Friday, July 07, 2006

A Nation of Men...

I know almost nothing about new Mexican president-elect Filipe Calderon except that he is supposed to be a conservative, and I'm not sure what that means in Mexican politics. But I think this short article in the Detroit News of 7/07/06 by AP writer Will Weissert demonstrates one way a nation becomes a nation of men and not of laws: by intellectuals focusing on things like charisma instead of substance, appearence instead of ideas. Mr Weissert begins:

"MEXICO CITY -- Charisma is not Felipe Calderon's strong suit.

But the balding, bespectacled lawyer and technocrat proved to be a confident campaigner while steadily raising doubts about his wildly popular rival."

Mr. Weissert doesn't provide any evidence of Calderon's lack of charisma, unless balding, being a lawyer who wears glasses and is adept with technology somehow disqualifies one from having charisma. If Calderon was a confident campaigner, why didn't the headline say "Mexico's next boss confident campaigner"--a positive reference rather than the negative one he used? If his opponent was so wildly popular, why did he lose? Notice how he emphasizes the emotional--wildly. I assume that gives him charisma. See what's going on here? We are being encouraged to evaluate people by their outward appearence rather than their ideas. More appearences:

"Poised to become one of the youngest presidents in Mexican history, the 43-year-old Calderon won the official count in Mexico's disputed presidential race Thursday. He in many ways represents the new middle class that has burgeoned during the pro-business government of Vicente Fox.

But while he belongs to what many consider the party of the rich, he drives a 1993 Volkswagen Golf and is one of the country's few prominent politicians who hasn't amassed a personal fortune during a career in government."

While it may be interesting to some that he drives an old car and hasn't amassed a fortune and is only 43 years old, these are still non-essentials. Notice also how he refers to "the pro-business government of Vicente Fox." In other words, policy is just naturaly tied to the man and not a set of constitutional principles.

The only mention of ideas is in this paragraph:

"Raising his open palms at every rally to show he has "clean hands" and isn't corrupt, Calderon preached free-market values and financial stability, striking a chord with undecided middle-class voters weary of financial meltdowns that rocked Mexico throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s."

If true about the free-market ideas, I might like Mr. Calderon. But on net balance I don't think Mr. Weissert intended to do any slanting. I think he was just doing what comes natural considering the culture today and its emphasis on the emotional rather than the conceptual. That's why I think, he focused on charisma.

My Webster's New World college dictionary isn't very helpful. Under charisma it gives the non-religous usage as "A special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires unswerving allegiance and devotion." But what is the nature of this 'special quality'? No mention. Unswerving allegiance and devotion to what? An attitude? I think this is it.

My same dictionary says an attitude is "a bodily posture showing or meant to show a mental state, emotion, or mood." Mental state could mean ideas here but that doesn't change the fact that the object of the allegiance and devotion is the outward display of attitude, not its source.

Of course there can be a charisma of a rational nature. A person can integrate his values and emotions in such an automatized way that he projects an exuberance, an excitement. But the rational observer will focus his critical attention on the source of the excitement. That source could be ideas, feelings or some combination of these. That is what needs to be discerned. But to focus only on the charisma, as if it had value independent of its source, is a mistake.

When a culture evaluates its leaders based on non-essentials like charisma, it will eventually become a nation of men and not of laws. The government will then take on the personality of a man and not a set of constitutional principles. The pro-business government of Jones, or the pro-union government of Smith, or the tax and spend government of Brown, or the fiscally conservative government of White, are the kinds of choices such a culture will face. How can people tell which way to go? By who has the most charisma. No principles involved, just charm.

For example, Michigan's Governor Jennifer Granholm had lots of charisma when she was first elected. Michigan's economy is in the tank and while much of it is not her fault, she has done almost nothing to effectively fix things. Charisma cannot solve problems. Competence can.

One has to wonder why people find charismatic leaders appealing. Philosopher Ayn Rand in her essay Philosophical Detection (Philosophy: Who Needs It p18) writing about rationalization wrote "Men do not accept a catch phrase by a process of thought, they seize upon a catch phrase--any catch phrase--because it fits their emotions."

It makes sense then that such people will be easily swayed by those who are expert at formulating the right catch phrases and placing them in the most effective emotional context. There are other ways a nation becomes a nation of men. Focusing on non-esentials is just one.

(For more info on Ayn Rand go to ARI here.)

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