Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brad Pitt's Upbringing and The Republican Primaries

As an unrepentant political junkie who will not consider rehab (in spite of his wife's urging), I have followed the Republican Presidential Nomination race with great interest. I'm fascinated at how the arguments are made, at the exaggerations and distortions that are expressed, at the media's obsession with video snippets as potentially meaningful, and the responses of the voters at the polling booth (which sets off the entire cycle again).

There's been lots to follow and nothing happening all at the same time. I've read descriptions of the process as Kabuki theatre or as a reality show like Survivor or American Idol. Perhaps the larger question is "why do we treat public posturing in front of a small set of non-representative audiences as if they were indicative of anything?". We get this cycle of candidates playing to the crowd (who don't even reflect the values of their own state) with the glee and near bloodlust of the Roman Coliseum. The media then treats the posturing and applause as real. (What did they talk about before these debates?)

Maybe it is wearing on me. A quick Wikipedia check reminded me that the first of these debates was held on May 5, 2011. Tomorrow night's debate in Florida will be the 18th in 256 days (that's one debate every 15 days). Actually, there was a three month lag between debates 1 and 3, so we've had 16 debates since August 11th (dropping the rate to one every 10 days!). Since the Kabuki is about how they're all better than President Obama (they've only just begun actually running against each other), we don't learn much.

Except, of course, for insights into the character of the candidates. Or more, correctly, into the impression of a character they're presenting. Erving Goffman captured this idea in his brilliant book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He argued that we try to manage the impressions other have by intentional action but that we are also giving off cues to signify who we really are. I have always argued that "authenticity" comes when the gaps between the impressions "given" and the "given off" are tiny.

It's been evident throughout the debates and varied campaign stops that the candidates (including Obama) fall far short of my ideal. (By the way, they need to realize that in this smart-phone age there is no such thing as an off-stage moment!). In case after case, you can see candidates exposed as playacting.

As usual, a convergence of events prompted this post. As I was reading about the debates from last week and pondering what we learn from this circus, I heard a rebroadcast of Fresh Air while on my way to visit folks at Calvin College this past Friday. The clip in question was from an earlier interview with Brad Pitt after making Moneyball. It was replayed as the DVD was released. Pitt describes his Southern Baptist turned Charismatic upbringing (followed by his personal movement from faith). But in response to a question about the press junkets surrounding movies, he said the following: "You know, I think one of the lovely things about where I grew up is it's considered great hubris to talk about yourself, and yet, you know, as we sit here now, it's part of the business, and I find it actually interesting and cathartic in some way."

This comment really struck home because in the previous day's debate, Romney came off as inauthentic (the frozen smile and the scary little laugh are his "given off" cues) and Santorum accused Gingrich of being grandiose, which Newt sort of accepted. (Thanks to Niki Hawthorne for sharing this post.) Gingrich's "tell" is when he drops into lecture mode (Please God, protect us college professors from using that voice!) as he did in scolding the media in both debates this week. I haven't quite figured out where Santorum fits in this, but I think you can tell that when he gets snarky and sarcastic it means that he knows he doesn't really believe what he's saying. Of course Ron Paul doesn't have these problems. He is what he appears to be and has been remarkably consistent. It's just that those ideas are so screwy (but consistent) that you can't take him seriously. But at least he's not inauthentic.

As I've reflected on this, I realize that Brad Pitt's folks gave him the wrong message. It's not hubris to talk about yourself. It's hubris if you exaggerate who you are or make something more of yourself than you should. It's interesting to me that the definition linked above mentions "loss of contact with reality". Hubris comes when your pretense becomes so common that everybody knows you're distorting the image. (BTW, this is what's wrong with Tebow testifying after every game -- it's authentic to claim that you love the game of football. God gets that.)

When you made strange faces as children, you were told to be careful or you'll get stuck that way. In today's video age, it may be impossible to reform yourself. You can't really say, "oh, that? I was just playacting in order to win." Newt, Mitt, and Rick, you might find yourself stuck that way. And that will not just make you a bad leader, it will damage your soul. 

As Frederick Buechner writes: "Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep yourself in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don't accrue any interest that way, but become less and less interesting every day."

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