Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cut The Crap

If you happen to read one document on the current state of politics, Allan Gregg's expansive essay is a MUST read. Gregg articulates what we crave, what is missing and why those who exhibit the slightest AUTHENTICITY now thrive, no matter their political persuasion. I've stressed the word authenticity on this blog many times, to my mind it is now a core characteristic that must exist to truly resonate. "Victory" these days is a tricky affair, because when you factor in turnout, apathy, outright disdain, seat calculations don't always equate to a more encompassing view of "success".

A fantastic analogy by Gregg:

I was pondering this quandary the last time I was in New York, when I ventured onto Bleeker Street to catch the early sets at the seminal folk-rock venue, The Bitter End.

The opening act was a three piece alt-rock outfit, fronted by a bespectacled, baseball capped, singer-guitarist by the name of Michael W. To my surprise and delight, they were very good – not quite ready for the big stage, but certainly beyond competent. They played original material that had a Tracy Chapman/Ben Harper rhythmical, not-quite-rock-but-not-the-acoustic-singer-songwriter thing going on. The crowd responded to their first few songs with something between courtesy and enthusiasm.

It was all very pleasant when something completely unplanned and unexpected happened. A few bars into about the fourth song in the set, W’s electric pick-up popped out of his hollow-bodied guitar. Rather than stop the song and repair his now obviously dysfunctional instrument, he leaned over to his piano player and whispered (the club is intimate enough that you actually can hear such things from the audience) … “we have to go acoustic”. The keyboardist turned off his instrument, the drummer avoided the skin of his snare and merely tapped out the beat on the rim of his kit and W began to sing off mic. Within a few seconds, the normal ambient din of a rock club slid into absolute silence. Stripped of all reverberation, the cadence of W’s voice seemed far more assured yet nuanced, while his guitar playing was unquestionably more dynamic and muscular. Robbed of his instrument, the keyboardist had little choice but to move closer to center stage and he and W began singing to each other and produced some of the most beautiful harmonies I have heard in a rock club. As the last chord was struck, the room literally exploded with rapturous cheering, hooting and applause.

It wasn’t at all clear that the Michael W band fully understood what they had created, because with equipment repaired, they never again even came close to connecting with the crowd in the same way for the remainder of their workman-like set. But we in the audience knew we had witnessed something very magical and rare – unscripted, unrehearsed, naked authenticity. The band had ceased to “perform music” and instead had communicated with us and among themselves with a joy and passion, without artifice.

I'd also add the word ORGANIC here, which is an extension of authenticity, instead of contrived, things just happen. Everything in modern politics is scripted, pre-planned, careful, tested, approved and manufactured. This presentation is in direct conflict with modern means of expression, wherein the audience is no longer PASSIVE, but engaged and active. No longer do corporations "sell" their products, they now put out their messaging, which we investigate ourselves, relying on the personal experience of others to guide us, the "street take". Gregg uses travel as an example, I'd add big items like purchasing an automobile to the smallest of investments, taking in a movie. You look online to see what others think about your preferred vehicle choice, you go to Rotten Tomatoes to see if a video is worth renting, you forever seek out real world FEEDBACK, beyond the traditional sales job. This development speaks to an inherent mistrust, we no longer take the word of the salesman, we require third party validation to make a more informed choice. With few exceptions, the modern political apparatus has failed to understand public sentiment in this regard, still relying on outdated, almost one way means of communication, which is viewed with outright suspicion.

It's a fairly simple and painfully obvious calculation: there is a disconnect between the messenger and the audience, the dialogue isn't viewed as a real world connection, but some foreign world that the players reside in baring no relationship to our own. As Gregg notes- across the political spectrum- voters are so desperate for an air of authenticity, they will reward those they normally wouldn't support, based solely on a sense that there is something genuine, real, honest about that person. In an age of packaging and careful sterilized discourse, the very hint of authenticity- something that pierces through the perceived snow job- is entirely attractive. The Toronto electorate didn't move right when they voted for Rob Ford, they simply responded to plain talk, within a package which oozed "Joe Average", straightforward, one of "us", no pretense or slick presentations.

If you look at the last Ontario election, one moment strikes me in support of Gregg's thesis. Only one moment, within a sea of the usual bullshit, the Dalton McGuinty "hey, I know you don't like me, but..." ad. For those few seconds, McGuinty looked human, sincere and shockingly HONEST. Political scientists can pour over that campaign, but I would point to that simple ad as the KEY turning point, that probably saved the Liberal government. There was an authenticity about that particular ad that stepped outside the usual tripe that people tune out, real is effective, honesty can resonate, self deprecation resembles real world reflection.

People no longer take politicians at their word, the entire "game" as we see it deserves complete suspicion, if not outright disdain, almost a defensive posture which demands scrutiny to sift through the misleading optics. Politicians will say anything, their promises are worthless, their message is almost trickery, rather than advocates, the whole political machine is at odds with everyday society, how we speak and interact. There is the political world and there is the one we live in, our apathy and disinterest providing powerful evidence that leadership is now rendered an esoteric world, far, far away and completely irrelevant. A dangerous development, but also a circumstance that highlights how a "cut the crap" mentality can truly capture the public mood, an air of authenticity piercing through the smoke and mirrors.

Political parties now spend incredible amounts of time trying to figure out how to communicate effectively in the modern world. Contrary to that acknowledgement, what fascinates me, how there is still this cookie cutter war room mentality, how the template is still adhered to, despite all the evidence pointing to a tired model that doesn't work, if engagement is your true guide. Outreach is almost tertiary, the models persist, despite the acknowledgement of a changed audience. When we see anyone or anything step out from the stencil, it is refreshing and yet it still remains rare. The party that figures out "authenticity", makes it the core word that surrounds and develops every strategic decision, will be rewarded. Not a theoretical prediction, we have many practical examples which demonstrate where the electorate is, they are simply waiting for the political machine to catch up...


Jerry Prager said...

Ignatieff had a moment like that, the very first time he used the words rise up, and then into the dough roller it went, and the cookie cutter began stamping rise up until we gagged.

Purple library guy said...

Rob Ford is an interesting example. I think it's true that the voters who went for him were in some sense reaching for "authenticity". But note that this is quite distinct from "honesty"--Ford lied like a rug to get elected, and his lies were simple, obvious and transparent.

His major competitor, though, was the kind who doesn't tell the truth, but doesn't even lie, he just weasels and avoids saying anything real or significant. It seems the electorate will take a vigorous lie over a flaccid evasion. Like the science insult "That isn't right. It isn't even wrong," people prefer someone who's flat-out wrong to someone who isn't even wrong.

Purple library guy said...

That said, it's easier to pull off if you're a right winger, because the media rarely let anyone on the left get away with abrasive authenticity, especially combined with inaccuracy as with Rob Ford--when a left winger does it, that's called being a lunatic and relentlessly trashed and mocked.

Unknown said...

The authenticity is also why Jack Layton's cane and illness helped galvanize such support for the NDP. Without them he seemed too much like a Ken doll; with them he became real. (Sadly, all to real, in that he lost that battle.)