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The obsession with sincerity in American politics

Posted: Aug 31, 2012 7:11 PM ET

Last Updated: Aug 31, 2012 7:09 PM ET


Richard Handler

CBC Radio's Sunday Edition recently ran a series of sound bites from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Each of his statements — on abortion, a woman's right to choose, gun control and health care — all seemed to contradict each other.

Sunday Edition billed it as "the many voices of Mitt Romney," and Romney as the "flip-flop king" of U.S. politics.

Cheeky — and they are not alone. If you've been paying even the least bit of attention to the U.S. presidential election you will have been inundated by a tsunami of articles, opinions — and jokes — asking "Who is the real Mitt Romney?"

Republican convention speeches, especially from the candidate himself and his wife, Ann, tried to "humanize" him, it was said constantly. (His wife spoke of his overpowering love and compassion for people in need.)

The goal was clearly to present Romney as a real person and to answer the questions: Is he "authentic?" Is he "sincere" in his beliefs?

This American obsession with sincerity puzzles the critic and journalist R. Jay Magill Jr., who has written a book about it, just published, with a long and cheeky subtitle: Sincerity: How a Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Hipster Chic and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say.

Germans don't care

As an aside, the publishing world appears to be unleashing a plague of long subtitles this season, all trying to out-cheek each other.

But Magill is a thoughtful and serious journalist (as well as an excellent cartoonist).

An American, he also lived in Berlin for a decade and is struck by how Germans and Europeans couldn't care less how "sincere" their politicians are.

They want competent managers, technocrats, public servants, and yes, politicians, meaning people capable of deft compromise.

They are amused by the American insistence on sincerity, on trying to ferret out the real person behind the public persona.

Magill points out that when an American politician really wants to make a hit, they claim they are the real deal.

As Sarah Palin did in 2008 when she was running for vice-president and told talk-show host Glen Beck that she "saw sincerity there" in the American Founding Fathers. And that she hoped voters would see her in the same way.

So, who is the real Palin? The real Romney, the real anybody?

Magill quotes the observation by the 19th-century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson who said "Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins."

More to the point, perhaps, especially if you are talking about politicians, is playwright George Bernard Shaw's observation: "It's dangerous to be sincere unless you're also stupid."

A series of performances

For Magill, sincerity is an alignment of the inner and outer person, sincerity being the inner, subjective state projected outward.

A sincere person matches what's inside, harmoniously, with the face he presents to the world.

Magill tells us that nobody can be truly sincere all of the time. (If we always just said what is in our hearts, marriages would break up, friendships would rupture.)

Life, he argues, is a series of performances. We present ourselves to ourselves, and to people we know.

Another way of looking at it, as I heard on a U.S. talk radio show, people can be sincere at different moments, even if these moments of sincerity contradict each another.

That's a thesis Mitt Romney hasn't advanced yet in his own defence.

But it is probably not far off Bill Clinton's parsing of "sexual relations" as not what he did with intern Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton might have been perfectly sincere, at that moment, even if he was ultimately deceitful.

Calvinist roots

Magill traces America's obsession with sincerity to its roots in the Protestant Reformation.

Protestants dispensed with church intermediaries (like Catholicism's priests). For them, God required only that the true Christian bring a "sincere heart," according to the cleric John Calvin, writing in 1536.

For Calvinists, you could be saved by faith — what's in your heart — alone.

Think of all those salvation preachers. God peers into your heart, your soul. You can't hide. So, get it right.

Now, that was a long time ago, but a country is moulded by its traditions, especially a country as filled with evangelical fervour as the U.S.

The other element here, Magill suggests, is that America has been largely settled by immigrants, settlers who were initially strangers to each other.

People had to face up to and perform constantly before people they did not know to get along or advance. So they had to develop a vast repertoire of concealment.

Today, this hunger for sincerity — as well as the obsession with its counterpart, duplicity — plays out not just in the political arena, but in things like the Oprah Show, reality TV and the countless bestselling self-help manuals (one nation before God and therapy).

And it this hunger for spiritual sincerity that sometimes looks to dominate American politics.

For Magill, the only way to really know what people believe, or feel, is to take account of how they act over time.

Until then, people who should know better still hunger for the belief that they can look into a politician's heart to discern whether he's sincere, even while he's speaking to them from behind a teleprompter.

Americans may find out whether Romney is really sincere and what he is made of only if and after he is elected.

Until then, he will undoubtedly perform acts of sincerity galore.

About The Author

Richard Handler is a producer with the CBC Radio program Ideas.

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