I'm Authentic. Really -- I Mean That

I keep hearing about authenticity. It seems to be the go-to description for all who would be bonafide; a self-sticking seal signifying that what you see is what you get, and what you get is worthy.

Anderson Cooper has made it the lynchpin of his daytime persona. I watched Anderson and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, discuss an unimaginable family tragedy; the suicide of his brother. I watched an authentic discussion well promoted in the early days of a new show. I watched the authentic tears in his eyes, as the camera came in for an authentic close-up.

You can't for a second question the pain. But you also can't deny the packaging. I know television is an entertainment medium. To question a lack of authenticity in the medium is to be upset to learn that Gilligan and the Skipper weren't really on an island.

But the current drum-beat of authenticity may be a kind of "doth protest too much" reflection of the national mood, which Comedienne Lilly Tomlin once captured nicely: "Just when I think I'm too cynical, I realize that I'm not cynical enough."

Could it be that authenticity is the oxymoronic adjective for our times? Authentic news anchor? Authentic politician? Authentic religious leader? Authentic celebrity?

We pick our way through a debris field of authenticity's failures. We once believed the government knew how to build levies, that it would only start a war for valid reasons, that the financial system worked in the best interests of the country, and that those who shout from the pulpit about how we all must live our lives, live those lives themselves.

Existential philosophy says that authenticity is the ability to be what we are in the face of external pressures that insist we be something else.

That gets especially tricky in politics, where the pressures are votes, money and power, and authenticity means risking their loss. The religious right is not going to give a smidgeon of any of that to someone who says: I will restore fiscal sanity, but I'm fine with gay marriage. The far left won't hold celebrity-sprinkled soirees for anyone who says: I will help those in need, but I don't really care if people like their guns.

Political authenticity has become an all-in proposition. Either toe the line, or hit the road. Balance is for wimps. Reasonable discourse is for losers. Truth is what we tell you it is.

There have been few more soul-sucking exhibitions of squandered authenticity than President Obama. I watched his nomination acceptance with a pride and hope so powerful I didn't even know I had tears in my eyes. I truly felt, this time, it's going to be different. It's not so much what he said. It's that what he said was so real. This was not a well-tailored suit saying what a regiment of speechwriters and pollsters told him to. This was a real man saying real things born of real belief.

Since then, we have watched his authenticity melt like a candle -- and we lit a lot of them that night -- left out in the sun.

I know, the man has been dealt a bad hand on a Biblical scale. I know he spends his days cleaning up after men who are now on the golf course and penning their justifications.

But he has become a politician, and pretty ordinary one at that. The truly concerning thing is that powerful self that we hoped would stand up to the pressures seems to have developed multiple personalities. One day a unifier, the next day a divider of the classes. One day a determined change driver, the next day a conciliator to those who reject conciliation.

There is that old saying that the essence of leadership is to find a parade and get in front of it. What if there is no parade? What if disillusions and disappointments have left us so disoriented that it's impossible to form up the ranks?

There is a high cost here. When those who have a balanced worldview don't know what to believe, they tend not to believe anything -- or anyone -- at all. That turns over the wheel to the zealots whose belief is unquestioned, unexamined and without nuance.

Absent belief, we default to image, which means authenticity is expendable. What Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott called Mitt Romney's "polished leather insincerity" could work. We don't care if the patent medicine you're selling is colored water. Just give a good show, and convince us it will cure what ails us.

Still, I can't help thinking that authenticity lives. Somewhere there is a self so strong that it will stand up to the incredible pressures of power, money and bloggers; so strong that we'll be drawn to it even if we don't agree with all of its parts.

But maybe that is too much to hope for in these days of firestorm communication's malleable truth. Maybe it's too much to ask.