What is Real?

I read a fascinating and entertaining essay in the Wall Street Journal this week that makes the point that we just don’t know what to believe any more. Dan Henninger’s essay, which he playfully entitles Wonderland –We’re all Balloon Boys Now, notes how reality and fantasy have become confused and blurred. He notes that “with fakery everywhere today, people retreat into a shell of cynicism about everything.” Perception Management has become so sophisticated and has gone to such bizarre extremes that we can hardly tell the difference between the legitimate and the absurd, or between form and substance, and we’re never quite sure where reality ends and fantasy begins. With all the spin doctors, photo-shop make-overs, plastic surgery, performance enhancing drugs, lip-synching, 3D special effects, clever marketing strategies, public relations and personal branding consultants, the stretchers of the truth and the outright liars, we’re constantly asking ourselves, “Is this real, or am I being had? Are very clever people taking me for a ride?”

Even ‘reality TV’ is largely fake. There is the famous unattributed claim that “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” So who and what can we believe and trust? What is real?

The Washington Post “On Leadership” discussion, to which I contribute from time to time, recently asked the question: “What is it about airline Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and his ‘miracle on the Hudson’ that has so fascinated the public? What does it say about the public’s hunger for leadership?” My response noted that we hunger for authenticity, and Capt Sullenberger and what he and his crew did to save the lives of the people on their airliner was real, genuine, and required no PR spin, no make-up, no excuses. He and his crew had worked hard to be very competent at their jobs, and delivered on their commitment to protect the lives of their passengers in an emergency. As simple as that. America has become so accustomed to ‘posers,’ fast talking salesmen, and opportunists grand-standing for personal gain, seeking to manipulate the perceptions of this or that constituency, that when someone genuine steps up and honestly does their job well because that is who they are and what they believe in, we are shocked and amazed. Capt Sullenberger, police and firemen, members of the military, corporate leaders who spurn the spotlight, but give generously and sometimes anonymously to good causes – these capture the moral imagination of America, and fan the embers of what is best in us. When we get confused about what is real and what is fake, what is sincere and what are mere attempts to manipulate us and our emotions toward some other end, Capt Sullenberger reminds us of what a genuine hero is, and of that part of the American character that we can continue to believe in.

You can read Dan Henninger’s entertaining and insightful essay Wonderland –We’re all Balloon Boys Now in the WSJ by clicking here.

You can read my response to the Washington Post question on America’s response to Capt Sullenberger by clicking here.

You can view a short video of WP’s interview with Capt Sullenberger by clicking here.

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