example, St. Ambrose had Emperor Theodosius do penance for a military massacre, our modern government holds the specter of loss of tax exemption over any religious organization that dares to enter into politics. When there’s no standard of authenticity left, then phoniness is the order of the day.

I suggest that in order to recover authenticity, we need to recover the moral foundation on which our country and our civilization were built. But, realistically, I don’t think that’s possible right now. There are, however, some ways to bring some authenticity back to our government, which may precipitate further changes down the line. One small step would be to institute single term limits. Take away the pressure of re-election and you return power to the people. Another step would be to remove the stipulation that religious leaders refrain from endorsing political candidates; silly rhetoric like “here are the issues that you should support, but I’m not going to tell you who to support” just accentuates this problem of inauthenticity. Eliminating the pressure to stay in power, politicians would exist to actually serve the people. Eliminating the artificial and debilitating barrier between faith and politics would allow politicians, and the populace, to be more authentic about who they elect, and why.

Today, because of our polarized politics and lack of moral foundation, phoniness is inevitable. But, remove the “career politician” and allow what little solid morality is left in our society to influence its politics, and maybe, just maybe, we can turn things around.


1 Response to “Phoniness: it’s inevitable”

  1. 1 Bekah November 22, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    I disagree. 😉 Weigh the argument for single term limits against your ideas about monarchy…

    I believe we would see greater effectiveness at eliminating phoniness by extending terms and removing term limits. Because politicians are always running for office, they are always restructuring their ‘image’ in a way to successfully market themselves to their constituents. With campaigning often beginning two years before an election for an incumbent, we receive only two-four years of political service. While one term limits may appear to solve this problem, I believe it would casue too much confusion considering a learning curve for each position combined with a foreseeable lack of qualified (morally), available and motivated individuals.

    Term-limits also restrict freedom. If someone is competent and effective in their position, why should they be removed simply because they’ve been there for 4, 6, or 12 years? The imposition of term-limits were a protection against a monarchical-type system, which both you and I have admitted to favoring. Bad leaders can always be removed short of their term limits, so fear of this potentiality is an ineffective argument against long terms.

    Besides, the trend for the last several decades has been towards greater term limits and we have not seen a corresponding increase in the moral legitimacy of our government. Perhaps the opposite ought to be attempted and the outcome evaluated.

    But, you are exactly right that the problems in our government stem from a deep lack of integrity and moral foundation. This problem can really only be corrected by raising up a moral generation which seeks truth.

    [Side note: It was just reported this week that our Governor hid the truth of the deficits in the state budget, while claiming to have balanced the budget during the campaign. What a jerk!]

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