Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reality Check (The Jewish Week, November 14)

When historians analyze what drove the American electoral psyche this year, the economic downturn will dominate the conversation. But the campaigns also responded to a far deeper cultural current: a yearning for authenticity. In the end, we couldn’t tell who the real McCain was, while Obama never stopped being Obama.

Our nation’s moral compass no longer gyrates from good to evil, but from “real person” to “celebrity,” the latter being equated with “fake.” In that universe, the quintessential symbol of iniquity is no longer Osama bin Laden but Britney Spears. No wonder the McCain campaign tried to paint Barack Obama with the Spears-Paris Hilton brush and present themselves as representatives of the “real” America. But the move backfired when the “real Americans” they presented for us, Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber — who’s neither named Joe nor is he a licensed plumber — themselves became instant celebrities. They kept on depicting Obama as a deceiver, some even accusing him of using a visit to his dying grandmother as cover on a nefarious mission to whitewash his birth certificate. But no one bought it.

Early on in the campaign, John Edwards seemed authentic to many, but he hired Rielle Hunter to produce a video enabling voters to see him “as I really am.” Big mistake. Hillary Clinton’s run was upended when it turned out she didn’t run from sniper fire on that tarmac in Bosnia. Rudy Giuliani put on a dress. As the candidates fell one by one, the common denominator was that each failed to pass the authenticity test.

In a confusing world where many create ersatz profiles on Web sites like Second Life and Facebook and where 53 percent lie on their résumés, authenticity appears increasingly elusive. We are hungering for the real as never before. No wonder Universal is doing a movie about the Mili Vanili lip-sync scandal of the 1990s. When we discover that the little 9-year-old at the Olympics wasn’t actually the girl who was singing, it bothers us as it never did when Natalie Wood wasn’t really singing in “West Side Story” or Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady.”

We hate fakers, unless, like Tina Fey and John Stewart, they use impersonation to expose other fakers. It’s OK for Stewart to be a pretend newsman, but not Jayson Blair, whose fake journalism besmirched The New York Times. The sports equivalent of Britney is Roger Clemens, whose smelly congressional testimony scared players so much that, for the first time in a decade, real baseball was played this season by real, unenhanced players.

Eckhart Tolle’s best seller, “A New Earth: Awaking to Your Life’s Purpose,” became a marketing phenomenon this year when it attracted Oprah’s eye, but it already had caught the wave of this zeitgeist. Tolle explores how we can discover our true, authentic selves — to cut through all the layers of falsehood that cover up who we really are. And James Gilmore’s book, “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want,” has spent a good deal of time at the top of business book charts.

I picked up a cute little spoof at Barnes and Noble called “Faking it: How to Seem like a Better Person without Actually Improving Yourself.” No wonder we’ve seen the revival this year of the old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” It’s actually not such a bad idea. Twelve-step programs utilize that principle and it’s used by motivators to build self-esteem. If you pretend to have self confidence and repeat an activity enough times, that confidence eventually kicks in. As our ancestors at Sinai said, “Na’ase v’nishma,” “We will do and THEN, we will understand.”

But faking it has its limits. I once was having Shabbat dinner at the home of a family, which began with the children reciting the blessings flawlessly. When I indicated how impressed I was, the mother said to me, “We’re making memories.” The implication was that the dinner was somewhat staged so that the kids would recall it later on, when they grow up. That’s admirable, but for these memories to indeed be indelible, it has to be more than just for the children. The experience of the here-and-now has to be real.

It’s not about leaving your legacy so much as living your legacy.

In his new book, “The Quest for Authenticity,” Michael Ross tells the story of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pesischa, one of the great chasidic leaders of the 19th century. He was such a real person that when he became a rebbe, he didn’t give up his day job. He was a pharmacist who also refused to forsake western dress even when other chasidim did. And he could spot a fraud a mile away.

Later, his philosophy was echoed by Reb Meshullam Zusya of Anipoli, whom his adoring students compared to Moses. His famous response: When he gets to the Heavenly Court, they will not ask him, “Why were you not Moses?” but “Why were you not Zusya?”

Or, as we like to say nowadays, “Let Zusya be Zusya.”

The world lost one of our most authentic people this past year, Tim Russert. He learned authenticity from his father, Big Russ, a garbage collector and newspaper deliverer, who, in the words of a Gail Godwin novel, has “lived his life by the grace of daily obligations.” Russert demonstrated that you can be part of the so-called Washington media elite and yet still be a real person. Big Russ is much like Ann Nixon Cooper, that 106-year-old matriarch Obama spoke of in Grant Park last week. They are the ultimate response to the disingenuousness of Joe the Plumber.

Being a “real American,” then, has little to do with where you live or how much you know, or whether you can down a six pack, smoke a Marlboro, wear Birkenstocks, shoot hoops, field dress a moose, sip martinis or bowl. And being an authentic Jew has nothing to do with the length of your tzitzit, the precision of your praying or the size of your donation.

The authentic life is lived by the grace of daily obligations. That’s what we yearned for in our candidates, because it’s what we feel is so lacking in our world — and ourselves.

No comments: