Back when I used to read newspapers, I’d always head straight for the opinion pieces and the letters pages. The rest of the newspaper was relatively uninteresting news. It was a delight to find an opinion piece by Bernard Levin in the Times in the early 1970s, and an opinion piece by Jill Tweedie in the Guardian a decade later. It wasn’t that I necessarily agreed with what they had to say. It was that I agreed with them saying it. I wanted them to speak their minds, say what they thought. I wanted to listen to their authentic voices.
I have had the same experience with the rise of the blogosphere, in which more or less every blog is someone’s authentic voice, very often with a number of authentic voices in the comments beneath, agreeing or disagreeing.
And I think that maybe the media war being fought in the USA, between the mainstream media and the alternative online media, is battle of authenticity. It’s a battle of authentic individuals – Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Mark Levin -, speaking their own minds, up against inauthentic organisations like CNN, Fox News, NBC, etc, etc.
And organisations like CNN, Fox, NBC, and also the BBC, ITV, etc, are inauthentic primarily because they are not individual persons, but instead companies of people in which there is some sort of ‘party line’ which company employees must adhere to. They are all of them doing a job that they are being paid to do.
It’s the same with actors, who are paid to speak somebody else’s lines. They are all, more or less by definition, inauthentic. I can watch more or less anything on TV and tell within seconds whether I’m watching actors speaking lines, or authentic individuals speaking their minds. Great actors, like Marlon Brando, are those who best manage to simulate authenticity. But even they never quite manage it perfectly.
And, somehow or other, authenticity always beats inauthenticity, every single time. Politicians, who are the most egregiously inauthentic of people, are inauthentic because they are always toeing some party line, and never speaking their own mind. Which is why politicians try to avoid encountering any authentic individuals, who will always defeat them (as famously happened with Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he encountered an ordinary English woman on a street somewhere).
Donald Trump is an example of an authentic individual politician (almost a contradiction in terms) who speaks (and also tweets) his own mind. You may not like what’s in his own mind, but if he is now President of the United States, it’s because millions of Americans recognised him as an authentic individual. He’s got where he was by not being a standard cardboard cut-out politician, like, for example, Hillary Clinton and more or less any other politician you care to name.
The current French election, which I’ve been distantly following, seems to me to have boiled down to one fairly authentic individual – Marine Le Pen – versus an inauthentic one – Immanuel Macron. And at the moment, the inauthentic one looks set to win the run-off on Sunday.
Just because they’re authentic individuals doesn’t mean anyone is right or good. It seems to me that Adolf Hitler was an authentic individual, who spoke his authentic individual mind. It was just that his authentic beliefs were, at bottom, pretty screwy – and very nasty.
And I would guess that all the great prophets – Moses, Jesus, Buddha, etc – were also authentic individuals. They certainly all appear in history as unique individuals, with unique opinions.
And it seems to me that the essence of authenticity lies in individual identity or personhood. And all inauthenticity grows from some sort of superposition of some additional role on top of this individuality, as when someone becomes a father, or a husband, or a manager, or a lieutenant, or a general, or a Prime Minister, or a bishop, or a Pope, or a clown. Such people are not mere individual people, but individual people playing some additional role. They are not being themselves. And therefore they are inauthentic.
It was something that I noticed with my father, who rose to be a senior manager in a telecommunications company. He used to occasionally have me accompany him to his office in Rio de Janeiro, where I would simply sit there all day in one corner, watching him as he gave out orders, and signed papers, all in a brisk and businesslike fashion. He was quite different from the man who would come home in the evening, and sit down quietly with a newspaper and a beer and a cigarette. He was, I came to think, two people. One was the office tiger, and the other the homely pussycat. I told him as much one day, some years later. “Shame on you,” he replied. But I felt no shame. I had simply been observing.
The war between smokers and antismokers is a struggle between the authentic and the inauthentic. Smokers are all authentic individuals. But antismokers are almost invariably members of organisations like ASH or WHO or BMA or something, and therefore devoid of authenticity. Deborah Arnott is speaking lines that she’s memorised. She’s toeing some party line. And therefore she’s inauthentic. Furthermore, those antismokers who tell smokers to “exercise self-control” (by stopping smoking) are really asking them to become inauthentic individuals, doing the bidding of others. The ex-smoker who dreams every day of cigarettes is an inauthentic individual because he’s stopping himself doing something he wants to do. The antismoking Dr W, in whose house I once lived, was someone who exerted such iron self-control over himself that he was incapable of laughter. He could only perform a crude simulation of it.
And the war between authenticity and inauthenticity is being fought everywhere, as real versus unreal, truth versus lie. And the authentic truth is maybe very, very slowly winning. It began winning in the 1950s with the arrival of authentic individuals like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The Beatles were an authentic bunch of Liverpudlian boys. And the Rolling Stones an equally authentic band of Londoners. And they appeared in a music business in which there were any number of inauthentic clones who were simply obeying the orders of their managers and supervisors in the deeply inauthentic music industry. The Monkees were an inauthentic band, as were the American Beetles. But then, we seem to have returned to the era of inauthentic clone boy or girl bands who are following some formulaic path to stardom.
So maybe authenticity doesn’t win in the end.