These days we all know what a cult of personality is, and we all believe that we can identify them, and we all believe we’d never become part of one. Khrushchev first used the term when speaking about Stalin and admonishing the Communist Party that they must not allow such a thing to happen again. In the West we scramble backwards at the mention of the word “cult.” After all, a cult is a group that brainwashes its members into believing absolutely fantastical claims and performing strange rituals deifying the leaders. And nobody with an ounce of sense would fall for a cult of personality, right? Right?
Guess what? I’m willing to bet that we’ve all been a member of some cult of personality at one point or another. Maybe not for long, but for a day or so, at least. To be clear, I’m not talking about recognizing the intellectual capabilities, or good leadership of somebody. I’m talking about glorifying everything one individual, a mere human being, does and says.
These thoughts have been wandering through my brain for a couple weeks now and I find that they’re getting amplified as we hear more and more about the rank corruption and incompetence in the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party in particular. And, I include the old guard (and some of the new) in the GOP as well. Then, a few days ago, as if I conjured them up, I heard Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” on the radio while driving. These guys knew a cult when they saw one. I used to show the video for this song and have a discussion of the lyrics in my intro American Politics classes. The lyrics are below. Go on, read through them and then we’ll have a discussion.
Notice the names they include as creating, using, and living in a cult of personality? Mussolini, Kennedy, Gandhi, Stalin, Roosevelt. Just those five alone run the gamut from universally despised to universally revered. (No, I’m not saying you did, of course you were smarter than that, yes, I know. We’re talking general public here.) Yes, hindsight and history have shown that Kennedy and Gandi were not (gasp!) the perfect individuals they were made out to be. A cult of personality is created when a leader is idolized, made into a heroic figure, and then revered for his or her supposed heroic actions, by their followers. It doesn’t really matter if the people creating the image believe it or not (although they’d never admit to not believing it), including the leader himself. What matters is that the general public believes it and raises the leader to ever higher positions of power and reverence.
The song came out in 1988, so some of our more recent examples are not on their list. I’d add both Bill and Hillary Clinton (although those cults are waning), both Obamas, Trump, Pelosi, the Squad (as a collective, not individuals, and again, waning), and I’m sure there are more that you guys can think of, but I don’t want this to become the post that wouldn’t quit.
Creating that image, emphasis on “image”, of the heroic leader is what Living Colour are talking about in this song. I know your anger, I know your dreams, I’ve been everything you want to be. There is a level of jealousy involved in creating a cult of personality. The follower wants to be like the leader, and the leader condescends to explain not only how s/he became a leader, but why the follower could never hope to attain such a position. The follower resigns themselves to the lesser position, but reveres the leader keeping him there.
I exploit you, still you love me; I tell you one and one makes three. Yep. I’ll forgive your student loans, if you vote for me. I’ll raise taxes on millionaires (oops, I meant those making $400k or more) if you vote for me. I’ll make sure the government gives you everything you need to live… if you just vote for me. Oh, yeah and there are five lights and one and one makes three.
Pfffttt! I’d never fall for that! Really? The student loan thing was insanely popular and yet, shockingly, totally shockingly, hasn’t come to pass yet. I exploit you, still you love me. Yep, he got you. There are many more false promises made in the creation of the cult.
You gave me fortune, you gave me fame; You gave me power in your God’s name; I’m every person you need to be. A cult of personality may be started by the leader in question, it may be published far and wide by his associates, but you, the public, are responsible for giving it life, giving it fortune, fame, and power. You need to step up and take those back for yourself.
Only you can set you free. Your freedom, your life to make of it what you will, is in your hands. Remove yourself from the cult of personality no matter how great you think the leader you’re following is. Yes, you can admire their abilities, you can agree to work with them. That does not make it a cult. But you have to make sure you are not abdicating responsibility for your own actions and words to that leader. Do not parrot what they say in the hopes of making yourself look good. You won’t look good, you’ll look like a parrot.
Set yourself free. Leave the cult of personality. Stand up on your own. Own your strengths and your failures. Remember, somebody may be a good leader, but they are not going to solve all the problems, and they are not likely to solve any of your personal problems, as much as they might imply that they will.
Here’s the original video. I highly recommend it.