Idol worship should have ended with Abraham, but today we embrace a new form of idolatry tailored to fit not only entertainers but even government leaders.
From his vantage point in 1930’s Germany, Dr. Sigmund Freud saw the dangers of personality cults not just in authoritarian societies but also in democratic societies. Freud detected how mobs, mass hysteria, even a fashionable fetish could overwhelm rational individual judgment.
Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays brought the power of group psychology into the marketplace. Bernays founded modern public relations-herding humans into buying products or doing things in order to “fit in,” to be part of the group, and not left out.
“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups,” once observed comedian George Carlin. Rarely has comedy been so serious and so accurate in describing the power of the human herd, the mob
Despite the dangers, the media methods of dictators have been aped by democratic leaders-huge parades, mass salutes, big speeches carefully choreographed against the backdrop of colossal buildings, waving flags and men in uniforms.
Few Western politicians resist the urge to use some of these tricks some of the time: George W. Bush flew on a jet to an aircraft carrier to give a speech while Barack Obama accepted his nomination in front of a make-believe Greek temple.
We can overlook this behavior when it is exceptional, not when it is becoming standard procedure, designed to produce certain results. We should worry when almost every major presidential speech is crafted for form, not content, for creating an impression of massive power and unity, aided by stage props and a cast of extras.
Democracy means more than the rule of the demos, the mass. In order for there to be real democracy, there have to be limits on power, the worth of the individual must remain. A majority cannot license the rape or plunder of anyone or anything it wants.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that the presidency was a “bully pulpit,” but it can also become a pulpit for a bully. President Richard Nixon showed this tendency with his negative politics and his enemies lists. Ultimately, Nixon did not succeed, because he was disliked by the press and because he was not a likable leader.
Paradoxically, a more talented and likable leader, an idol, can be more dangerous to democracy. When a talented leader/communicator is aided by a lapdog press, the presidency becomes an echo chamber where form overwhelms content, where the trappings of power overwhelm all doubters, all individual hesitation.
President Barack Obama is a more talented communicator than Nixon, and Obama’s press manipulation spurred Bill Plante of CBS to talk of fears of a press corps becoming “state media,” while Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who challenged Nixon, challenged Obama’s rendition of truth.
But the truth is that some time ago, Barack Obama moved beyond being just US President to being American Idol, even to being “American Idle”-a man who does little but blame others for problems and take credit for success.
Getting Osama: “that was mine” declared Obama, using “I” more than any US leader in recent memory. As for botching Benghazi, that was “Republican budget cuts” or “what difference does it make!”
Passing health-care reform: “that was mine.” Failing to work out the details: “the Republicans are to blame.” Failing to balance a budget: “the rich have to pay more and those Republicans need to get out of the way.”
Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays would like Team Obama’s ability to market the president like a product sold by slogans rather than a leader gauged by achievements. Obama prefers “yes, we can,” and rarely explains “here’s how we will do it.”
“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” asked Bernays. Obama and his campaign crowds response: “Yes we can.”
Yes, we need heroes, but we do not need idols. Heroes set examples to follow. We admire their achievements and the good parts of their character-the things that made them great: the nurse who rescues infants from a flooded hospital, the soldier who protects his wounded buddies, the leader who led the fight against fascism.
We do not worship them and their manner blindly, and we do not lose sight of ourselves. We admire Winston Churchill’s courage and leadership, but we do not all immediately copy Churchill and smoke cigars and drink brandy.
Churchill never hosted a movie awards ceremony nor won a Nobel Peace prize.
Barack Obama’s not-so-secret formula for success: never miss an opportunity for a well-rehearsed photo opportunity, never pass up a chance to get a crowd to act like a chorus, set up a chorus response even in a state of the union address.
Still, mere words and idol worship can carry only so far.
The grandiloquent 2008 nomination acceptance led to the dramatic 2009 Cairo speech, to the dramatic speech in the square in Prague, umpteen speeches in front of massed men in uniform or school children. The press applauded, but few in the media asked what kind of actions or results followed the words.
Obama’s heralded pull-back speech from Afghanistan actually spurred
higher US casualties. The Cairo speech led to the rise of the Muslim
Brothers. Obama’s call for freezing Israeli settlements actually froze the
peace process, while his tough economic speeches paralyzed economic dialogue
Abraham the patriarch would say that idol worship does not produce results, and Abraham Lincoln would say that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.