By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Rather faster than I would have expected -- sometime around the 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. 4 remotely resembled those of August 1997. But I don't think I'm revealing much to astute readers if I do suggest that something else was mixed in with the legitimate rejoicing at a racial barrier being 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 XVI; to Barack Obama but not to Bill Clinton. Okay, 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 -- drew cheering, fainting crowds to Bobby Kennedy's primary campaign in 1968. According to the 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 then, too: youth, hope, change, racial progress. The 1968 primary campaign, RFK had 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 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. Yet actually, the phenomenon is rather weird. That Kenyans should declare a national holiday when one of their nation's sons is elected president of the United States is just about understandable. But what's up with the cheering Germans? Their nation hasn't elected a black (or Turkish) leader and isn't likely to anytime soon. Even so, they felt obliged to join the global party.
Yet 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 the assessment that "Obama is hopelessly inexperienced and thoroughly represents the fleeting and superficial nature of American society." One British blogger gives the international left "six months" before it unites once again behind the banner of anti-Americanism.
Things could get worse, too: Mass hysteria can inspire the world's crazed assassins, as the RFK analogy shows. This subject is borderline taboo, but I don't think I was the only one momentarily gripped by terror when Obama walked on to 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 touched by the warm afterglow, I still feel the need to be positive, despite 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 starting last week were not sparked by a celebrity tragedy or a rock anthem but, rather, 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 Obama were enhanced by his rock star presence. If some foreigners are 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, maybe, to hope that the uplifting effects last at least until the end of next week.