Last week, controversy again courted Marion Barry. It seems that way, rather than the other way around: What other explanation might we have for a public official so adept at holding office and yet so unskilled in avoiding even the most rudimentary of mishaps? Cocaine, corruption, tax evasion, stalking of former paramours, now bigotry—all have been visited on Barry, and from all he emerged triumphant. As other disgraced politicians bowed their heads, submitted to castigation, and shuffled off stage to spend time with their families, Barry put himself up for reelection and, nearly every single time, won. If you can’t comprehend quite how momentous an achievement that is in the current landscape of American politics, try to imagine Bill Clinton winning hearts and votes after being overheard, referring to a lover turned informer, claiming that “the bitch set me up.”
What, then, makes Barry run? The most straightforward and rational assumption would be that despite his bravado, he’s a remarkably competent public official. This is not the case. While Barry can certainly point to some concrete achievements in his long and storied career, which includes four terms as mayor and four as city councilman—a frequently balanced budget, an innovative program guaranteeing summer jobs to every local youth who desired one, the rehabilitation of parts of downtown D.C.—his record, even while ignoring the various accusations of nepotism and mismanagement, is spotty. To name but the most obvious example, Ward 8—which, on April 3, overwhelmingly elected Barry as its representative to the D.C. Council for the third time in a row—has, according to Bloomberg News “the highest unemployment rate of any U.S. metropolitan area with a comparable size workforce,” standing at an abysmal 25.2 percent in January of this year. While this, of course, is not the exclusive responsibility and the singular failure of Barry, it is hard to see any major achievement during his past years in office that would justify the love he gets from his followers.
And love him they do: The same day Barry won his most recent election, he joined Twitter and began sharing his wisdom in 140 characters or less, most of which in caps. Later that evening, he dubbed his efforts twagging, or tweeting with swagger. His fans were quick to applaud the victory and the bluster alike. “Congrats to the realest man in politics,” tweeted one follower, and another declared Barry to be the “best mayor DC has had despite his past personal struggles, he is a man of the people, not the gentry.” Or, in the words of another supporter: “I don’t care that he hasn’t done anything in the past seven years,” the man said. “I know if I order takeout, we can sit down and eat chicken together.” Barry is nothing so much as authentic.
But the precise nature of his authenticity is deceiving. He succeeds not because he somehow conjures an endless torrent of signifiers that suggest to his voters that he is one of them, speaking the same language and vulnerable to the same temptations—in other words, not because he’s good at faking sincerity—but because he is, quite simply, a sincere man.
Writing about sincerity, Lionel Trilling noted the paradox at the heart of high modernism. “While seeking to make us ever more sensitive to the implications of the poet’s voice in its unique quality, including inevitably those implications that are personal before they are moral and social,” he wrote, modernism “was at the same time very strict in its insistence that the poet is not a person at all, only a persona, and that to impute to him a personal existence is a breach of literary decorum.” This, he argues, is how James Joyce could claim that the personality of the artist “finally refines itself out of existence” while simultaneously spawning Stephen Dedalus, a literary creation that bore an uncanny resemblance to his author.
The field of contemporary politics is not too far from Trilling’s modernist paradox. Personality is the subject matter of virtually all of our political narratives, and yet the players themselves are required to be oddly impersonal. They peddle sanitized biographies and scrubbed anecdotes, and their stories aim eternally to transcend their humanity rather than expound on it. When they digress from this dogma—as President Obama did when he said, so movingly, that his son, had he had one, would have looked like the slain Trayvon Martin—chaos ensues. Our politics are still highly stylized, and still devoted to form.
But the rest of our culture isn’t. Modernism, Trilling wrote, played “an elaborate, ambiguous, and arbitrary game,” one that couldn’t carry on for long. Soon, the age of the memoir was upon us; “The subject of an autobiography,” Trilling noted, is “bent on revealing himself in all his truth, bent, that is to say, on demonstrating his sincerity.” We are sincerity junkies; nothing satisfies us more than one trying to speak some plain truth about one’s own existence. Which is not to say that we equate sincerity with truth. We realize, as the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt so poignantly put it, that “there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that is it the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”
We couldn’t care less. It’s sincerity we want, in whatever form it is doled out. Barack Obama measures his in coffee spoons. Marion Barry’s comes in family-sized packaging. He practices politics as autobiography, highlighting the good and the bad, twagging at us because that’s what he feels like doing. We had once, Trilling reminds us, admired Rousseau for being the author of both Discourses and Confessions, the theoretical work and the autobiographical one complementing one another. Similarly, we revel in knowing that the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the mayor busted with crack pipe at hand are the same person, and are grateful when that person follows Trilling’s dictum and insists on revealing himself in all his truth.
It’s an audacious proposition, but in a hypermediated political culture in which everything is recorded, nothing is forgotten, and everyone behaves accordingly, it’s great to have a “mayor-for-life” who, in the most literal sense, tells it like it is.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.