(Swans - July 26, 2010) When I was a youngster, phony bastards used to bother me a lot. My father accused guys of being phony bastards, and whenever he did I always knew he was right. For example he accused the singer Frankie Lane of being a phony bastard. As soon as he said it, I could see it. That rich voice-- phony as hell. When "Rawhide" came on the tube my father left the room in disgust. When my father was dying his doctor tried to give him false hope. He suggested, with scorn, that the doctor should have been a salesman. The poor doc looked like he'd been slapped in the face. Did he deserve it? I don't know. To me, my father's fingering of a phony bastard was gospel. But the doc was just trying to be nice, right? Still, that phony shit.
When J.D. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye, a book all about phony bastards, he got to go home, close the door, and never open it again. Lucky guy. That's one way to get rid of all the phony bastards. For those who are no Holden Caulfields sniffing out phony bastards, but long to know what you have been missing, think of Donald Trump. Now there's a phony bastard for you. I know it's hard to believe, but some people don't even know Trump is a phony bastard. It's true. I've met them. What is it about phony bastards? Either you get them or you don't. It's no use trying to explain why some guy is a phony bastard. What is it about Trump? The hair? The body language? The whole shtick? It's just there. You see it or you don't. Phony-bastardism is a phenomenon, and that's that. When I see Trump I think he once was what might be called a conspiratorial phony bastard, the kind of phony bastard who is phony in public but comes on all sincere in private, still phony as hell on another level he can't see. That may be giving him too much credit, and anyway that duality has likely faded. Now he's just an in-your-face phony bastard and proud of it. Can't really turn it off any more, and doesn't want to (if he ever could). Just because you're a phony bastard doesn't guarantee that underneath all that phoniness is a real you. You can be phony through and through all the way to the core. Some phony bastards have nothing to be phony about.
My real problem is: what the hell do you do with a phony bastard? There he is, looking into your eyes, and flinging bullshit. You don't want to just say, "bullshit!" It's too graceless, too ugly. I've tried saying, "Wow, you ought to be president," but that makes me a kind of phony bastard. My father had nothing but scorn for phony bastards, but I tend to give them a little slack because, I have to admit, I've been a phony bastard and, for all I know, still am. When you're loyalty to the phony bastard point of view is shaky, it's easy to be a phony bastard yourself without really knowing you are. Phony bastardism comes in all shapes and sizes. You don't have to be rich. I was truly on the edge of down and out, broke, and three months behind on the rent. Unemployed, newly arrived, I didn't know a soul I could talk to in the entire city of San Francisco, and I hadn't spoken to anyone in a week other than the cashier at Safeway to whom I said "thank you." Then I got a job in a gas station. Someone would drive up and I would say, "Fillerup?" But for some reason whenever I said, "fillerup?" I sounded like a phony bastard. Like it was coming from left field. I knew it, the guy or woman in the car knew it, and it was weird. I knew I sounded like a phony bastard, but I just couldn't help it. I was coming from another planet and faking being human. That's how far away from people I had got. Since then I've seen plenty of others in this fix. It's hard to come back; I was lucky. Usually they end up being supervised, which is curtains.
For anyone who wants a walk on the wild side here's a little recipe. Caution, though: for you who want to stay normal, I wouldn't advise trying this at home. To feel like you've just landed from outer space isolate yourself for about a week. Buy enough food, get rid of books, TV, and any other voice substitutes, and close the door. Turn off your cell phone. Leave a comforting message on your voicemail so your mother doesn't send the police to your apartment. Make sure you have no friends or none who might disturb you. At the end of a week take a trip on the outside. You too will sound weird. That solitude will leak out no matter what you do to try to sound normal. Just remember, there's no guarantee of ever coming back. Once you've been to outer space you're going to be a space cadet.
Now in truth I've been a more conventional phony bastard, which was even worse. You can't help being a phony bastard when you want someone to do something, that is, when you are a salesman. People want something, you try to give it to them, you say only what you are sure is the truth, no emotional tricks, and you are still a phony bastard. Why? Because you really don't give a shit for them, or at least not the kind of shit you are pretending to give. You want to get paid. You haven't been yourself, and in spite of yourself you are calculating. If you have any sense of phony bastardism you want to just get away from them and yourself. You're creeped out. Stupid, right? I was pretty much disgusted with myself the whole time even though I didn't think I was doing anything that wrong. What bothered me most was losing my nose for phony bastards. I began to question the whole phony bastard gestalt.
For that was when it dawned that not everybody sees phony bastards. They are invisible to a large chunk of the population. So am I seeing things or are they blind? When I first noticed people with this blind spot I thought it was a difference between poor people and rich ones. Most average schnooks know phony bastards when they see them. Self-made men, really successful ones, all had phony bastard blindness. Now sometimes I wonder if I am merely cleaving to the religion of my father when I think that, for example, some news guy or politician is a phony bastard. It's really bad when some flesh and blood phony bastard is blowing smoke up your ass. Call him a phony bastard? What's the point? All it does is foul up your business. Most phony bastards don't exactly lie, certainly not about facts. You can do business with them, and in some ways, it's easier. Just write air-tight contracts and let them wheel and deal up and down. Ignore the phony bastards. But it didn't seem to work. I said nothing, smiled, and still anyone I thought was a phony bastard somehow knew that I thought so. Or anyway they thought something, or were simply uncomfortable. You can't pretend to ignore phony bastards; you really have to not see them. And I couldn't do that.
Now I don't think I'm that bad at covering my feelings compared to other people, and my feelings weren't that bad. As I said, you can do business with phony bastards. Sometimes I could hide them even from myself, but it did no good. I must have emitted some kind of vibe. And I felt like a phony bastard too. Of course civilization depends upon at least pretended phony bastard blindness, so you might say that being civilized is being a phony bastard. One of civilization's common sights is two phony bastards facing off, and with everything but words declaring themselves phony bastards and proud of it. Wall Street is crawling with phony bastards jabbering to one another day and night and flaunting their phony bastardism in one another's faces. They can do it because they really don't know they are phony bastards, so they don't have any feelings to cover up. From childhood, blindness to phony bastards is drummed into their noggins. But is that any different from what my father did to me when he skewered every phony bastard in sight? That is a stumper.
My contact with the phony-bastard blind has shaken my own sense of phony bastardry. Take Ronald Reagan, for example. Was he or was he not a phony bastard? He certainly sounded sincere. Was he really a butcher (Nicaragua)who honestly, truly thought he was a good guy? I think so. Precisely because he wasn't a phony bastard, but only oblivious, he set off the present total stupidity craze that seems to be all the rage these days. Reagan really couldn't see anything but his own happy surroundings. He believed all that "city on a hill" stuff we all want to believe but can't because of what is right in front of our faces. My father had no doubt Reagan was a phony bastard, and if our TV had transmitted in the opposite direction, the tornado of his vituperation would have stripped Reagan bare.
Contact with the phony bastard blind exposes one to phony bastard insanity. Is he or isn't he? Or is it all just in my head? Perhaps the worst part of the whole phony bastard dialectic is the reflexive truth that doubting the existence of phony bastards is a sure sign of being one. From there it's a slippery slope to the madhouse, and I'd best not go there.
Once you get started seeing phony bastards they are everywhere. Let's face it, phony bastards are coming out of the woodwork. And don't think I hold myself aloof. A guy once said to me, "Don't think, you phony bastard!" and I could see his point. I should have just reacted to what he had said. Of course just knowing that doesn't cleanse you of phony bastardism. The ways of being a phony bastard are limited only by the fertility of the human imagination itself. Once you notice that there is such a thing as a phony bastard there is no end to it. For behind every phony bastard is another phony bastard lying in wait. A whole Zen practice is contained within the phony bastard dialectic. You can end up seeing a phony bastard behind every smile. Is it real or is it Memorex?
The hard question is this: what's wrong with being a phony bastard? Being a phony bastard, especially one innocent of self-knowledge, seems like a good career move. Where is the downside? What harm is there in all that positive thinking? What harm is there in attributing, like Reagan did, all one's actions, no matter how barbaric, to good motives? What is wrong with obviously fake warm feelings exchanged between business associates? What is wrong with being unable to see that warm fake feelings are fake? In short what is wrong with being an ignorant phony bastard? I'm pretty sure that George Bush never in his life thought that any professed good feelings were fake. If some guy professed good feelings that was enough, regardless of what he really felt. I suspect Bush is not even aware of the possibility of real and fake feelings. But how does such ignorance hurt him?
Now, I have never thought that any sort of wealth could make up for being a phony bastard. When I imagine what it is like for a phony bastard at home I just cringe. No boat, no trophy wife, no phalanx of sycophants, could make up for the horror of hearing that phony shit coming from my own mouth. But maybe that's just me.
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About the Author
Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y. (back)