View Full Version : Gods of clay By Hasnain Iqbal - 19th June 2015

19th June 2015, 11:33 AM
The Web has made our access to information and opinions very convenient. The mornings invariably begin with a quick scan of online papers, with headlines pretty much defining one’s mood for the rest of the day. A headline screaming, “150 children massacred”, could easily wreck the entire week. Or uplift your spirits if it is about Fawad Khan being one of the sexiest men. I felt ecstatic when I read, “Volkswagen to enter Pakistan and break the monopoly”. The media is inseparably woven into our daily lives, shaping the national discourse on issues as diverse as Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Meera’s nuptials. It enlightens, dupes, drives and controls human minds just like Professor Charles Xavier from X-Men. Black in white, life in death, bane in boon, day in night, we see what the media wants us to see. This immense power to paint a rainbow in the night, morph shops into temples, sinners into saints and mortals into gods is both fascinating and disturbing.

Legend has it that the term ‘personality cult’ was popularised by the Russian leader Khrushchev, in his tirades against Stalin’s dichotomous embrace of both communist ideals and obsessive fostering of his personality cult through propaganda and media. The deliberate creation of a heroic, god-like public image of Stalin was meant to facilitate imposition of personal ideas, ensure political longevity and exterminate dissent. Throughout history, personality cults have been associated with totalitarian regimes and dictators. In ancient times, monarchs were held in enormous reverence. These monarchs ensured that people saw them as God’s chosen ones. Fear, reward and propaganda were lavishly used to fabricate a blinkered version of reality and critics were harshly dealt with, in extreme cases with death. The personality cult has generally been used to promote a political or religious doctrine, even enforce total compliance in everyday situations. An old Chinese propaganda poster shows a family enjoying life under the portrait of Mao. The caption of the portrait reads: “The happy life Chairman Mao gives us.”

Human intellect spurred to a gallop by the French Revolution, which desecrated the aura of nobility in Europe. Descartes’s thinking individual was born and “cogito ergo sum” began to hew the nebulous human conscience into one supremely conscious of the self. The spread of democratic and secular ideals in the West made it increasingly difficult for tyrants to craft personality cults. So began the gradual slide of monarchy into oblivion. The brutal march of science was no less significant in destroying the self-anointed messiahs. As luck would have it, science also gave us photography, sound recording, film and advertising. These became tools in the hands of a new breed called politicians to build cults and inseminate young minds with the chosen seeds. Control over public education enabled the dissemination of a doctored version of history and events. Joseph Goebbels did it for Hitler leading his propaganda machine with such zeal that virtually the entire German nation was deluded into believing in the superiority of their race and its divine right to rule the world.

In modern times, North Korea stands out as the most striking example of apotheosis founded on brute fear and media propaganda. Kim Il-sung was believed by many Koreans to have created the world and that he could control weather. Schoolchildren learnt to thank Kim Il-sung for all blessings every morning. Thailand has laws to keep people from criticising the royal family. Other famous examples of personality cults include Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Mussolini, Muammer Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. These leaders were portrayed as infallible and their portraits were hung in homes and public buildings, with artists and poets obligated to produce works that glorified them. We have our very own demagogues who have successfully built and nurtured their personality cults over the years. Fear and flattery have put them on unparalleled pedestals in our politics.

Idolatry, personality cult, deification — whatever you may call it — has become a ubiquitous element in every facet of our lives. From sports to politics to religion to business, we like to create immortals out of mortals. Truth in such cases becomes a gory casualty as halos are distributed with abandon at the sheer expense of objectivity. The mindset that fawning and prostration are virtues to be cultivated is now deeply embedded in our collective national psyche. The consequences have been devastating for our youth as it staggers forward, unsure of what is right or wrong, in search of the real heroes.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2015.