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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Return of the cult of personality

The election of Barack Obama marks not only the triumph of celebrity politics, but also a potentially dangerous return to leadership cults of personality.

Anyone who travelled in Russia in the 20th century would be familiar with cult of personality politics - the stern statues of an exorting Lenin everywhere, his name and those of his peers scrawled across the streetnames in every town like graffiti.

But today, as Putin and Medvedev offer up their own tributes to that old genocidal maniac Stalin, some personality cults are in a resurgence.

In China, even today, the Mao cult remains vibrant beyond words. The days of the cultural revolution when kids would beat their elders to death with Mao's little red book while chanting his name are still in living memory.

But the fact that his odious, insane visage still smirks from the yuan banknote, the postage stamps, the huge tapestry that hangs over the front of the Forbidden City gates at Tiananmen Square indicates that the Mao cult must still be respected and worshipped today in China, even by those overt capitalists currently running the Chinese Communist Party.

But hard times create new leader cults, and we have seen a number in recent years.

Long before Nelson Mandela left Robben Island, a cult of personality had already grown around him. It was inspired by the traditional yearning for and apotheosising of a lost leader, and Mandela's long absence from the public arena created a tabula rasa - a clean slate onto which his supporters could project their own Messianic desires for him.

Mandela, an elderly man with marital problems and released into an unrecognisable world after decades of incarceration, had no option but to lead the rainbow nation as president. For him to choose otherwise would have been unthinkable.

His audience, one might say congregation of worshippers, demanded it of him. The expectations were sky-high. Looking back on that transition period now, over a decade on, it seems that Mandela did extraordinarily well to fulfil so many of those unreasonable expectations. And perhaps he could not have achieved so much without the unwavering support of his true believers.

So, it is possible that leader cults can be beneficial.

But much more often, they are malignant in some form or another, for the very reason that believers follow on faith and fail to examine or challenge the details of their cult leader's decision making until a tipping point is reached when a series of decisions perceived as wrong or flawed by the following turns into an emotional backlash voiced as betrayal.

In this context, one thinks of Tony Blair, or Clinton. Both assumed leadership with a large faith-based support, by which I mean a cohort of the electorate who believed as an article of faith that the new leader espoused exactly the sort of societal changes that they themselves personally desired.

Initially, it is impossible to disappoint such an electorate, since the very existence of such an electorate depends on and grows from visceral opposition to an unpopular regime. For the Clintonites it was Papa Bush; for the Blairites, it was Tory sleaze and Mad Maggie.

But as time goes on, the fallibility of such leaders becomes evident, and this is the dangerous point, as the faith-based electorate feels emotionally betrayed, just as a true believer might feel their world fall in when their guru turns out to have been taking their savings to buy Rolls-Royces and cocaine.

For Clinton, there are still pockets of faith fans around the world, as his $100,000,000 earnings since leaving the White House indicate. But domestically, it turned for Bill when he started bombing African hospitals and cheerleading Israel.

By the time he was caught with his cigar in the intern and was facing impeachment proceedings, the faith-based fanbase in the US had largely evaporated in anger and betrayal. The result was that decent, genuine Democrats like Kerry and Gore failed to get elected.

The Obama moment for Britain came with Blair's epochal 1997 election. A generation out of power, Labour had had to entirely reinvent itself. Then on the eve of power, their leader John Smith died. Blair emerged from the resulting power-tussle as the bright-eyed, smiley, youthful face of hope in British politics.

How strange it is today to think of that Blair in the context of the gormless fool insisting that he was right to ignore the will of his people by sending their troops to die while occupying someone else's country, because his religious faith told him it was right? But when Blair first became Prime Minister, he was the blank slate onto which dreams where projected.

We're in the same position now in relation to Obama, a tabula rasa himself whose employment record is hidden and patchy, whose main achievement is to have written two bestselling autobiographies that ironically reveal little about him.

His high oratory, his tendentious catchphrases and his lack of a political record allow his believers to project onto him whatever their personal desires for the future may be.

Obama created this situation, but in a way has become a victim of it. It is not his fault that the Aboriginals now believe that they will get greater rights in Australia because of his election, or that Hamas believe a two-state solution in Palestine can be achieved under Obama's watch.

These are merely exotic examples of how people outside of America have been infected by the Obamania. Global leaders too have been falling over themselves to position their nations as Obama's new best friend.

The result, as the ever-excellent Matthew Parris points out in today's London Times, is that there is now a dangerous unanimity about Obama which is likely to go extremely sour in a very ugly way. As Parris points out, governance is a lot more about 'No, you can't' than 'Yes, we can'.

Personally, I don't see a Mandela in Obama. The track record isn't there. The bravery isn't there. The inate intelligence isn't there. Obama does have Mandela's charisma and possibly exceeds him in oratorical skills. But that's simply not enough.

We're entering a serious global recession. America is bleeding from two unwinnable wars and the world's approbrium. China has it economically by the privates. Russia is intent on dictating within its own self-defined sphere of influence and seems prepared to roll out the guns if opposed.

It would take a politician of some great genius to extricate themselves from all of those problems, never mind reverse the stratospheric deficit, ensure universal healthcare for Americans and all the other many, many promises Obama made during the Presidential campaign. And that doesn't even account for the unseeable, unknowable problems that await.

As Parris says, no messiah has come among us and miracles are not now possible. Despite this somewhat obvious reality, otherwise intelligent people have abandoned sense and rationality in relation to Obama's election.

Sadly, they will be the ones most disappointed when realpolitik intervenes. They will be the ones who feel viscerally betrayed, and who will round on their hero for not living up to the fantasy in their heads.

And Obama's supporters really now need to start paying close attention to his actions rather than his words.

The appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as Obama's chief of staff is not good news for much of the world. Emmanuel was Bill Clinton's fundraiser, which raises concerns in itself, but is also a hardcore Zionist whose father was a Zionist terrorist against British rule. Add this to Veep Joe Biden, the self-proclaimed 'best friend' of Israel, and you can see quite quickly that the Hamas hopes for a settlement are utterly in vain.

Not many in the West will be sorry for Hamas. But everyone else will follow down the path of disappointment. The Greens will be similarly disheartened if, as seems likely, Obama appoints a movie star who goes to work in a private plane as his Energy Tsar. And so on, and so on.

The key to avoiding crushing disappointment in an Obama presidency is to monitor it closely. That way, in the words of Matthew Parris, 'the crest of expectation might subside smoothly into the gentle swell of history.'

For those who cried ostentatiously on Obama's election because elderly black American people they don't know, who themselves were generations away from slavery, were pleased;
For those who stood out in the cold roaring 'Yes, we can' like some strange combination of self-assertion class and Nuremburg rally;
For those who take any criticism or reticence about the new messiah as a personal slight;

Your dreams will be dashed. Nothing is more certain.

That doesn't mean you can't keep on believing, though.

After all, Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions of their own people and are still adored by many.

13 comments:

gimme a minute said...

Convincingly put.

However, I think it's pretty disingenuous to suggest that Obama lacks innate intelligence.

And the melodrama of your closing sentence goes a long way to discrediting all that came before it.

May I ask if you would have preferred a different result in the election?

JC Skinner said...

Certainly Obama's a smart guy. He's academically brilliant, and politically astute (setting aside that mistake over Georgia.)
My point was that he doesn't have the innate intelligence of Nelson Mandela, which was not just book smarts, but also the intelligence gained from being a freedom fighter on the run, a prisoner in isolation and a political leader honed in the fire of oppression.
You may have misunderstood the point of my last sentence - I was trying to convey the idea that there will be some people who will hold onto their faith in Obama as messiah no matter what he does, just as there are some delusionals out there still worshipping Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, etc. All heroes have feet of clay, in other words, but not all people will see that.
As for my pick in this election, from an Irish perspective I felt that a Hilary Clinton presidency would have been the best option of what is, as always, a rum bunch.
Most of the Republicans frankly terrified me, though McCain I've always had some time for as an honest man, a genuine hero and someone with personal rather than party political views.
Probably he came to this eight years too late and 2000 was his real chance. But I still think that a McCain presidency wouldn't have been the worst for Ireland, though it mightn't have been great for Iraq or Russia.
Obama remains a cypher, an empty suit as Fred Reed put it. That's why he's the object of so many disparate dreams and visions, since there's so little substance of Obama revealed thus far almost anything can and has been projected onto him.
I'm a little afraid that someone can get elected to POTUS on so little substance. That's the politics of celebrity in action.
I have hope for his presidency, though. With goodwill behind him domestically and abroad, and large majorities in the senate and house, he should at least be effective.
And obviously, anyone is preferable to Dubya's nightmare.
But I'm very concerned at the lack of scrutiny being paid to Obama.
Once people realise an administration is more than one man, and that that one man mightn't be the guy you thought he was, then it might get ugly quickly, as Parris pointed out.
And in the current economic and geopolitical times, that won't be pretty for anyone.

gnash1970 said...

JC Skinner,

You appear to have inadvertently deleted my previous post. The question I asked was: are you quite sure that your sneering disregard for the hope and enthusiasm of so many people isn't rooted in your own misreading of this election? I ask because the only real point you're making - that unrealistic expectations will likely end in disappointment- is so obvious that it barely needs to be said. The only reason I can see for your post, a combination of irrelevancies, speculation upgraded to fact and mean-minded sourness, is to settle the score. Hubris 4 - JC Skinner 0.

Do you see nothing worth celebrating in the voting in of an African-American president? Isn't this moment of idealism and unity worth something in a country that has seen little of those things of late? And isn't the end of this nasty and corrupt Bush administration a good thing? You may not be moved by the sight of crying elderly black people who grew up in a very different time, but it seems ungenerous and pointless to ridicule those that are. Why bother?

All your silliness about Stalin and Mao and the hilarious, Myers-like "Your dreams will be dashed. Nothing is more certain" is just overblown rhetoric. Certain? Really?

What IS unquestionably certain is that you were wrong about this election. Given that fact, you might have been expected to re-consider any further Obama-related soothsaying. But no - here you go again. I wonder if this time you'll be right.

V said...

I always thought that a cult of personality had to involve 'fear' as an essential element. e.g. Love Stalin, love your big Daddy but mainly 'fear' him. Cult must involve fear in some way.

JC Skinner said...

Not at all, V. Have a look at the wiki entry for personality cults, for example:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_personality
It says: "A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships.
A cult of personality is similar to general hero worship, except that it is created specifically for political leaders."

And that all sounds pretty damn applicable to the president-elect to me.

JC Skinner said...

Oh Gnash, I forgot about you and your strange little post.
I note you're more interested in whooping that I called the election wrong than addressing the issues I raised, but it wouldn't be knew for you to miss the point.
Firstly, yup, I was wrong. I credited the US electorate with marginally more sense. True, the double election of Dubya should have warned me that absolutely anyone can now get elected so long as they spend enough. I am chastened.
I see a reason to celebrate a black president, but not a compelling one. I'm neither black nor American. On the plus side, maybe now a black man is president, the arguments in favour of anti-meritocratic quota systems in US state jobs and university places can now be eradicated.
My problem is with this specific black man becoming president. The reasons to doubt are myriad - the secret employment history, the dubious personal associations, the voting record, the monumental cock-up of a response he made the one time foreign policy intervened into the campaign (Georgia), the hypocritical contradiction between his speechifying and his real treatment of his own brother.
Now, it may have passed you by that Dubya was leaving anyhow, no matter who won the election. His departure is indeed reason to cheer.
Obama's arrival isn't, necessarily, for the many reasons I've given.
And yes, nothing will be more certain than those shattered dreams, I'm afraid.
Placing an inexperienced cypher in charge of two wars, a complex and shifting geo-political climate, the worst economic circumstances in living memory is to my mind a recipe for disaster.
We'll all get to live it out. And us in Ireland will especially get to enjoy his presidency when he starts repatriating those US jobs as he's promised to do.
Can we keep our FDI jobs? No, we can't.

V said...

I don't trust wikipedia much.

Well it may all be academic, as you say, if there is no possibility of achieving consensus on how to deal with the global recession after the G20 meet.

I don't know if US FDI makes up that large a % of the jobs market though. US FDI is a bit of a political shtick.

JC Skinner said...

Certainly, wiki isn't to be trusted universally. But it beats citing dictionaries and political tomes, since it's easily confirmed online.
And on this occasion it happens to be a succinct and accurate summation of the phenomenon of personality cults.
They aren't exclusively centred on malignant totalitarians. I referred to the cult of personality around Mandela, probably one of the largest, most global and longest lasting of such cults. It certainly wasn't malignant. But it wasn't healthy either. It's only now, a generation on, that South African politics stands a hope of developing properly into a multi-party democracy, as opposed to being a one party state dedicated to Mandela.
I'm worried about the G20 too. But there are many other factors of concern also. It's a very dangerous time to have an unknown rookie in the White House.
On the FDI, well, a lot of Irish jobs are based on that, both directly and indirectly. And the role of FDI (or indeed its warped brother, tax laundering down at the IFSC) is of huge importance in our economy.
Certainly we ought to have used the boom to develop indigenous industry. But we (or rather Fianna Fail) didn't go with that option, preferring to bet the house on housing. They lost, we're losing, and at this point in time that FDI is absolutely crucial in preventing us going the way of Iceland.

V said...

"They lost, we're losing, and at this point in time that FDI is absolutely crucial in preventing us going the way of Iceland."

We will wait for the audit and see, but it could be too late. Never mind there's always the IMF's new no strings attached loan facility like the one for Iceland. I bet the developing world is pretty pissed off about that.

JC Skinner said...

Bugger all they can say or do about it, unless the IMF is restructured to give the likes of China more say and Europe and America less.
Which is going to happen, but is hardly a good development. Cue plenty of loans to China's African proxies, based on developing their abilities to mine minerals for shipping to China but doing nothing in terms of infrastructure for the local people.
I don't object to the Iceland plan. It's not really 'no-strings-attached', and it resembles some of the deals used in South America a while back.
If it comes to it, and it really could, I would welcome a similar deal here.
The IMF could hardly run the country any worse than Fianna Fail.

Rua, future president of the world said...

'personality cult' eh? Like CJ, or Bertie, or Dev, or Lynch? Who gives a toss, Obamarama is invariably going to be better than McCain'n'Palin and as for Hillary:if you can't run an election, you can't run a government.

Essentially, the best candidate available at the time of polling one. Result. End of story. Lets at least give the man a chance to mess it all up or fix it all up as the case may be.

Gnash1970: I find people like you really really irritating

V: For the name, respect.

JC Skinner said...

It's the 'best candidate available' bit that I'd dispute.
But like I said, it's done now and we'll all have to live with it.
I'd agree Dev had a personality cult. You only need to see the election posters from those times to know it.
Bertie and CJ were populist, but not to the degree of founding a personality cult, except maybe within their own party.
I would like to concur that Gnash, being a Scottish 'mature' student who seems to live online trying to get a wind out of Irish people, is a tosser.
I would also like to concur that V's name is devastatingly attractive.
Vendetta, bring it on! Alan Moore knows the score.
Must do a post on graphic novels some day. They're not all crap for kids, you know.

V said...

Indeed they are not all for kids and indeed it is essential reading for the bewildered. Thanks to Mr. Moore of Northampton for that.