Well it’s been an interesting few weeks since I first started trying to articulate what I hope to do with this project. I have, already, had some great conversations that will, I hope, lead to larger ones that will focus positive attention on the change-seeking that should come with the restructuring that will be required as a result of the pandemic. Change that can come if we isolate and analyse the inequities and shortcomings of our societies and their will to address those dark places that have been exposed.
It was a rough week, personally, as my family lost one of its members. This was not unexpected – but that doesn’t make the loss any easier. It has lead to a whole lot of soul searching (or soul mining) as I come to the realization that the number of people who have known and loved me since I was born is rapidly dwindling.
Uncle Ken was Dad’s best friend – and we spent a whole lot of time with his family while we we growing up. Even once we were well into adulthood, he and Aunt Marcia took their roles as godparents to me and my sisters very seriously. When a long-term very toxic relationship came to an end, Aunt Marcia acted in Mum’s stead as comforter and provider of hugs and sweets, while Uncle Ken said one of the things that shocked me in its starkness at the time, yet has proven to be a reality that continues to be a source of strength and purpose. He said, “you are not a victim.”
This assertion seemed abrupt and almost harsh in the state I was in – I was still in the wallowing stage of things, I guess – but, as was usual for him, he cut through to the heart of things and reinforced his belief that I would move beyond the situation with the help of my own strength and the support that I could call upon from family and friends. He was a keystone of that support in the years that followed – as we saw Dad through his last illnesses – and I haven’t fully integrated the fact that we will no longer have that support. That’s going to take some time and some focus that I can’t command right now.
Still, the sadness and reflection has helped to shape my thoughts on some potential next steps for this project. I think that these conversations will likely take the form of podcasts on a series of the necessary changes identified. It is still early days, but the recruitment process has begun, and I’m drawing up some questions I’d like to start sending people to think about in advance of really setting the stage for the chats to begin.
One of the things that wants examining – and one of the proposed topics of discussion – has to do with our unhealthy cultural obsession with celebrities – and those who hold a public spotlight, in particular the propensity to think that said celebrities can do wrong and don’t need their words and actions examined with a critical eye, if they are to be held up as exemplars to which we should aspire.
As is so often the case, reflection on this issue got me thinking about a story – a biblical story (unsurprisingly – I’ve been returning to my research roots more and more lately) that talks about the perils of investing too much unexamined faith in others – especially those who are only superficially worthy of such reverence.
My fave Babylonian king (you know his name. Say it – ‘Nebuchadnezzar’) once had a dream that both baffled and disturbed him. None of his own courtiers or wiseguys were able to interpret the dream for him – since doing so required the input of the gods. And they didn’t seem to be forthcoming with any guidance – much to the distress of the wiseguys. Distress that grew, quite significantly, when it became clear that Neb was going to execute the bunch of them for their inability to help him sort it all out.
As they were being rounded up (as I re-read the passage I had an image of the Brute Squad clearing out the Thieves’ Forest in The Princess Bride, for some reason), Daniel asked the Captain of the Guard what was up with all this. Once answered, Daniel then asked Arioch to hold off on the whole executing-the-wiseguys thing, and to give him some time to figure out the troublesome nightmare.
Granted the time, Daniel and his Judean buds prayed to their god for mercy, and the meaning of Neb’s dream was revealed to them. Daniel was taken to the king and recounted it fully, before beginning his interpretation – which, he noted, he was able to do because of the guidance of his god. Who was better than Neb’s gods. Just a BTW.
Nebuchadnezzar had dreamt of a great figure – with a head made of gold, upper body of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet made partly of iron and partly of baked clay. A stone – uncut by human hands – came along and smashed the feet of clay, causing the entirety to topple and shatter – with the precious metals being blown away by the winds, as the stone became a mountain which then filled the whole Earth.
Daniel tells Neb that he, the king, is the head of gold. He has been given his dominion by god and is great among men, in his power and glory. After his time, another kingdom will arise – one inferior to his. And then another. And another. Then will arise a kingdom that is divided – and the weakness caused by this division will lead to its downfall – by another kingdom, established by god, that will smash all the others to bits.
Neb was so happy to have his dream interpreted, he made Daniel his chief wiseguy and lavished rewards upon him and his friends (Daniel wasn’t one to forget his buddies…).
There are all kinds of interpretations of this dream and what Daniel had to say lay at its root. The separate sections of the figure are generally thought to represent specific nations – Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, as one example – and, as such, is more of the same sort of social commentary you find throughout the narrative of the Book of Daniel.
But… as is often the case with such things, strong mythological images develop nuances of their own outside of the context of their creation.
‘Feet of clay’ is colloquially used to reference a character flaw – usually one that is pretty darn significant. The fragility of the feet – the flaw – caused by the hubris or ego of the figure – endangers the whole. Up to and including its wondrous head of gold. The (self-) perceived beauty and wisdom and charisma cannot remain standing under its own weight when any sort of stone shows up to smash into that problematic and fragile underpinning.
We invest so much in our public figures – in those personalities who keep us entertained or informed, or those who seek to lead us in our day-to-day lives. When their clay feet are (often inevitably) revealed, we tend to react with either 1) hostile doubt and by lashing out at those stony accusers who dare to imply anything less than golden about the figurehead they love, or 2) with knowing self-assurance that the idol was always destined to be toppled from his lofty height.
Those who make of themselves a cult of personality do so at their own risk. We like them, until we are presented with reasons to despise them – or their behaviours. But sometimes we cling to the illusion, regardless of the weight of evidence, and maintain the defence long past all logic or rationale (I could cite so many examples of this right now, but I’m sure they wouldn’t scratch the surface of the daily demonstrations that prove that this is a pervasive social issue), hoping that the object of reverence will remember the loyalty when returned to power.
I actually hated this song when it came out. Although, really, that largely had to do with the fact that one of my uni housemates played it All. The. Time. (Until Fletch stormed downstairs and turfed it far out into the snow of the backyard, that is. I think I need to buy him a drink in remembered thankfulness for that…). I’m still not sure I like the song all that much, but its lyrics stand up as well today as they did back in 1988.
Neon lights, Nobel Prize
When a mirror speaks, the reflection lies
You won’t have to follow me
Only you can set me free
I sell the things you need to be
I’m the smiling face on your TV
I’m the cult of personality
I exploit you, still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three
You gave me fortune
You gave me fame
You gave me power in your god’s name
I’m every person you need to be
I’m the cult of personality
And that title.
The song is about psychology and politics. And ‘cult’ is a loaded term that is, generally (i.e., not academically), used negatively. A cult of personality happens when a person uses things like the media to construct an idealized image. It is based in charismatic authority and has connections with narcissistic leadership.
So. If the shoe fits… Perhaps it can be used to cover up those fragile tootsies. Although my recommendation would be that we cease the irrational adulation that permits the rise of such cults – and let them crumble as they should.
It’s time to end our cultural obsession with the lives of people who proclaim their importance and expect us to fall into line to worship based on their self-assessment and the media’s assistance in the development of the construct of their false narrative.
I’m confident that we will have some interesting conversations around this topic – and perhaps come up with some solutions – from journalists and other members of the media, along with those who find themselves in the role of ‘celebrity’ – as to how we can change the narrative and crumble some clay feet – and those who walk around on them – in a constructive way.
Send me a message if you’re interested in participating in the project. Enjoy the sunshine this weekend, stay safe and please stay home as much as you can, and keep your distance and wear a mask if you need to be out. The trends around here are becoming more alarming each day.