Last week featured the shocking revelation that two athletes had lied to the whole country for years in order to become rich and famous. This is the same thing that politicians do except without the exercise regimen.
Moral theater is an odd event in a country which has mostly given up on morals. In the absence of any notion of right and wrong, the only truly punishable offenses involve hurting people’s feelings. That includes famous people “betraying our trust” by doing something that we didn’t expect them to be doing thereby deceiving us into liking them for the wrong reasons.
That code means that it is completely acceptable for a public figure to be amoral as long as they are honestly up-front about it. Or as long as they embrace an absence of characters and standards as the basis for some sort of savvy post-media in the media image where they acknowledge that they do everything only in order to get attention as a way of commenting on the attention-getting tendencies of modern entertainers.
Shallowness is actually a winning media strategy. The truly shallow have nothing to hide because they have nothing. They voluntarily turn their life into public consumption. Most of the rest just manufacture a fake reality that seems real only because generations that grew up on television have brains that are trained to confuse natural lighting, low resolution footage and shaky cameras with sincerity.
In a culture where everything is really fake, exposing the few people who seem virtuously really is an industry. The media deconstruction process establishes once and for all that all families are bad and that all virtuous people are fake. Except the virtuous people being profiled by them tomorrow and destroyed the week after that.
The more fake the culture is, the more of a sucker it is for fake authenticity. The explosion of reality shows is traceable to the death of reality. Everyone wants to connect to something and someone and the entertainment industry is abandoning escapism from reality for escapism to a fake reality next door. Music has reached the same range of fake reality, embracing the inauthenticity of making your life public as the ultimate form of authenticity.
Politics thrives on that same fake authenticity. Mitt Romney, a fake authentic politician of the old school, back when politicians were working with magazine covers, snapshots and a 30 second clip, couldn’t compete against the truly fake Barack Obama, who in truly modern media style doesn’t just fake 30 seconds or 30 minutes in front of the camera, but fakes his entire life going back decades.
Obama is truly fake. He is authentically unreal. There is absolutely nothing to him. If you take away all the work that was done to make him famous, there would be nothing there. And that is exactly why he is the perfect avatar for the media age.
JFK won by looking good on camera. But looking good on camera is old school. It’s crude to the point of being irrelevant. Politicians had to look good on camera then. Now they have to have a vibrant image. Appearance is a small part of a big package with nothing inside it. Brands are lifelong and they begin the moment you are old enough to begin promoting yourself in the public arena, which today is the age you are old enough to hit the keys on a computer.
Campaigns aren’t something that turn on and off. They are permanent forms of self-promotion and agenda vehicles. They do the heavy lifting that is necessary to sustain the big lie. And that means constantly embedding their brand of choice in everything, getting as many celebrities and “thought leaders” to mention their brand and making sure that their brand is appealing to the right people.
Seventy years ago the only people who needed this degree of image investment were top movie stars. But the politician or the athlete of today needs the same level of image building as movie stars used to. And image building is just pervasive fakeness, it’s the process of thoroughly fictionalizing an identity and then marketing the final fictionalized product as the real deal.
JFK, whose father had begun laying the groundwork for the political careers of his children at a disturbingly early time, was the early warning of what was coming. Fake books that won awards and marginally qualified politicians riding urban political machines and youth fads to the top.
JFK seemed like a flash in the pan. He went away and we had a series of marginal figures, classical pols laboring away for a crack at the top. And then the Republicans got desperate and up came Reagan. And the Democrats got desperate in turn and came up with Clinton. After two terms of Bush, the Democrats became desperate a second time and hurled Obama all over the country. What the Republicans will come up with after two terms of Obama has yet to be determined.
What must be understood about this sort of politics is that media overexposure actually increases authenticity for younger low information voters. Simply bombarding them with coverage of a public figure increases their acceptance of that public figure’s legitimacy, so long as that coverage is mostly positive.
The other side of authentic inauthenticity is that no one really has time to evaluate every public figure in the media. Overexposure means that no one really has time to do more than watch a few videos and skim the summary of an article as expressed by their social media contacts unless they are deeply involved in that area of life. Unless they are “fans” of it. Everything else is just bulletpoints.
Connection with limited context is how most public figures thrive. They aren’t remembered for their accomplishments but for how their massaged public image makes people feel. Lance Armstrong understood that better than most, taking a sport that most people didn’t follow, and making his public image compelling through personal narrative. Going to Oprah to apologize for hurting people’s feelings is the invariable next step for a career that was based on making people feel something through synthetic athletics. It’s another meaningless game in which the counters are not based on character, but on feelings.
In the old dinosaur era, fraud by an athlete was a failure of character. It couldn’t be forgiven because character was believed to be at the core of performance. A flaw in character was a flaw in everything that made competition great. But the modern society no longer believes that. It has traded in the rock of character for the shifting sand of feelings. Everyone has them and everyone exchanges them. Fake is forgivable if the feelings are thought to be relativistically real.
Competition is no longer performance based, it’s feelings based. It’s why Obama won in 2012. In 2008, his qualifications didn’t matter. In 2012, his performance didn’t.
A brand is more than the sum of a product. It is a transcendent emotional connection to the public. It is more than taste, nutrition, quality of fabric, reality of performance, integrity of workmanship or durability of materials; it is how it makes people feel. Most products can be the same Made in China crap produced by slave labor at minimum wages and with a minimum quality that ensures you will have to buy another one before too long, but that’s okay because brands aren’t made to last. They’re meant to make you feel good about the transaction at the point of purchase. That’s all.
America is being run by a Made in Indonesia leader whose performance is as bad as any of the Made in Indonesia, Pakistan or China crap you’ll find in Wal-Mart. And it doesn’t matter because he’s a brand. The savvier younger and urban voters don’t care what he’s made of, they care how he makes them feel. They may lose their job the next day and their prospects for paying off their college loans may be missing, but if it makes them feel good at the point of polling, then that’s what matters.
When all products are bad, then all that matters is how they feel. When everything can be deconstructed into a lie, then you embrace the lie that feels the most fakely real, even knowing that it will one day be exposed on another episode of Oprah as a lie.
Those who believe in nothing are the most gullible because they will fall for anything. Those without faith are always looking to believe in something or someone. Those who have never known value or quality are always looking to pick up a product that communications value and quality to them, even while they retain no metric for assessing either one. Instead of learning the metric, they follow the brand, they become savvy brand-spotters, rather than knowledgeable buyers. And when they brand lets them down, then the brand apologizes, the emotions are soothed, and the law information voter turns to the big screen for another messiah.
In a culture where character no longer matters, competition loses all meaning. A lie is no longer a lie, it is not wrong in and of itself. A failure no longer matters if it makes people feel good. And the idea of leadership no longer exists, only the imitation of it. The faint media echo of the values of what was once a great civilization singing itself to sleep.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.