Are you amazed when you see images of mourners at the funerals of Stalin or Kim Il- sung genuinely and totally devastated by their loss? Are you surprised at clips of massive rallies of the faithful weeping in joy and cheering in unison for brutal dictators?
From Nazi Germany to Communist China to Imperial Japan, sweeping scenes of ecstatic crowds, arms raised, tears of joy glinting in their eyes, have much in common besides the fact that their leader, we now know in hindsight, was going to lead them to death and destruction. But what is behind this apparently universal human tendency to be so tragically wrong about its leaders?
It is not a capitalist, communist, left or right-wing phenomenon. It is not the product of a stupid or backward population. It occurs across all boundaries of economics and ethnicity. There is something human going on; but what is it? And how can it be nipped in the bud?
Psychological experts have their theories. Social scientists can list the means they use. But the clues are right out in the open-the people themselves express exactly what is going on. Upon the death of the great leader, the followers all say a similar thing: “What will we do now? How will we live?” These are adults saying this, but it is an infantile attitude. That is, while an adult experiences grief at the death of their parents, only little children see the death of their parent as the end of their own life.
Cognitive researcher George Lakoff says we think in metaphors; we cannot think in any other way. Leaders are metaphorical parents-he is the father of the country, we must fight for the Fatherland, or in the case especially of North Korea, he is the mother of us all, nourishing and caring for us, and we fight for the Motherland. The fact that Kim is soft and round is no problem here; all the more comfy when you lay your weary head on his bosom.
In this super-parent role they usurp “our Father which art in heaven,” a metaphor we attach to God. The followers literally worship the leader, who is infallible and benevolent; who sustains their lives and (through his secret police) is everywhere present protecting them from evil. As an added bonus, god makes an occasional personal appearance at extravagant rallies. Imagine how exciting that would be!
In America we are less inclined to worship our leaders and for that you can thank the much-maligned Puritans. They insisted there is no man between God and man; not a priest, not a king, not even the Puritan minister himself. And so George Washington was the father of our country, but we admit that he submitted an exorbitant expense account and our founding fathers were pretty cool, but they were pretty cool human beings, no more.
Beware of anyone who tries to turn a politician into an idol, or even a holy man, like Saint Ronald .