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June 02, 2006

on sincerity in public life

There is obviously a hunger for politicians who speak from the heart. That's the theme of Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, which evokes the (supposed) sincerity of Bobby Kennedy in contrast to the falseness of today's leaders. I have not read the book, but this excerpt is impressive.

I think Klein is exactly right that techniques for understanding audiences have become more sophisticated since 1968. The public "has been sliced and diced by ... pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups." People know that they are being analyzed, sorted, and manipulated (by politicians as by corporations), and they resent it.

At the same time, citizens have more information about politicians. All the public remarks of public officials are online and searchable, which makes them more cautious. In the name of "accountability," pressure groups force candidates to sign pledges and then keep track of their votes. In this context, unscripted authenticity is especially dangerous.

But politicians have never been known for widespread sincerity. Lear, for example, imagines that Gloucester is a "scurvy politician" who "seem[s] to see the things thou dost not." Politicians, whether in Shakespeare's time or ours, are people who compete for favor. That competition is desirable in a democratic system. But it is abidingly difficult to win favor through straightforward honesty.

Furthermore, there are virtues of leadership that militate against sincerity. For instance, I think a full and honest appraisal of the alleged massacre in Haditha would be complex. It would recognize the extremely difficult position in which the Marines were placed, yet it would put moral responsibility on their shoulders (if they really massacred civilians). I'm not sure, however, that we want a president to lay out all these complexities. It may be better for him to state clearly that the United States has no tolerance, and makes no excuses, for murder.

Another example: I like rhetoric that calls us back to ostensibly traditional, American values of multilateralism and human rights. However, I couldn't use such rhetoric myself in full sincerity. The United States has a long tradition of unilateral military adventures and human-rights violations. But saying so doesn't call us to our best values, as good leaders do.

Klein uses Bobby Kennedy's Indianapolis speech as an example of honesty and courage. Indeed, Kennedy took a huge risk when he broke the news of Martin Luther King's assassination to an unsuspecting Black audience. As Klein notes, Kennedy couldn't know in advance how they would react, and that uncertainty gave his speech an authenticity that is absent today. Klein is also correct that Kennedy respected his audience, which is the opposite of today's manipulative campaigning.

However, consider statements like the following from the 1968 speech: "But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land." Was that literally true? Was it the whole story? Or was Kennedy trying to move his audience to support his ideals (and his candidacy) by appealing to their sense of their own virtue?

Kennedy quoted Aeschylus that night, calling him his "favorite poet." If Kennedy really did prefer Aeschylus above all other poets, then he admired a pagan who believed that goodness lay beyond our control and that implacable fate was amoral. Yet Kennedy cited a passage from Aeschylus' Agamemnon in a translation that made it sound Christian. ("Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.") Invoking divine "grace" was perfect for the occasion, but it was not what someone would believe who truly loved Aeschylus.

Obviously, that's not a valid criticism of Kennedy's speech. We ought to prize courageous moral leadership without making sincerity its hallmark. I suspect that we seek authenticity partly because of modern celebrity culture, with its public confessions and disclosures. We're used to people who have nothing much to say but who are willing to expose their private lives and feelings. Most celebrities do not claim to be good, only to be candid; and the very fact that they are lying causes us to value sincerity. But candor is not the highest virtue for politicians. We ought to judge them on the content of their speech, not the fit between what they say and what they believe.

Posted by peterlevine at June 2, 2006 08:10 PM

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