Of godfathers and illusions

 Published in: The Daily Star on June 30, 2014
Of godfathers and illusions

PUTIN, the current Godfather in Russia has annexed Crimea, and by pointing guns at Ukraine has addressed the world in a fevered tone, speaking of a delusional alternative universe, wreaking of Dostoyevsky’s Demons, and has managed to appeal to ethnic solidarity, just what Adolph Hitler had done during the Anschluss and the Sudeten crisis in 1938. Shirt off on his horseback with a photographer in tow, only a red corvette is missing by Putin’s side. He seems to be looking just like a Corleone family member with an exception: he wears a political hat.
The Corleone family story in ‘The Godfather” is replete with violence, extortion, blackmailing, and murder. In that movie, we witness how they amass wealth and power even without the sympathies of a president of their own in office or without having considerable voting power. But what if the Corleones had the nod of the administration? How would the scene look like then? Would it have looked anything like Mario Puzo visiting us, planning a sequel to his trilogy? One wouldn’t be surprised. Godfathers in current political context are politically mobile and powerfully sway support to suit their purposes. As a result, with the advent of such “godfatherism” in politics, our communities have lost trust — the most vital social capital of all.  How did this happen? What prompted this all-powerful illusion of the godfathers in our land?
In all honesty, an entire nation may also fall prey to illusions. In 1778, a fat German man called Franz Anton Mesmer cast his spell on the entire Parisienne elite. While Mesmer’s séances gained popularity and while Versailles buzzed with his miracles, Louis XVI commissioned an investigation, led by Benjamin Franklin, only to quash Mesmer’s claims to a scientific treatment of disease. Though Mesmer is dead and so is Mesmerism, placebos still exist, and even if they have no power to heal, they can often be better than the “real” thing. One may ask, at this time and age, can godfathers mesmerise the masses and promise a magic of healing for a community? Or does a community gradually gain immunity to magic doses and see through the masks of the modern Mesmers?What happens to these Mesmers and their all-powerful patrons in history? When does reality hit? Or does it hit at all? Truth is, when the lust for power goes to the head, people in power cherry-pick evidence. Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist and a science historian, who died in 2002, believed that many of the established truths were only unconscious manipulation of data. Gould based his research on nineteenth century physician Samuel George Morton’s theory, and said that the theory that white people’s skull had larger cranial capacities than those of the black people resulted from Morton’s a priori convictions which had no practical base. Gould called it The Mismeasure of Man. Morton’s personal perceptions had led to the mismeasure of men in reality. Personal perception can also lead to personal hysteria in the minds of the powerful where they remain immune to public outcry or hatred. At the end, to the powerful, facts, opinions and votes can change nothing and they just continue to live on.  
What, however, ultimately remains most challenging is the perception of the public. While individual perceptions of the powerful create their own magic castles, the ordinary millions gradually tend to place faith in what they believe — right or wrong. Millions of Americans believed that Obama wasn’t even a citizen of the United States in spite of the president releasing his official birth certificate. Equally amazing, many Americans believed that Obama was Muslim in spite of the president attending a Christian church in Chicago. Just before the presidential primary in 2012, 52% Republican voters thought the president was Muslim, 12% thought Obama was Christian and the rest said that they weren’t sure about his religion!
What about those in power then? What happens to their psyches that prompt them to alienate themselves from the realities of the others?  Why are the powerful blinded by perceptions? Abraham Lincoln had once said that if one wanted to truly test a man’s character, one would need to give him power. Power does blind people. Being powerful does change us, often for the worse. Though power is more known to be like an aphrodisiac, recent theories suggest that power can also act as a hallucinogen. The powerful can often distort perceptions, change behaviour, impair conviction and performance. Often, the radar of the powerful is out and he does not seem to notice it.
Rochus Milch, Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard who died in 2013 at the age of ninety-six, was the last man in the bunker. He was a man who stayed with Hitler till the very end. When asked whether he had ever heard of Hitler speak of the Third Reich’s murder of six million Jews, he responded in the negative. Rather, he posed a question in an interview with Salon in 2005: “I ask you…if Hitler really did all the terrible things people now say he did, how could he have been our Fuhrer? How is it possible?” Such is the power of self-delusion.
Italy’s Berlusconi is another glaring example. Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire playboy called himself “the Jesus Christ of politics.” He often made Nazi references and remarked on his sexual prowess. Three years ago, even after he was reported cavorting with teenage beauties in parties, he never apologised, proving one more time that the powerful play by their own rules and never by the masses’.
This is how even the powerful godfathers in our lands misplace their faith in their imagined immunity. They begin acting just like the doctors who rarely wash their own hands as they consider themselves protected from the risks involved in their profession. Little do they know that a little nudge from the masses can destroy their hysteria and uproot them from their assumed territories.The fact that they don’t say ‘please’ to anyone, that they dictate the lives of all the members of the community, that they stay vocal against the rightful probing of the press, that they claim immunity from law, that they receive undeserving support from corners crucial to our statehood proves nothing. It just brings us back to Goethe who once wrote: “We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves.” Little do the godfathers know that the moment for the political will to be moved by appeals of mass morality has now arrived.

The writer is Managing Director, Mohammadi Group.

Posted on