The Economist has a solid essay on modern personality cults – that is, the three that remain on the globe today. These are, according to The Economist, Kim Jong Il’s brutal and bizarre dystopia in North Korea; Saparmurat Niyazov’s totalitarian hell in Turkmenistan; and Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s despotic reign in Togo.
No reader from the free world can read of these brutalmen’s actions and of how they are (apparently) revered by so many of their countrymen without disbelief and disgust – and thankfulness that we in the free, modern world are not subject to the stupid brainwashing and utter lack of freedom that curse the lives of citizens of these countries.
But as I finished reading the Economist article, I couldn’t help but ask myself: just how different is the free world? We’re all human beings. North Koreans who truly believe Kim Jong Il to be the world’s greatest composer of opera and the finest golfer ever to hit the links are not fundamentally different from you and me.
Is there something about human beings that, when circumstances trigger it, make us want to worship other human beings? I fear that the answer is yes.
What was the tawdry spectacle of public wailing in the wake of the death of Princess Diana if not a species of human-worship? None of the people who grieved publicly knew Diana personally – and yet they spoke of her as a saviorette – "the People’s Princess" – and behaved as if their lives would be noticeably worse now that Diana has gone to her reward. The same ridiculous human-worship arose when Eva Peron died.
And, dear friends, we Americans aren’t immune. Recall the famous picture of an old man crying his heart out at the funeral of FDR. And pictures abound of people weeping when they learned of JFK’s assassination. I even recall a letter in a magazine – I apologize for forgetting which – written by a woman who confessed to suffering insomnia because of her grief at the death of the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.
Being free, America was never brutalized by FDR, JFK, or Dale Earnhardt. (Even Santa Evita did not oppress Argentinians as much as the Dear Leader oppresses North Koreans.) Nevertheless, evidence of our susceptibility to messiah-mongering is not hard to come by – and we should be wary of it. Very wary, for we do suffer it in little doses.
People daily turn out to see the President and to stretch out their arms furiously just to touch his; they gape at him as if he were something superhuman. People expect the President (or the Governor, or the Mayor) to visit scenes of natural disasters and to hug and comfort many of the victims. Bill Clinton was much-praised for his political brilliance at telling us (via television) that he feels our pain.
More generally, our ethos increasingly insists that our lives are in jeopardy unless and until government regulates products and industries. Only when a grandee (or committee thereof) explicitly imposes his (or its) will upon the rest of us do many of us feel as though we are safe and secure.
Abolish the welfare state? Heaven forbid! Doing so would cast multitudes into needless suffering. Abolish the FDA? No! Doing so would result in the widespread poisoning of America. Abolish the minimum-wage? Not a chance! Doing so would cause the collapse of America’s wage structure. Abolish government education? Never! America would quickly become a nation of ignoramuses.
The idea that each of us, through webs of voluntary actions, can do things that government now does (or pretends to do) – such as care for poor people or ensure that children are educated – is denigrated. I think that part of the reason for this denigration is that too many people believe that unless a savior is on the scene, wielding force that most of us are not permitted to wield, the problem is not addressed.
Heaven help us.