Searching for an authentic voice

PENDULUMS swing – it’s what they do. This year’s fashion is next year’s forgotten fad.

It is the nature of fashion to be transitory, whether it’s shoes and clothes (vertiginous platform soles, mismatched colourful floral patterns), food (Asian fusion, eggs broken into the middle of everything, if it grows ferment it) or slang (and I’m not going there because that is the most transitory of all and by the time somebody of my age has even heard it, the people using it have moved on).

But some trends stick like burrs. Take the continuing habit of piling mountains of flowers in cellophane outside places where somebody, whom you almost certainly did not know personally, has died – particularly if the death was sudden or brutal, particularly if the person who has died or been killed was young.

Before the death of Princess Diana, the Brits were, for the most part, not given to vast public outpourings of emotion. Post-Diana, many people (men and women) felt and continue to feel empowered (I’m sure that is the right word, much as I dislike it) to parade torrents of emotion and post selfies on their Instagram feeds.

Another trend, which is even more disturbing, is the use of the word “authentic” in politics. Time was when you knew what this meant. It was  a wish for “an authentic voice” – somebody who spoke from the heart, and from real, deep knowledge. Somebody whom, perhaps, you could trust. And even if you didn’t agree with them, you probably respected their views because they came from experience, knowledge or sympathetic intuition.

Over the past year or so, the use of the word “authentic” has moved from wanting to hear an authentic voice  to demanding that politicians be “authentic” – Bernie Sanders, say some of his vociferous supporters, is “authentic.” Hillary Clinton isn’t, they say.

The dictionary definition of “authentic” is:
• Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine, eg: the letter is now accepted as an authentic document
• Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original; eg: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals.
• Based on facts; accurate or reliable.

Authentic is now used to indicate somebody who appears to say exactly what you think, what you want to hear, particularly if it is going to offend the people with whom you disagree. It excludes the possibility that anybody might have a different point of view; it excoriates those people and their opinions who (you think) have had it all their own way for too long.

So you are more likely to hear people say that Nigel Farrage or Donald Trump are “authentic” because they draw attention to themselves by being as outrageous and offensive as possible. They are examples of populist demagogues who become media magnets because of their willingness to say the first thing that comes into their heads. It’s the soundbite, stupid.

Is Trump “authentic” because he says the first thing that comes out of his mouth, however vile, rabble-rousing, vulgar, coarse, vicious, anti-woman or racist it may be?

Is Farrage “authentic” because he has taken Mr Toad as his role model, always has a pint of beer in his hand, and shows a jolly, blokish contempt for anyone with whom he disagrees?

The criticism levelled against Hillary Clinton is that she has a prepared answer for everything. Of course, if she did not have an answer to a particular question, it would not make her authentic – it would make her incompetent.

Yet with Messrs Trump and Farrage, an inability to answer a question or explain the ramifications of a particular “policy,” or a tendency  to give a demonstrably inaccurate or wrong answer, are not causes for criticism. They seem, paradoxically, to add to their aura of authenticism.

The explanation of this bizarre and troubling trend lies, surely, in the pervasive cynicism about politicians and conventional governing parties, not only here and in the USA but in many parts of Europe. You would not describe Cameron, Osborne, Blair, Hollande or Sarkozy as “authentic.” Many people no longer believe anything that career politicians say. They distrust the political class and are drawn to people who come from outside that exclusive club – Trump, Sanders, Farage, even Corbyn.

Career politicians have carefully managed images, rehearsed speeches, advisors on everything from foreign policy to football, every fact at their (polished) finger tips. They are essentially media constructs. If you like the message, to misquote Marshall McLuhan, you may like the medium.

But don’t be fooled – the “authentics” know exactly what they are doing. Media manipulators par excellence, Trump and Farage have honed their image to perfection – and they thrive on being hated by the mainstream and the chattering classes.

So in the end, the question has to be whether  it is ever possible for a politician to be“authentic” – and where can we find an authentic voice?

Fanny Charles