Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

An inconvenient truth: authenticity is rare

McCain, Obama, Presidential election

Although the major news media are ignoring it, a recent news release on Al Gore’s energy consumption is propagating madly through smaller publications and right-wing blogs. The point of the press release, from the right-wing think tank Tennessee Center for Policy Research, is that the Gore family consumed an enormous amount of energy--more, not less, than last year. And he’s a big old hypocrite.

I don’t have a problem with pointing out the huge carbon footprint of Gore, who preaches responsible energy use and conservation. But the gleeful furor over his hypocrisy is self-indulgent and not very useful.

Authenticity is important. Being honest about who you are is the basis of trust. Unfortunately, we’re not very objective in considering claims of authenticity. And the media don’t give us the information we need even if we want to work a little at informing ourselves. Instead, they pass along a lot of junk without vetting it.

Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti calls the race between Barack Obama and John McCain an authenticity contest. Obama just lost big points for reneging on his promise to have a publicly funded campaign. Now he’s foregoing the $85 million he’d get in order to jump onto unlimited fundraising bandwagon.

That’s a concerning precedent. How should we think about changes people make in the face of new—or newly understood—reality? The ethical question here is does the need to change the path of American government for the greater good outweigh the need to follow a high-ground decision and be true to your beliefs? And the strategic question is can you win if you try something different, or do you need to stick with what seems to be proven?

I think Obama should have stuck to his guns. That would inspire people who want to send Mr. Smith to Washington, and right now there are a lot of us. But does that make him a hypocrite--or a realist?

Of course, McCain is no more authentic that Obama. He has history as a chameleon, and he’s counting on people having short memories about his views on taxes, immigration, oil, special interests, and more. What lets him get by as "the candidate with character" is the failure of the press to report as critically on the facts behind McCain's claims.

That, and our willingness to believe that being a prisoner of war improves someone's character. I know a few POWs, and I will tell you that many are terribly harmed by their experience. Nobility isn't an assured outcome here.

Wonderful and outrageous journalist Matt Taibbi indicts his own profession for cowardice in telling the truth and being authentic:

Courage is a willingness to face real risks—your neck, or at the very least, your job. The journalist with courage would have threatened to resign rather than repeat George Bush's justifications for invasion before it began. I don't remember anyone resigning last winter. The journalist with courage would threaten to quit rather than do a magazine piece about an advertiser's product, his fad diet book or his magic-bullet baldness cure. It happens every day, and nobody ever quits over it.f journalists had courage, they would form unions and refuse to work for any company that made decisions about editorial content based on the bottom line, on profit?

But even if the press did its job with courage, that would leave us responsible for thinking harder about claims, slogans, and more. The responsibility for finding the truth behind the constant repetition of inauthentic information is ours.

Here’s an example of what happens when we don't take responsibility. On June 3, Tabbi was in New Orleans covering McCain.

. . . here in the Big Easy, John McCain has chosen this moment to mount his first general-election attack against the Great Satanic Liberal Enemy — who, as luck would have it, turns out to be a Negro intellectual from Harvard who's never served in the military. And this is supposed to be a bad year for Republicans?

 He interviewed someone named Ron about McCain’s assaults on Obama, which were heartily received by an adoring crowd. It makes for  uncomfortable, and telling, reading.

Ron says his problem with Obama is the integrity thing. "He exaggerates too much," Ron says. "He's not honest."

"OK," I say. "What does he exaggerate about?"

"Well, like that time he was saying he had a white mother and a white grandmother," he says.

I ask him how this is an exaggeration.

"Well, he was saying . . ." he begins. "As if that qualifies him to . . ."

Despite my repeated prodding, Ron seems unable or unwilling to say aloud exactly what he means. Finally, his friend Mary, a grave-looking blonde with fierce anger lines around her eyes, jumps in, points a finger and blurts out one of the all-time man-on-the-street quotes.

"Look, you either are or you aren't," she says.

"And he aren't," Ron says, nodding with relief.

Being authentic doesn’t just mean being who we are if we are not very thoughtful or well-informed. It means being trustworthy. To accomplish that, we need to try harder to be better than those we deprecate.  Thinking for ourselves requires  the courage to discover that we may be wrong sometimes. 

Addition: David Brooks wrote a great column about Obama's complexity today. ". . .I have to admit, I’m ambivalent watching all this. On the one hand, Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunist Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside. . ."


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