Political Hero Worship

Once again a politician dies, and once again I'm shocked at the reactions by mourners who consider him a hero. To me, Ted Kennedy represented everything that's wrong with politics. He wasn't very bright, rode to the limelight on his family's name, and at the very least let some drown, possibly outright murdered her. Depsite that, he had a job for life, and no ordinary job at that, but a job that affects everyone. He was a product of a political machine, thrust into power despite his obvious shortcomings. And today, there are thousands (millions?) who look back on him as a hero.

Someone on a message board I visit once remarked--with pride I might add-- how he cried for days after Reagan's death. Despite murdering millions, Stalin's death was received with widespread grief. People literally wept in the streets.

It's non-sensical enough to adore celebrities who, though popular, don't affect our day-to-day lives. It's entirely another to worship those who control the almighty arm of the modern state. What is it about the human condition that causes adulation of the powerful? Do we all have a form of Stockholm Syndrome somewhere in the recesses of our minds? Is there some evolutionarily evolved trait that makes some of us naturally subservient to alpha males?

Days like today bring out the cynic in me.

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Where personal and public converge

I appreciate your sentiments. Part of it I think is the very institution of the eulogy -- We try to bring out the best that the person offered in the world, knowingly only telling half the story, perhaps even sugarcoating and over-inflating their virtues and achievements. This works well in the personal domain, but where the personal and public coincide it gets sticky. Myths get created. History is retold. Average people become heros.

The other thing going on here is clearly the Kennedy name. Senator Ted kept JFK and RFK alive in some way. Now that he's gone, they have died yet again. JFK still evokes great emotion -- optimism, hope, freedom, progress, the freshness of a new generation. (Which not coincidentally are similar emotional associations people have with Pres. Obama.) That's what people are mourning I believe, especially those in their 50's and 60's who lived through the civil rights era.

When a person cries at the death of an icon - someone they have never met - it is because part of them has died. I was finishing college when I heard the news of Magic Johnson being diagnosed with AIDS. I sat in my car and actually wept. Now, he seems like a decent guy, don't get me wrong -- but to weep? The reason is that he represented part of my childhood. A certain era of my life. Family, friends, experiences. It's a reminder that this era has passed, and there's no going back.

And of course there is an aspect of this which is related to group psychology. When we see other people cry, it's often hard not to cry. We are moved by the emotion of the group. Especially if the public sphere is dominated by constant polemics, "us vs. them" political posturing, and a general state of vigilance -- a death of this sort becomes an opportunity for people to let their guards down for a change. And I think there is something healthy about it. Something human.

I'm with You

I saw a comment on another blog, something along the lines of, "Ted, we will miss your lion's roar." Where do they find these fucking people?

The rule that you must speak well of the recently deceased is understandable as to not offend the loved ones of the departed when they're already dealing with loss, but surely less so with widely public figures. I doubt Ted Kennedy's friends and family are going to be scouring blog entries and comments the web over.

I remember when I was at a baseball fund raising banquet shortly after Carl Pohlad (owner of the Twins) passed away. Several speakers mentioned Pohlad as "a guardian of baseball in Minnesota," as several eulogies in the local newspapers had earlier. Pohlad tried to sell the team off to North Carolina and then volunteered the franchise for contraction at different points in his ownership. Reassuring a grieving family is one thing, distorting the legacy earned through a lifetime's worth of deeds is another.

The liberal reaction shouldn't come as a surprise to me, but still does just a tiny bit. The man supported the Veitnam war and pushed No Child Left Behind through the Senate. He left a woman to drown, prevented the construction of wind turbines within view of his mansion despite paying lip service to environmentalism in his career and was born into extreme privilege and used it to avoid prison and maintain a position of power for 47 years. Speak up in favor of universal health care loudly at the end of your career and all is forgiven by the American center-left?

Let's leave it at:

Edward Kennedy: Poor driver, better swimmer.

Thanks for saying this. I

Thanks for saying this. I actually had a similar post written, but I couldn't get it worded right and I abandoned it.

I don't really have a problem with people going a little overboard with their praise for a departed friend or even political ally.

But there's a line between being sad over the death of someone and promoting ludicrous hero-worship. This MSNBC article had me laughing yesterday:

With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s death comes not only the end of a political dynasty, but also of one of the most enduring — and cherished — American myths. Camelot is no more.

The myth was so powerful that it transcended generations. Unlike many allusions to the 1960s, it needs no explanation to those who don’t remember that time.

John F. Kennedy, the eldest brother, was King Arthur, and wife Jackie his Guinevere. Bobby, the second brother, was Lancelot, defender of the powerless and, it is said, secretly in love with the queen.

And then there was the youngest of them all: Teddy, in whom the best and the worst of everything Kennedy seemed to come together.

It was he who would ultimately become this Camelot’s Galahad. Though far from perfect and nowhere near a man of great virtue, Edward M. Kennedy was the knight who ultimately set for himself a quest. Its object was no less momentous than the Holy Grail itself: universal health care.

Seconding Kyle: Where do they find these fucking people?

Stockholm Syndrome

Do we all have a form of Stockholm Syndrome somewhere in the recesses of our minds? Is there some evolutionarily evolved trait that makes some of us naturally subservient to alpha males?

Oddly, I was discussing this with my wife last week in a different context. The conversation could have specifically been about herd or pack dynamics on the farm, or I could have just made the analogy--I don't remember.

I suspect pack members use appeasement as a survival tactic when dominated by an overwhelmingly powerful leader. A direct challenge of authority is deadly, so overt displays of submission are a strategic way to survive. Members can rise in the hierarchy below the leader by competing to be most submissive, or by competing to be the most effective (yet unquestionably loyal) enforcer of the leader's wishes.

If anyone knows of more concrete research that support or refute my musings, feel free to point me there.

The programming starts very young

Our minds are trained from an early age to look to authority for the answer. We're born helpless and depend on our parents, naturally. But as we grow older our psychological dependencies are shifted to authority figures in schools, then to jobs, and on to governmental figures.

It doesn't have to be this way. Certainly the skank media doesn't help at all. And universities? Universities believe in every kind of diversity except diversity of thought. It's the programming.

For my money I'd place this

For my money I'd place this worship under the "posturing" bed. It's an opportunity to show everyone else how much of a class act you are, and in the process securing your own legacy by means of sympathies expressed.

This is the game of politics, and it shouldn't surprise any of us that this kind of shit happens regularly. Still, that doesn't mean we should like it.