The Cult of Personality in History

I am watching the film, The Fall of Berlin, a 1948 Mosfilm production, and it is an amazing historigraphical experience. First off, the actors are not listed in order of appearance, but hierarchically. The man playing Stalin is given top billing, followed by actors portraying high political and military officials, on down to the actual lead Russian peasant roles, finished off by the actors playing the Germans (boo, hiss!). The credits are proper Soviet yellow-on-red, and just in case one was wondering what was most important in life, the main character – who was born on the day of the October Revolution – is awestruck by the presence of Stalin.

When told that he will visit Stalin in honor of his attaining a world record of steel production, our hero is gobsmacked. “What will I say to Stalin?” he asks in his panic. His boss reassures him. One does not speak to Stalin! One listens to Stalin! But of course.

While everyone else has doubts or failings, Comrade Stalin – played by one of his real-life body doubles – remains cool as a cucumber through the whole picture. Soviet generals demand 150 tanks and 3000 anti-tank rifles: Stalin tells them 15 tanks and 200 rifles will do the job, if used carefully and wisely. Hitler rants and raves about attaining his goals: Stalin comprehends all and is sure of his eventual victory. Goering plots secretly with Allied industrialists to sneak raw materials into Germany: Stalin deals with them plainly and foursquare in the open. Hitler runs his nation into the ground: Stalin saves his and delivers it from evil.

The extremity of Stalin’s Christ-like portrayal is fascinating to study. While terribly ugly in its implications, it is nevertheless a lesson worth enduring. As a film, The Fall of Berlin has some cool action sequences you won’t see in the CGI spectaculars of today: Comrade Stalin ordered several divisions of the Red Army to participate in the battle scenes. While the dogfight scene over Moscow was shot with scale models that are obviously so, the symbolism of the scene is not lost on the astute viewer who knows that the poor production values of that part of the film symbolize the poor production values of Nazi Germany. Maybe. If I was living in the USSR in 1948, that would be my defense if I was stupid enough to criticize the film.

One colonel that did criticize the film wound up in the Gulag for eight years. Better to praise the film, yes?

Watching it made me reflect on the cults of personality developing in America and how they warp our views of history. We have legends, true. Washington and Lincoln both never told lies, from what we can gather from legendary and apocryphal sources. Those are ancient myths, though, and only serve to buoy up modern cults.

The first real cult of personality in US History is that of FDR. He worked the media hard so that many people in America loved him. Regardless of his actual legacy, he got the message out that he was one of the best presidents the nation ever had, and a lot of people believed him. That legacy remains with us today in his depiction on our coins and our popular mentality. His bespectacled grin decorated with homburg hat and cigarette holder has a certain friendly ubiquity in our national conscience.

The next cult is the one that casts a shadow over our day: Reagan. His visage is used again and again on the Right to impose a symbol of their triumph. Reagan the man does not enter their political calculus: they have room only for Reagan the myth. They recall always “Morning in America” and never Iran-Contra, Ed Meese, or US support of heroin rings in Pakistan (IE, the Pakistani Army and the ISI). Reagan is always The Great Conservative and never a president that raised taxes, ran up the deficit, and quadrupled the national debt in his administration. This sort of whitewashing is as dangerous to us as was Stalin’s whitewashing in Soviet Russia.

It shackles the mind with error and places belief in a man over historical realities. Reagan is not God. He is not Absolute. He is not Messiah. Reagan was a fallible man, who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in US History. I won’t argue over whether or not the man had great accomplishments: I’ll allow them, for the sake of argument. But none of those accomplishments would justify complete ignorance and setting-aside of his presidential failures. None of them justify the mythology that has grown up around his name and face.

Clinton may well become a myth of the Left one day, as a two-term exponent of their greatest hour (lately). The Left hasn’t been very symbol-oriented of late, outside of Obama’s “Hope” posters of 2008. Perhaps that’s why they won then and are drifting now. In 2012, they lack a symbol and, therefore, they lack a cult.

The Right is ready to supply a cult. Fox News is tailor-made for hagiographic treatments of any True Conservative that steps on their doorstep. They’ve propagandized and exalted some truly terrible choices for president and made them out to be Reagan’s True Successor. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and, finally, Rick Santorum all took a turn as the One True Conservative. Every one of them benefited from Fox News’ and other heavy hitters from the mainstream right-wing media praises and near-deification.

Which makes me wonder… is one reason they begrudge Romney due to Romney’s not wanting to have a cult of personality? All the other candidates accepted that sort of fawning adoration, but Romney rejects that. This is bad news for America if Romney loses in 2012. It’ll mean that a GOP candidate MUST have a massive cult behind him to get him close enough for a chance at victory. Bush II had a cult: McCain did not. If a cult-less Romney loses 2012, Fox News and other conservative mouthpieces will savage him and set the stage for a culted candidate in 2016.

I find all this ironic because Mormons are frequently referred to as being in a cult. Yet, here I am saying that Romney was the only GOP candidate this year without a cult-like mentality driving his campaign. In the interests of disclosure, I’m a Mormon, but I’m only going to support Romney if he names me as his vice-presidential candidate. Until then, I’m not backing him. Now, if I were in a cult, wouldn’t my cult leaders be telling me to vote in a fellow cultist to control the USA? Of course they would: that’s what the GOP is telling its membership. No matter how much you dislike Romney, to be a true GOP-er, one must dislike Obama even more.

While that’s not all that hard to do from a political standpoint, it’s even easier to do from a mythological standpoint. There’s some ugly thinking on the Right, and Obama plays as a villain to every racist, misogynistic, fascist, homophobic, plutocratic, and other hate-driven ideology that has attached itself to the GOP. I’ve got many good friends in the Republican Party that deserve not one of those adjectives, but the fact remains that the GOP needs their votes in order to win, so it has to sing songs they want to hear. A cult of personality makes those songs easier to sing.

And that brings me back to Stalin. He solidified his position with a cult. He was able to commit genocide and destroy the rights of his people with a cult. The cult turned off critical thinking, which is vital to confront our earthly leaders with, and enabled Stalin to enact his grand wickedness.

If we have a president elected from either the Left or the Right with a cult-like backing, then that is the seal on the doom of America. For if the GOP loses in 2012, expect their cult to win in 2016. That will force the Democrats to follow suit in 2020, and then neither party will run a campaign after that without a massive propaganda campaign, complete with suppression of dissent.

As a professional dissenter, this worries me greatly. It’s bad enough seeing a 1948 film that glorified Stalin. I saw films from 2007 and 2008 that glorified Putin. I don’t ever want to have that sort of historigraphical experience with an American film, but we’re headed that way.

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