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Jewish World Review
Nov. 12, 2008
/ 14 Mar-Cheshvan 5769
In Praise of Political Rock Stars
Rather faster than I would have expected sometime around close of play last Wednesday I began to get a familiar creepy feeling. It was that old "Princess Diana is dead, and the media coverage is too much" sensation. I'm not suggesting that the events of Nov. 5 remotely resembled those of a decade ago last August, but I don't think I'm revealing much to astute readers if I suggest that something else was mixed in with the legitimate rejoicing at a race barrier broken: a touch, just a touch, of the starry-eyed celebrity worship that, for not entirely rational reasons, attached itself to Princess Diana but not to Prince Charles; to John Paul II and not to Benedict; to Barack Obama but not to Bill Clinton. OK, more than a touch. Whatever it was that made teenage girls faint at the sight of Ringo and Paul at the height of Beatlemania also made adult men and women scream when Obama walked onstage in Chicago.
The politician-as-rock-star is nothing new, of course. Some of that same celebrity charisma not so much messianic as pop-iconic also drew cheering, fainting crowds to Bobby Kennedy's primary campaign in 1968. According to historian Thurston Clarke, after one RFK speech "waves of students rushed the platform, knocking over chairs and raising more dust. They grabbed at him, stroking his hair and ripping his shirtsleeves." Some of the same mix was in the air at that time, too: youth, hope, change, racial progress. The 1968 primary campaign, RFK had even declared, was about "not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is [about] our right to the moral leadership of this planet." Sound familiar?
The difference now, of course, is the way in which the RFK effect is increased and multiplied and globalized by modern media and the 24-hour news cycle. We saw so many pictures of cheering foreigners last week that we became immune to them. Actually, the phenomenon is rather weird. That Kenyans should declare a national holiday when one of their nation's sons becomes the U.S. president is just about understandable. But what's up with the cheering Germans? Their nation hasn't elected a black leader (or a Turkish leader) and isn't likely to do so anytime soon. Even so, they felt obliged to join the global party.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Surely it's shallow, and surely it will end in disappointment? One German blogger has already made his prediction: "Condescending euphoria" will be followed by "cynicism," which in turn will be followed by "Obama is hopelessly inexperienced and thoroughly represents the fleeting and superficial nature of American society." One British journalist gives the international left six months before it unites once again behind the banner of anti-Americanism.
And there could be worse: Mass hysteria, as the RFK analogy shows, can also inspire the world's crazed assassins. This subject is borderline taboo, but I don't think I was the only one momentarily gripped by terror when Obama walked onto that stage in Chicago: What if something awful was about to happen? In some of the weirder realms of the Internet, you can already find verses from Nostradamus allegedly predicting that Obama's election heralds the end of the world, and someone out there probably believes them.
And yet perhaps I, too, am touched by the warm afterglow I feel the need to be positive, in spite of myself. We know it's superficial, we know it leads to disappointment, and we know it can be dangerous, but can't a mass celebration sometimes be inspiring, as well? Surely it makes a difference that the emotions expressed on Nov. 5 were not sparked by a celebrity tragedy or a rock anthem but by a genuinely meaningful event: the election of the first black American president and the symbolic end of the worst chapter of American history.
If some Americans walked away from their election-night party vowing to improve the world around them, maybe it doesn't matter that their feelings about him were enhanced by his rock-star presence. If some foreigners are now inspired to work for greater ethnic and racial equality in their own societies, maybe it doesn't matter that they know more about Obama's good looks than they do about his health care policy. If it was only celebrity charisma making people weep, as celebrity charisma made people weep for Diana, we'd be in trouble. Besides, there isn't any other good news out there which is reason enough, perhaps, to hope that the uplifting effects last at least until the end of next week.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2008, Anne Applebaum