10.08.2006

On Principles vs Personalities

The 12th Tradition of recovery programs states, "Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities." It is a powerful statement, demanding humility and tolerance, while discouraging ego and "big shotism". Alcoholics Anonymous and its clones found out early on, in the 1930s and 1940s, that honoring the power of individual personality above the importance of the life and health of the whole organization, would threaten both the vitality of the fellowship and, therefore, the recovery of the individual.

A major symptom of the progressive and potentially fatal illness that I call "Americanism" is our reverence of the celebrity. It is a deadly and dynamic syndrome closely tied to the symptom of narcissism. Americanism is destroying America.

The system of checks and balances built into our constitution was in part designed to control the possibility of one shining star having too much power. We know that there were many Americans in the late 18th century who wanted to replace one King George with our own, but we narrowly dodged that bullet.

However, the President and the presidency has always been a cult of personality to some degree. With some presidents, like Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, the celebrity status has engendered a mythology which has clouded the essential realities of the principles and policies of their administrations. In Lincoln's case, the mythology of Lincoln "The Great Emancipator" masked the truth of his racism and tyranny. Teddy, in spite of his cover as a "Progressive", was the father of our brutal history of imperialissm.

Wikipedia defines "cult of personality" as . . .
A cult of personality is a political institution in which a country's leader uses mass media to create a larger-than-life public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. The term often refers as well to leaders who did not use such methods during their lifetime, but are built up in the mass media by later governments.

A cult of personality differs from general hero worship in that it is specifically built around political leaders. However, the term cult of personality is often applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders . . .

Throughout history there have always been leaders who have fostered adulation. For much of premodern times, absolute monarchies were the dominant form of government, and monarchs were almost always held in enormous reverence. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Imperial China, ancient Egypt, and the Roman Empire are especially noted for elevating monarchs to the status of god-kings.

The advent of democratic ideas in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of photography, sound recording, film and mass production, as well as public education and techniques used in commercial advertising, enabled political leaders to project a positive image like never before. It was under these circumstances in the 20th century that the best-known personality cults arose.

The criticism of personality cults often focuses on the regimes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il. During the peak of their reigns these leaders (Kim Jong-Il is still in office) appeared as god-like infallible rulers. Their portraits were hung in every home or public building, and many artists and poets were instructed to produce only works that glorified the leader. The term "cult of personality" comes from Karl Marx's critique of the "cult of the individual."
As far as it goes, the author of this piece is spot on. However, it's hard to overlook the absence of westerners like Churchill, Degaulle, JFK, Castro, and Reagan, not to mention Asians such as Mao Zedong and Africans like Idi Amin. Hugo Chavez is adding to his mythology as we speak. Indeed, Wikipedia itself notes that the "neutrality" of the article has been challenged.

Skulking around in research, I found a minor blogger named Scott Yang, who offers "Christians’ Humility and Law Imposition". He begins . . .
As Amanda has blogged about John Dickson’s talk at the City Bible Forum this week, on the servant hood of Christ, I think I should also share what I have learnt.

The talk was around the incomprehensible act of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11. While he was in the very nature of God in verse 6, and has been exalted to the highest place in verse 9, what has happened between these two verses — taking the nature of a servant (δοῦλος a slave) and being obedient to death on the cross — established the humility of Christianity. Christians practised humility, because our Lord, God and Saviour chose this way to bring forth the salvation.

Humility is indeed not something people do naturally. Nor is it about Chinese’s fake sense of humbleness (which many of us would be very familiar). It is about serving. It is about putting yourself under the others. It is about making yourself slave for other people’s needs, willingly.

Nor is humility about helping the poor, giving to the charity, taking care the needies, etc. The attitude is still important, as JD has emphasised during his talk. Help someone on the street does not necessarily make yourself subject to him. But Jesus, the creator of the universe, humbled himself before the lowly men, so he could serve them.

Near the end of the talk, JD moved to talk about how this Christian phenomenon was so different from the pagans — because they put other people’s interest first — and that contributed to the growth of Christianity in the first few centuries. It eventually led to the conversion of Constantine the Great, and then whole thing exploded as the Roman Empire expanded. However, as Christians inherited more power, Bishops set to high places, churches gained wealth, etc, the uniqueness of Christians’ humility faded. Instead of convincing people the truth with their act of service, Christian laws have been imposed on the land. There’s medieval. There’s crusade. There’s corruption of catholic church. When the minority becomes majority, it is just not the same anymore . . .[emphasis is mine]
Since WWII, I think, a vicious circle of the presidency and personality has thickened and tightened.

Kennedy's mythology had been carefully constructed in anticipation of his and his father's ambitions for him. It has taken revelations about his promiscuity, mob involvement, and drug dependence to unravel some of it.

After Nixon's fall, his backstory had to be meticulously de- and reconstructed to minimize his egregious character failings. His image then could be rehabilitated to caste him as a major statesman for his diplomacy with China. We all conspired in this - we just couldn't bear to have had a "man like him" as a twice-elected leader.

Reagan was all myth and act, but the myth was unbreakable, the act Emmy-winning. He began the unraveling of our social fabric and did more to consolidate and elevate the culture (cult?) of the individual than any president before him. He destroyed the concept of the group and the spirit of cooperation so lovingly cultivated by FDR. Reagan was the quintessential classical Liberal. To credit him with the defeat of international communism and socialism? Absolutely ridiculous! But for awhile, however, he was made a candidate for a place on Mt. Rushmore.

Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen wrote "Personality, Not Policy: The 40th president of the United States undoubtedly had great charm. He also, in the opinion of many, did great harm.":
When the rumor began floating around Washington that John McCain might be prevailed on to take the second spot on the Democratic presidential ticket, you could almost hear the sibilant sound of political operatives gleefully rubbing their hands together. A war hero! A former POW! Even when McCain demurred, the buzz continued. A straight shooter! A plain talker! A Republican!

How confusing this was to those who understood that the poor cannot eat plain talk and that many a straight shooter is antagonistic to gun control. Senator McCain has opposed so many positions that Sen. John Kerry supports that the notion of the two running together was the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde ticket. Women who care about abortion rights knew that McCain had a zero rating from pro-choice groups; African-Americans knew he had been hostile to affirmative action. But none of that mattered as the dream (or, if you care about issues, nightmare) ticket was hashed over publicly. McCain the stand-up guy utterly trumped his own record.

Last week the man who elevated this triumph of personality over policy was laid to rest, but the shift in emphasis of which he was the greatest standard-bearer lives on. Ronald Reagan was lauded for many things during his long march from his home to the Capitol and back to a gravesite in California, but chief among them was the persona that had beguiled so many. "There you go again," he might have said with that trademark twinkle as he watched the parade of images: fence builder, horseback rider, a man for whom the word "avuncular" might have been newly minted, a man voters liked instinctively from afar . . .

Much of the coverage of the former president has done clumsily what he did with style: it has made the man the centerpiece and relegated those pesky political stands to the periphery. Anyone who suggests that charisma was no substitute for the safety net is shouted down with a "not yet" or a "no way." It is presented as bad grace to criticize a man who suffered so long in the shadowy maze of Alzheimer's. But it behooves us now to do precisely what Reagan himself once did: to separate the persona from the positions. The 40th president of the United States undoubtedly had great charm. He also, in the opinion of many, did great harm.

America is a country that saddles its future with a jerry-built past. If we are to go on seeing ourselves as the best of all possible nations, we must smooth away the inconvenient rough spots with the pumice of revision. After Richard Nixon died, it seemed as if the most conspicuous moment of his administration had been opening relations with China, not opening the White House to corruption and disgrace. This may have been charitable and convenient. It did not have the advantage of being accurate.

It is even more important that a balanced picture of the Reagan presidency emerge because its shadow hangs over our political landscape today. Not simply in the suggestion that poverty is a character failure, or that unions are impediments to progress. Not simply in the absurd notion that more money for the wealthy inevitably trickles down to the bottom of the income pyramid, or that the means justify the ends, as some argued in the Iran-contra scandal and as some would argue about the Iraq war today.

It is important that we consider the harm that can be done when we make assumptions based on a winning demeanor that blind us to the actions behind the grin or the glad hand. Sometimes this works in the obverse. There were many reasons that Americans believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. There was bad reporting and bad intelligence. But I suspect that many people believed the assertion because he was a bad man. And it was easy to conclude that a bad man will do bad things, even if there is insufficient evidence for one bad thing in particular . . .
Bill Clinton was seen as a either a sleazy creep or a cool guy, even before his election. While the senior Bush merely held the line for Reaganism, Bill consolidated and expanded what Reagan had wrought. Needing rehabilitation from the start, he is intent on building his myth since leaving office. Ironically, it's Doubleduh who has ensured this process - Bush II would make any past president look like a saint. Can you imagine that Angelina Jolie yesterday called Clinton "a wonderful president"?

At Politics Junkie, Matt Matson writes "The Democratic Party and the Cult of (No) Personality":
As the mid-term year kicks into high gear and all eyes are already looking ahead to 2008, Democrats search (and search, and search) for a voice in the crowd who will lead them to the promised land. POLJUNK contributor Mark Mattson wonders if there's anyone out there? Hello????

Bill Clinton is back in the news with a profile in the New Yorker focusing on his post-presidential work, while making waves thanks to his recent unexpectedly heated reaction to a Fox News reporter’s questions (You Tube). Clinton has always been a fascinating guy: an avatar for his generation’s ambitions as well as its foibles, a genuine gifted leader replete with tragic flaws. And he understands how politics are played in an era begun with Reagan, carried by Limbaugh, cemented by Gingrich, realized by Bush.

In this last aspect, looking ahead to 2008, Clinton stands virtually alone among democrats with national profiles. Sure, we love Barack Obama—at least, we love what we think we know about the man (indeed, his reputation in Washington, DC is currently inversely proportional to his popular image). Any other presumptive democratic leader (including Mr. Clinton’s wife), competent and intelligent as they may be, suffers from charisma deficit—some tick in their character that makes them seem flinty, preachy, boring, long-winded, pedantic, shrill, inauthentic.

It is maybe unfortunate that charisma counts so much among Democrats in an age where the likes of George W. Bush serves two terms as president. Diehard conservatives no longer require the charisma Reagan brought to the show. To placate the Republican base, all one needs to do is hold firm to the ideology (particularly with regard to social issues). Grasp this, and you will grasp the basis of their incredible success over the last 15 years. Mr. Bush, a man with no gift for public speaking and an odd habit of smirking at inopportune moments, has proven this simply by not being trounced in either election.

Yet charisma means more than some superficial smoothness. It’s a key component to leadership. And when you look at the current crop of Democrats, you see a lot of wannabe leaders, but few real ones. Each and every one of the Democrats’ known quantities (I’ll make a possible exception with John Edwards) makes some idiotic stab at image boosting designed to stand in for charisma. Witness Chicago-born Hillary in a Yankees cap. Or poor Al Gore—we like him now! But where was ‘likeable Gore’ during his campaign? And my favorite, John Kerry’s utterly embarrassing military salute for his nomination speech. I see—you must’ve picked up those medals you threw over the fence, eh, John? Oh, the ones you threw weren’t yours, huh, “war hero?” So where was your fighting spirit with the Swifties? Oh right, you promised to “kick their asses next time.” Next time? There’s no next time for you, son . . .
Dr. Howard Rodenberg, in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services ("Cult of the Individual, Part 1"), writes:
This blind adherence to the cult of the individual (a social phenonmena by no means limited to the health-care industry) prevents us from seeing the forest for the trees. We can't look at the health of the population if we're focused on the health of the individual. Sometimes it’s true that, as Mr. Spock noted, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."


What we see in the present administration is that the presidency (rather than the president) has been denigrated so often and so much that the president doesn't need either a cult or a myth. Doubleduh's myth consisted of trying to hide the sins of youth and his "conversion to evangelical Christianity". This Rovian strategic concoction did build a cult-following among the Christian Right, but there are signs that this is unraveling.

Note "The End of Bush's Personality Cult?" by Andrew Prokop at TPM Café:
They like him, so they trust him and will defend him-- and when his policies don't match with their preferences, they are willing to support him anyway (or to at least keep their criticism to a minimum). Scandals arise, but they like Bush, so logically nothing bad can be his fault. Though almost none of them know him personally, they are just sure that he's a good guy and that he makes his decisions for good reasons. It's entirely natural-- when you like someone, you're willing to cut him a little slack. But obviously, this trend toward reflexive support, rather than weighing each of Bush's policies on their merits, has been very dangerous for political discourse.

But this morning, the trend may have finally shifted the other way. For the first time ever, nearly the entire conservative commentariat is united against the president. Ross Douthat says, "I'm really struggling here to hold on to my last, lingering hints of admiration for George W. Bush." The Corner is comparing Bush to Caligula and Krusty the Clown. Even John Hinderaker, who is so deep into the cult that he considers Bush "a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius," calls the nomination a disappointment, confessing that he "really doesn't get it." Could the Miers nomination finally make conservatives realize that Bush isn't quite the leader they thought he was? . . .

Unfortunately, there now exists the dichotomy that while the presidency has been weakened by the likes of Nixon, Clinton, and Bush II, it is at the same time being strengthened by it's policies and abuses. The war against terra provides the excuse to exert nearly absolute power, while weakening individual rights such as free speech, dissent, and association. The de facto absence of habeas corpus and the right to a public trial may be the fatal fait d'accompli.

It is even more unfortunate (and dangerous) that the demise of a "cult of the president" can now be replaced by a "cult of the presidency." This probably will not, however, lessen the electorate's penchant for treating elections as beauty contests. Even though the Democrats stand to regain much of the legislature and even the presidency in the next four years, there will be no more thorough examination of candidates' policies than there has been in the past. After all, it is a lot easier to elect a celebrity rather than a whole administration. We've already established that the great majority of Democrats hold to the principles and policies as do Republicans. They espouse the same strategic goals and only differ around tactics. Because Bush is so distasteful, the next president is likely to be the most attractive Democrat, regardless of the fact that there will be little change in either domestic or foreign policies. There already is an "Anybody but Bush" sentiment, even though he can't stand for reelection.

Ultimately, thanks to Reagan, there will be little if any abandonment of the cult of the individual at the public level anytime soon. The American citizen is constitutionally incapable of taking sufficient responsibility for our fading democracy beyond voting. We will continue selecting "the lesser of two crooks" to do the heavy lifting. The next Republican presidential candidate will run on "integrity", the Democratic candidate will simply have to say "the Republicans are sleazy, lying fuck-ups."

It doesn't matter anyway. Money, lies, and chicanery elects presidents, senators, and congressmen, not people. And you can count on whoever is elected to take full advantage of the increased power given to them and their financial backers.

So what can we do? We can ask hard questions and not accept spinning non-anwers: "Who, Mr/Ms Candidate, will be in your cabinet and your staff?" "When specifically will you withdraw troops from the Midde East and Western Asia?" "How will you resolve Iran and North Korea without violence?" "Will you repeal the Patriot Act?" "How will you restore the rights and freedom taken away by your predecessor?" "How will you eschew our own iron curtain of government secrecy and have it become transparent?"

As I've said consistently these past years, in a democracy we are ultimately responsible for ensuring our rights and freedoms. That cannot be done by electing celebrities and other pretty faces. In order to do it, we must disown our individualism and narcissism. The government won't change unless we as citizens change.

UPDATE 10/10:
I'm honored that Uncle $cam at American Samizdat has seen fit to publsih a companion piece, "Welcome to acute mania with psychosis of society". Read it . . . or else! (The permlinks at AmSam seem to be broken, so you have to scroll down a bit)

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