Remember you are mortal

In ancient Rome, whenever an army general won a great battle, a fantastic parade throughout the city was held called a triumph.  These parades were vastly huge events with all the dignitaries and important people from around the empire present as well as millions of common people as many as could attend.  There was much pomp and circumstance with the general being the center of all the attention.  However, standing behind the general during the whole procession was a slave.  This slave’s job was to constantly whisper into the ear of the general the phrase “Memento mori”, which translated means “Remember that you are mortal”.

While Barack Obama may not be a military leader he is entering into a position of great influence and power.  His inauguration is tomorrow and I am very interested to see the course the American citizens are going to take.  Most people have an overwhelming desire to be underneath the power of a leader figure.  In psychoanalysis it is called dependency.  All throughout our lives we seek people of higher status to protect, lead, and praise us.  It usually starts with our parents who give or withhold food, affection, praise, and security.  As adults we usually transfer that need to bosses, police, politicians, and religious leaders.

The problem with this is that it is all made up. People are people plain and simple.  There is nobody who is any greater than anybody else on this planet.  We tend to forget that our “leaders” are simply people too.  They are governed by the same emotions that we are; jealousy, love, envy, pride, approval seeking, etc.  Placing too much power into the hands of an authority figure is very very very dangerous.  Most people in authority do not have either the training to handle the accolades nor do they have someone constantly whispering in their ear “Remember that you are mortal”.  Our last president, George W. Bush was a perfect example of how such a disaster can unfold.

George W. Bush thought that he was invincible, righteous, and had God on his side leading his way.  As a result, the most atrocious terrorist act in history was committed during his presidency, he led us into two useless wars which have killed tens of thousands of people and cost billions of dollars, ruined America’s moral standing with our blatant use of preemptive strikes, imprisonment and torture, fired people for having a dissenting point of view, ignored natural disasters at the peril of thousands of American lives, created a very sharp political divide in America, and ignorantly allowed the economy to tailspin downward on the backs of greedy capitalists.  Now, George W. Bush is not an evil man.  He did not do these things intentionally.  I believe that his intentions in all of them were honorable.  He actually believed he was doing what was right.  But simply believing something does not make it so. His administration followed the classic examples of how to do everything wrong.  He was given almost cart blanche authority and told that he was above reproach.  He was idolized by his followers.  Compliance with his beliefs was mandatory for anyone wishing to stay in his or his group’s good favor.  If you dissented or disagreed, you were quickly relieved of your duties and pushed out of the group.  If you were not in the group, you did not have access to all the goings on within the group.  They were very secretive.  The administration quickly created an “Us vs Them” mentality even bringing it up in a state of the union address.  Either you are with us or against us.  Anyone who was not part of their group was considered an outsider and less than human.  Not worthy.  Usually labeled a terrorist or unpatriotic.  Both punishable by any form deemed necessary by the ruling party.  With all of these ingredients in place, disaster was bound to follow any plan of action.

Dependence on a leader.
Compliance with a group.
Devaluing the Outsider.
Avoiding Dissent.

These things are anathema for progress and are disastrous for the individual.  Another perfect example is the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Both events happened during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  The first, the Bay of Pigs, was a mission to overthrow Cuban’s Fidel Castro.  It resulted in a disastrous failure that ruined America’s image and killed many loyal American supporters.  Extensive studies were done on exactly why the attempt failed so badly.  The conclusion was that everyone had put too much faith in John F. Kennedy and believed that everything he did was right.  He had the midas touch.  He was the golden child.  All of the above factors had come into play: Dependence on a leader, Compliance with a group, Devaluing the Outsider, and Avoiding Dissent.  The Bay of Pigs failure was a shock to the whole nation and the administration.  Shortly thereafter, the Cuban Missile Crisis took place.  The same people who advised president Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs also advised him on the missile crisis.  However, things were done quite differently.  Whereas during the Bay of Pigs everyone got together and came to an agreement they knew would please president Kennedy, not allowing for any outside opinion or any dissent whatsoever to manifest, they advised him on his own fantasy, only further emboldening his god complex.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis these same people did the exact opposite.  They broke off into groups who separately worked on the same problems and compared notes.  They encouraged dissent and disagreement.  They welcomed people from outside the group to come into meetings and give their opinions, some of which became foundations to the plan.  Nobody was held to be above anyone else and therefore active solutions could be expressed without fear of scorn or retribution.  The result: the problem was solved in the most diplomatic and violent free way.  It was more than anyone could have imagined.

With Barack Obama coming into this powerful office of President, I worry a bit.  I worry that the American people, and the rest of the world for that matter, are going to place too much faith in him.  He is poised to be a great disaster as much as he is poised to be a great leader.  I am encouraged by his administration.  He has picked people with whom he has greatly disagreed with in the past which means he is probably trying to avoid having everyone be yes men.  He claims to welcome dissent and differing opinions, no matter where they come from.  I like that.  But as Americans, we must be wary that we do not fall into a fantasy role with him.  We cannot treat him like a Messiah.  A great phrase used often to signify leadership roles of one form or another is “A shepherd leading a flock”.  The problem with that phrase is that it implies the shepherd is human while his followers are less than human, they are in fact sheep.  The reality is that it is a sheep leading sheep.  No one is any better than anyone else.  No one has godly powers that free them from human mistakes.  Barack Obama is just another person.  I just hope that he has someone telling him to “Remember you are mortal”.