I noticed an interesting building facade the other day. It stood out to me as I’ve looked at that exact building at least 50 times and never noticed the feature before. In the old wild west, they would’ve called it a ‘false front’.
It’s where the front of the building extends upwards beyond the actual roof, with nothing of substance situated behind it. If you’ve ever seen a Western film, they were the tall flimsy wooden front-facing walls of the Main Street buildings.
The adventurous businessmen of the Old West knew there was a good chance their newfound towns wouldn’t last too long, so they scrimped on spending. They also wanted to impress those opulent tourists who came sauntering through town too — thus, the false-but-pretty front.
Moviemakers later used the same style. Not just because of historical accuracy — they also needed cheap temporary buildings to use in front of the cameras.
You may even notice them in your own neighborhood. My hometown in Canada had these beautiful unoccupied brick houses in most neighborhoods. If you snuck around back, as a kid is wont to do, you’d hear the reason why.
They were some sort of electricity transmission power stations. I didn’t know exactly what they were as a kid. I clearly still don’t, other than that they, too, were a false front.
When I went to Cuba in my early 20’s, I marveled at the towns near the resorts when I jumped on a scooter and went for a rip. Their false fronts were painted in a wide variety of the ugliest damn contrasting colors you could ever think of.
Bright off-yellow. Burnt pink. Greyish blue with specks of paint chipped off revealing the dull construction beneath. I later learned they were a false front painted by the government exactly for me — the unknowledgeable tourist. Although I am sure the jefe behind that idea was colorblind on a good day.
And it’s this last one that got me thinking about something. While the other false fronts often had a purpose — be it saving money, saving beauty, or saving disappointment — there is another kind of false front. The kind meant to deceive for not-so-nice purposes.
These are called ‘Potemkin villages’ and I hate them.
What is a Potemkin Village?
The disputed story behind the famous rare phrase is almost amusing. Catherine the Great was due to visit her newest territory of Crimea after Russia annexed it in 1783 (for the first time). She had a minister and possible lover that went by the name of Grigory Potemkin who was now in charge of the war-torn region.
As a new great war approached the Russian empire of the time, the Empress decided to visit the frontline territories with a select few foreign ambassadors. She feasibly wanted to drum up a good impression to help garner their support in the battles to come.
And to Catherine and Potemkin, that required putting on a show. As The Empress and her entourage toured into Crimea on a large slow-moving barge down the Dnieper River, Potemkin allegedly had a series of fanciful villages set up and occupied by his troops to put on a false front of newfound prosperity.
The amusing part of the story alleges that these villages were then dismantled and rebuilt in a different order, over and over again as the barge drifted slowly down the river.
Frugal, crafty, and impressive — a triple win, if true.
Whether or not the story is actually real is another matter. But regardless of the expression’s origin, I can’t help but see Potemkin villages all around us in the modern age.
We’re Living in a Potemkin Village
The examples stretch far and wide. Just think about the definition — an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition— and you can imagine the possibilities.
We announce to our loved ones and ourselves a version of the village every New Year’s Eve, with empty promises of hitting the gym 20 times a week in the year to come. But just a few days later, the thought of “maybe next year” inevitably floats through our heads.
We take 1,000 pictures and only post 1 on Instagram day in and day out, proffering to the world that this photoshopped picture and angle on a once-in-a-life vacation to Mexico is actually anything but out-of-the-norm. According to the Potemkin village named Instagram, nearly every single one of us is on a perpetual tropical vacation at all times of the year.
It’s the forever ongoing sale at the “50% Off Store” which I saw as a teenager and wondered how the hell they were able to skirt the law. You can’t have something half-off if it’s never full-priced in the first place. Unless it’s Potemkin, of course.
Donald Trump once bragged, or rather his ghostwriter did, that he built a Potemkin village to fool Holiday Inn investors into partnering with him to build a casino in 1982.
He owned an empty plot of land and knew the execs were coming to visit. So, he hired a team of bulldozers to scrape, push, and appear to be doing actual construction on the site. According to his Potemkin village of a book — The Art of the Deal — it worked. It goes without saying his presidency was full of similarly empty grand statements and executive orders.
He truly would’ve made Potemkin proud.
Of course, it’s not just Trump that’s guilty of that, it’s practically a job requirement for any major politician these days. Especially with their greatest tool to gesticulate their intentions — Twitter.
But just as a hammer can be used to drive in a nail or remove one, so can a political social media platform be used to reinforce a false front. Believe what I say, not what I do, as I go running off to Mexico during a freezing crisis I blamed on windmills, of all things. He Ted Cruzed on out of there after his false front was temporarily removed.
Burn Down the Town
Everywhere you look these days, especially on the great society ruiner of the modern web, there is a Potemkin village. But then I remembered the simple proverb about idiots.
No, not the ‘If it walks like a Trump, talks like a Trump, and acts like a Trump, it probably is a Potemkin village in the shape of a president.’
The other proverb. The one about finding yourself in the middle of a room surrounded by idiots and not having the cognizance that if that’s the case, the idiot is most likely you.
But to me, it’s not that we are merely surrounded by Potemkin’s — I believe we’re living in one. The online world we find ourselves unable to escape is founded upon fakeness and false fronts.
Our Facebook friends are not our friends. Our LinkedIn associates do not associate with us. The information we glean from our favorite resource du jour is just as often misinformation, at best.
Everything around us is fake and it’s seemingly becoming worse the more advanced our society and technology become. The world has unwittingly donned rose-colored glasses whenever it dares to look in the mirror these days. If it is even capable of doing that in the first place.
Who is to blame? Is it Rupert Murdoch with his string of monopolistic conservative media outlets, of which there are literally hundreds?
Or is it the asshat possibly-psychopathic mouthpieces like Tucker Carlson who drum up their base against humanity saving vaccines just to ‘stick it to the libs’?
Or perhaps we should be looking at the robot with the serial name of Mark Zuckerberg who has influence over billions of people based on his choices, or lack thereof, as in the case of Cambridge Analytica.
But sadly, I feel the true fault lies within ourselves. We chose to slowly move our belongings into Potemkin Village. It used to be empty, only a place full of devious advertisers, scammers, and politicians.
But now I’m afraid, we as a society full of individuals making our own choices have chosen the path of least resistance. We started looking at Potemkin not as a place of lies and deceit, but as a place of beauty and appeal — how could we say no?!
One by one, first a few, then by the masses, decided to ship up and ship off to Potemkin Village. When we realized the falsity of the move, we couldn’t turn back. Instead, we had to drag everyone else we knew down to our level.
For just like Hotel California, you can try to say you’re checking out, but you can never really leave. We can’t truly escape social media anymore. It’s become a part of life.
That’s because Potemkin Village now has one more permanent resident.
Welcome to Potemkin Village