Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Authenticity: "It's One of Those Counterfactuals"

"Authenticity" as it figures in the political arena cashes out to being a regular guy like me. But "like," as we know, is both vague and ambiguous. We ask: (1) like in what respect and (2) which respects matter and how are they weighted when it comes to assessing likeness simpliciter?

Suppose I'm a regular guy. George Bush is like me because he cuts brush at his Crawford "ranch." John Edwards is not like me because he gets $400 haircuts. But if I had George Bush's bucks and weren't interested in impressing folks like me for political purposes, I wouldn't be cutting brush, so in that respect Bush is not like me. And if I had Edwards' bucks, I'd live in a big house and get $400 haircuts. Counterfactually, Edwards is just like me.

[A]assertions of "authenticity" are not only feeble tautologies that are worthless as criteria of value. As Krugman points out, this focus -- with the focus on the haircuts of John Edwards being the most recent example -- on balance cuts strongly against progressive politics. Although there's no reason that a wealthy person can't advocate policies that help the poor -- FDR came from considerably greater means than Reagan -- suddenly any politician with lots of money (i.e. any politician who could be a serious national candidate under the current system) can be tarred as "inauthentic" if they propose progressive economic policies (although a rich actor renting a pickup as a campaign prop is good enough for a Republican to be "authentic.")

What matters to people: actual or counterfactual similarity? I suspect the latter. Leaving political playacting aside, think of how most of us feel about privileged individuals who repudiate privilege--not out of some bizarre religious conviction or sacrificially in order to provide benefits to the rest of us but because they're jaded, want to experience the life the other half (or 99/100ths) live or even, out of some misguided sense of solidarity, want to live like us. We resent it. What are these people playing at? We resent the Universe for being organized in such a way that privileges we'd appreciate and use to advantage are wasted on them, and we transfer that resentment to them.

When rich college kids (like me) demonstrated in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention, the Chicago cops, who would have loved to have had the chance to go to fancy colleges and were working hard to see to it that their kids had the chance, busted our heads in. Real blue collar workers were outraged by rich hippies pretending to be working class. More recently, when a journalist went for a stroll in Kabul wearing a burqa the was surrounded and threatened by Afghan women in burqas, who recognized that she was a Westerner by her running shoes, outraged that she was voluntarily doing what they had to do and didn't want to do. When another journalist, black and African but visibly overweight, was "embedded" with a poor family in rural Ethiopia to share their life and report, the entire village was outraged and only, grudgingly, accepted him when he persuaded them that he was "doing a study."

Even if we resent rich people for not sharing their wealth or powerful people for undermining our prospects, we don't resent them for enjoying their wealth and power because that is exactly what we would do in their position. Absent overriding conditions--doing a study, giving excess wealth to the poor, embracing poverty for the Kingdom of God's sake--we resent them for not being like us. it's the counterfactuals that matter.

Counterfactuals, unfortunately, are invisible. The public sees Bush doing what they do and Edwards doing things they can't afford to do--they don't notice those other possible worlds. However it would be easy enough for politicians to draw their attention to them instead of pretending that they're actually just regular guys who cut brush and drive pick-ups. "Now y'all listen up: you bet I live in a big, fancy house, get $400 haircuts and hire other people to do yard work. I was lucky, worked hard, and got rich. I live exactly the way you would if you lucked out, as I did, and got rich. And I'm gonna work to see to it that you do better and have more opportunities to get the good stuff I got and to enjoy it. Where's the beef?"

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