The cult of personality is at least as old as Caesar but the roots go back even further to a time when people believed that the leader and the state were in fact as one, physically as well as metaphysically. The Egyptians believed that famine years were the result of some offense the Pharoah had committed against the gods. In the Morte d’Arthur, King Arthur’s illness and despair causes droughts and crop failures; only when he recovers do flowers bloom again.
There is yet some ancient residue in all of us that still believes some version of this, or wants to, and there is some truth to it. Certainly a leader has more responsibility for the well-being — or lack of it — of his/her state than the average person since s/he is the one who makes many of the decisions that encourage one condition or the other. That we no longer believe in a physical link between the two doesn’t altogether destroy this conceit but only pushes it into a new form: identification. The leader represents the state, is its embodiment, encapsulates and personifies its philosophies, its people, and its hopes.
This is, of course, only slightly more true than the old belief in a physical link, but it remains a powerful fantasy with powerful attractions, not least of which is its simplicity: Follow the Leader is a much easier game to play than Figure It Out For Yourself. (In Radio On, Sarah Vowell reported Rush’s comment to his Dittoheads: “You can think about this or you can trust me. It’s easier just to trust me.”) Modern leaders from Stalin and Mao to Peron and Hafez Assad have used the shortcut of the Personality Cult either to remain in power or to extend their personal power; Hitler overtly attempted to bring back the ancient belief in its most raw form largely because he genuinely believed it to be true, and African dictators like Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe consciously played on old tribal mythologies around the power of chiefs and shamans to control their people. Even obviously democratic leaders like Lincoln and FDR had identification thrust on them when they weren’t deliberately seeking it. Charles DeGaulle put this belief most succinctly. “L’etat, c’est moi”: I am the State.
Through the years it has been a way for leaders to consolidate their forces and discourage their rivals. After all, it is much more difficult to attack one’s national identity than to attack a mere politician. Monarchies lasted centuries after they had outlived their usefulness in large part because the Royals were so integral to the political, religious, and economic fabric of their societies that most people could not envision the possibility that the country might be able to survive without them.
Nor could they — until the American Revolution — conceive of a social system which did not rest on the shoulders of a single, all-powerful leader: how could a nation be governed if there was more than one source of decision-making? It couldn’t, they thought. Take away the King and chaos was the only result you could expect. The Royals naturally did everything in their power to encourage that belief, and it finally took a colony 3000 miles and an ocean away from the Royal seat of power, a colony that had been basically governing itself for decades, to ask the question, “What do we need a King for, exactly?” Let alone to answer it with, “We don’t.”
But that was not the end of the line, only the beginning of the end, an end we haven’t yet reached. Democracy allows us to choose our leader but it doesn’t tell us what criteria to use when we make that choice. Unfortunately for the democratic system, the criteria of a “good leader” and the mental and emotional tools we use to decide what that means haven’t changed much in the last 1000 years.
We may no longer believe that a nation will wither and die if its leader gets sick, but we still vote viscerally — from the gut, not the head. Most of us admit, sheepishly or not, to going into the voting booth and pulling the lever based on sudden intuition or an overall impression that one or another candidate is “better” without any clear idea of what “better” means. In America 60-70+% of us don’t vote at all. Of the minority who do vote, fewer than a fifth do so on “the issues”, as many as half admitting that they still don’t know who they’re going to vote for as they’re walking into the booth.
Visceral voting relies on instinct for its conclusions in much the same way that our Cro-Magnon ancestors relied on instinct to tell them when a storm was coming or the game they hunted was going to move, and most instinct is the result of adding up subliminal environmental cues in order to reach a subconscious decision that we don’t fully understand. That works fine in nature but it’s a lousy way to pick a leader.
Instinctive visceral decision-making means we’re relying on external cues, mostly visual, that we’re not consciously aware of. Karl Rove knows this — his famous political dictum is that you set the stage for your candidate/politician “as if people will be watching the tv with the sound off.” Our ancient brain still insists on processing visual information as if it were real information that’s important to our survival when in fact we live in an age when visual cues are almosty uniformly misleading and are often “managed” to present a certainly false picture.
Take, for example, that famous photo-op on the Abraham Lincoln.
- The ship, within easy helicopter flight of the shore, was turned around so that the cameras would be facing the open ocean, making it look as if Bush had flown the jet a significant distance. Why? Because it was a visual representation of the Leader as a competent military man. Why did we need that representation? Because he’s no such thing. He ducked the last two years of his military service and excused himself from the war he was trained to fight while other men died in his place.
- He allowed himself to be photographed on deck in a military flight suit even though tradition from the time of George Washington forbade Presidents, who were civilian leaders, from affecting military dress even in time of war. Why? For precisely the reason Washington rejected it: it undercut the civilian aspect of his office by confusing the two roles in exactly the way dictators like Hitler and Peron confused their roles by continually wearing military uniforms to which they were not entitled, and Castro is only seen in public in fatigues. By identifying himself with the nation’s military, he identified his person with the nation itself — a political move Washington thought harmful to both the office and the democratic values for which he had fought. Mr Bush patently does not share Washington’s unease. It should perhaps be noted that real military leaders who have later become President, like Washington, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower, or even Bush I, never felt the need to play soldier while holding civilian power.
Each of these breaches of political etiquette is more significant than the “Mission Accomplished” banner that caused so much controversy later, for they suggest a deliberate attempt on Mr Bush’s part to conflate his role as C-in-C with his role as President in order to be able to argue that, like a General in battle, his orders are to be carried out without question and dissent is equivalent to treason. His supporters are already making that argument, as the earlier sections of this series made clear, and they have followed their words with actions whenever possible, even when it meant moving against other conservatives.
Building a cult of personality around a particular leader while at the same time promoting an endless war gives ultraconservatives the last two crucial pieces for their ultimate victory, the final goal for which they’ve been striving since the Civil War: one-party rule, a Soviet-style hierarchy constructed around a single authority-figure that admits of no opposition and stifles dissent. PATRIOT II (or Victory, another Orwellian title, as they’ve taken to calling it lately) steps up the process of making the Constitution irrelevant in the name of security and is one of the more obvious moves in that direction, but others continue to be developed. Only recently has come the revelation of FBI directives instructing their agents to be suspicious of anyone carrying an almanac: (via archy)
WASHINGTON — The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.
In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs “to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.”
It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.
For a security-mindset addicted to profiling, as all our law enforcement agencies are, conclusions this dumb are unavoidable and sure to grow more memos like this in the same way that oaks generate acorns or roses generate thorns — because it’s in their nature; they can’t help it. We are now about a quarter of the way down a road that leads to MKVD-style lists of acceptable books, acceptable pastimes, acceptable acquaintances. Why? Because the criteria of acceptability flows from the need to identify enemies of the leader and therefore of the state, and profiling is the tool they use to accomplish this end.
Thus the “Bush-haters” meme that has been making the rounds the last few weeks — a tactic developed by RNC campaign planners with the help of Heritage Foundation media experts — which is designed to even further distance voters from any criticism. All the arguments and violent language and threats in which the right-wing is increasingly engaged — critics are crazy, or irrational haters or traitorous liberals or unrealistic dreamers or much, much worse — has the divisive effect not just of creating an Us vs Them mentality, but of demonizing the “Them”. From the right-wing Free Republic website courtesy of South Knox Bubba:
***For the die hard and mentally diseased left wing maggots, I hold zero hope that they will ever wake up. They hate America and the rest of us as much as the al Qaeda thugs/terrorists. Many liberals and liberal organizations are funded by the Islamofascists. They are more closely linked to the Islamofascists than they are to the America we know and love.***The left are terrorist helpers and they are the enemy within. The sooner they are stopped the safer we will all be. Start with the teachers.
***They are every bit as much are enemy as the communists!
***Part of the problem the ‘RATs [Freeper shorthand for Democrats–m] have, is that they have no credibility on defense, on security, on counter-terrorism. They’re wimps, they’re anti-American, so even if the attack on Bush works, it isn’t going to benefit the ‘RATs. The ‘RATs have put forward no solutions, like arming pilots, ending political correctness, so we can look at Muslims in this country or anything else that would be effective.
***They would be far better off if they worshipped and followed Christ instead on “Allah.” Now they are damned to hell.
***I think the U.S. could well be on the brink of a Christian renaissance that will rock the “Liberal” establishment to its decadent foundations and reverberate like an earthquake across the world.
***There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution. That concept is a Left wing contrivance to purge morality and Christianity from our country.
***The God-hating radicals wotk for Satan. They want no reference to God in America.
***Sure it’s been obvious that Demoncrats are traitors for a long time. The question now is how much longer can we keep telling ourselves that the reason Republicans don’t confront these enemies is that [we] are a) spineless, b) too civil, c) like to keep [ourselves] to a higher standard d) are too innocent and naive, c) believe that civility will win them the mainstream, and begin to ask ourselves the hard questions.
***The Rat party and it’s supporters are full of traitors.
***The Rat party and its bottom-feeding supporters are traitors by definition.
***They are traitors. They will do anything for political power, and the will weaken and destroy this country if we let them.
***And whenever a national socialist (liberal democrat) says, “Are you questioning my patriotism?”, the correct answer is, “No, because you are a traitor and a member of the party of treason, nothing less”.
***Republicans with guns will defend themselves and prevent the social masses who are city dwellers from leaving their tax boundaries and protect freedom. We can all dream.
***Finally, after years of suspicion and accusations, we not only found the smoking gun, we found the bullets, the target, the secret plans, and the conspirators plotting to politically assassinate a President who is guilty of protecting out nation from terrorists. Unmasked and caught red-handed, the modern Democrat is a traitor. They should be treated no differently than the Rosenbergs; tried in a court of law, convicted, and suffer the harshest punishment. Death by firing squad, preferably. On TV, if possible.
***Since treason is a capital offence, do you recommend execution of all democrats? Personally, I think we should keep a breeding pair around so we can show our children what nearly destroyed civilization.
***Time to bring back some old customs. Like hanging traitors. [ed. note: accompanied by a photo of a man swinging from the gallows with the U.S. Capitol building in the background]
***Whatever the reason, this should be the response for thier treasonous activity: Hanging [ed. note: followed by a long and graphic description of the hanging procedure from a correctional facility manual]
***The very public hanging of a select few would be a good place to start. [ed. note: accompanied by a picture of Tom Daschle and Al Gore with gallows in the background] (Note: “editor” [ed] is SNB–m)
And these are less than half the sample that SNB provided culled from pages and pages of comments. But that’s just the beginning. uggabugga offers this find:
Liberals – are you ready to defend yourselves? We found this message posted on Yahoo to be a good example of the thinking of a part of the electorate (and viewers of Fox News). It’s typical of the comments one hears from callers to right-wing radio programs, and while these people may be politically unreachable, their notions – or a diluted form of them -are definitely part of the zeitgeist. It makes one wonder if winning the Cold War was a good thing, because when the real threats have been dealt with, it’s inevitable that the search for enemies (that no longer exist) results in the creation of new enemies. That’s Manicheism for you. Anyway, here is the post. An excellent snapshot of the times.
by: pooplapants 01/01/04 10:05 pm
Msg: 626 of 852
Communist’s are Socialists.
Liberals in America can’t wait to implement the latest Socialist idea.
Communist’s used the education system to indoctrinate the young.
Liberals in America use our once-objective institutions of higher learning to force-feed Socialist and Communist ideas to a largely unwilling audience.
Communist’s used propaganda and the media to obtain and retain power.
89% of Journalists in America admit that they only for Liberals.
Communist’s over-regulated businesses until they simply took them over.
Liberals in America have suffocated large and small businesses alike under a mountain of regulations and lawsuits.
Communist’s utilized slave labor in most facets of their economy.
Liberals in America have established and maintained a dependent poverty class.
Communist’s strove to set up a state religion, and jailed religious leaders who would not comply.
Liberals in America ridicule and expunge to the best of their ability all things religious, yet speak from the pulpit in churches where compliant ministers submit to their morally vacant ideas.
Communist’s replaced the Bible with Marxism.
Liberals in America took Bibles out of the classroom long ago – about the same time that drug use, teen pregnancies, violent crime and sexually transmitted diseases started to skyrocket – and SAT scores plummeted.
Communist’s killed 20 million people in concentration camps.
Liberals in America are responsible for 35 million deaths since Roe vs. Wade. At the same time, they have allowed 35 million immigrants to enter the United States.
Communist’s tolerated homosexuals and other sexual deviants who swore allegiance Stalin.
Liberals in America tolerate every morally bankrupt sexual persuasion on the face of the earth-as long as they vote for Liberals. Communist’s obeyed every order from The Kremlin, believing he could never be wrong.
Liberals in America do not believe in the concept of right and wrong – only what feels” good to each person.
Communist’s would often beat up, expel, jail or execute party members who disagreed with the leadership.
Liberals have virtually taken over one political party in America by demoting, persecuting and alienating all but the most Liberal members.
Communist’s erected a huge and cumbersome national health care system.
Liberals in America have repeatedly proposed national health care bureaucracies with organization charts that look like the schematic diagram for an Intel computer chip.
Liberals in America, particularly Liberal judges, and change the U.S. Constitution at will by “Finding penumbras”, and ignores those who insist that such changes require an amendment.
Communist’s set national educational standards to ensure that everyone absorbed the requisite amount of propaganda.
Liberals in America fight home schooling with a vengeance and continue to push for national education standards.
Communist’s thought that communism would last forever.
Liberals in America think that Socialism will rule the world forever, even though has failed each and every time it has been tried.
(Both quotes thanx to Tom Tomorrow.) As David Neiwert (Orcinus) has pointed out time and again, the language of the right-wing when referring to anyone who disagrees with them has become and continues to grow more and more violent, exclusionary, and even what Neiwert calls “eliminationist”: language built around the intention to eliminate all opposition (as in the calls above to “hang the traitors”). None of this would be thinkable without the triumvirate of govt control, massive media support, and — most important — public identification with the military and its leader, the C-in-C, in a time of perpetual war. Of the three, the personality on which the cult is based is the easiest to affect — vote him out, and the structure is crippled for at least the next 4 years.
It may not always be so. There is no one on the Republican horizon (except Arnold Shwarzenegger, and they’d need a Constitutional Amendment to run him for President) who can replace Bush as the focus of the cult, and ultraconservatives know that. That’s why balloons have been quietly floated by the right suggesting that the Amendment limiting a President to two terms ought to be repealed. If Bush is elected to a second term and Republicans maintain their control of Congress and a majority of Governorships, don’t be surprised if that repeal suddenly becomes “urgent”. If there is a second terrorist attack, I think we can assume that the Amendment will be history.
If things go as the Bush Cult wishes them to, he could be the last President many of us ever see.