The State of the Union: Ruled by Honest Fakes

The President’s speech last night might well have been constructed from the cutting room floor where they put together all the rest of his speeches. It was suitably well delivered, though nowhere near the “jaw dropping” oratory we’re supposed to believe he produces. It undulated between plans-to-make-plans and superficial policy proposals, casting the American moment in starkly statist terms while needling strawmen that he then labeled as his GOP rivals. Health care for the elderly should be a bipartisan goal!

Of course, I feel this way because I disagree with the president’s overarching goals. If a conservative president made the same kind of inane speech, I might just chalk it up to politics.

So in this moment of oppositional clarity, let me suggest that our politicians are not, in fact, liars. Oh, sure, some of them are, but so are some janitors. Our politicians are genuine fakes. Roger Scruton explains the difference:

Faking depends on a measure of complicity between the perpetrator and the victim, who together conspire to believe what they don’t believe and to feel what they are incapable of feeling. There are fake beliefs, fake opinions, fake kinds of expertise. There is also fake emotion, which comes about when people debase the forms and the language in which true feeling can take root, so that they are no longer fully aware of the difference between the true and the false.

Anyone can lie. One need only have the requisite intention — in other words, to say something with the intention to deceive. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. In an important sense, therefore, faking is not something that can be intended, even though it comes about through intentional actions.

Watch the State of the Union, perhaps any State of the Union address. See the select few hundred of our neighbors who have the privilege to rule us march in ceremoniously, smiling and shaking hands and posturing. Behold Nancy Pelosi beaming as the president talks vaguely about putting your children in preschool. Observe Senate Republicans stand and applaud throwaway lines about border security.

None of it is real, not really. It’s all an overlapping contrivance, a masquerade conspiracy that perfectly refracts high society, such as it is. Does the president really believe that raising tying the minimum wage to cost of living is sound economic policy? Response: cutting the deficit is not an economic policy. Applause. Of course he believes higher wages are good. Don’t we all? Applause.

But we’re no better, are we? This isn’t another lecture on authenticity or being genuine—that’s all very well, whatever it means. Instead, I mean that we all try to construct our identity around us, a web of carefully emphasized attributes, as though we could somehow become our resumes. “There but for the grace of God go I” was originally meant as a humble comment on the estate of a drunkard. But it’s much worse than that for me, usually. I should say instead, “There but for the grace of God remain I.”

So, grudgingly, one of my favorite parts of registering disgust at others is forcing myself to root out the same in myself. Am I serious, even when laughing or at sport? Or am I an ersatz gargoyle, fake like what goes before us at this annual pageant? Blessedly, I think I am usually too incompetent to pull it off.

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture Ben Bartlett

    Lee, I’m always happy to argue with people who are overly cynical about government. In my view, both the cynic and the idealist misunderstand.

    But I want to be clear about saying thank you for this article… you are 100% right. Already government is filled with silly falsities and posturing, but that speech just about drowned in it. Even NPR had to admit that it was fundamentally wrong in most of its claims!

    I voted for Obama the first time despite my moderate conservative views because I wanted a leader who I felt would speak the truth, no matter what that would mean. Certainly, under that rubric, Obama was a better choice than McCain.

    But last night’s speech was just silly. Like you, I am deeply disappointed.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    I get annoyed with the dogmatic anti-government folks too.

    Thanks for the thanks. Even if you are my only reader, I’m glad you liked it. :)

  • Jim Tandy

    Thought-provoking. Especially enjoyed the quote discussing the difference between fakers and liars. I see this holding true to many other aspects of our life is well as you alluded to. You now have had at least two readers! I appreciate your insight.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    I would almost prefer the liars — they at least know the truth and might be forced by circumstance to employ or live by it.


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