Thursday, 17 August 2017
What can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler?
Sorry about that picture - the stuff of nightmares indeed! This kind of follows on from yesterdays post about 'heroes'. One of the things I was saying in there was that we need to be careful about 'dehumanising' politicians either as 'heroes' or villains'. This post is about those people, and politicians in particular, who carefully construct a 'persona' in order to do just that for themselves.
Let's start with Adolf Hitler - a very well known and obvious example of this. What was seen on news reels and in speeches was not 'Adolph Hitler' the man at all - it was a very, very carefully constructed persona. A deliberate image designed specifically for effect, and something he spent many hours in the mirror practising. The jerky movements, the poses, the little moustache, the hair, the voice, the costumes - all were artificially constructed, and constructed for a purpose. It was intended to make him seem just that bit 'otherworldly', as if he wasn't quite the same as any other human being, and didn't come from quite the same world as ordinary people. It didn't matter that it was at times a little bit comical - whether he knew that and intended it or not I don't know, but the point was to mark himself out as being 'not of this earth'. Something new and different. Slightly alien. If that eccentricity of character made people chuckle a little under their breath it not only worked just the same, but actually allowed a route into their minds for him to be viewed with a kind of 'affection' rather than as a threat.
So where does Doctor Who come in? Well, that character has been built with the same effect in mind. Of course in his case he is actually an alien, but the point of his quirky costumes and occasionally slightly non-human behaviour is to remind us of that. It's a dramatic ruse, and a very effective one - we may see his frailties from time to time, and he may make us laugh with some of his eccentricity, but in seeing him as 'otherworldly' it's easy for us to accept by implication that he is just that little bit 'superhuman'. Of course, such a character has to come with flaws too, and the Doctor is no exception - he can be unthinking and callous, he can lack normal human empathy, and he is capable of doing what ordinary people wouldn't in order to serve the greater good. We accept that, because we know he is slightly 'superhuman' - we expect him to not always behave as others would, and that's all part of his charm.
There are many other fictional examples - television detectives very often play on the same kind of idea. Their almost inhuman reasoning and discovery powers are easier for us to 'believe' (in the sense of theatrical 'suspension of disbelief, of course) because they come as part of an almost inhuman complete package. Take Colombo as an example, or even Gregory House. Perhaps the best known detective to employ this is the Sherlock Holmes character - always constructed in that way as written, but even more so in the recent Sherlock TV series - he is human, but not quite. He has otherworldly 'powers' and methods to see what 'ordinary people' couldn't possibly imagine from the evidence that's presented. That allows us to ignore the normal emotional effects of the character 'flaws' that have been built in to enhance that 'otherworldliness' - we wouldn't normally be cheering on a self-centred, self-serving drug addict, but in a case like his it's part of his 'heroic charm'. It's a more subtle and believable approach to drama than the simple Super Hero in his flowing cape, mysterious mask and outside-worn underwear, but the effect is much the same on the way we are drawn to view the character. They seem somehow 'above and beyond' ordinary humanity, and that is quite deliberate. It's what makes them dramatic 'heroes' as opposed to simply being 'characters'.
That's all well and good in a fictional character, but when it comes to real people it becomes a something to be concerned about. The 'constructed persona' in politics can be very effective in manipulating people to support someone as if they were almost a 'superhero' - to believe that a person has a greater understanding and insight than us 'mere mortals'. The otherworldly, almost superhuman mystique constructed as a character around a politician can allow them to rise rapidly in a way that other politicians can't, and/or to do and say things that we would normally dismiss. Adolf Hitler was able to do what he did because he drew the adoration of supporters by appearing 'otherworldly' - a 'national superhero'. Any flaws people saw in him just became part of that persona, and anything he said that they wouldn't have agreed with before became acceptable precisely because he was unconsciously assumed to have a greater understanding and vision than an ordinary person possibly could. As much as we should dismiss him as a perpetrator of evil, we have to recognise his cleverness in constructing such a character for himself in the minds of so many of the German people. We have to recognise it, and we have to understand it, so that we can spot anyone else who is trying to do the same sort of thing in future.
Of course, the superhuman persona idea in politics is not at all new. It's something that rulers, especially hereditary rulers, have been doing for a very long time. To put it bluntly, being 'God's anointed' really isn't believable if it's obvious that God is willing to anoint just anyone - they have to be 'special', and rulers have used propaganda to attribute a wide variety of 'special' attributes to themselves. There are obvious contemporary examples, too - take a look at certain troublesome dictators in the Far East, and how they constantly have their people told that they can play a round of golf in less shots than there are holes, or that they don't use the toilet like other human beings have to. From the outside it seems so obvious - it seems so silly that anyone would ever accept that, but the fact is that they do. It's a little different on the inside of a world where all media is controlled, and used to repeat the same messages to people from the day they are born. Of course, hereditary rulers have that at their disposal, but those seeking power have to be a little more subtle in order to be believable. It's the same basic approach, but toned down just enough that people can accept them as being human even though they are somehow slightly more than human. A fine line to tread, and also an approach with risks - such people can fall out of favour with all but their most irrationally fervent supporters even more quickly than they get themselves into it when their careful construct starts to fall apart. Once you see through the smoke and mirrors, you will always know that they were smoke and mirrors from the start (and you'll probably find it hard to understand how you were ever taken in by it all).
Now I'm not talking here about simple 'spin' or 'media training' - those are an inevitable part of politics, because politics requires people to be popular enough to get elected. Those at the higher levels of politics will always need to enhance their image, soften their rough edges, and handle public appearances and media interview situations well. They will have media training, and may employ image consultants, and so on. Many at the lower levels of politics will inevitably have to think along similar lines in a way, although I suspect many have less training and image consultancy than many people think. There really isn't a secret factory turning out 'politicians' as slick creatures of image perfection! That's not what I'm talking about here - the kind of stuff done by the likes of Blair and Thatcher were simple enhancements to make the public like or accept them more as human beings, rather than almost entirely false constructs to make them seem 'otherworldly' or 'superhuman'. Whether you liked them or not, and whether the spin was a little over-slick or not, you always pretty much knew what Thatcher and Blair were really about. They were trying to present themselves in the best light rather than trying to hide their real selves behind a constructed persona. It was a slight modification to attract, rather than a complete construction to distract, and those are very different things.
So let's think about how you would construct such an otherworldly persona for political purposes. You need to be 'quirky' in the way you speak, the way you act and the way you look. You need to mark yourself out as 'different', and so by implication 'special'. You need to be putting things in ways that other people wouldn't think to put them. Being slightly amusing isn't a bad thing - if your 'oddity' is a slightly amusing kind of 'oddity', then it attracts people to you all the more. It disarms their normal cynical defences. It can even distract them from what you are really doing and saying, just because it's you who is saying it, you are saying it in a strange way, and they know that 'that's just the way you are'. You need to look 'different' - you need to wear clothes that are a little away from the run of the mill current fashions (old fashioned works well, but just plain odd or ill-matching is also effective). Perhaps some kind of wild and funny hairstyle, too - something that marks you out as someone who doesn't really need to care about appearance in the way that ordinary folk inevitably would. You don't want the slick tailored suit of a Tony Blair. Quite the opposite - you want to appear memorably not quite the same as anyone else would ever dream of looking, especially if they were wanting to present themselves as worthy of election to high public office.
Is this starting to ring any bells yet? Why do you think someone like Donald Trump keeps that ludicrous trademark hairstyle of his - he knows full well that it's completely ridiculous in fashion terms, and that it should really make him a laughing stock. He's now in political office, of course, but these kind of techniques can work in the cut-throat world of top business too - they might distract others from issues like multiple bankruptcies and failed ventures, and very wealthy backgrounds that haven't actually got much wealthier through great business success despite the endless claims of business genius. He looks strange. He speaks strange. He's really not quite like anybody else on the planet. It almost feels like he's 'not of this world'. For some it's quite easy to see through, in the sense that it's clear that he's really talking simplistic nonsense, but he isn't trying to speak to those people. The simplistic and almost child-like language is very deliberately aimed at a specific target audience, and for them the fact that he is saying what others won't in a way that others don't is almost magical, when it's combined with his slightly otherworldly image. For those who aren't quite in that target demographic, it can still be slightly appealing, or at least mostly inoffensive, because 'that's just him', and he's 'a little different'. It's very clever, and it's very devious - we certainly shouldn't ever underestimate those with such a carefully constructed persona.
And what about here in the UK? Are there any politicians that come to mind who seem harmlessly eccentric but somehow not quite like other people? Any who have appealed even to natural political opponents on some level because of their apparent 'goofiness' and affable but somewhat eccentric charm, perhaps? Any who seem to get their names mentioned in contexts and at levels that you would never normally imagine someone so apparently daft or odd to reach? Any who seem to be attracting passionate support as almost messiah-like figures because they just don't seem quite like any other 'normal' politician in the way they speak, look or act? Anyone who, when you think about it, might just be 'getting away with it' despite their apparent lack of the usual kind of competence that we'd expect from our politicians? Three names spring immediately to my mind: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Have a think about those characters. A really good think. Do they seem real to you, or are they deliberate constructions? Are their apparently otherworldly eccentricities allowing them to distract attention from what they are really all about as politicians? I'll leave you to decide that for yourselves.
I must say a word here about Jeremy Corbyn, since I've mentioned the messiah-like adoration, and that certainly appears to be an issue attributable to his hardcore support. We have to be careful to distinguish between those who construct a useful false persona, and those for whom a potentially false persona is constructed by others in order to spread his message. I certainly don't think that you can say that Jeremy Corbyn pretends to be something that he isn't in the same way, or has used those techniques of creating and impression of otherworldliness to get where he is. Indeed, where he is now is something of a surprise given where he has been for most of his political career - a perpetual backbench rebel with an undeniable talent for rabble-rousing in the political rally scenario.
He's never hidden himself in that way, but there do seem to have been some attempts to raise an otherworldly mystique about him since his election to the leadership of his party. For example, almost as soon as he was elected there were a string of social media posts about how he never claimed expenses while other MPS claimed hundreds of thousands. Whoever created these must have known that they weren't true - the figures came from IPSA, but didn't compare like with like. The other MP's figures were drawn from the total, including office and staff costs, second home allowances, and so on. His were his personal claims only, and it was never explained that he wasn't eligible for the same level as many other MPs because his constituency is in London, as stone's throw from parliament, and the smallest geographically in the country. Of course, an MP effectively runs a 'branch office' of parliament in their constituency, but all of the office costs (including the salaries of the support staff an MP needs to do their job) as described as 'expenses' it creates a false impression, and certainly there were those who sought to exploit that for the purposes of creating a saintly mystique around Jeremy Corbyn. That should be noted as something beyond normal political spin, and something to be wary about, but as far as I can see it didn't come directly from him, and it was certainly not the same issue that this post is discussing - it's not what he's built his political career upon (and it is something that careers have to be built on from day one - you can't invent a new persona that you haven't used all along and maintain the kind of public credibility that you need for it in order to be able to pull it off).
It happens that the names I have mentioned here have come from the Right Wing of politics, but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Remember that not all dictators and rulers come from that side of the political spectrum, and it's entirely possible that some of the more famous leaders of communist countries, for example, have used similar ideas. Indeed, where I have been using 'otherworldly', you could also perhaps use the term 'larger than life', and all sides of politics have had such characters. It's not necessarily always easy to tell the genuinely slightly eccentric from the constructs, of course, especially when you are around in the world that they may be trying to manipulate with their persona. With hindsight, though, we could perhaps consider cases like Cyril Smith - how much of his apparently 'larger than life' persona was constructed to distract people from some of the activities that we didn't really learn about until after his death? Likewise we can consider the likes of Jimmy Savile, of course - another slightly 'otherworldly' character who manipulated many people into believing that he was something he was not, and who used it to distract attention away from what he really was. A slightly different manifestation from the political arena, of course, but the technique of deliberate persona construction is really pretty similar.
I should say here that not every use of an apparent bit of eccentricity is being used for quite such evil means as some of the examples above, though it may still be considered somewhat devious. I will cite an example of someone I knew not through or in politics (and had great respect for) who used it, to an extent, as a technique in meetings. He would go into meetings having determined what it was he wanted to achieve, or what subject he particularly wanted to avoid discussing. During the meeting, he would use the fact that he was genuinely, naturally affable but apparently slightly 'bumbling' in manner (despite actually being very bright and sharp) to just direct the discussions slightly. If he wanted to avoid a particular topic, he would pick on another unrelated point coming up before it and hammer away at it seemingly endlessly, even though it would seem irrelevant to everyone else, and he would seem to be misunderstanding some aspect of it slightly. To put it simply, he would irritate people so that they'd want to shut him up, and so that they'd avoid raising the other subject lest it 'set him off again' and they be stuck listening to him all day. It could be very frustrating for people, I'm sure, but was actually a master-class in meeting manipulation. A little underhand, perhaps, but never aimed at anything more getting things done in the way he wanted them done (and with hindsight he was very often correct). Not so much creating a false persona as it was emphasising slightly aspects of his natural character to gain momentary advantage over those who didn't quite spot what he was doing at the time.
We obviously mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who is slightly eccentric, or who sometimes uses their own eccentricity to gain a little advantage, is somehow an 'evil genius' or 'wannabe dictator'. There are those who go way beyond that kind of thing, though. Those who deliberately construct a persona to achieve their ends. Some of those achieve their ends that way before anybody has really realised exactly what they are up to.
I'll finish by answering the question I began with, 'what can we learn from Doctor Who and Adolf Hitler'? We can learn to watch out for the apparently slightly otherwordly - those who seem not quite 'of this world' in some way, in case that is something they are putting forward quite deliberately as an artificially constructed persona. In fiction it's a very useful dramatic device. In the real world it is something altogether different. Such people are, by definition, not quite what they would have you believe, but they can become very popular very quickly, and they can appear to transcend normal politics to achieve personal ends through distraction and manipulation. And they can do it while many people aren't really looking. That makes them very, very dangerous.