The Problem of Politics in the Age of the Actor

rtsimg6He was a recently retired big shot from DC, running a well-funded foundation, and he offered me something I desperately needed in graduate school: paid work. The money was good, and the job was fairly straightforward: research a particular issue and write a report. I think I probably assumed that the report was for internal consumption, though I don’t recall that he misled in me in this respect. Regardless, not once did he mention that (a) he intended to have it published in a trade publication; and (b) he intended to put his name on it.

I was shocked when the article came out. Blindsided, perplexed. Here was this guy, a renowned intellectual superstar, a talking-head on CNN, and he was stealing from a lowly graduate student. I wasn’t so much offended as I was dumbfounded. But alas, I soon learned that he’d been doing this for decades.

In fact, a friend told me that this led, at times, to some awkward moments: people would ask him about something in his work and he’d stare at them blankly, with an odd mixture of fear and confusion. This guy was paid a great deal of money precisely because he was supposed to be that guy who wrote those landmark studies and reports. Well, as it turns out, he didn’t write any of those reports. I sometimes wonder if he’s even read them.

What hypocrites we are! When our kids are in school, we preach a moralistic gospel of authenticity: don’t plagiarize, be yourself, speak in your own voice, and all the rest. But when they graduate, they enter a world wherein celebrities no longer write their own memoirs, politicians no longer write their own speeches, and CEOs no longer write their own emails. Of course there are those who say that this is an unavoidable outcome of an increasingly complex world, that our leaders are busier today than they’ve ever been before. But I don’t buy it. Not for a minute. Think about it, is Obama busier than, say, Lincoln during the Civil War? I seriously doubt it! And yet Lincoln’s wartime correspondence is extensive, all of it written in his own hand. Wrote all his own speeches too. Every single one. Managed to squeeze that in too, it seems.

Some things should be sacred, set apart, special, not for sale; and, if those things are nevertheless going to be for sale, I want that to be made perfectly clear. For instance, if you’re a terrible cook, and you’re really busy (and loaded), and you decide to pay some chef $1000 to prepare this year’s family Christmas turkey dinner for you, that’s fine by me—so long as you don’t put on an apron, lie to us, and try to pretend that you cooked this delightful meal before us. But isn’t this precisely what our politicians do all the time in The Age of the Actor: namely, present us with delicious words that are not their own.

One consequence of this is that getting to know what your favorite politicians actually think—how they actually talk—is often a whole lot like discovering, much to your horror, that the hot babe you thought you were corresponding with is in fact a dirty old man who lives in a filthy basement apartment in Queens. At other times, it’s like discovering that your wife’s love letters to you were in fact ghost-written by Danielle Steel. Regardless, truth be told, I have no problem with ghostwriters and speechwriters, just as I have no problem with sex workers. I do, however, in certain circumstances, take issue with those who employ them.

To a large extent this is just a function of a manifest need for the real thing: When I call 9-1-1 because my house is on fire, I expect real firefighters to show up shortly thereafter, not actors playing dress-up. And when I’m trying to make intelligent political choices about candidates, I expect to be hearing from a real person, not a paid actor. That so many of my smartest friends fail to see this as an entirely reasonable expectation is itself a testament to how bad things have become.

When I’m watching a movie I know (on some level) that I’m listening to an actor. I don’t expect my society’s leaders to know everything, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to go it alone without competent advisers, but I nevertheless want them to speak in their own voice and write their own stuff (even if it sucks) so I can get a sense of who they are, what they value, how they see things, how they think; in short, I want to figure out if I can trust this person’s judgement enough to vote for them. And it’s really hard to do that when they’re reading from prepared scripts all the time!

We laugh at Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), which depicts a dystopian future wherein even love letters are written by paid professionals, but we’re practically there already. The leaders of our institutions—from banks to universities to governments to corporations, even high school principals—are increasingly little more than actors, reading from scripts written by others.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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